Huay Xai, Laos

There are skills all girls should have; baking a cake, parallel parking, explaining the off side rule. As of yesterday I can now add another to the list: plastering a mud hut.

It all starts at 5am, fresh off the 14h night bus from Luang Prabang, with only a random urban myth about a voluntary project that some Oz guy Matt told me about…

Daauw home, was founded by a Dutch-Laos couple. They are building a centre at their home on the Laos Thai border town of Huay Xai, to encourage the empowerment of local women through cultural exchange, education and support in selling their art and craft work.  The set up is you that you can  homestay with the couple & their extended relatives, eat meals together, play with the kids etc, so it’s instantly like being part of a family. The cost is just $10 USD a day, 75% of which goes towards the project.

Hannah (UK) and Josh (OZ) are both long term volunteers. Josh’s is unofficial gaffa in the construction of the main house. He’s a carpenter in real life, and so knows a thing or two. Hannah has been there since the mud hut was built from scratch. It’s her baby, and she’s vowed to stay till it’s finished.

Today Matt and I are on mud duty. Bet you thought you would never hear from me the secrets of how to plaster a mud toilet. Well here you are. Just in case you wanna get creative in B & Q.

First we sift 3 buckets of sand, then we hack out and sift 1 bucket of clay from the earth nearby, then we mix in one shovel of concrete & some chaff (no one is sure what this is really for). Now, when I say ‘sift’ and ‘mix’ I don’t mean in a mixer, oh no no no. I mean by hand! We sift like old miners would panning for lumps of gold; back and forth with a giant net. We are at it an hour and make just enough to fill a few buckets worth. I over dramatise of course, but it’s what i imagine it’s like to being a cave women. A modern-ish one that has to help the boys and work.

The structure of the hut is already standing with sandbags underneath. Now im an expert, I can get away with sentences like the following. Now, the thing about mud is that a) it’s painstaking work, all layer by layer and has to dry in the sun b) it’s incredibly messy c) the whole thing is like a giant game of Jenga. if you do it wrong it all come crashing down and you lose a few hours of blood sweat and tears.

Our only real objective for the day is to cover the few inches of sandbags still bare by the door. We are there 6 hours without ANY real progress, it’s honestly a lot harder than it sounds! In this time Josh manages to drill up an entire roof structure, and then takes 10 secs to ‘render’ (I learnt a new word – it means ‘smooth over’) a patch that had taken me an hour.  I have a new appreciation for anyone that can actually build/make stuff for a living! Especially in Laos/Asia it’s such a useful talent to be able to share.

We break for a really tasty lunch of sticky rice and salty fish, which we eat with our hands. So of course, I consume a fair bit of the concrete that we have been mixing all morning from under my nails. At 4pm, moral is low. Matt’s doing an only slightly better job than I am, and Josh gave us permission to go ahead and experiment with anything we think will work. In a fit of innovation, I tip a bucket load of water into the mix. Matt siphons it off as an attempt to fix it, and low and behold, between us we’ve only accidentally hit upon the exact right formula. Everyone later agreed it is a true breakthrough for the Mud Building world and surely the blueprint for all future endeavors. We were almost delirious, and in that last hour covered more space than we had all morning. Yes this involved the incredibly messy ‘smeer the gunky stuff or just lob it into the high roof part at times,’ but to hell with neatness, it worked. If I never achieve anything again, it will be ok leaving Huay Xai knowing there is a toilet there for years to come (or probably till it next rains) that I helped to build!

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An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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