Friday, November 23, 2007

You Harvest Rice?

The cold season has arrived and although you would think that “cold” would be a misnomer for a season in a country such as Thailand, here way up in the mountains it is perfectly suited. The nights have become a bone chilling experience and once again after my Altiplano of Peru experience I am really appreciating the luxuries that we enjoy in the US. The other night it got down to the mid 50s, which although most of you who are reading this blog would say is a rather comfortable temperature, you have never lived in a Karen house. Let’s discuss insulation, in truth there is nothing to discuss! The walls of my house consist of rough cut boards that allow everything in except for the medium sized Thai insects (the size of your fist) and the stupid farang who locks his keys in. Waking up to the crowing of the roosters at 6:30 a.m. (really more like 4:00 a.m.) to a room filled with air heated to the comfortable temperature of 50 degrees tends to be a little bit uncomfortable. Enough of my complaining! Although the cold, which has not reached its coldest, can be a little nerve racking, I got to skip out of a hot season where in the rest of Thailand there is no respite for the concrete ovens that most Thais call home.

The arrival of the cold season also signals the beginning of the rice harvest which I was fortunate enough to participate in for the first time in my life. By now the rice fields have turned from an electric green to a glowing yellow that is contrasted by the dense green forest surrounding it. I made an appointment to meet Sukachai at Na Klet Hoi at 8:00 a.m. to partake in this time honored tradition. When I arrived I was invited in to sit around the indoor fire and drink Karen tea which is a prerequisite to any Karen gathering. By the time we were heading to the rice field the clock had long past struck 9:00 a.m. but in this “sabai” culture time is of little consequence. Now that I think of it, the only place in the world where being on time is respected and expected is our “go-go” American society (I say this without making any judegement....that is a whole blog entry in itself). As we were wandering down the path, in between houses, past pig sties, through thickets of Mexican sunflowers, and over streams Sukachai commented on the concept of time in Thailand as compared to America. With a bit of laughter in his voice he told me, “In America we probably wouldn’t be going to work 1.5 hours after the time we said we would meet, would we?” This man, with an education no higher than middle school and who had never traveled farther than the provincial capital four hours away, knew of the concept of “American time.” The pervasiveness of our culture in the far flung regions of the world never ceases to amaze me!

Each villager usually has several acres of rice to harvest and harvesting rice is a communal activity. Each person has a selected day in which all the other villagers arrive to help them harvest their field. When we arrived in the field and I was promptly given a small curved knife used to harvest the rice. Without hesitation everyone put themselves to their task, except me. Soon the swish of the blades and the quite Karen banter was all that I faced in front of me. Apparently they figured that since harvesting rice comes second nature to them that this farang shouldn’t have a very difficult time doing it. Alright, cutting some stalks of rice is not the most difficult task in the world, but after cutting a few patches I felt like such a novice. The villagers effortlessly moved through the field while I struggled to get every individual stalk cut before moving on. With only two quick motions the villagers would neatly sever the stalks and be grasping them in their left hand. I stood back and watched for a moment, saw the motion, and tried to replicate. Although it took a little time I was soon moving along, granted at about half the pace of my fellow workers.

It was a nice cool morning and the fog had not completely been burned off. As I worked a slight sweat covered my face, but it was hardly noticed in my awe of harvesting rice in a Karen rice patty in the mountains of Northern Thailand. I wish someone would have told me that I would be doing this 10 years ago so I could have seen my reaction. After a few hours we stopped to have some, try to guess, Karen tea. It was accompanied with some typical Thai snacks and some hardened sugarcane juice. As I sat there in silence not understanding a word of what everyone was saying I saw a boy playing with a small animal. It turned out to be a mouse/rat and he was pretty proud of himself for catching it. The villagers love hunting these little rodents and swear to me that they are very delicious. In fact, today I was told that there is a certain type that is medicinal because it eats primarily plants that are used as traditional herbal medicine. They didn’t tell me exactly what eating one would cure, but I’m sure just about anything! After break we went back to work. Soon I saw a few men surrounded by large stacks of newly cut rice. They would wedge the rice stalks between two sticks that were attached by a string and then proceed to beat the rice against small wooden structure in order to extract the rice kernels. I sat and watched for a while and then returned to work. Soon it was lunch time and everyone headed to Sukachai’s house. Most of the people disappeared for a moment and returned with banana leaves filled with rice. The main course was provided by Sukachai’s family and everyone sat down and ate. By the end of lunch I realized I was exhausted and everyone urged me to go home and rest for the afternoon. They wouldn’t want the honored guest to be overworked! I took their advice, but I’m sure that they continued to work until dusk! Needless to say, rice harvesting doesn’t exactly conform to the stature of a six foot white man. The next three days my quads were so sore from bending over for five hours that I thought twice before sitting down because I wasn’t sure if I could get back up! In all it was a great experience!

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Pete and I on the morning of our first day. The fog rolls in every night now days.
Sheila and I a few ours on. Still doing pretty well despite the fact that the trail we were following for the first couple hours was actually just a stream!
We weren't really as lost as it looks, but it did take us quite a while to figure out where we were. Good thing our guide (my neighbor Sa-oo) was able to yell some Karen through the woods and find some people to show us the way!
We ended up in the middle of the rice field that was cut out of the forest.

Sheila and Pete rest their tired legs after many hours of hiking up and down mountains. This is the first village we stayed in.

Sa-oo visited with his family members while we complained about how bad our legs hurt!

Here the three of us are enjoying the early morning on our second day. The field behind us is rice. I can't imagine having to harvest that!
Sa-oo is a pretty small guy but that doesn't discount the fact that we had on big packs. The views are unbeatable!

This is a typical Karen house in the mountains of Northern Thailand

Another rice field in the river valley. This is the perfect season for this hike!

This bridge was a lot more sturdy than it looked. We took a rest at this river and actually got to bathe for the first time in two days. It was pretty nice.

This was one of the largest stand of bamboo I have seen.

We arrived at a village that had no more than five houses. We sat there and ate pomelo, drank Karen tea and chatted with the few people who could speak Thai.

We soon attracted the whole village. I'm pretty sure random farangs don't show up at their village all that often!

Our second night we arrived at this beautiful mountain lake. We decided to camp instead of stay with a family. We were quite the celebrities there as well and we had about 10 girls help us set up our camp.

The lake in the early morning was truly amazing. It was pretty cold and there was steam coming off the lake. I could think of anything better to wake up to!

It was amazing!

Traditional Karen houses all have fires inside to cook over. They have no chimneys so the inside of the roof is covered in thick black soot. The smoke just seeps out of the roof as you can see here.

Just another amazing view during our hike.

We made it down and we were exhausted. In order to develop this into a tourist trip another day would surely have to be added. It was a grueling trip, but one I will never forget!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beetle Battle

Living abroad can be so challenging, monotonous, exciting, and undecipherable among many other adjectives. Just as you think you have integrated into the culture and have a well rounded understanding of the customs of the country you reside in, you encounter an elderly man sitting in the back of the famous Chiang Mai red passenger pickups with a stick of bamboo. This stick of bamboo is covered in half of a plastic two liter bottle with two giant horned insects that have string tied around their horns and then connected to the bamboo. Apparently not only good for eating, but also for entertaining beetle battles! This country, WOW!

David Vs. Goliath

I think I have finally met my match in Thailand and it has driven me to the edge of insanity. You are probably thinking it could possibly be the exotic food, the remoteness of my village, the language barrier, but you are wrong! My arch nemesis has become the most unassuming of creatures: the ant! Now if you are a Peace Corps Thailand volunteer you are most likely nodding your head and wondering why it has taken me such a long time to come to this simple understanding of everyday Thai life. If you have not been directly exposed to ants in Thailand there are other ways that you could come to the realization that there may be a few of these pesky creatures roaming around in Thailand. I suppose one of the main clues would be that upon entering a Thai grocery store you will most likely be confronted with at least an entire aisle devoted solely to their destruction. After hearing, but not fully understanding, other volunteer’s horror stories about the black and red menace I have unfortunately come to a somewhat dramatic realization of the psychological harm they can inflict on an unknowing Peace Corps volunteer.

Now I know in the US we have ants, but we also have a harsh climate that impedes the proliferation of a million varieties these six legged creatures. Secondly, we have houses that are largely sealed off from the outside environment. I think there is no other place that could be more opposite than my village in the mountains of Thailand. My house looks like a sort of chalet when viewed from the outside, but is in reality a very simple structure. The only barrier from the outside world are the boards that have enough cracks in between that they could quite seriously be considered more of a curtain than a wall as understood in the American sense. Furthermore, the moist warm climate seems to be the type of environment that ants must consider a true paradise.

In this paradise Darwin’s theory has taken hold to create a plethora of ant types. They are big, small, red, black, fast, slow, communal, solitary, dangerous, harmless, which all adds up to one giant headache. Everyday it is a battle between me and the ants for the supremacy of this wooden structure that apparently both of us want to call home. As I stroll through my house it is inevitable that I will see ants. Sometimes they are marching in a long line hurriedly following their scent trail to what I suppose must be the ant’s golden city of Dorado, while at other times there is the solitary ant who seems to have lost his way and is in a frantic scramble to find his buddies. Upon moving into my house I attacked each and every ant, or line of ants, with reckless abandon. Ant spray in hand, I would haunt every corner inside and outside of my house in order to rid myself of this infestation. All the while I was inhaling the fumes that take a mere seconds before my unfortunate victims are left squirming on their death bed. I’m sure it has done wonders on my brain and has most likely sapped what little intelligence I have left.

After a couple months I tried to get into the minds of the ants so that I could possibly wage a psychological war on them. I decided that maybe if I left the battle victims laying around my house that it may act as a deterrent to their onward march. After a week test all it left me with was a very dirty house, on to my next contemplation. Where on God’s earth could they be going? The weird thing is that most of my ant problems are not because of food left out. These ants just seemed to love to do their marching exercises throughout my house. They are very strange little animals. My first week at my house I came across hundreds of them with the butts stuck to the porcelain of my toilet. They were just chillin with not to much concern except for keeps their butts stuck to my toilet. After that I encountered groups of them in this same manner with seemingly no explanation for their behavior. I came to the conclusion that maybe my house was just an obstacle in their journey to another destination and that they were just asking for a temporary easement to pass through my property and the occasional overnight stay on my toilet. I decided to leave them be for a short while....what a mistake that was!

I for some reason was looking through my clothes hanging on my bamboo pole. As I went about my business out of the corner of my eye I saw some ants scrambling out of site on the floor. I kept an eye on them and followed them a clump of ants on the floor under my hanging clothes. From this clump exited a line of ants that I then followed until they eventually went out of site into my expensive suit that I brought all the way from the US but have yet to wear. As I pulled off the jacket from the hanger I was inundated with a swarm of black ants. Luckily these ants are not vicious biters so I shook the jacket for a few seconds and then discovered that their destination was not my jacket but rather the hanger it was on. The hanger is a fancy one that is rather large and has a hollowed out backside. It appears that these ants had decided that it would be a perfect place for their new nest! I took it outside and gassed it good. I must have killed a half billion ants! As hard as it may be to believe, this was not the end to the day’s adventures.

A few hours later I decided, given my recent experience, that I needed to investigate where some much larger red ants that I kept on encountering on my desk had their hideout. As stealthy as a black cat at night, I stalked a solitary ant as he crossed the expanse of my desk. He cautiously crept forward and then quickly scaled a box made of handmade paper that we had been given by Peace Corps to store our HIV/AIDS material. I was prepared with my bottle of ant spray in hand as I opened the lid. Sure enough these guys had decided as well that they had found a perfect home. Chalk another couple hundred thousand dead thanks to my war effort.

I find myself today only a few days removed from that dramatic day’s event and wondering what can I do. I think it is a never ending battle, much like Bush’s war on terror. The million dollar question is; how do I avoid the blunders that have plagued our great president in Iraq with relation to my war on my six legged enemies. I think I’m going to sit down and have a summit with them. I’ll be sure to let you know the outcome after it is over!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Busy, Me?

I haven’t written on my blog for quite some time and I can actually say it is because I have been somewhat busy (I am saying this without a smirk on my face!). For the past few weeks I have been at site for a week and then away at meetings for a week. I am actually getting sick of all the traveling mainly because it takes forever to get to any destination from my hilltop perch. This excessively long duration of travel is due to the fact that Northern Thailand is very mountainous and the roads snake through jungles, canyons, and peaks. It is very scenic, but after traveling the same road on a bi-weekly basis it gets somewhat hard to enjoy. Anyway, the following is what my life has consisted of in the last month.

My journeys began with a trip to Bangkok for a Community Enterprise Committee (CEC) meeting. CEC works on facilitating PCV’s work with small business generation and income generation development as well as helping to build the capacity of the interested members of the PCV’s community. I have decided that I want to be part of the committee because many projects that PC Thailand volunteers work with deal with small business and income generation. The goals are ambitious but realistic and in the end I have lots of time on my hands. Right now there are three of us from group 119 that will be taking over the committee once the members from group 118 leave in about six months.

I returned to site for about two weeks and I was once again on the go. I left my mountain for the wedding of one of the volunteers from my group. John is in his 50’s and has found his true love here in Thailand. Although it is not common, given his age and determination he was able to get married in the city of Pitsanulok on September 9. The wedding was an interesting occasion where we got to view the traditional Thai customs interspersed with the random farang gesture. After the wedding was over I rode with several other volunteers to Bangkok in order to attend a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting. The meeting was scheduled for the whole week and it was promised that the outcome would “revolutionize” Peace Corps Thailand volunteer training. Mr. Stephen Moles was sent from Washington to conduct the training on “Training Evaluation and Design.” The outcome was to create more realistic and measurable competencies that should be achieved during Pre-Service Training and for each competency write new learning objectives. It was a fairly complex process but the results were excellent. The end result will be that volunteers will have a clearer idea of what is expected from them during the training period and the results will be measurable, which is something highly important when seeking funding from the government.

After the training was finished I was once again on the train back to my mountain villa. On the train I met a Chinese guy who had chosen the English name Mark. Mark spoke impeccable English to the extant that when I first started to talking to him I assumed he was an American. We talked for quite some time and by the time we arrived in Chiang Mai he had decided that he wanted to come visit my village. He stayed in Chiang Mai for a few days and then he took a bus up to the town of Pai which is the closest city to my village. I went to Pai to meet him because it is pretty difficult to find where and when the pickup truck leaves for my village. While we were waiting for the pickup to leave we ran into a French couple that Mark had met in Chiang Mai. After a short discussion Cloe and Regis had asked if it were possible that they could visit my village as well. The more the merrier so I invited them up. Mark came up with me that day and we spent the next day checking out the other villages, attending a small Christian mass, and eating dinner with my neighbors. The following day, before Cloe and Regis’s arrival Mark and I toiled all day to construct a table for my house. Cloe and Regis arrived in the afternoon and I then had a full house. It was fun to host people and they really enjoyed their stay. Mark promised me that he would be up to visit the following year.

Along with two people from my tambon, Mark, Cloe, Regis, and I boarded the pickup for Pai. The two members from my tambon, See La and Mae Tome, were accompanying me to a CEC conference in Pitsanulok and my new found friends would continue their journeys in Thailand. We left my site at 7:00 a.m. and See La, Mae Tome, and I arrived in Pitsanulok 13 hours latter. What a ride! Mae Tome is the leader of a women’s group that sews and also does a little baking while See La is starting a farm to raise animals in order to sell the meat in the tambon. The CEC conference went over many business skills including accounting, the cooperative lifecycle, marketing, and Successful Case Replication among others. It was also a chance for them to display their goods and network with other participants at the conference. Around 10 volunteers and 20 counterparts were present and I think it was a big success. I will be working with Mae Tome to create unique packaging for their weavings as well as look to expand the market for the products. I will also help See La create packaging for his product and create an accounting scheme.

While at the conference I was chatting with Erica who is a volunteer from group 118. She told me that she was taking some vacation to go to Pai and wondered if I was heading back that way. Of course I was so we ended up hanging out in Pai for a night. The allures of my site caught the imagination of yet another person and soon Erica and I were on the pickup up to my site. Actually Erica had met Mae Tome on the bus ride back to Chiang Mai and had been persuaded that she needed to go visit her house. That night we ended up walking 45 minutes each way to Mae Tome’s house for a Karen dinner. It was excellent food and Mae Tome was thrilled that she got to host two farangs for dinner. She told me that I could come back and have dinner whenever I wanted and that I was more than welcome to stay as well so that I didn’t have to walk or ride my bike home in the dark. It was a great experience. Erica left today and now I have a few days before I have to leave once again for Bangkok for a follow-up PAC meeting where we will finish writing all of the learning objectives for the Community-Based Organizational Development program.

You have just relived, in a shortened version, my life for the past month and a half. I feel like I am becoming an actual Peace Corps volunteer and not just a language learner and very patient listener! I hope everyone finds themselves well!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Daily Life

I have recently realized that as my daily routine gets established in my village that my blog entries may not be near as entertaining as previously. As I wrote that sentence I immediately thought that this will most likely not be the case given that in the past seven months there has hardly been one uneventful week. Nevertheless, this blog will be a description of my daily life which some may find intriguing and others will wonder how I survive days filled with inordinate amounts of nothing.

Most days I wake up at around 7:30 a.m. and make myself my staple breakfast; oatmeal with sliced bananas on top. My dining table is actually my hammock from where I enjoy the small village around me as everyone begins their day. In all reality by 8:00 a.m. most everyone has been awake for two or three hours, but that is beside the point! I then normally try to be diligent and study Thai for at least an hour and afterwards if I feel the urge I go to the SAO office to see what is on the agenda for the day if there is one and if anyone is actually present. I often read my text books on American history and international relations that my mother kindly sent to me in order that I will be thoroughly prepared to take the Foreign Service Exam when my volunteer service is over.

At around noon I go and eat lunch at the noodle stand that is two houses down from me and is run by the excellent host Sa-bee-mon. There are normally other people from the village enjoying lunch at the solitary picnic table which constitutes the entirety of the seating in this named eating establishment. I usually spend quite some time talking with everyone on subjects ranging from how to grow basil to “Is it really true that Americans eat bread for every meal and don’t eat rice?”

The afternoons are usually spent riding my bike around the surrounding communities seeking to get to know their inhabitants. Most stops are characterized by the explanation of what I am doing and discussing life in the village in comparison to the United States. After the initial visit upon return nearly everyone is very eager to teach me the Karen language which is quite a monumental task given that everything has to be learned orally because of the lack of a Karen language dictionary and any other related learning materials. It is interesting learning a language where the base language of learning, Thai, is one that I am still in the process of learning. I knew many Europeans that also encountered this situation while I was living in Guatemala having to learn Spanish from teachers who spoke only English as a secondary language but I am quite sure that their English was much more refined than my Thai. It will be interesting to see how far I get with learning Karen before the next 19 months are over. I am really amazed how quickly time has passed. Many volunteers say that days seem to last for ever, but months pass with ease. I can truly contest to that reflecting upon my lazy days but still being continually awed that I have spent 8 months in Thailand.

At around 5:30 p.m. I embark on my daily run over the slippery mud covered roads that run through the mountains of my site. It is not an easy task running like this and this was made even more apparent when I ran on a nice cemented park path in Bangkok the other weekend. I think I should be thoroughly prepared for the hardtop of Bangkok when the marathon rears its ugly head in November although sometimes I do question that. Today I ran my longest run yet, 16 km (10 miles) and although my body made it through alright, my feet paid the price. Several large blisters are now adorning my feet! Once my run is over I either prepare my meal or am invited to eat with one of the local families. I cook more than I am invited over which is interesting given the fact that most of my PC friends have trouble eating all the food they are given every day. I think this may be due to the fact that up until one week ago I had anywhere from 7-12 people living in my house and I don’t think that inviting one person to eat while leaving the rest to fend for themselves would be very Thai like! I then spend the remainder of the night either reading or watching one of the seasons of any particular TV series that I may have in possession at that time on DVD. Buying full seasons of pirated TV series is quite popular with PC Thailand volunteers and each series is continually traded for others so that large sums of money are not spent.

This has been a short (for my talking abilities) description of my life in the Karen villages of Northern Thailand.

Monday, August 20, 2007

New Address and Phone Number

Well a few things have changed in my life since I moved "on top of the mountain" as my Thai friends fondly like to call it. Given that there is limited cell phone reception I had to change companies and therefore I have a new number. My number is now 0850341275. Once again, if you're calling from the States I think you may need to drop the 0 and the country code is 66. My new address will be:

P.O. Box 381
Chiang Mai 50000

This is a bit simpler than the last one. I hope to hear from whoever has been brave enough to continue reading my blog!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

My Village!

I get to watch this nearly every night. My life is not bad!

Just another one of my mountain roads that I bike on everyday.
A Buddhist shrine on the top of the mountain near my house.
A view from the mountain which is literally out my front door.

Yes, the insects are supersized in Thailand. This moth was larger than most small birds.

Me doing the dirty work with the SAO staff and some villagers

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Huck Finn Thai Style

The other day I had my first adventure with some of the local kids. It was a grey rainy day and I had decided that venturing out of the house would take a whole lot of convincing. I decided to go to the SAO office and type some emails and along the way I was soon accompanied by my two new friends. While I used the internet they made the most of the time by seeing who could ride my bike the best. Given that they were small twelve year olds, my quite large bike was somewhat of a challenge for them. Soon they had overcome the difficulties and were inside urging me to go outside and watch them ride my bike. I went and watched for a little while and then went back to my emailing. Soon they were in the office asking if I wanted to go on a “by-teeow,” in other words a little adventure (literally translated as “taking a trip”). I told them to wait a few minutes and would go with them.

We set out down the road and they suddenly veered off into a meadow. They asked me if I had ever been out there and then asked if I wanted to go. They were very conscience of my well being and comfort and I would here those two phrases multiple times before our trip was done. We rode our bicycles, me on mine and the two of them on one, through paths that wound through rice patties and forests. Soon we reached a point where our bikes would do us no good given that we were going to head off through newly planted rice patties. We followed a path for a while and soon they saw a tree and told me that the giant bean pod looking things hanging from the very top were great to eat. They took off through the brush and soon were at the base of the tree. One boy hurriedly scaled the tree and about three quarters of the way up he stopped and began shaking the tree violently. Soon the bean pods had been flung off and the boys were collecting them and stuffing them away in their bags. The adventure continued.

We got to more rice patties and had to cross them on the ledges that held the water back from the higher patty. After a few minutes of sloshing through the patties we arrived at another tree. This time the tree was substantially bigger but was full of fruit. The same boy scurried up the tree with seemingly no effort at all. He chopped off one of the lower branches and soon we were tasting the red, yellow and green fruit. It seemed that the fruit was either not ripe or over ripe. The only fruit that I tasted was very bitter but they assured me that normally they are “a-roy mak” or “very delicious.” By the time we were done with this tree it had begun to rain fairly hard. They were asking me if I wanted to climb the mountain that loomed in front of us. I stated the obvious, that it was raining. They responded with “mai bpen rai” translated as “it doesn’t matter” or “don’t worry” among others. I convinced them that maybe it would be better if we climbed the mountain another day when it wasn’t pouring rain. They readily agreed.

On the way back we passed a grove of bamboo and I heard them chattering in Karen, but obviously didn’t understand what they were saying. They raced toward one of the shoots and exclaimed in Thai, “There are two of them!” Soon they had two gigantic beetles in their possession. I asked them if they bite and they told me, “Of course they don’t!” This held true for about five minutes until when the one holding them let out a little yelp. They quickly revised their statement saying that their long proboscis could suck and hurt. At this point in time we were trudging through the rice patties again and I was saying to myself how nice it was to have my Keen sandals on. It didn’t matter if they got wet and they were protecting my feet from at least some of the animals that were living in the rice patties. My thought was rudely interrupted by a slight pain in my foot. I look down and I had several leeches stuck to my feet. I pulled them off while I cussed myself for wearing Keen sandals. We made our way back to my house and I promised them that I would go “by-teeow” with them again another day.