Saturday, March 21, 2009

In Celebration of Rain [Missive 3]

Dear all,

This week it rained in Chiang Mai for the first time since October. Most of the students on my program were at the Irish pub for St. Patty's Day to hear our program director's band play. Just as we began singing a rousing rendition of "Whiskey in the Jar," rain started to pound on the metal roof. Everyone cheered. Much dancing ensued, of course instigated by the initiative-taking students of ISDSI. The next morning, our perpetual sore throats magically cleared up and the smell of life was everywhere. Flowers I hadn't noticed before (or that weren't there before) came clearly into focus on my walk to school. I passed seven distended bullfrogs on the side of the road, flattened by traffic. Unfortunately, the number of dengue-carrying mosquitoes also multiplied rapidly.

We moved out of our host families last week and while I truly miss the incredible meals and wonderful people, I have taken advantage of the freedom to explore Chiang Mai on a deeper level. One day last week a few of us woke up at 5 a.m. to explore one of the fresh markets before school. We witnessed the incredible generosity of storekeepers and other members of the community who came out before first light to offer food to the droves of Buddhist monks in orange filing through the streets with alms bowls. We watched the ManU-Liverpool game with a crowd of Thai people on a jumbotron in a parking lot, ate different kinds of questionable cuisine, explored markets of all kinds, went to karoake, and negotiated our way to a lake recreation area in another village with surprising success.

The past week has been a whirlwind of readings, discussions, and activities about river ecology, dams, and human rights. We are preparing for our first field expedition course to the Mekong, Mun, and Yom rivers. Tomorrow, we will pile in vans and travel to the opposite side of Thailand to learn from communities impacted by the Pak Mun Dam (those of you older than me may remember struggles surrounding this dam from international news in the early 1990s). While living with host families there, we've been told to expect meals of raw fermented fish and ant larvae... it's character building! Then, we'll paddle a 5-day section of the Yom river that will be inundated if a proposed dam is approved. We will paddle, fish, and explore the ecology of the river with village elders and local activists. We will also do comprehensive stream surveys of all three rivers, a skill I am really excited to learn.

I will not have access to internet until April 8th, after which date I will respond to your emails and post lots of pictures (assuming my camera survives the trip). Have a great next few weeks!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Update: Burmese migrant workers

New observations of the Burmese worker's camp at a construction site on my street (for previous, see "Reality Bites"):

This week, children joined the group of workers at the construction site. The shelters were reinforced with vinyl billboards of political candidates that are currently crowding the roadsides because of an upcoming local election.

The stream of refugees from Burma into Thailand is steady and fast. Many come to escape the war zone that currently encompasses the mountainous jungles of Kayah State, Karen State, and Shan State. The Burmese government, a military junta that has been in power since 1992, is currently at war with ethnic minority groups in these outer states who fight for political power and an end to human rights abuses. The main tactic of the military is to destroy villages and displace civilians so that the rebel troops have nowhere to be resupplied or supported. Villages are burned to the ground and the former inhabitants flee to the depths of the jungles to hide and scratch out a meager existence or attempt to cross the border into Thailand where refugee camps and jobs as migrant laborers are plentiful. Civilians are also often rounded up for forced labor on government projects such as building and protecting oil pipelines to China and Thailand.

We spent most of this week learning about the situation in Burma and its effect on Thailand. The Thai-Burmese border is still a contested border and while Thailand has welcomed refugees so far with open arms, there is growing resentment as large numbers of unregistered workers flood the job market and refugee camps become targets for attacks on Thai soil by the Burmese military. Many Thai people think Burmese people are dangerous, in large part thanks to the media's portrayal of the refugees in a negative light. A few weeks ago, a Burmese construction worker was accused of raping and murdering a student at Maejo University (down the street from my house). Students from the school called for action and the police apparently drove out and arrested the entire camp of over 100 illegal migrant workers. So things are a little tense. There are other Burmese living on my street besides the workers and my host mom always points them out and tells me to be careful. She carries a knife around the neighborhood with her. I think there is too much hate.

On Wednesday we heard from the Free Burma Rangers, a group that trains small teams of ethnic minority Burmese people to provide emergency medical/food aid to displaced people hiding out in the jungles, document human rights abuses, and track the location of the military in the area. I encourage you all to take a look at their website. The situation they are dealing with has been going on for more than 50 years and they are bringing hope to millions of people whom the rest of the world has largely forgotten about.


This post is for mama, a linguistic anthropologist at heart.

A classifier is used for every noun in the Thai language when describing an amount of the item. Some are the same in the English, for example chaa song gaow (two glasses of tea), or can still be easily understood with my cultural background, for example som song loogk (two peices of fruit that are oranges). Other classifiers put things in categories that are totally beyond me. Here a few:
  • two eyes of eyes
  • two cars of wheeled vehicles
  • two books of thick reading material
  • two magazines of thin reading material
  • two thumbs of fingers
  • two tape rolls of round items
  • caboo-un is the classifier for trains, but also classifies parades and other types of processions

The best, by far, is the classifier for table: do song dua (two tables of animal). Why is the table classified by "animal"? BECAUSE IT HAS LEGS!!!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Organic Agriculture Part 2: JJ Market

We woke up at the crack of dawn, thanked our Mae Taa host families profusely, and made our way back to Chiang Mai to sell with vendors from the village at the Saturday organic market. Because my particular host family does not sell at the market on Saturdays, I was assigned to another vendor for the morning. For the first 20 minutes my partner Emilie and I awkwardly stood behind her observing the system. I finally spoke up and told our new Mae that I wanted to help. She began pointing at items on the table and rattling off prices in Thai.

I couldn't remember everything immediately and kept having to ask her again. But I jumped right in, bagging food for customers, taking their money, and handing back change while she packaged shrimp behind the table. Emilie and I worked out a system where I handled money and she bagged produce. It was kind of stressful trying to remember the prices and get people the correct change all in Thai! We ate a hurried breakfast-- warm soy milk with sugar and fried buddy pastries-- at our table while juggling bags of basil and 20 Baht notes.

There were a few farang customers, but most of the buyers were savvy-looking Thai couples. The woman we worked with gave us each a big bunch of Thai bananas as thanks for our help. "Kap khoon jow," she told us, which means thank you in the Northern Thai dialect. Northern Thailand was an independent kingdom until the 1930s, when it was annexed by the King of Siam. The Lanna ("land of a million rice paddies") language is still intermingled with the central Thai language.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Organic Agriculture Part 1: Mae Taa

For two days and nights I lived in the farming community of Mae Taa, where 15 years ago a group of villagers switched from mono-cropping baby corn to growing a diverse array of organic vegetables and fruits. Their wares are sold mostly to upper- and middle-class professionals and academics at an organic market in Chiang Mai. Despite the Hi-So (Thai slang for high society) clientele, the prices are comparable to other markets around town.

On the first night we were introduced to mah-lawd, a small red fruit that looks a lot like a cherry tomato, but in addition to the bright red color is covered in little golden bubbles that make the fruit look gilded and quite royal. The initial sour taste makes one's taste buds shrivel, but the sweet aftertaste is worth the pain. The trick is to roll the fruit between your thumb and forefinger for a few seconds before eating to ease some of the sour taste.

At 6 a.m. on the first morning I crawled out from under the bright pink mosquito net encasing my bed and sat down at the dining table, which was made of teak and shellacked to a shine. A whiff of morning smell gave me flashbacks to the Heifer Ranch-- a mixture of fire, manure, boiling vegetables, and dishes from the Global Village that are washed but never seem to be clean. It was a comforting smell of the grit of farm life and made me feel at home. Looking around I realized that this family had incorporated a ton of outdoor space as primary living space in a way that isn't possible in the U.S. because of the cold weather. Sitting at the table in the open-air space on the first floor of the house I could hear chickens twittering away, a rooster, and some pigs. Later in the day I knew I would hear cicadas-- but a species I'm not familiar with that sounds like a car with squeaky brakes or a power saw.

After a breakfast of cucumber and egg fried rice, we met up with our host mom's sister to hike about 3 km to their garden plot. The two sisters live next door in almost identical houses and farm adjacent plots in the valley. The landscape was ever-changing as we made our way past fields, through forests, and into the valley. We turned immediately off of the main road onto a dirt track between fields and grazing cattle. The scene changed as we rounded a hill and came upon a teak plantation. Our host mom said the wood is used to build houses for members of the local community. We then entered a dry, leafless, burned-over forest that seemed lifeless in every way-- not a single shrub or weed poked up anywhere. We trudged up and down along the dusty path and rounded another hill to find a green valley stretched below us, ringed with low mountains colored grey by the haze. I imagined that the same valley would be breathtakingly beautiful after the rains. It was still beautiful as we looked down, just a bit dusty and parched.

We stopped during our descent into the valley in a fruit grove to taste mulberries, guavas, bananas, and the gilded little red fruits I talked about earlier. The guava was small, but the best I have ever tasted! The bitter/herby flavor hadn't taken over like the guavas I have eaten in Chiang Mai. It was just the right mixture of sweet and flavorful. And the crunch factor was ideal.

After slurping down the fruit we made our way down to the vegetable garden, tucked into an intimate little valley between the hillside and a river. We immediately sat down on one of the raised bamboo platforms for another snack. Our host mom pulled out a small, yellow fruit about the size of duck egg. I had never eaten passion fruit before, but the minute the tangy flavor hit my tongue I was in love. Emilie said she had passion fruit in Belize, but this one was far tastier. I should devote an entire blog post to all of the delicious fruits I've had in this country!

We prepared beds for planting pag bung (morning glory) seeds. We mixed organic fertilizer in with the soil using hoes made of bamboo, planted the seeds in narrow rows, covered them over with more composted soil, then watered well. We also weeded malee (mint), which was a really pleasant job because the scent permeated the air around us. Three people came to ask our host mom some questions and they recorded the answers on a clipboard. I asked one of the girls where she was from and I think she said something like, "another garden over there" in Thai. They looked like University students working on a project, but they also might have been inspecting for organic certification, or maybe they were just fellow farmers sharing some information. Not sure.

The language barrier was a huge impediment to my education at Mae Taa. I do feel like I experienced something important, but organic agriculture is something I have also experienced elsewhere. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the techniques they use, the ways in which the co-op supports the individual farmers, etc... but instead I was stuck simply being a part of the lifestyle for a day. The trip was too short and the language barrier too wide to learn anything particularly deep. There are still so many questions running through my head.

Lunch was papaya salad , leftover morning glory leaves/pork from dinner, pork skins, bamboo shoots, hard boiled eggs, fried rice, sticky rice, fruit, and ka-nom (Thai sweets). I enjoyed every bite, especially since we rolled up balls of sticky rice and ate with our hands in the traditional way. Once the bowls were cleared away, everyone stretched out on the wood plank floor to nap. I sat leaning against a beam of the raised bamboo hut and looked out over the valley, enjoying the quiet and writing in my journal. In front of me were rows of lettuce, parsley, and greens shaded by black plastic mesh stretched over bamboo trellises. Most of the tenderest crops were under the mesh-- maybe the sun would be too intense otherwise? Near the edge of the trellises a herd of cattle were grazing. The head cow wore a bell that sounded a dull tinkle as she nosed through the chaff for edible tidbits. The shepherd and his wife were nearby, armed with slingshots. They both had deadly aim to ensure that the cows didn't get into the crops nearby. There are no fences. Every once in a while a cow would low, or a shepherd would yell somewhere down the valley. The cicadas kicked up from time to time, then their buzz-saw drones faded away on the breeze.

After the brief siesta, we transplanted celery and tomatoes. Then, another snack of tamarind and raw peanuts and we headed home over the hill and down past the teak plantation. This time the wasteland forest gave me a weirder feeling than during our morning trek. In my experience, when the trees lose their leaves the weather is cold rather than at 80-90 degree temperatures. It reminded me of an exhibit at Epcot where you hold a cold bar with your left hand and a hot bar with your right hand and your brain is completely thrown off. I found myself wishing there was an equivalent of "The Watershed" nearby in which to cool off before heading back for dinner.

Dinner that night was not so fun, as our host dad came home drunk and started asking uncomfortable questions and invited us to come drink whiskey with him. I was exhausted from the day in the garden and was trying hard to be riaproy, but it was difficult.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Awesome Day

5:00 am- Crawled out from under a bed net in the farming community of Mae Taa.

6:00 am- Watched the sun rise over the mountains from the window of a van as we made our way back down towards CM City.

7:00 am- Helped a woman from Mae Tae sell her organic vegetables at the market. We tended the gardens where the vegetables came from yesterday.

8:00 am- Unwrapped a banana leaf cradling a sweet concoction of banana, sticky rice, and beans.

9:00 am- Explored the lost city of Wiang Kam Kum.

10:00 am- Learned about the history of Chiang Mai at the CM Cultural Center.

11:00 am- Marveled at the influence of ancient Asian culture in paintings at an art gallery.

Noon: Entered a secret noodle shop.

1:00 pm: Finished the noodles. Felt like it would be OK to pass on through the pearly gates.

2:00 pm: Washed clothes by hand. I can tell I'm getting better because it only took me an hour this time.

3:00 pm: Bounced down a dirt road on the back of a motorcycle with a basket full of cookie ingredients.

4:00 pm: Attempted to make chocolate cookies with macadamia nuts.

5:00 pm: Sat around the table discussing life with Mae Toon and Mae Waew.

6:00 pm: Scraped some crispy, failed cookies off of a cookie sheet. Took a tour of Mae Toon's gorgeous garden.

7:00 pm: Sat down to dinner and Channel 7 with the fam.

8:00 pm: Pooped.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My host sister and I rode bicycles to Maejo University past backyard boarding houses (one-room bungalows with thatched roofs), fields of all kinds of vegetables, grazing water buffalo and bony cows, little shops, homes-- a mish-mosh of land uses. The whole way we dodged manholes that lead to a ditch. After a bit of sleuthing I figured out that this ditch is where we toss our dirty water, full of detergent and fabric softener, after washing clothes by hand in these big basins. I assume everyone else in the neighborhood does the same, plus some people probably have their sewage piped there. This ditch follows the road until the road starts to curve, then empties into a big rice paddy. So the water full of chemicals, raw sewage, and oily runoff is being used to grow the rice. If only plants had some sort of biological mechanism for filtering that stuff out before sucking it up via transpiration.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Annual forest burns are a bad idea...

This week, an emergency meeting was called among province leaders in northern Thailand to discuss the issue of forest fires in the mountains. The AQI (Air Quality Index) for the past week has been well above dangerous levels. People living in the mountains burn routinely for a number of reasons, including clearing land for planting crops and creating good conditions for mushroom growth. A few reasons why annual burning of the forest is a bad idea:
  • Kills tree seedlings
  • Kills underbrush that is an important food source for animals
  • Wicks moisture out of the area and creates very dry forest ecosystems where only certain types of trees can survive (loss of diversity)
  • Causes respiratory problems
  • Decaying organic material does not build up as hummus on the forest floor to provide nutrients for plants
  • Exposed soil runs off into streams

Thai-style American Breakfast [Missive 2]

Good morning, my loves;

Imagine waking up and expecting some delicious rice soup for breakfast, but finding instead a plate of fried rice mixed with ketchup (or maybe fried IN ketchup?) and some undercooked hot dogs. Lately, this has been the situation. I thought I had established that I truly enjoy Thai breakfast food, but for the past week it seems my family has been working overtime to prove that they understand farang tastes. At the supermarket this weekend Paw picked up a loaf of sliced white bread, which appeared on my plate on Sunday morning. Mae was positively beaming as she whipped out a George-Foreman-esque sandwich griller and made me two sandwiches bursting with butter and strawberry jam. She really wanted me to have orange marmalade, but luckily I squelched that idea.

Don't be fooled by the summer camp-like atmosphere of my recent blog posts. Most of my time in Thailand so far has been spent in class, which isn't the most exciting content for a blog. Those four hours of intensive Thai each morning are no piece of cake. In the afternoons we have lectures with Ajaan Christina or go on field trips. Last week we visited two K-12 schools to compliment our lectures on the Thai education system, one traditional Thai school (key words: rote memorization, pain and suffering) and one International School with a more child-centered approach. We also visited Wat Suan Dok (one of the largest Buddhist temples in CM City) for a lecture on Buddhism by a senior monk.

I wish class was epic enough to gush endlessly, but for the most part I spend too much time doing homework to be motivated to blog about it. I do have some interesting information about Thai culture (so far: education, family & gender, religion, and economy) culled from lecture notes so I'll try to blog about it soon. In the meantime, enjoy the posts about magical waterfalls. Be assured I am working my butt off and not just skipping through fields picking wildflowers (though I do enjoy that-- just ask Davis).

Our field trip last week was to the Huai Hong Krai Royal Development Study Center. Supported by the King, the center is responsible for researching and demonstrating sustainable agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry techniques. Free educational services and trainings are provided to rural villagers and school children. The center reminded me a lot of the Heifer Ranch, only much more actively engaged in research and implementation. Many Thai people are still very close to the land, so the center serves an important role in breaking the cycle of debt in farming communities and forest degradation in the mountains. My favorite part of the visit was learning about mushroom farming. Thailand has a big problem with people in the mountains burning the forests every year to encourage mushrooms to grow (right now in Chiang Mai the Air Quality Index is 120-- in Europe anything above 60 is considered dangerous). The center demonstrates how a healthy, moist forest ecosystem actually yields more mushrooms, and they have developed a system for growing mushrooms in little huts kept moist and dark. The mushroom growing workshops are one of the most popular services at the center. Because of the center's outreach, communities in the immediate area have largely stopped the annual burns, which are incredibly destructive in many ways. Local people are allowed to collect forest products (mushrooms, ant eggs, bamboo shoots, etc) from Huai Hong Krai land for free as long as they report what they have taken and agree not to cut trees, kill animals, or set fires. For the most part, even in National Parks, local people are allowed to collect resources for non-commercial use. This policy is far cry from America's "take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

Alright, I am going to go pray for some rain...