Dear people of my heart,
Stunning: the only word to describe the jungles of northern Thailand. The light is incredible-- darkest dark and brightest light; rock canyons curving down like protecting arms to nurse clear mountain streams; forests of magical proportions brimming with life and leafiness and corkscrew vines; expansive views onto sunlit ridges that bleed with limestone cliff faces down into deep valleys; boulders seized by desperate tree roots that seem to want to suck the soul out of the rock in their desire to thrive. Soul-eating trees... who knew?
For the past 2 1/2 weeks I have been in Mae Hong Son province, hiking through the mountains to Karen villages that in some cases were accessible only on foot. We lived for several days in each of four villages, learning about the Karen way of life, their connection to the forest, and the political struggle between preservationists and forest-dwelling communities.
Our journey began on a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s. The highlights of this bus ride included roadkill, racial profiling, and near-death experiences. Read the tale HERE.
Luckily enough, our trip was preceded and accompanied by bouts of rain so the rice fields were ready to plant. The Karen communities we visited rely mostly on upland rotational farming, or "swidden" agriculture, though some communities also plant paddy fields (a recent development). Swidden agriculture is common in many subsistence cultures around the world where farming is done in places with poor soil quality or steep, erosion-prone land. In the case of the Karen, the community allocates each family a plot of land large enough to feed them for one year. A typical family needs about four rai, or 1.5 acres. The family will clear the forest and plant for only one year. They will then allow that field to return to the jungle to gather nutrients and build up soil until they come back 7 to 10 years later to farm the same plot again. Key words: short cultivation, long fallow. The upland rice field, once you get over the initial shock of what resembles "slash and burn," is a truly magical place. The two-week planting cycle, where each family helps the others, is an important courtship opportunity. Women follow behind, dropping rice seeds into the holes poked by men wielding long bamboo poles. A woman might follow closely behind a man who has shown interest in her. The rai feeds the families physically, builds community as a group activity and a courtship ritual, and protects the mountains that might otherwise be denuded by permanent agriculture. Look into a seed bag in the rai and you will find that rice, peas, papaya, mustard greens, herbs, beans, and over 20 other kinds of plants are being sown in the same field. An explosion of biodiversity, to be sure. The students were able to follow along and help plant, but when we started sliding around and falling all over the place on the steep slopes our families relegated us to the sala.
This style of farming, though in many ways the best option for subsistence communities in mountainous areas, is viewed by uninformed government officials as forest destruction similar to pioneer farming in the Amazon. In fact, the tiny communities we visited have been in the same location for over 200 years, farming the same rotational plots that their ancestors farmed. These communities do not have titles to their land and many inhabit areas that have been declared National Parks or other types of protected areas. The villages we visited have managed to retain use of their land through creative, sophisticated measures including prudent political action, community-based tourism, and counter-mapping. The struggle of forest-dwelling communities to stay on their land is too involved for this email... read my longer description HERE.
Despite the increasing intrusion of roads, the central Thai state, and the global economy into this part of the world, the villagers in Huai Poo Ling subdistrict are greatly self-sufficient. They make their own clothing, farm their own food, build their houses out of materials found locally, and use solar panels for the little energy needed for their lifestyle; 95% of their ecological footprint is in the few acres they farm and materials collected on foot from the surrounding forest. The community is strong, affectionate, and joyous. Houses are thinly constructed and incorporate a great deal of outdoor space-- neighbors can walk by on the road and chat with the people inside, friends and family are constantly helping with cooking or building a new shed or watching the children.
On love: One day, as I sat in the bamboo kitchen with my family from Huai Hee village, I witnessed something beautiful. My host brother had a toothache and had been crying quietly under a blanket on the floor for a good part of the day. His mother came over and sat cross-legged, putting his head on her lap and stroking his hair. My host father walked up the steps and immediately came over to sit with them, his arms wrapped around them both and his wife's head on his shoulder. The family stayed like this, quiet and cocooned together, for something like 20 minutes. This kind of confident, snug affection was on display throughout the village-- men giving each other massages in community meetings, children constantly cuddled, women sitting close together to rub each others aching hands. To accompany this physical closeness was the strongest sense of social accountability I have ever witnessed. The villagers laughed at us in a community meeting when we asked how they dealt with crime. Apparently they don't have crime, and the minor disputes that do arise are mediated by the village headman. American communities have broken down so much in this respect... I'm searching for ways to bring this sense of community back to America, but I'm not sure it can even translate. What is "community"?
In the last village, and our longest homestay, I was given a nickname. I have never really had a nickname before, but my host mom insisted. We came up with Sapbalot, which means "pineapple" in Thai. Sapbalot then morphed into Naessa, the Karen word for pineapple. In some ways, having a nickname makes me feel like my true identity is somehow hidden. Names are powerful. But this time the name fits... like a pineapple, I may still be green on the outside and quite rough, but I feel increasingly more mellow and mature on the inside. The experience calmed me in many ways, showed me that beauty and resilience and creativity and community are strong in many parts of the world... there are solutions, there are ways of relating to one another and the Earth that are productive and sustainable. In terms of my education, I don't think I have thought or discussed so much ever in my entire education. You Barnard women know-- NYC is a crazy, overwhelming place and we are all so independent and busy. I feel like I'm re-learning how to engage with the act of studying, even how to write.
Power: The headman of Huai Tong Gow village queried the students, "do you have headmen in your country?" We attempted to explain the role of government in the United States with mixed success, emphasizing the fact that public officials are not as intimately connected to their communities as Karen headmen. Then, he asked, "do any of you want to become a headman?" Before I could even think, my hand went up. I was the only one, and many of the students nodded and smiled, some saying that I would make a good headman. Both my own spontaneous reaction to the question and that of the the other students surprised me. Since coming to Thailand I have been thinking more and more seriously about going into politics on the local level in Arkansas. A friend of mine here told me that when she listens to me talk she sees a whole bright future for America spinning out 50 years from now. So look out-- you may have an aspiring public servant in your midst!
The Karen eat this stuff with everything... it can be spooned over plain white rice, or made into a soup with chicken and vegetables, or used as a sauce for something... basically, it is a tasty wonderfood. It can be incredibly spicy, though, so you may want to experiment with the number of chili peppers you can handle. My Karen family in Huai Tong Gow often used over 20!
15 small, dried chili peppers
6 small red shallots
1 medium tomato
2 t. sea salt
handful of cilantro/other herbs to taste
1. Slice shallots
2. Roast tomato over fire on a skewer, or in the coals
3. Roast dried chili peppers until puffy and black
4. Grind salt with chili peppers (use a mortar and pestle if you want to be super legit)
5. Add hot roasted tomato to salt and chili peppers, then mash
6. Spoon the paste into a bowl, add sliced shallots and chopped cilantro
7. Add a dollop and a half of water