Monday, February 23, 2009

The Thai countryside has really great roads, which is not surprising because northern Thailand has been in a development boom for the past eight years and infrastructure like roads is #1 on the region's to-do list. According to my instructors, in 2000 few of the suburbs and none of the highways in Chiang Mai existed. This seems strange to a visitor today because on the surface it all seems so profuse and established. That there was nothing but rice paddies near the ISDSI office several years ago is difficult to imagine. Now, the office is located on a busy superhighway near the center of town.

We took these really great roads to the Huey Tueng Tao Reservoir for a swim assessment and the start to our weekend retreat. One of our instructors calls it the "murky hole," but we jumped in anyway (squeamishly) to swim a few hundred meters and tread water for 15 minutes. After we all successfully completed the assessment and spent a blissful hour hijacking paddle boards from each other, lunch was served on raised bamboo platforms where you sit cross-legged and barefoot. The first dish was dancing shrimp, called that because they are alive when eaten! I let them jump around in my mouth before chomping down, just to get spooked. They were surprisingly sweet and in some tasty sauce. There was much screaming from several girls because the shrimp had an unnerving habit of making strong, desperate twitches in an attempt to flee their certain doom. Evidently the shrimp would rather die on the bamboo mats than between the molars of an anxious student. We also ate a fish, eyeballs and all, that was placed on the table still simmering in a spicy soup. The other dishes were crispy fried shrimp, pan-fried pork with roasted garlic and spices, and the northern Thai delicacy papaya salad (shredded green papaya, coconut milk, crushed chilli pepper, lime, tomato, and some other stuff). These dishes were eaten with regular white rice or northern Thai sticky rice, which is rolled into little balls with the right hand and dipped into the communal dishes shared in the middle of the table. Sticky rice is considered less classy than non-glutinous white rice, but I think it is tastier... and finger food is almost always more fun to eat!

Our next destination was Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, so we piled back in the vans and were on our way. We moved into the bunkhouses in mid-afternoon and spent some time exploring the stream that separated the kitchen pavillion from the bunkhouses. I was sitting on a nice round boulder writing in my journal when I saw Jeremy jump up from his perch further down the stream and announce that he might be sitting near a nest of bees. "Oh no," he said, "now I have a bee in my pocket!" We all laughed as he danced around on a rock in the middle of the stream, shook his pants leg, and whimpered. Quite entertaining. We took a brief trip to Mok Fah waterfall, about a seven minute walk from our camp. After seeing how incredibly awesome it was, most of us agreed to spend the whole next afternoon playing in it. That night we went through a training on risk management and decision making to prepare us for the expedition courses later in the semester. A bonfire topped it all off. Here's what I wrote in my journal after coming in for the night: "Those of us that stayed longest at the campfire just straggled in. I spread the coals in the fire pit and just stood watching it twinkle in the settling darkness (one of my favorite things in life is to watch those coals twinkle and glow!). This was after a night of other favorite things-- stargazing, a campfire, singing, and laughing/talking with really great people. I was grinning uncontrollably most of the time."

The hardest thing about being on retreat was forgetting that I was in Thailand and should maintain the same level of cultural sensitivity that I do with my host family. We were pretty much sequestered away among Americans (except for our Thai instructors) for the weekend and it seemed gruelling to keep up that heightened sense of self-awareness and the new habits I've learned in order to show my respect for Thai people and their culture. Shamefully, I made no attempt this weekend to practice the language or even consider whether my actions were offensive. I was frustrated because I will never become an "insider," no matter how much I immerse myself in the culture. I had to forcibly remind myself that I am not here to become an insider, but rather to develop an understanding (albeit brief and introductory) of Thai society and some of the environmental problems people are facing-- most of which are global problems that affect me as well.

Just as we had decided, on the second day all 17 of us spent the afternoon at the waterfall. After a morning session about safety/first aid, we donned our rash guards and board shorts and headed over to Mok Fah Falls. There were three streams of water cascading down a cliff face that zigzaged with little alcoves and gashes. Plants of all kinds had colonized these natural shelves and they fluttered back and forth from the spray of the falls. Right now is the dry season, but the pool at the base of the falls was still deep enough to sit in and be up to your neck, and of course the falls would soak you in an instant. I romped in the water a bit and then sat by the side of the pool to watch everyone play frisbee (there were lots of fancy jumps because the water would break any fall). When I was sitting on the side of the pool I happened to look down and notice that the sand was full of little gold flecks and when you stirred up the water they all jumped up to glisten and sparkle in the sun. Then I noticed that the edge of the pool was lined with flowers I assume were dislodged from trees above the waterfall. Between these gorgeous red flowers floating around, the sparkling sand, and the rainbows in the mist of the falls, it was a pretty magical afternoon. On my way back to camp I let Mark's two young daughters lead me on a downstream trek, which was super fun but a little slippery.

Ajaan Mark brought his family and a bunch of musical instruments on retreat with us. There was a guitar (which Luke played quite beautifully by the campfire), a couple of round cases protecting Irish drums, and a case that was violin-sized, but turned out to be a dulcimer! I was so excited and asked Mark if he would give me lessons this semester. He agreed. Learning to play this instrument has been a dream of mine for quite some time, but now it is actually a reality. It turns out that Mark's family was involved with the dulcimer revival during the 60s-- his cousin Jean Ritchie wrote the books and recorded tapes that everyone learns by. Mark is a really good musician-- he played for a while at our fire the second night and I basically sang beautiful Irish ballads until my voice went out. His daugher Lydia, a second grader, is the cutest kid ever and she introduced us to all her favorite songs, which she then sang at the top of her lungs. I thought I was generally off-key and had a terrible range, but one of the students afterward asked if I had any formal voice training because she said I sounded great... so that was a nice morale booster. It definitely makes me want to sing more.

Before returning to CM on the last day we took a hike with a park ranger who told us all about the trees and the relationship of local people with the forest resources. Doi Suthep-Pui has been a conservation area for about 30 years. Before, it was mostly rice paddies and banana plantations. There are many small villages within the park boundaries and local people are allowed to gather things from the forest for non-commercial use, such as bamboo, mushrooms, bamboo worms, herbs for traditional medicine, etc.

  • Banana trees: Banana trees abound in the park (left over from the plantations), but they do not fare well in the dry season because they have no woody matter.

  • Eucalyptus trees: These were planted when the area became a National Park because they grow fast and could help form a canopy to trap moisture and create a forest-like environment for the reintroduction of other species.

  • Fire: For the farmers of Thailand, fire is used annually to clear chaff in the fields, but annual burns are not neccessarily good for the forest. Hunters often set fires to push game, and gatherers set fires to clear underbrush and create a hospitable habitat for certain types of mushrooms. In the National Park, fire breaks have been created and local villagers are asked to help fight forest fires. In return, park rangers help the communities to decrease the risk of destructive fires in their villages.

  • Bamboo: This plant is important to Thai people in many ways-- it serves as a sturdy building material, provides food, and has been adapted for use in so many ways (cups, spoons, containers, mats, tools). Each clump is one plant, one root system that sends up many shoots. When a bamboo plant is near death, it will first flower and spread its seeds (Big Bang reproduction), then become brittle and decompose. Local people collect "bamboo worms," which are the pupae of a common species of moth. The moths lay their eggs in a lower segment of the bamboo and the worms eat their way up segment by segment. When they are ready to emerge, they climb back down to the segment where they were born and eat through the wall of the bamboo. Local people know when this cycle occurs and make cuts in the bamboo to extract the worms. Sometimes the squirrels get to the worms first, as they are able to climb higher and catch them at an earlier stage.

  • Gooseberries: About the size of a malted milk ball, gooseberries are green and grow on slender understory trees. They are pretty sour, but have a sweet aftertaste. You can buy gooseberry juice in CM City.

  • Spiky tree (didn't write down the name): Local lore says that if a man cheats on his wife he is destined to climb up and down this spiky tree for eternity. Watch out, guys!

  • Mulberry Tree: The bark is stripped off mulberry trees and used to make paper and traditional Thai paper umbrellas.

  • Yang Tree: Also known as the hairy-leafed apitong, the yang tree is everywhere in Thailand (it also the tree in the ISDSI logo).

  • Strangling Fig: Pretty freakin awesome-- look in my Picasa albums for pics-- the strangling fig grows around a host tree and eventually chokes it out.

  • Yung Nong Tree: Many years ago, local people used the poison sap of this tree to tip their hunting tools. The outside of the tree is soft like cork and highly texturized.

No comments:

Post a Comment