The Girls Camping Trip

It was just after dinner, shortly before sunset when we set off over the lake with our blankets, biscuits, boom-box and straw mats.

We are marking the school holidays by going on a camping trip. The location is still close to Baan Unrak, just 5 minutes by boat, across the lake to a spot of land that is normally under water, but given the dry season that is upon us this year, we can use this land as our own private island.

Our first action is to jump straight into the water, to cool down our bodies and even wash our hair. We brought swim rings so we leisurely bob around on the water together, taking it in turns to sit in the rings, allowing our legs, head and arms to dangle, before someone overthrows the ring and claims it! Our laughter, whistles, cheerful voices and music can be heard by the nearby villagers and Didi, who is just finishing meditation with the boys at the top of the hill.

Now, for the 15 of us is time to set up camp.

Some girls take the opportunity to practice their photographic skills, using our volunteer Laura’s phone. The output is remarkable!

Other girls sit around chatting and nibbling biscuits. Others are singing songs together, laughing when they forget the words and teasing each others dance moves. It is nearly a full moon evening.

Aye Moe has the bright idea of using a tin to light the fire in, so we can control the spread. As the sun sets, it is such a treat to have a fire.

It is a sleepover like no other. We sing Baba Nam Kevalam, appreciative that we can spend this precious time outdoors in the nature, while many of our friends around the world are inside their homes.

As the times goes on, we drift off to sleep, guided towards our dreams by the sound of crickets and cicadas, the water lapping gently, the vague noise from the villagers in the distance and our own whispers. It is a strange sensation, falling asleep outside, it’s colder than in our rooms, but we don’t mind, it is a welcome reprieve from the heat of the day!

It’s 6am and we slowly begin to stir. We form a circle, still sleepy-eyed and begin to softly sing Baba Nam Kevalam.

We feel the first rays of the day gently caress our faces as we meditate.

A quick snack of biscuits, and some of us are off into the water for a quick swim while others braid their hair. We are glad to have the fire now, as the fresh morning air is cooler when we get out of the water!

Then, we depart back to Baan Unrak for our breakfast, some of us sitting on the boat, others dragged along on our beloved goats’ floating house.

Rod Nam Dum Hua, a Water-pouring Ceremony

Across Thailand the celebrations for Songkran, the Thai New Year, have been cancelled. Like with Chinese New Year in China, families in Thailand are showing solidarity for one another by staying at home and celebrating modestly with friends and family.

At Baan Unrak, it’s 11am when Didi is called to the dining hall, and is invited to sit with Zia Caterina and Melek.

The children are all there, sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing the most colorful clothes they have, as per tradition during Songkran.

It is time for us to pay respect to our elders. This ritual is known as “Rod Nam Dum Hua”, the pouring of scented water onto the palms and feet of our parents and other respected elders. In return, we receive their blessing for happiness in our lives.

The moment is charged with emotion as each child comes to kneel, first in front of Zia, whose tears fall freely as the children thank her, for her love, her time with us, and her colorful presence.

The children then express their gratefulness to Didi. Her hands cup each child’s head gently as they kneel in front of her.

Finally, they shuffle along to Melek, our gentle, soft-spoken nursery teacher, loved and respected by us all. Melek wishes the same for us all, health, strength and happiness in our lives.

We pay respect starting from the smaller child to the bigger, until the adults.

After the ritual, the children run to celebrate Songkran, Thailand’s Water Festival. They fill every water bucket and container they can find, and start splashing water at each other. It’s not long before they are all soaking wet and dancing, joyfully ringing in a Thai New Year!

That morning, Didi had given us a message of Hope and Light:

“All sadness and problems will go away. You will have a very, very good life, with love and care from everybody.
This generation is very lucky. You will be so strong.
You will be the leaders.
You will know how to keep life good. This is the beginning of a new era, a new way of life. You will be powerful, full of knowledge.
Never give up.
Keep serving all until the last breath of your life.”

Meditating and Singing for the Universe

Our meditations are now held separately for big boys, big girls, and small children, so to avoid crowding. Even so, our meditations these days are longer and more powerful than ever, as we are sending our Love through all the universe, and to everybody around the world.

The octagonal Pagoda, on the top of Baan Unrak hill, is the most extraordinary place of our Children’s Home. Before, we used to meditate here only on very special occasions…

Up here, it is also where our water, coming from the lake, “rests” in the hexagonal Water Tank and gets purified, vibrated with positive energy from our deepest meditations, before being distributed down to our rooms.

Now that humanity is crying, we are meditating here every day. This is our action of Love towards all.

Small Children’s Meditation

At 7 in the morning, accompanied by the care mothers, it is the little ones’ turn to sing for the world.

Girls’ Meditation

At 5 in the afternoon, it is the girls’ moment to feel the Bliss, and spread loving energy.

Boys’ Meditation

At 7 in the evening, by candlelight, it is the boys’ turn to do Service to the Universe.

The boys’ 30 minutes Kiirtan is an explosion of energy, accompanied by Pi Tawit’s electric guitar.

Hands up, reaching to the sky as if to try holding it all in an infinite, loving hug, the eyes closed, singing as one, at the top of our lungs, Baba Nam Kevalam. Love is All.

Directing our minds towards the infinite, loving consciousness has a life-transforming power. This special chanting purifies the mind and prepares it for meditation.

We meditate for 15 minutes, cross-legged, back straight, focused and centered, ideating on the Love vibration which pervades all things.

Collective Meditation

When Saturday morning comes, all Baan Unrak is traditionally brought together, the big and the small. In this occasion, after the collective meditation Didi always gives us an inspiring speech.

We now perform it at the top of the hill too. Up here, we can still be all together, while also maintaining the “social distance”.

This Saturday morning, the big boys stood on top of the concrete water tank; the small children and care mothers on the upper floor of the wooden pagoda; the big girls among the columns on the ground floor. Every Saturday they will rotate on each of these 3 spaces.

At the end, as usual, we do the Kaoshiki and Tandava dance, vibrating with positive energy all our surroundings and beyond.

When we leave, we keep our cosmic family inside our heart.

Our quarantine is a precious opportunity for us to become more spiritual oriented, more sensitive to others, and focused to spread Love through all we do.

A Reinvigorating Quarantine

Coronavirus has not yet reached our remote little town, but we are getting ready for it, as it might be just a matter of time. Thailand is in lockdown, so over the past week, we have bought the essentials for cleaning and food to support us.

We are preparing ourselves physically and mentally, as we can’t control what is happening to us, but we can control how we react to it. This is our choice. The way our team leaders are handling the quarantine is amazing. The children are empowered, they feel energized. Their minds are very active, and they are starting to take more responsibility towards Baan Unrak family and Sangkhlaburi community.

We are following the government rules – even if it seems that children are not the most affected by the virus –, we do it as an act of love towards the weaker ones.

Our team is constantly thinking of new ways to keep the children busy, with a positive mind, excited by this “adventure” and, most importantly, safe.

Yogic Tricks

Didi taught us how to wash our mouths, eyes and nose… the yogic way.

Taking a mouthful of water, we splash water in our eyes at least 12 times, keeping the eyes open. This will directly cool the optic nerve, as well as clean the eyes.

Then, we flush the nose with water – only with an empty stomach in the morning – sucking water into each nostril and spitting it out from the mouth. It can also be swallowed,  but it’s better to spit it out.

Finally, we gargle water with salt. This, we learned, helps keep us healthy and clean. So we all put it into practice.

Another fundamental practice that we have learned is the “Half-bath”. It is the yogic way of balancing the body temperature, and calming and refreshing the mind, particularly before meditation, meals, asanas and sleep.

Below, the children and Zia Caterina do the Half-bath before lunch:

Special Drinks

We prepare and serve daily to the children delicious, warm herbal drinks, like the Butterfly pea flower Tea, made with the flowers grown in our garden, or the Ginger Tea, Bael Fruit Tea, Roselle and more.

Every evening they get also a very good supplement that stimulates the production of stem cells, the auto-renewal system of the body. Taken in liquid form, the children like it.

Below, the Butterfly pea flowers in our garden, and drying in the courtyard together with other wild medical leaves from our farm.

Neem Leaves

At the meditation area on top of Baan Unrak hill, around the water tank we planted different trees that purify the environment. One of these trees is a Neem tree. Its leaves have amazing medicinal properties. In fact, in addition to having effective anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, the Neem leaves are a powerful immunostimulant, and much more.

Such a powerful tree, it has been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years. After our meditation, some of the girls collected the Neem leaves.

The fresh Neem leaves are brought to the kitchen, and the children consume them with their meal. It’s quite an interesting taste when mixed with rice and chilli. The children are starting to like it, as it enhance the taste of the food. In fact, the bitterness of the leaves increases salivation and improve digestion.

Sometimes, our teenager-in-charge bring the dry leaves of the Neem tree, and some of the children will crush them to make a powder to keep away the insects from the rice sacks.

Magic Sticks

Maintaining a physical distance is crucial to avoid the spread of the virus, we know that. But with 110 children at the moment, it’s the hardest part for us. It was something we were still struggling with, until our team came out with a brilliant idea:

“Now, everybody is gonna have a stick! Like the sages. Like the wise people… Now, we all need to become wise, like Rafiki (the shaman and sage monkey) in The Lion King!”

No sooner said than done, the next day everybody had their own magic stick, all personalized.

Here you can see the “making of” of a couple of magic sticks, with the help of Zia Caterina.

“EveryThing is For The BEST”

Social Distance

In order to avoid crowding in the dining hall, we eat in two shifts now – the smaller children first, half an hour later the big children. The magic sticks’ ultimate goal is to help us maintain a safe distance. See how below..!

Washing Hands

We keep reminding the children to wash their hands frequently, or as much as they can, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. We never stop to remind the children how important this habit is. We hope it will stay with them all their life.

With all these washing, we are consuming a lot of water. We are in the dry season, and our water supply becomes less and less. Therefore, we thought of a system to recycle all of our grey water to reuse it in our garden.

Small basins in the sinks collect the grey water, which is then poured in a bigger basin, from which we fill the watering cans to water the plants. The same happens with the half-bath’s water, which is collected in another big basin to be reused in the same way.

Easter Time in Baan Unrak

The story of Easter is new for the children of Baan Unrak, so last Sunday Didi took the time to tell it in her own special way. Easter is all about new life, it’s a rebirth.

On this occasion, it is customary to gift loved ones a chocolate egg with a small gift inside. Didi explains that the chocolate egg symbolizes a mother’s care and love. When the mother takes care of the egg, a little chick will come out alive, full of dreams, full of energy, full of hope. This image of innocence resonates with us all. We look at our own little children from the nursery, Tanwar, Kenioto, Ninkapowa, all sitting cross legged, gazing up at Didi, as her gentle voice describes this new chick emerging from the egg.

Zia Caterina worked with our children the days before, preparing colorful banners full of beautiful wishes – as she usually do for sick children in hospitals in Italy – sharing photos and making video calls with them, thus exchanging positive energy.

We had never celebrated Easter before at Baan Unrak. But this time it was different, because Zia Caterina is still with us, and for her and her SuperHeroes (cancer patients that she takes care of) Easter is very important. On this occasion, she had always organized something unforgettable for them. This year, we were the lucky ones…

As Zia Caterina emphasizes, Easter teaches us that, if we learn to accept the difficult moments – such as this coronavirus quarantine time – we will see light again, and we will have a new life, even brighter than this one, because we will be stronger. “Working together, we become invincible” Zia says.

Pasquetta

On Easter Monday we had a great adventure, which broke the routine of our quarantine. All Baan Unrak traveled by boat to a desert island on the other side of the lake. It took us 4 trips to bring everybody there, filling also our goats’ floating house!

We are lucky to have access to this little paradise getaway during the lockdown. Only on this occasion we didn’t observe the “social distance”, but we were just among our community, and we’ve never went out anywhere, except to this island.

Full of joy, we landed on the island, and we sang, and meditated, for all the universe.

Didi even guided our meditation with a loudspeaker! It was memorable… And we also took the opportunity to sing together Baan Unrak “Thank You” song, to express our gratefulness to all our sponsors and well-wishers.

After that, Didi wished us all “Buona Pasquetta!” (Happy Easter Monday in Italian) and the children ran to the lake to swim!

Then we dried ourselves and had a great picnic, topped by another giveaway of sweets by Zia.

Today, Didi told us that there is a treasure in all of us. Sometimes it is hard to see, so we need to wash away the dirt, the negative emotions. Then, when the gold shines through, it is an amazing gift to the world.

Bringing “Relief” Around Us

The sponsor of our Guesthouse – a project ready to start – kindly agreed for us to use her money to face this emergency instead, to make sure that the poorest people around us are safe. According to our sponsor, it’s the poor that suffer the most during a pandemic like this.

Our sponsor was very concerned, and asked us to buy enough supplies to provide for the poor for 3 months, because if corona virus comes to Sangkhlaburi, we will not be able to conduct any outside activities, including relief work, for some time.

As you learned in the previous article, Zia Caterina is here at Baan Unrak, and when she heard about our relief work in the communities around us, she was eager to join and learn about the families we support. So she jumped in the back of the pickup truck of our expedition, with her characteristic joy, color, and humor!

For 4 days, our children and Zia left Baan Unrak with our pickup truck full of food provisions and reached the surrounding villages of bamboo huts in the jungle, among plantations of rubber trees.

Along the way, our children found a smart way to get cover from the scorching sun…!

We also brought food supplies to our Weaving Project workers, as the Baan Unrak Weaving Center is currently closed.

Among the people we help, some are disabled, others are too old, left alone, and not able to work anymore.

The children that travelled with Zia introduced her to the villagers. The contrast was quite striking, between Zia Caterina’s bold dresses, flower hat, balloons and bells and the people she met, most of whom may never before have met such a personality.

With no doubt, the encounter with Zia Caterina will remain in the memory of the villagers for a long time.

Zia charmed everyone as she went along, relating to their stories and asking questions about their children and lives.

The woman you see above was so happy and eager to give back to us, that to express her gratitude she offered us the only things she could: the fruits from a tree in her garden. Our children were very happy for it, and collected the fruits using a very clever tool!

Here you can see the stories from some of our former Relief expeditions:

Our Outreach and Relief Efforts

Relief Expedition in Flooded Burma

Relief Work for Rural Education

Thinking about our friends far away

These days, connection is more important than ever. With school closed, we are all here at home together. We are concerned about our friends and families near and far away and so, in our way we are sending our love to you through colorful messages, mantras and positive thoughts.

“Everything is for the best, THE BEST, THE BEST, THE BEST!”, is our motto.

Shortly before the virus closed borders around the world, Zia Caterina arrived to Baan Unrak.

Having her with us is like having our own Mary Poppins! “Zia” means “Auntie” in Italian, she is our Italian Zia, and from every corner of the Home of Joy you can hear the children shout “Zia, Zia!” as she marches along with her tinkling bells.

She arrived with her bold polka dot dresses, her big flowery hat, bells on her wrists and around her neck, her wand with balloons and a seemingly bottomless bag filled with cookies, superhero cards, and accessories for arts and craft projects. Just like the Banks family in Mary Poppins, we are all in awe of her.

According to Zia:

“There is a treasure in everybody you meet. Everybody is a miracle.” 

Zia Caterina has been witnessing miracles for over 20 years now.

In Italy, Zia Caterina is a very special taxi driver (for Love, but we’ll tell you the whole story next time!). Her Taxi is a magical playground, something out of a fairy tale. It looks a bit like this:

The SuperHeroes

She drives patients – her “SuperHeroes” – and their families from all over Italy, who come to Florence for cancer treatment. She also takes them on exciting tours of the city, she visit them at their homes, and invite them to hers too.

Zia’s “SuperHeroes” love her so much, as she provides color, love, laughter and fun not just to their lives but to the lives of their parents also.

The “SuperHeroes” have their very own caricatures that we are all coming to know and love, and we are connecting with them through our art classes every day.

When we finish painting, Zia posts our children’s works on social media, so that her “SuperHeroes” can see them and connect with us here at Baan Unrak. Friendships forged through art, from Italy to Thailand.

Even the smaller ones come to join us at the library, a space of wonder.

Due to the lockdown, Zia is unable to go home to Italy to be with her “SuperHeroes” now, so we are letting them know that we are supporting them, thinking about them and sending them our best wishes for their recovery. They miss Zia so much, we know, so we are very grateful to have her here.

The Super Spreader of… Love!

Zia’s mission is to become the “Super spreader of… Love!” and she does this so well. We all feel her love. She gives us her time generously, she showers us with kind, motivating words, colorful toys and tokens. Zia believes that Baan Unrak is the right place for her to be right now, where she is truly needed. If she was in Italy, she would not be allowed to go to the hospital to be with her SuperHeroes, so we are her SuperHeroes now, and we feel her love.

In the banner that the children drew and painted with Zia, “Covid The Virus” looks like a scary monster. But, as Zia taught us, Covid is not bad, he is just very very ugly, and has a very long stinger in its tail. Yet, if we put masks and gloves, Virus cannot sting us, and flowers will come out of it!

The Game: What If… (Our Corona Virus Preventive Quarantine)

The government asked us to stay in preventive quarantine, and we decided to do it with joy. “Let’s play the game: what if Corona virus comes to Baan Unrak?

It was a very good setting to learn how to change our bad habits and adopt new good ones, such as always washing our hands, coughing in our elbow, keeping safe distance between us, using only our personal stuff, etc.
The government knows how Baan Unrak is part of almost every aspect of the life in Sangkhlaburi. So, while protecting us and the community, we are living our quarantine as a game.
The children’s spirits are high, they feel energized by all the new teachings that Didi has been giving them, and all the things she is telling them to reinforce their body and mind.

The Game

Didi said: “What if… Corona virus comes here? We have to be prepared!” And so she conceived a game, a joyful game that would teach the children all the measures to take in case the virus reaches our village.

Didi taught the children about the many precautions to take: for example, we must avoid coughing in our hands, as we would be spreading germs. Instead, we cough in our elbow. As we now know, corona virus is spread when mucus and saliva droplets are ejected from our mouth or nose as we cough or sneeze. Therefore, using our elbows would prevent easy transmission.

As we are learning, we also recognize that we tend to touch our face quite often. In order to try and avoid this, we help each other by pointing and shouting “HEY!!!” to whoever touches his/her face.

This way, we are living this moment of general concern… as a game! All for the children. And this is a serious game, that prepares us to fight the virus.

We put all this into a song and choreographed a dance, to make it even more fun and memorable.

The children also wrote positive affirmations. They wrote them in Italian too…

…because  Zia Caterina is with us, and so she can send them to her children (her SuperHeroes) in Italy. Perhaps she will put some of these banners in her very special taxi back home!

We will talk more about Zia Caterina in a coming article, but for now, we can tell you that she came to Baan Unrak at the right moment, bringing extra joy to our children.

We even have our own slogan now! One person says: “Everything is for…” and everybody replies: “… the best, the best, the best!”

The Bath Mantra

Didi also saw this situation as an opportunity to do things she had never done with the children before. One of these is to teach them the yogic Bath Mantra.

How it works:
After the bath, with the body still dripping water, you chant the mantra facing a source of light. For this purpose, the sun coming up in the morning radiates a very beneficial light.

These mornings the children have been taking the boat to an island on the lake, just in front of Baan Unrak farm.

They first do their collective meditation there, then the asanas (body postures, yoga as exercise) and finally, as the sun rises, they take a bath in the lake. Coming out of the water still fresh from the night, the children chant the Bath Mantra all together.

They love this new morning routine, which they do separately, one day the boys, the next the girls.

Cleaning Home

We also took advantage of this situation to perform the general cleaning of our Home. We deep cleaned our kitchen, moving everything out.

We also introduced new soap dispensers.

Before we eat, we now sit while Didi speaks to all of us, sharing some thoughts and also checking that everyone has their own bottle of water, plate and spoon with their own name on it.

We sing Baba Nam Kevalam, the infinite love vibration is all there is, we thank for the food we have, and then we start eating, forming smaller groups around the dining hall.

Special Meditations

Elisabeth, a former volunteer at Baan Unrak, recently had a stroke. When Didi got the news, she decided to sing for her, changing the way we perform our meditations.

Now we all sit in circle, we close our eyes and concentrate that, right in the middle of our meditation hall, Elisabeth is there, and we send her good vibrations.

Didi didn’t hear from Raphael, her husband, for a few days, until a new message arrived: Elisabeth is still alive. She was supposed to die, but she is still living, he said. So we keep singing.

Now we do the same also before eating. We sing Baba Nam Kevalam and keep on meditating for Elisabeth.

This is an important lesson for us: during an epidemic as this one, even if we have many problems ourselves, we can’t stop helping others.

Teenager’s Self-Discovery Workshop

Hi, this is Sandy. I am here again to share about my time and work with the children at Baan Unrak this month.

Luckily, I have the privilege of meeting so many amazing people with whom to share the amazing work Didi, the staff and volunteers are doing for the children at Baan Unrak.

The Workshop

Last year we discussed the aspects of self-discovery with high school children. This year, Didi and I sat down and decided that we should give a similar workshop to the children in middle school and early high school years.

The workshop will take place over a number of months, each month we will conduct workshops on different topics and this time it was about puberty, reproduction and related infections and illnesses, dealing with pressure from peers, boyfriend/girlfriend and more. It is conducted separately for girls and boys. This is purposely arranged to encourage children to ask questions.

We started with some ground rules and ensured everyone that this was a safe space. I normalized talking about puberty, intimacy and prevention by explaining to everyone that every person to their left and right, inside and outside this home, all the volunteers who come here and everyone they will meet in their lives will go or have gone through these changes. It is a normal and a very natural human process and it is encouraged that everyone asks questions, no matter how small or how silly it sounds.

Some children shared that they had learned this topic at school and some had not. They were attentive and showed genuine interest throughout the day. They were not shy to share and ask questions. They have noticed their bodies changing. They have boyfriends or girlfriends now. They don’t like the body odor that comes with puberty. Why are their bodies ready to reproduce so early? The difference between protection for male-female couples and same-gender couples and a lot of questions about prevention of diseases and illnesses. They also had a very heated argument amongst themselves about the appropriate age to get married. It was such a pleasure to have such an amazing audience.

The positive effect of these workshops result in many different ways. Often times children, either alone or in a group would come up to me and ask me questions. Some have even asked me at what time they can sit and talk to me privately about their anxiety which give them sleepless nights, or feeling sad from misunderstandings with friends. I expect future workshops to result in the same positive curiosity.

There are many interesting workshops coming up this year so stay tuned!!

And… a Special Treat

I know how much the children of Baan Unrak love the vegetarian burgers from Baan Unrak Cafe and Restaurant.

More and more people are happy to contribute to this treat, so during my visits and workshops at Baan Unrak, I always try to make sure that they are rewarded.

The children were thrilled as they got to enjoy the delicious vegetarian hamburgers, ice cream and snacks in January and again in February. We would like to thank our kind hearted sponsors who made this happen: Atikrit Chanjavanakul and family, Joe Baker, Viren Tiwari, Jennie Williams and Lauren Buyskes for their generous sponsorship.

After the delicious meal, the children even challenged Jennie and Lauren to some friendly table tennis and card games!

What’s Going On at Baan Unrak Farm?

We’ve been very lucky to have a couple of tireless veterinarians volunteers at Baan Unrak. Giusy and Matteo came all the way from Italy, and helped us a lot with our goats!

First, they assessed the general condition of the 63 goats: 20 of them could give milk, however, some suffered from mastitis, an inflammatory reaction of the udder. Thus they first cured them, while also sterilizing young male goats.

With these initial tasks done, Giusy and Matteo ignited the sparkle to implement a new project at Baan Unrak:

Milking our Goats

With the help of Baan Unrak farmers and teenagers, our veterinarians volunteers created an ingenious device to facilitate the milking process.

First, a colored thread was put around the neck of the goats that can give milk, in order to quickly recognize them among all.

Then, from the goats’ house they would be accompanied out two at a time. Bamboo poles mark the path to the milking station where, while eating good food – cereals and rice – the goats are milked.

When the milking job is done, as a thank you, the goats are awarded with a tasty yellow flower.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning, but the goats are quickly getting used and, according to our veterinarians, soon they will be waiting in line to be milked, and the milk production will increase considerably by sticking long enough to the process: hopefully, providing goats milk and yoghurt for all of Baan Unrak children!

Once the whole process was tried and tested, the children were eager to come down at the farm to see it.

So one late afternoon we were all waiting for the goats to come back from their daily pasture across the lake. The children got immediately involved in the milking operations helping the farmers, and snuggling the goats!

Then, on Sunday morning, we went back for more…

Goat Therapy!

And then we took a walk around our beautiful farm, across the fields where Baan Unrak farmers grow crops by the lake.