By Anna Wilkins

My role as a volunteer designer for Warm Heart Worldwide began many months prior to arriving in northern Thailand. After deciding with the microenterprise coordinator that the most suitable product line to focus on would be macramé necklaces, I then developed several prototypes.  Once we had chosen the best style, we then made lots of calculations so that I could source most of the materials before coming to Thailand in the correct qualities, quantities and colors.  Although the advance preparation was extensive and time-consuming, it would become completely worthwhile as I rapidly witnessed my macramé necklace design magically come to life from the hands of local Thai women.


One of the colorways of final selected style

When I finally got here, it first hit me exactly how far I was from my home in eastern Canada.  My initial fear was being unable to communicate because of the language barrier. I barely knew how to properly say hello in Thai. Luckily I had previous experiences travelling in developing countries, like Guatemala, where I first learned the skill of knotting cord and incorporating semi-precious stones into unique pieces of macramé jewelry.

My very first morning at Warm Heart, I was taken to a home in a nearby village called Mae Pang with a Warm Heart staff member named Apple who would accompany me for the next two days to translate instructions on how to make my macramé necklace design.  I was completely jet-lagged from three days of non-stop travel but I was so excited to teach macramé for the first time. I was a bit skeptical at first on how the two ladies would do, but I was to be surprised not only at how fast they learned but also of how few words I actually needed translated.

By my third day in Thailand I was finally starting to acclimatize and no longer had a translator. Even though I was unable to converse with Pim and Eve, I was really starting to enjoy their company. It was easier than I had imagined to explain things through facial expressions, sounds and body language. They could literally point at something to see if it was correct or not and I would respond with nodding or shaking my head.  This was before I learned how to say “correct” and “not correct” in Thai – chai and mai chai – which made things easier.  

If I was really stuck or just wanted to say something conversational, I would use the translator app on my smartphone.  Thank goodness for the smartphone.  I also was learning my numbers in Thai which helped with measuring and counting strings.


Eve hard at work

About a week into the necklace production, I finally got a motorbike.  I was a bit scared to drive on the road at first, but I didn’t have much choice other than to grin and bear it. Each time I drove my motorbike through the big golden gate into the village, I got lots of big smiles, people stopping in their tracks to stare at me, and even some people getting out their cell phones to take pictures of me! The children would really stare me down – I’m certainly not the first white person they had ever seen so maybe I just look funny.


Impressive gateway to Mae Pang village 

For not speaking the language and working with two people that had never done macramé before, production seemed to be going really well.  I started trying to learn a few more Thai words, like how to say “beautiful” when referring to their work, but I was hesitant because if you get the tones wrong, saying “beautiful” in Thai can sound very similar to a very bad word. I learned how to say “very good” – dee mak – because I feel encouragement is important when learning something new.

One morning we were sitting in comfortable silence working away and Eve suddenly said, “Anna, mosquito bite your head!”  I was in shock hearing her speak English for the first time and just laughed as I slapped the mosquito. When I asked her if she spoke English, she replied that she only knew a little and had learned it from working for Warm Heart. From that moment forward, I felt so happy to know that Eve felt comfortable enough around me to speak what little English she knew and I was very impressed.

As the weeks progressed I became more and more enthralled with the experience. Eve and Pim were doing a satisfactory job with the necklaces and making them at a reasonably quick pace. I was in rhythm with my daily routine of working with them during the morning, then heading to Warm Heart for lunch with the other volunteers. Even my motorbike ride back in the afternoon was an interesting experience, driving through the village and seeing local basket weavers sitting on the ground in front of their tiny houses and ladies selling snacks always smiling in my direction.


Different colorways of my necklace design

Although being a foreigner in a rural Thai village can be a bit intimidating at times, I have found my time here so far to be quite peaceful and educational. It’s very refreshing to be immersed in a completely different culture in basically another world. Considering how simple their lives are and the fact that they only speak their local languages, I feel people in rural Thailand to be very welcoming and curious about what it’s like to be a Westerner. I really appreciate the little things, like how important it is to be polite in the Thai culture – everyone always says hello and does the traditional wai greeting, something I wish was more common back home.

Sometimes people would even peek their heads into the house where we did macramé, always curious and interested to see what we were making.


Macramé bracelets

At this point we have finished the production of the macramé necklaces and are currently making a simple bracelet design for which I didn’t even require a translator. I have been here for over a month now and I am very pleased at how smoothly everything has gone, especially since it was my first time teaching.  It’s really quite amazing how possible it is to teach another person handicraft with minimal verbal explanation.  Being able to teach someone visually is truly a blessing that I am grateful for.


The Mae Pang macramé team (l. to r.) Eve and her daughter, me and Pim

(Anna Wilkins was a volunteer designer at Warm Heart. You can see her designs at our store Fashion Accessories by Warm Heart)