Full Circle: Mai Pen Rai

December 21, 2011

With Bi Si (welcoming and goodbye ceremony strings in which locals bless you) strings on my left hand and an ocean to my right, how do I even begin reflecting on this experience? I am sitting on the beach in Koh Tao, staring out at the beautiful water forgetting that I am in Thailand still. It is the brief interactions with locals and long conversations with vendors in Thai that remind me of my experience. Or the exported food items on the menu that make me wonder how far they had to travel. It is the memories of my host families and the villages that come flooding back when I see bedding or mats. These are just a few of the moments that make this experience real. Otherwise it feels like a dream. A dream that I can’t forget in the morning, a dream whose lessons I must keep with me.

I am traveling with four of my friends from the program and we often find ourselves talking about goals for going home or how to explain our program in relatable terms. The list of 55 buzz words work well when talking to another group member, but to anyone else, space just means space. It does not make you laugh, cringe, or cry. I am struggling with how to explain my tears when someone says that word, or explain my frustrations and successes with “challenging appropriately”.  However, this experience would not be meaningful if I could not take it back with me, if I could not implement the lessons I have learned.

So what will I do? For starters, write down my lessons, quotes from NGOs, villagers, and government officials, and post them around my room. Keep a constant reminder of my growth and new knowledge. And for that knowledge, bring it back to UR. Not just the content, but my new outlook of what education means. We turned it into a joke here, the basis of our education model, “Took kawn ben ajaan.” Every person is a teacher. This program put it in the structure, we learned from each other as facilitators, villagers about their lives and development, journalists about politics, and everyone we encountered. I hope to share that lesson. One can learn a lot from the experts, but experience is unmatched. Lets just hope this plays out well in VA and NJ.

So, as for my first question prior to leaving… how do you say “no worries” in Thai? It’s mai pen rai. Meaning no problem, don’t worry about it. And just like I thought, it’s more than a saying here—it’s a lifestyle. It is a lifestyle I have now understood and adapted to. So adjustment back home will surely be difficult, but mai pen rai, its all a learning experience.

The Spirit of Collaboration: Grassroots Movements

December 9, 2011

On an alternative education program, it is not final exams that we have, but rather, final projects.  After working with communities all semester long, learning about their struggles, successes, and current projects, we as students finally get to be a part of it.  When I initially came I was confused what out projects were.  I did not understand the process; and that process is collaboration.  My final project is unlike anything I have ever worked on because I am not only working with a group of five other students, but with an entire community.  And these people not only want, but need, it to be perfect, because it changes their livelihoods.  (Also, everything has to be translated into Thai.)

For my project, I am working with the Rasi Salai community as they begin the very early stages of starting a Green Market, or an organic market.

We created surveys and the conducted them both in the city with consumers and on potential producers’ farms.  After collecting our data, we returned to Khon Kaen to analyze it, create an educational pamphlet on organic food, and prepare for our annual Human Rights Festival.  What a crazy two weeks it has been!  So now, as it nears an end, I finally have clarity on what it means to collaborate with a community, and I have a better idea of what grassroots movements really are.  I came into this program thinking there needed to be outside involvement, but after having worked with a community that has been organizing for 17 years, I understand that motivation and passion are what drives movements, not power or money.  A dam was built in the community, and rather than giving up, they fight (“sou sou!”)  In this case, that means working within their situation, and making it better.  So currently, that means an organic market.  I know it is early stages, but I am really looking forward to years from now when I return to Thailand and go to the Wetlands Peoples’ Green Market.

As for now, well it’s time to wind down.  (No, that doesn’t mean free time).  We will have the Human Rights Festival, which is a gathering of many communities and NGOs presenting their issues and networking together.  Then off to the retreat to reform the program structure and reflect on my experience.  It is hard to believe that its all coming to an end, but nice to know I have a community at Richmond to come home to.

Time for Harvest, and Final Projects

December 5, 2011

Harvest time means that all the green fields from the beginning of my journey have turned golden yellow.  It is a physical representation of truly how much time has passed.  Pretty cool, though, because just as the rice has changed through process, so have I, through our group process.

This last unit before final projects was based on mining, and it brought together everything we have learned so far.  Water gets poisoned, land rights are violated, and of course, the farmland is destroyed.  What was most interesting about this unit was its complexity.  I, as an American consumer, contribute to this issue.  At our reading discussion, we had to take everything that had mined products in it and put it at our feet.  Jewlery, electronics from our backpacks, notebooks, pens — everything was sitting at our feet.  It was a scary realization.  Then we went off to the communities, and they, too, use products that have been mined.  It’s really a “not in my backyard” argument, but it needs to happen in our current economy, so whose backyard do we put it in?  More importantly, how do we ensure that those people have a say? That seems to be one of the biggest problems here in Northeast Thailand.  The villagers simply are not heard when the proposed projects will change their livelihood forever.

Despite all the work that was due, two friends and I decided to take our personal days and return back to the organic village.  What an adventure it was.  I could not stay with my host family, so I stayed with my friends and Paw Wan.  Paw is the local rice varieties expert, so it was cool harvesting rice in his farm.  It wasn’t just Jasmine 105 or Gaw Kaw 6; we were harvesting black rice, and then for dinner, we had the most delicious red sticky rice.  (Which doesn’t mean the rice is sticky — it is a different kind of rice that is eaten in this region.)

The trip back was where the adventure happened.  A driver brought us to the city nearby, then we got on an open air bus to take us to the bus station, and then there was only standing room on the four-hour bus ride.  Plus, the air conditioning was broken.  I found myself sitting on the floor (because it was cooler) scrunched between my friends, and just hoping that time would pass quickly.

We got home safe and sound as always, appreciating the adventure and impressed with our language skills.  It is now time for final projects, so off to the village to assess the feasibility of a Green Market.  But more on that soon…

The River Runs Free (or should) and Chiang Mai

November 16, 2011

Here in Khon Kaen, Thailand, working as a member of a group and visiting villages every few weeks, the term solidarity has come up a few times. It seems that the more time that passes, the more frequently the term is used. What does solidarity mean in relation to these issues? What does it mean in the villages?

On a journey to discover what solidarity really means, one telling village was Ban Huay Top Nai Noi. Not only does this protest village share passion and drive, but they have a plan. Made up of villagers from two different surrounding villages, this village was formed to protest a dam project upstream. These villagers’ homes were not going to be flooded, but their farms and their livelihoods were. In 1995, the protest village formed in the flood zone of the proposed dam project. Paw Sampone said, “We moved to the flood zone because if they want to build the dam, build the dam. But, if you retain any water, you will be killing people.” The power of their mission is not just for themselves, however —  it is for the land and the people around them.

For communities we visited during unit 4, which are potential or previous dam sites, the river is more than a source of water. The flooding created or exacerbated by dams is not just detrimental to the crops in the farmland or the homes in the area, but completely destroys livelihoods.

For example, in communities in Rasi Salai, the end of the rainy season has led to absolutely no source of income for the people. The wetlands, their original source of food and crops, is flooded. They cannot gather crops that have been sustaining their families for hundreds of years. Because of the dam reservoir, their farmlands are also flooded to the point where they can only get around some parts by boat. Many cannot even walk to their farms to see how much damage has been done. The final portion of these villagers’ income comes from handicrafts made and sold at the local learning center. The center is up to the roof with water because the land the people were given for the project is located on the banks of the reservoir. The supplies to make most of the crafts come from their fields, as well. So without farmland just a few weeks before harvest, plus no crafts and no place to sell them, the dam has led to no financial stability or security for the people of Rasi Salai. Their homes may not be flooded, but they continue to band together because without the other community members, some families could easily go hungry.

This community serves as a mentor for that of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi. They have provided guidance, comfort, and support during the hard times. They inspire the people of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi, and encourage their fight. Even through the violence that occurred, the people of the protest village stayed in their new location. Their presence is a fight, and it is a message. “We do this for the land. Land cannot regenerate, but people are born everyday.” Their strength comes from each other. “Wherever we go, we go together. We share everything, not just knowledge.” These words of the community members is what enables the movement they are part of. They have a cause and support and the strength of their community is what true solidarity looks like. They stand, fall, live and fight together.

After the water unit was our four-day break, which came and went quickly, and what an amazing adventure it was! Just a quick summary — I went to Chiang Mai and saw the floating lantern festival. It was the most amazing thing, and it is a time to pay tribute to the river, so it was fitting following our water unit. I rode an elephant, played with baby tigers, and went bungee jumping (never thought I would…)  Although I indulged in foreign food like burritos and falafel, it’s good to be back in Isaan where there aren’t tourists and I get to speak Thai.

Onto the mining unit, which should be really interesting and I’ll have more time with internet to blog in a more timely fashion!

Community, Globalization, and Tons of Trash

October 24, 2011

So many villages, so little space to write about them…  so I’ll keep up with the highlights principle.  The highlight of the Land unit was definitely Baw Kaew community.  It is a protest village where the people were kicked off of their land, and two years ago they returned and have built a community.  There were people from all different villages, and through the shared struggle and passion, they have created something unbelievable.  The grandmothers share their stories of being kicked off their land with the children, who will continue to fight based on the devotion.  This unit showed me that an outside force or a powerful figure is not needed for a successful grassroots movement.  Anyone and everyone has agency, and it just takes motivation and passion to create change.  It was a really moving exchange and experience.

My Paw from this unit, other than the two one-nighters, was incredibly educated.  I was sitting watching Meh cook one night when Paw came into the cooking area.  He sat down next to me, pen in hand, and started to lecture.  All in Thai, of course, but the essence of the conversation was, “Julie, do you see this papaya—we grow them in Thailand.  You don’t grow them in America, yet you are able to eat them in America.  That is just one reason why globalization is so amazing.”  The lectures continued and got more and more complex over the course of the three days. There was a lot of guessing based on what was said or drawn (one day he got out his grandson’s coloring book and drew for us—an upgrade to the hand), but it was all an amazing lesson on both communication and globalization.

After the unit ended, there was an optional trip to the landfill near our campus.  Just 17km away, 200 tons of trash is brought in each day.  There is a community of 60 families that live there, started by just one man who went to make a living off of the trash.  Not only does it bring to light the realization of scavengers (those who work 20 hours a day picking through garbage to find plastic bottles to recycle), but it brings to light the realities of consumerism.  I literally climbed a trash mountain.  Not to mention the irony of the laundry detergent package I saw in the mud that read, “Hygiene”.

I was so blown away by the Paw that we exchanged with there.  He no longer works in the landfill, nor does his wife and children, but he lives there because he owns his land and he wants to make the community a better place.  Unlike in America, where people strive to get out of the slums, Paw was trying to improve the village.  He chooses to live in a dump — literally.

The problems with each village we visit are hard to stomach.  With each unit and each exchange, I continue to recognize the realities of a developing country.  It is natural to make comparisons to the United States, and we have many of these issues.  We have medical problems associated with damming and mining (the coming two units).  We have poverty that is solved by cash cropping.  There are so many problems in our world.  This country is so amazing, and my time here is invaluable, but it is hard meeting amazing people and learning about their suffering, unable to fix it.

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

October 17, 2011

Well, this time, it’s “the students sleep tonight”.  Part one of our second unit, Land, takes place in villages that have had recent struggles with their land.  Whether it is a protest village, a community that has recently returned to their land, or exchanging with the governmental agency that protects the forest, we are seeing all sides of land rights in Issan.  The journey started with a six hour van ride to a village just north of Cambodia.

Our van slowed to a stop at a group of houses, but we were told this was not our village.  We all loaded onto the back of a truck and headed into the jungle.  The Suan Ba, or forest, was through deep woods and the land had flooded recently- our vans would not make it.  Little did I understand flooding.  After community members finished nailing wooden boards as two longs rows of seats, we loaded up.  Thus began the most exciting hour long ride of my life.  Somewhere between rollercoaster and safari, we found ourselves on a real life version of a Disney World ride.

The village only got better.  It started with bananas hanging by a pole for us to eat at our leisure, then there was some wading through a river, an exchange, and then a slumber party of the whole group sleeping in the community “room”.  There was a light bulb, but no other electricity.  The exchangee was willing to answer all questions, so after our allotted time, questions were asked about Cambodia, the Vietnam War, and ended by talking about elephants. (We saw one while driving through the city, of all places, on the way home– just a baby walking on a leash led by a man down a busy street.)

We returned for the evening to meet the U.S. Ambassador, have finger food and mingle.  So it’s a nice relaxing evening, and then off to the next village! It has become a trend that at all villages, our host parents like to feed us a lot, and so I am a bit nervous for Yom Kippur tomorrow.  The Ajaans (teachers) know I am fasting, so they will explain it—hopefully it is understood as religious and not as an insult to their food, because village food is so delicious.

Mai Chai Bouey Kem Me: Don’t Use Chemical Fertilizer

September 28, 2011

The food/agriculture unit homestay has come to an end.  These last six days were filled with excitement and unbelievable experiences.  I cannot share everything from this past week, but I’ll go over the highlights.

First stop, Roi Et province.  We stayed in a village that was in transition from non-organic to organic farming, so almost every family had pigs to make their organic fertilizer.  We got a tour of some farms, and they really tried to make it interactive.  So, I got to plant a banana tree!

Before heading to Yasothon province, the location of our last homestay of the unit, we stopped in Masaharaka to observe our future families protesting the use of chemicals in farming.  The speakers brought some to tears as they spoke of the horrors that have come as adverse effects, and the passion of these people to protect their livelihood was an unbelievable thing to watch.  Wearing green, just as the organic market they participate in is the Green Market, the street was flooded with signs and images of pesticides.  This peaceful demonstration showed more than just what chemicals can do—it showed the importance of community.  These individuals came together for a cause, and their community was shown through both the market and the signs floating down the street.

I loved my family at this homestay.  Paw and I were surprisingly able to communicate a lot,  so I got to learn about both his and Meh’s farming practices and lives.  Both have lived in the village their entire lives, and have been farming organically for 12 years now.  We took the tractor out to the farm and came back with a bounty of delicious treats.  A green papaya for Som Tom, a local dish, long beans, peanuts, sugar cane, okra, and my favorite—passion fruit.  I got to learn about the different type of rice that he grows, and then that day we stayed up late and helped prepare for the market.  Weighing peppers, sorting veggies, carrying coconuts, and watching as Meh prepared the banana snacks—coconut and rice wrapped in banana leaf.  We woke early (4:00) to meet our parents at the market, and helped sell their rice and treats. (My time at local farmer’s markets paid off, because I would not allow for bargaining).

Our week came to an end after our last exchange with a local government official who was very passionate about hating TNCs.  This past week was a great first unit trip—personal connections were formed and we got a real insight into the issues.  These next 10 days in Khon Kaen will be rough, because I can’t wait to get back into the villages.

(Oh! I almost forgot… if you put a green mango into a box for a few days, it ripens perfectly!  It’s a very useful skill when mangos are not in season.)

Laying The Bricks for Photography

September 19, 2011

Nic Dunlop, a photographer, came and taught a photography workshop—so I thought it only fitting that I show what I came up with.  Our instructions were to take an establishment shot, a profile shot, a detail shot, an action shot, and then a fifth of any of those.  We had to tell a story, and no children and no monks were allowed.

So I headed off through the streets and decided, despite the heat and blaring sun, to venture down a street I had not been down yet.  I first found myself in a neighborhood, then at a resort, and finally I came upon a bustling street with lots of excitement and potential subjects.  All the pictures were to be of the same subject, so I wanted something new (and boy, did I find it).

I came upon this brick building in construction and thought, “why not?”  There was a young guy working the brick pulley, and seeing as I had never seen this orange contraption before, it fit.  He spoke a little English, and I speak a little (very little) Thai, so we were kind of able to communicate.  He had decided I was going to come back later when he got off  and hang out with him and his friend…I knew I had to come back to get more pictures in the afternoon, so I did as the Thais do, and smiled.

I took a few good shots, and got my establishing shot, but needed more for sure. Only problem was, I wandered to get there—needless to say I got lost coming back.  I was uncertain if I could find it again.  I did though, and it was worth the walk.

My friend from earlier in the day was gone, so I wandered around the construction site.  I then saw this woman on the stairs, asked if I could take her picture, and afterward, she directed me upstairs.  I scaled the edge of the building (for like 2 feet) and spoke with three women, in broken Thai and English.  One may have told me she wants an American boyfriend…but I am pretty sure she had kids… I don’t know.  Language barriers.

It was an amazing experience, and although conversation may not have been perfect, I think I was able to capture my experience through the photos.

A Week That Felt Like Class, Including Saturday and Sunday

September 14, 2011
Our week of background lectures comes to a close today, and in our “alternative education model,” it won’t be returning. To talk about all of them would both bore you and possibly imprison me in Thailand, seeing as each of them were four hours long. I will draw attention to some of the highlights, though.  The “Thai History and Politics” lecture was so intriguing.  This country has such an interesting past and present—it is truly captivating.  The first lecture we had, on Human Rights, was given by the most amazing woman I have met here.  I should set the scene…
When we have exchanges or lectures, we are told to dress in “polite” attire.  This means skirts past the knees and covered shoulders for girls, or our nifty– yes, nifty— school uniforms.  Our lecturer, the Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Commission on Human Rights, walked in wearing jeans and a jean jacket that faded into lace at the bottom.  And let me tell you, not one of us doubted her for a second. She spoke with such confidence and passion for the subject, and to put it bluntly — she was a total boss.  I learned after the lecture that she was once at a big party with Henry Kissinger and happened to be next to him on the buffet line.  So naturally, she took that as her opportunity to tell him everything she thought he had done wrong.  I could not stop writing as she spoke to us, and her wisdom on Human Rights was profound, to say the least.
The second half of the week was spent on our “mock-unit”, which was on HIV/AIDS.  We had an exchange (a question & answer forum) with TNP+, which is a network for people in Thailand living with HIV/AIDS.  After the question & answer period and an activity that demonstrated the spread of the virus using water cups and food dye, we got to visit a home of a person living with HIV/AIDS.  What an experience.  I must say that in a country where the culture seems to avoid the topic of sex, it is amazing how open both the organization heads and the individuals were with us.  In small groups at the home visits, we were free to ask any questions, and I was overwhelmed with knowledge.  The juxtaposition between Montclair, New Jersey (my hometown) and the community I visited were so drastically different. Here, the “norm” is to be ostracized, whereas at home, neighbors seem to do anything they can to help.  The man I spoke with knows that the disease cannot be transmitted through objects, but still insists on having separate soap, and cups, and plates from his family to ensure his two daughters’ and wife’s protection.  The struggle to fight the silence surrounding sex is obviously a struggle for education in Thailand, and it makes the Condom Caravan at school in Richmond seem like a godsend of information.
In other news, there is a family of geckos living in my room.  I’m not too concerned, because as a friend put it when I was initially freaked out, “They are more afraid of me than I am of eating shellfish.”
And how do you turn a mango yellow? …more on that to come.
Thai village

I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Get Back on the Bus

September 7, 2011

The Beatles had people in complete awe of them, wanting nothing more than to be near them. Now, I would not say I have John Lennon status here in Thailand, but at school in the village, the children certainly wanted to hold my hand.  In fact, all of us had 3-4 Thai kids ranging in age from 6 to 13 hanging off of us at any moment in time.  For our third day in the community, instead of Thai class, we had a “Thai Fun Activity”, consisting of us playing games with kids at school, and then us teaching them an activity.  Thank you, summer camps, because we all quickly agreed to teach them “Baby Shark”, and out second was “The Banana Song”.  If you are unfamiliar with these, I highly recommend learning them, because just as I thought they would never come in handy again—I was mistaken.  The joy that came from these kids was indescribable.  Later, at our homestays, we had kids doing the hand motions, asking us to sing it again.

My homestay could probably be best described by the final night.  Until the last night, it was a lot of observing and eating.  I didn’t really feel a strong connection to my family, and it was not the easiest three days of my life. It did, however, have a very happy ending when the entire village gathered at my neighbor’s house and we had what I would call a block party.  There was music, all the students ate a meal together prepared by many families, and we danced into the night (meaning like 8:00pm, because that is a normal bed time in villages.)

These past few days in Khon Kaen have given us a time to actually explore the city and get a hold of public transportation. Saung Taos, which are “buses” where you sit on benches on the flat of a pick-up truck with a roof, have been an exciting way of exploring.  For instance, last night as we tried to get to this Italian place for dinner, we were supposed to switch buses.  This, of course, we did not know, and ended up past the slums and far from the city.  As the Saung Tao slowed to a stop, the nine of us looked at each other, and got off hesitantly as we were kicked off by the driver.  The fear started to set in for sure, but luckily, there was one store with its light on, and the two women in the pharmacy spoke a little English.  We had them call a cab for us, because we had no clue where we were.  Seeing as cab drivers have numbers, but do not answer their phones, we were stuck.  At that moment, another Saung Tao drove up, and we had the women ask them to drive us to the hotel down the street from the restaurant.  At the price of 200 bhat, it was totally worth it.  So our personal taxi Saung Tao drove us back down the shady roads, and the night concluded with a delicious pizza.  (I absolutely love Thai food, but as a true American, I really missed pizza).  Another adventure, another night in Thailand.

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