Monday, December 8, 2008

Thai Wedding

Riem and I got into her truck and headed off to Kevin Johnson’s wedding. Kevin was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand two groups (Group 117) before me and after fours years of dating his Thai girlfriend they decided to consecrate their relationship through marriage in the Isaan province of Sakornnakorn. While Kevin was a PCV I didn’t actually have the pleasure of personally meeting him. Every volunteer from his group, who were in their final months of service, were invited to our auspicious swearing in given that is was Peace Corps Thailand’s 45th Anniversary and a Thai princess would also be in attendance. Kevin is a hard person not to remember. I remember seeing him in this grand ballroom with his brown suit and his long, curly, blond hair totally out of control. That image was indelibly etched in my mind that when I saw that same hair nearly eight months later in the check-in counter at the Taipei airport I was certain he was a fellow PCV. It was December and I was heading back to the US for a visit and apparently Kevin was as well. He flew China Air from Bangkok to Taipei and I flew from Chiang Mai and we both ran into each other there. I went up to him and said, “hey you’re a 117 PCV.” Being of the same PCV nature the only logical thing to do at that point was to go have some tasty Taiwanese beers. After all that is what PCVs do well, drink beer. We had several of the overpriced cans of bubbly, boarded the plane, and thoroughly enjoyed the next eleven hours in the comfort of coach class. Now not only did we have the same flight back to the States, on my way back I ran into him again at the SFO airport and he was on my same flight once again. What are the chances!

Now we were on the first leg of our adventure to Sakornnakorn, the Thai capital of dog eaters. When I say “dog eater” I literally mean dog eater. Sakornnakorn is known as the Thai province that has a particular taste for man’s best friend. Well I had a somewhat different notion of good food and since we would be passing through the provincial capital I was adamant that we would find one of the ubiquitous Thai Pizza Companies. I had had enough fermented fish laced food for at least a couple days and I wanted some excellently unhealthy Western goodness. We got somewhat lost in the city but my fears were assuaged when we asked directions and were assured that this bustling Thai city did indeed have a Pizza Company. As we approached the shopping mall I saw the Pizza Company and my mouth started watering, but as we drew nearer my heart sank. Apparently due to lack of demand for their famous seafood and corn pizza, this branch of Pizza Company had closed its doors. I was devastated, but one must persevere in trying times. Riem had to do some shopping, I know hard to imagine, but soon we were on our way out of town to the small village that Goi called home and where the wedding would take place.

We arrived at Goi’s family’s house in the early afternoon and the neighborhood was quite similar to Riem’s family’s neighborhood. The same Isaan culture abounded and I think Riem felt right at home. For the auspicious occasion Goi’s family’s house had been newly remodeled with new tile floors and two new bathrooms strategically situated right next to each other. It was interesting how they decided to mix Western and Thai into the construction of those bathrooms. One had a fancy new Western style toilet with the very Thai garbage can with small buckets that when put together constitutes a shower. The other had a fancy hot water shower along with a Thai style squat toilet. I guess you can’t have your fermented fish and eat it too! The upstairs was the traditional wooden style and every available floor space was reserved for all the PCVs to occupy during their Thai-American cultural encounter.

I was one of the first volunteers to show up but soon the house was overwhelmed with them. Before the sun set, PCVs from four groups accounting for nearly six years of American volunteer experience in Thailand had occupied the grounds. The way Thai culture had rubbed off on them was immediately apparent. Of course there was the reverent “wai’ing,” departing with your shoes at the door without a second thought, and the deftness of the way the sticky rice was consumed, but there was something that I think is somewhat more telling of the acculturation. As soon as a new PCV arrived they were greeted with a glass of whiskey and soda. Furthermore, to accompany the whiskey and soda there was soon a card game in full swing. I don’t need hands or fingers to count the number of times I have ever seen an American drinking 100 Pipers Scotch whiskey with soda water, but it one of the aspects of Thailand that I think I will never forget. Kind of like the smell of spilled Bud Light beer during undergraduate.

While my PCV friends and I were deeply involved in our Pasoey Dos card game and our whiskey drinking a Thai woman entered the scene with some pretty tasty looking pieces of grilled meat. She was eagerly greeted by Kevin and in a hush manner the meat was placed on the table next to Riem and I and the mysterious woman exited the scene. I’m not sure if Riem overheard Kevin and the mystery woman’s conversation or has an innate ability to recognize a companion but as soon as that meat hit the table Riem proclaimed that the mystery meat was in fact dog. Furthermore, I was forbidden from it. Riem is a dog lover and there was no way that she was going to let me eat one of the animals she loves most. Also, Riem, being from the province next door, informed me that the people from Sakornnakorn would actually come to her province to buy the stray and diseased dogs which would eventually end up as tasty appetizers. After hearing that I was quite happy I wasn’t curiously munching away on the fried Fido like many of my friends. After Lassie had been thoroughly consumed, copious amounts of soda and whiskey had been drunk, and many Thai baht traded hands in cards, everyone decided to call it a night.

Given that we were camped out in the middle house, we volunteers awoke with the Thais. I don’t think I have explained the Thai sleeping patters too thoroughly so I will give it a shot. Actually I will just describe how they wake. They wake with the roosters. If you are an American reading this you may be nostalgically thinking that it would be amazing to get awoken everyday at the cusp of daylight by a crowing rooster instead of traffic or a buzzing alarm. The only thing is that roosters don’t conform to that popular myth of crowing at sunrise. I don’t know if roosters in Thailand have some imbalance but they crow usually at least two or three hours before the sun comes up. Some just randomly crow all day and all night. I have grown to hate roosters. If the roosters don’t wake you up the local community speaker at 6:00 a.m. blasting the day’s news or just screechy Thai music sure will. I have been very fortunate in Thailand because my Karen people very rarely use the community speaker, usually only to announce daily mass in the evening, and I have become quite adept at sleeping right through the rooster wake up calls. Needless to say the wait for a chance at entering the bathroom were quite long once everyone was awake.

After everyone had prepared themselves properly the groom’s party gathered a few blocks away from house for the procession which marked the official start of the wedding. These Thai processions always include a traditional Thai band seated in the back of a truck with giant speakers. The twangy Thai music accompanies dancing and hoopla and inevitably there are a few Thai men that have found time to get drunk and really add to the experience although it is only 9:00 a.m. The group approached Goi’s house and Kevin then had to participate in the Thai marriage custom of passing through gates. Two women hold a string and a third asks many questions and tells the groom that in order to see his bride he must pay his dues. These dues are actual money. It has become a fun custom where before money is given many things are offered such as the random farang or bottles of whiskey. Finally money is offered in sufficient quantity and the groom is allowed to pass. He has to do this several more times until he finally reaches his bride. Once in the house everyone gathers around the village elders and the rest of the ceremony is played out. Lots of chanting is done and pictures are taken. A tray full of cash is presented to the bride’s family as a dowry. This dowry can be up to several million baht. In many weddings between foreigners and Thais the dowry is only for show and after everyone in the village has seen it is quietly returned to the new couple. Finally everyone attending the wedding ties a white string around both the bride and groom’s wrist while wishing them well in their new lives. This whole ceremony is over before noon and the people attending the ceremony are then promptly fed. It isn’t until later that evening that the whole village is invited to the fancy dinner and music and dancing.

As the night approached the oversized stage was erected and the tables were set. The tables were in a dirt lot adorned with Thai flowers, spotless table cloths, and of course copious amounts of booze. In fact, each table had its own bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. Kevin’s wedding party’s table was overflowing with Absinth, Tequila, American whiskey, and vodka and before the night was over it had all disappeared. At around seven in the evening we passed through the line where we took photos with the bride and groom and then took our places at a table. Plates of Thai food arrived at our table for hours and the whiskey flowed freely. The boisterous Peace Corps volunteers and other Americans were complemented by the Thai chatter. When everyone was thoroughly full and quite liquored up the music began. To my surprise, only American music was being played. With reckless abandon the Americans stormed the stage and were dancing away like they hadn’t heard Gun N Roses for two years. We soon noticed that the Thais were quickly disappearing. Apparently rural Thais aren’t all that in to Gun N Roses, or Western music in general for that matter. Someone asked Kevin if some traditional Thai wedding music could be played to get the Thais out in their full chicken dancing grandeur, but Kevin firmly refused. I think the American music was the one thing he was not budging on after conceding to all the other Thai wedding traditions. I have to say the Americans were not completely disappointed and danced until late into the night.

The following day everyone groggily woke and made their respective destinations. Riem and I had a car full of people that we took to several various destinations and then headed back to her house in Galasin. We spent one last night there and then made our marathon trip back to Chiang Mai.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

To Isaan and Beyond

I have been quite horrible in keeping up with my blog. In reality, this has been quite an interesting time in my Peace Corps service and I am not doing myself justice or anyone who reads my blog. I will once again try to be diligent in my blogging, but I have certainly made that declaration before!

I recently returned from a trip to Northeast Thailand also known as Isaan. Many of my Peace Corps friends call this area home, but it has evaded my radar for quite some time. Since Song Kran I have been dating a Thai girl named Riem and her hometown is in Galasin Province in Isaan. October is the month when nearly every school in Thailand has a short break after their first term of the year is over. It is akin to winter break in the U.S. and in the same fashion, many college students return home for a few weeks of family time and relaxation. It also marks the end of the Buddhist Lenten season and the official end is marked by the holiday called “Awk Pansa.” Awk Pansa also signifies the ceremonial end of the rainy season, although the weather in my mountain village has made an adamant argument otherwise.

Riem invited me to visit her hometown during this period which was a very opportune time for me as my friend Kevin Johnson who is a RPCV (return Peace Corps volunteer) was getting married to his long time Thai girlfriend Goi in the province that borders Galasin called Sakorn Nakorn. We also planned to attend an event called Bang Fai Payanak in the province of Nong Kai. Bang Fai Payanak is a celebration of Awk Pansa but also has a quite unique attribute. Every year Awk Pansa falls on a different calendar date because it is a Buddhist holiday that follows the cycles of the moon rather than the Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, every year on this holiday mysterious fire balls emerge from the Mekong River on a roughly five mile stretch of the river along the Thai-Cambodian border. Tradition says that the Payanak, a mythical serpent deity, releases the fireballs from its mouth, and modern science has yet to prove otherwise. Some say it is gases that are released from the bottom of the river while others have suggested it is the Lao army playing elaborate pranks on the eager Thais watching from the other shore. Whatever the explanation, in recent years they have become very well known throughout Thailand and thousands of Thais flock to see the spectacle.

We started our journey to Isaan in the early morning with a very long day of driving ahead of us. Riem and I were accompanied by two of her aunts and two of her nieces. Along with the log jam of people in the front of the pickup, a double cab pickup so as not to be confused, the bed of the pickup was overflowing with an unknown menagerie of things. It is obligatory for Thais to bring back something for people whenever they leave and come back to their original destination. This has proven to be a very interesting phenomenon. When I first got to my site, people would remind me not to forget what they fondly refer to as kong fak. Kong fak can really be anything but most often it is some sort of food item. Now a food item in Thailand included under the umbrella of kong fak does not include a bag of cookies, a bottle of wine, or a block of cheese. It consists of packages of dried squid, crispy fried fish chips, fermented fish chili paste among many others to numerous to mention. When I first went I wondered to myself why they wanted me to buy this stuff from Bangkok when I had seen many very similar products being sold in the local market. That is not the point; the point is that it is a kong fak. A whole industry has evolved around this concept. My other problem was, I was horrible at choosing the right kong fak. What to me look like the most edible of the kong faks turned out to be a big bust. I finally realized that I needed to choose the kong fak that look the least like something I would consider edible. Now those are the hits! Anyway, the truck was stuffed full of kong fak as well as humans.

The drive from Chiang Mai to Galasin passes through seemingly endless mountains. It is hundreds of kilometers of curves and hills. Don’t get me wrong, it is some stunning country, but 16 hours of driving through it can get to even the most weathered travelers. Along the way, another interesting Thai tradition came to bear. When I first got to Thailand I remember riding my bike down lonely stretches of highway all the while passing stands that consist of little more than an umbrella and a small table selling some random fruit or vegetable I had never before experienced. Now these stands were not strategically located at an intersection or in close vicinity to towns. Rather they were in the middle of nowhere only feet from the traffic speeding along to its distant destination. I wondered, “Who stops at these places?” Thais do! Riem is has somewhat of a shopping disease and she has turned out to be these stands’ number one customer. Riem is infatuated with the Thai open air markets that sell everything from handfuls of maggots to slimy live eels. This seems to be true with road side stalls as well. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times we stopped to buy some of the most random produce. It is quite possible the trip wouldn’t have taken 16 hours if those ever so frustrating roadside stands didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, the Thai countryside passed by in a blur and soon we were entering Riem’s village. Riem’s village turned out to be quite similar to the descriptions of my other PCV friends’ villages in Isaan. There were old ladies, affectionately known as yais, chewing beetle nut which stains their teeth a deep red relaxing lazily on small covered bamboo platforms that adorn dirt yards in front of each house. There were the small children with dirty faces running around with no bottoms, chickens busily pecking away at whatever chickens peck away at, cows lumbering down the road unconcerned with the line of cars and rice trucks lined up behind them, unkempt houses on stilts surrounded by mud and dust, and of course an elaborately adorned wat (Buddhist temple). We exited the truck and I was greeted by Riem’s whole extended family. Soon they were busy chatting away in their local language which is more closely related to Lao than to Thai and leaving me with little idea of what to do next. After a few hours I was ushered off to the local wat where the whole community was celebrating Awk Pansa. As soon as I entered the wat grounds there was not one head that was not turned in my direction studying the strange white man that had made his unannounced appearance. They immediately ushered me to six boiling caldrons and instructed me to mix each one for a short time. While I was busily mixing away I was informed that the sticky liquid was made primarily of rice but a little bit of everything that gave them sustenance throughout the year was added. This included the pungent fermented fish known as blara and chili peppers. It is made as a snack but also as an offering to thank the Buddha for helping to assure a bountiful harvest. After I was finished stirring Riem’s 54 year old aunt Noam, who I have to say is quite a personality, went around introducing me to everyone as her new young farang boyfriend. I played along with the joke for a while and then started to play the game and began to ask everyone if they believed her. The funny thing is that I think many people did! For the rest of my time at Riem’s house Noam continuously told that story. Apparently she got quite a kick out of it. After much reverent wai’ing to each one of the community members we made our way back to Riem’s house.

During my stay we ate very good meals which were a mix of traditional Isaan food such as spicy papaya salad made with fermented fish (som dtam blara) and sticky rice and other less “fragrant” Thai dishes such as tom yam and sweet and sour stir fry that Riem made sure were offered so that I wasn’t left starving. Our days were spent sitting underneath the house chatting or at the small pond in the middle of the rice patties having a cold beer, playing cards, and trying our luck at fishing. I sat there as the sun went down, the air cooled, and the wind stopped, thinking that I really was not all that far from my home in Wyoming. Each day we ventured into the nearest city, 40 kilometers away, to stock up on goodies from the big market. One day we made a trip to a very nice reservoir while another we went to a surprisingly modern dinosaur museum strategically placed at the site of a dinosaur bone find but miles from any other civilization. It was then time to make the journey to the wedding in the province next door.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Foreign Visitors

The past couple weeks have seen the arrival of my first official visitors to Thailand. It has been a busy three weeks with two friends from the States, Linsey and Becky, coming to visit first and then my brothers and sister-in-law following not soon after Linsey and Becky’s departure. I cooked up the same itinerary for both groups and it turned out that is was a great one at that.

After meeting each group at Suvarnaphumi airport we checked into our flight to Krabi and then hopped into a taxi for a brief excursion into the chaotic metropolis of Bangkok. Linsey and Becky’s trip went flawlessly and we were able to visit the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok for some authentic food from a bustling roadside restaurant and make it back to the airport with plenty of time for our flight.

With my brothers it was a somewhat different story. Given the fact that our group numbered five (four large boys) I figured it would be prudent to take two taxis into the city rather than overloading just one car. I decided that Adam and Taylor could travel solo being that they were the oldest and wisest of the group. I had to take care of my baby brothers. It turned out to be a good decision. I told the cab to go to a certain street but didn’t tell him a particular destination because, well, I didn’t have one. I wanted to make it to that street and then just find the most appetizing of the many small restaurants that line the sois (side streets) of that area. As we made our way into the city I started wondering if how I had gone about the how ordeal was the best way to do it. As we exited off the highway into the Sukumvit area we actually stopped at a stop light right next to Adam and Taylor in the other cab. I thought to myself, “Things surely can’t go wrong from here.” Was I wrong! The little bros and I made to the requested street, granted with a fairly extensive amount of explanation in Thai. We got out of the taxi to find that Adam and Taylor were nowhere to be found. We walked up and down the street, but there was no one. I finally told Brandt and Tyler to walk one way for about five blocks, I would walk the other way and we would turn around and meet where we had left from. Only a few steps after we had parted ways I heard Brandt yelling for me. Adam and Taylor had miraculously appeared! Was I in for it after that! Adam, not know to be the most patient or tolerant person, upon first step into Thailand had been taken for a ride by a Thai cab driver! The following is a summary of his story:
“We get into that cab and I was worried that we were going to get lost, and look what happened! That cab driver spoke no English! How the heck were we supposed to talk to him? Didn’t you give him directions!?! We are on this main road and then all the sudden he’s turning off onto a small street and I’m thinking, ‘oh here we go.’ We take several turns and I think he was trying to ask me where I wanted to go. Hell, I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I knew I didn’t want to go where he was taking us! I was trying to tell him to read the slip of paper that Garrett had given him, but he was speaking Thai and I was speaking English and we understood each other about as well as a dog talking to a rock! The whole time I see we are being taken down these narrow side streets and I could only think that he was taking us to his buddy’s house to rob us blind. Finally we pulled up to some apartment buildings and the gate of one opened. I said, ‘screw this’ and we got out of the cab. I told Taylor that Garrett couldn’t have wanted us to go down this street, he must have wanted to meet us and that main road we had just turned off of. Luckily, I remembered the way back to the main road because if I would have left it up to Taylor we would have been hopelessly lost!”

I can’t say that that is a verbatim representation of what my brother said, but it is close! Finally he simmered down and we sat down for some Thai food. We tried all the famous Thai dishes and drank copious amounts of water, which was more than necessary in the famous Bangkok heat. After we finished I suggested we go and check out the opulent Siam Paragon shopping mall before heading out to the airport. We stayed there for a short time and then decided to head back to the airport. Right before we got into another taxi Taylor suddenly blurted, “Where is the backpack?” A quick revision of the last couple hours revealed that Adam had forgotten it at the small restaurant we initially ate at. The backpacked, or course, contained most of Adam and Taylor’s valuables. At this time we were somewhat short on time to get to the airport to catch our flight. I told the taxi driver to rush back to that restaurant. As Adam and Taylor worried we made our way slowly back. We arrived and I jumped out of the cab and found two relieved Thai ladies after the “farangs” had come back for their backpack. It was an interesting start to the family’s trip to Thailand!

Both of the flights to Krabi went flawlessly. With the family, we had booked transportation directly from the airport to the resort we were staying in at Railey Beach and made it there quickly and were able to relax and enjoy our first night in a beautiful resort. Given the budgetary restrictions of Linsey and Becky’s visit, we decided to stay one night at the port town of Ao Nang before heading to Railey the following day. Everything went pretty smoothly, until our dinner. I was intent on having the two ladies eat only Thai food on their trip. We ended up picking an Indian restaurant that served both Indian and Thai food so that I could enjoy some Indian food. Hey, I have eaten Thai food for a year and a half! I convinced Becky that the fish in Thailand was really good. What she wasn’t expecting was a Thai fish plopped in front of her. American’s are quite picky with their meat and by the expression on Becky’s face I was sure she wasn’t expecting a whole fish, head and all, staring back at her from the plate. Nevertheless, she was a trooper and at the fish with very few complaints.

On day two, the girls and I awoke early and boarded a long tail boat for Railey Beach. On the way I actually ran into Cale, another Peace Corps volunteer from my group. We got to the beach and found some cheap cool bungalows on Railey East and settled in. Later in the day we decided to rent a sea kayak for three. Luckily for the girls, I was in the back of the boat and thus got to determine our route. I tried to navigate us into some caves, but was firmly rejected by Linsey and Becky. I think they spent a good deal of time yelling at me that we couldn’t go into that cave or between those islands. We stopped at Pranang Beach, checked out the fertility shrine with its myriad penis statues, and then realized that we needed to head back to return the kayak. The sea in the area is very calm with almost no waves. At least most of the time! Linsey and Becky had to get into the kayak first because if they didn’t the water would get too deep and they wouldn’t be able to get in. We tried one time and didn’t have much success. The second time was even less successful. Linsey and Becky successfully made it into the kayak, right in time for a larger than normal wave to threaten their existence. I saw the wave coming made a concerted effort to push the kayak out before the wave crested. I was unsuccessful. The wave came in and flipped the kayak, along with Linsey and Becky, like it was a little toy boat. They tumbled into the beach to the muted laughs of the people on the beach. I have to admit I had a little chuckle myself. Luckily no one was seriously hurt, only a few bumps and bruises. The third time was a charm and we successfully paddled back to Railey.

Day two for the brother’s visit was also my birthday. We woke up early and spent a lot of time swimming, throwing the Frisbee and football, and drinking beer. We also befriended a Thai man who convinced us to get henna tattoos. All the boys ended up getting one. I convinced Tyler to get on that said ผมรักสาวไทย (I love Thai girls). After he got it done I joked with him that I had the guy write “I love lady boys” instead and I think that made him a little preoccupied for the rest of the day. We had a good dinner on Railey West with wine on the beach and I opened cards and gifts from my very loving family. After dinner the boys decided to go to Railey East to have a few beers at what Adam describe as “hippy bars.” Adam has a strange definition of “hippy.” Adam and Brandt didn’t stay long enough to finish one beer, but Tyler and I stuck it out for another hour or so. In that time Tyler managed to get himself fairly intoxicated. At one point he left and came back with five big Chang beers and proceeded to hand them out to the people around us as well as opening one for each of us. A while later I went to the bathroom, when I got back Tyler was chatting with another group of people. As soon as I sat down a Thai guy adorned in dreadlocks informed me that, “Man, you should take him home. He’s wasted.” I quickly concurred and helped keep Tyler on a straight track back to the room.

On day three the family and I had reserved spots on a scuba diving tour. Needless to say, Tyler didn’t make the scuba trip. In fact, that was the beginning of his marathon, three day hang over. He says it was the Chang beer that did it to him. I may have to agree. It can be a potent brew with its 6.4% alcohol. We headed out early in the morning and went out to some small islands past Ko Phi Phi. The boat ride out was about 2.5 hours long and Adam made a fleeting comment about how slow the boat was going at that initial point. On the way out Adam, Brandt and Taylor got basic instruction on scuba diving. We got to the dive site and I went with a separate group because I already had my diving certification. The water was turquoise blue and the reefs were pretty amazing. In the two dives I saw a shark, sea turtle, sea snake, lion fish, and myriad different species of other fish. The first dive was not so successful for Taylor. Adam just kept saying that all three of them would be under the water getting instruction when he would look over and Taylor would be floating at the surface. Apparently she didn’t have on enough weight and decided to sit out the second dive. We finished the second dive and most everyone was exhausted. The dive crew was merrily drinking beer along with other dive participants. For some reason we elected not to have beer. The sun was hot and then Adam really made it feelings on the speed of the boat be know. I recall him saying, “I’ll give that damn captain 500 baht to take the boat out of first gear!” Nearly three hours later we made it back to Railey!

The third day with Linsey and Becky was spent on a local island tour. We took a long tail boat to Chicken Island, to a group of islands that are connected by a sand bar, and to another island with a pretty spectacular rock jutting out of the emerald blue waters just a hundred meters off its beach. That island was also occupied by many monkeys who seemed to be pretty accomplished thieves. I fed them for a while, but as soon as they grinned and showed me their abnormally large teeth I decided it was a better idea to just let them be. Towards the end of the trip a pretty threatening storm blew in, but it amounted to very little. That was the only rain that I encountered during the middle of the rainy season in Southern Thailand. Contrary to the warnings of many of my friends about rain, we had in total nearly seven days of amazing sunshine.

This is the first of several installments. Be looking for the next one in a few days!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Rice Planting

I was trying to think what could make this entry have a unifying theme and finally I came up with it, the rainy season. Once again the rainy season is once again upon the verdant valleys and forests and I am now convinced that it is by far my favorite season. The days get no hotter than the mid 80s (Farenheit) and the nights are cool, usually in the high 60s. Although it rains most everyday, the rain is intermittent and provides a refreshing coolness that revitalizes every living thing. The rain comes down in torrents, but lasts usually no longer than an hour. After the rain releases its watery grip the cotton white clouds disperse releasing the brilliant blue of the sky behind. The birds particularly seem to like this respite and are out in force. The rain revitalizes and invigorates everything and turns the landscape into a green paradise.

The early evening, the couple hours before the sunsets, has always been my favorite time of the day. The wind dies down, the harsh heat from midday relaxes and the rays from the sun cast a glowing light which is ever so artistically interrupted by the blackness of the shadows. In the mountains of my site are especially amazing during this time of the day and even more so during the rainy season. The clouds are giant white monsters until the setting sun catches them and turns them into glowing apparitions of immeasurable beauty. Every evening the mountains that frame my village are draped in a unique sea of light and clouds. I often enjoy the view from my hammock, but the best way to fully be awed by the changing nature of this time of the day and season is to take a bike ride on the many paths the crisscross the forest.

The beginning of the rainy season also marks the beginning of the rice planting season. Last year I moved to my village just after the rice had already been planted. It had already grown several feet and was displaying its neon green shoots. This year I have been able to see the process from the beginning. I think in areas with more advanced agriculture this process may differ to some extent. Most areas of the world, in particular the country I call home, have seen almost the complete mechanization of farming. This couldn’t be further from the truth here in Karen country. A small enclosed area that is usually part of the rice patty is planted early in the season. The rice is planted in a compact manner because these seedlings will be transplanted later on in the year in a more dispersed arrangement.

Last year I was privileged to be able to harvest the rice with Karen people and this year I was fortunate enough to be able to plant the rice as well. I was hanging out at the local branch of Compassion International when I was whisked away for my first rice planting experience. In one area a few men were tilling the rice patties while in another the women were rhythmically placing the small green shoots into their new home in the thick grey mud covered by several inches of flowing water. Although planting rice was not nearly as difficult as harvesting, or strenuous for that matter, it still made me feel rather inadequate.

The women were effortlessly extracting three or four small shoots of rice and effortlessly placing them in tidy rows. All the while, they navigated their feet in between and around the previously planted rice that was left below and behind them. I was handed a bundle of rice seedlings and jumped into the mucky mess. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that I was not most efficient rice planter, but I was getting the job done. I started at the same place as the other women, but after only about ten minutes I was at least fifteen feet behind. I figured that my neat rows and attention to detail would make up for my lack of speed, but as you can imagine, that wasn’t quite the case. When we finished one patty, I looked back and my section and not only were my rows crooked, unlike the women’s nice little shoots sticking neatly out of the water, mine were sticking out in all directions and I’m pretty sure that in most of them I used to many rice seedlings. I guess you live and you learn!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Can Sounds Be Worth 1000 Words?

I have really come to appreciate how sounds can really give each place its unique character. Many people go to the desert for its eerie silence while others enjoy the rolling rumbles of the waves in the ocean. It is often when completely surrounded by nature that one truly enjoys the subtle inspiration that sound can have. Although submersion in nature often yields a unique experience the sounds of a rural Thai village, enveloped by the surrounding forests and alive with myriad sounds, has come to be one of the most memorable parts of my Peace Corps experience.

Luckily, my village has yet to be truly engulfed by sounds of modern day life that seems to sap the spirit out of most communities. You hear more roosters than you do motorized vehicles. My hammock overlooking the village has proved to be a perfect vehicle for my enjoyment of the cacophony of sounds that emanate from all around. At any given moment countless sounds are begging attention from your ear.

There is the clank of the Karen bells tied around the cows that meander down the road and disappear into the forest. A rain storm that is visible in the distance slowly beats it way to the village where it endlessly patters away. The background noise provided by the crickets is punctuated by the songs of the birds and the occasional croak of a frog. The call of a rooster in the early morning from an adjacent village slowly escalates into a chorus that resounds from every village. As the village speakers sound the call for announcements or church attendance with a monotonous gong the dogs provide their own interpretation with howls of every tone. The quite chatter of kids playing in the forest is interrupted by the low sputter of a passing motorbike. In the late evening the buzz of the cicadas and the groans of the frogs drown out all other noises. Even the bees buzzing in the small purple flowers in front of my house contribute to this oh so unique environment.

I have sometimes thought about recording the sounds so that in the future I wouldn’t forget. Unfortunately not even the most sophisticated recording device could capture the vibrancy in each on of those individual sounds while contributing to the composition as a whole. To truly experience and understand it effect one must truly be present. The only recording that I will retain is the one ever so delicately etched in my brain. It will undoubtedly be with me forever.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Song Kran Chiang Mai

I have been pretty delinquent in keeping my blog up to date in the last couple months. I guess that stems from several different factors. One, and probably most telling, I have just been too lazy. Two, it seemed to me that for all the effort I was putting into writing these blog entries it seemed that very few people were actually reading it. Well, I have had several requests to continue writing so I feel obliged to fulfill those requests. If you are actually reading the blog send me a comment and let me know what you think and suggests topics that you might want to hear about. The third and final reason is that I have now been here over a year and there seems to be little novelty in my everyday life. I actually think that there are many interesting things to be related to my friends and family back home, but then we’re right back to that original excuse...laziness is difficult to overcome!

In the middle of April I was once again fortunate enough to partake in yet another Song Kran festival (Thai New Year, but really just a big drunken water fight). The only difference was that instead of spending it on the district capital (amphur) I got to partake in this party of all parties in Chiang Mai, purported to have the best Song Kran festival in Thailand. My first year in Thailand I was inundated with not only water but also the Buddhist ceremonies that go with the festival. I was taken to wats (Buddhist temples) to “tamboon” where we would place sand, collected earlier in the river, on to temporary chedis. I was also Thai napped and taken on all day drinking binges that were characterized by hundreds of people, not one of which was sober, following a pickup truck with six foot speakers mounted in the bed and blasting Thai music around the town. The party would enter each wat and proceed to dance, drink, and throw water in this place that I once consider the epitome of serene and austere. Well this year I, along with about 15 of my fellow Peace Corps volunteer friends, decided that our Thai experience just wouldn’t be complete unless we got the commercialized farang friendly version of this Thai holiday.

I arrived in Chiang Mai on a Friday afternoon and the party began. We decided to go out on the town to celebrate our escape from our isolation in our small Thai villages. That was our first glimpse into the craziness that the next few days would bring. We decided to go to Thai clubs and found out that Song Kran really was a Thai holiday and it was virtually impossible to find a club that wasn’t overflowing with Thais from every region of the country. Three of my friends and I enjoyed an absurdly large bottle of Thai whiskey that turned out to be enough alcohol to kill an elephant. Even being the four weathered veterans of rural Thailand whiskey drinking festivals that we were, that bottle was still half full the next day. We went from one Thai club to the next and eventually called it an early night so we could get up early the next day to “len naam” or “play water” if you prefer English.

I woke up early, but not in any rush, and headed out with a few friends to “play water.” I suppose before I start this commentary I need to provide a physical description of the city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a bustling Thai city in the northern region of Thailand. The center of the city is surrounded by a rectangular moat with remnants of the ancient walls that once protected it. The city has long since chaotically spilled out in all directions from that original center and now fills the entire valley. Despite this fact, the area within, and near, the enclosed area of the moat is the tourist and nightlife area of Chiang Mai. The moat water is a pea green color and can be described as anything but clean, but it somewhat ascetically appealing. No one goes near the water 51 weeks out of the year. During Song Kran it is the epicenter of the epic water fight.

We approached the moat and immediately understood what “Song Kran Chiang Mai” was all about. Thousands of people lined each side of the street next to the moat and traffic was at a standstill on the road. The traffic consisted of hundreds of pickup trucks overflowing with Thais that were rambunctiously engaged in the water fight dipping water from 50 gallon drums placed in the back. The people who lined the streets were dipping buckets attached with strings into the moat in order thoroughly soak everyone who passed. Water guns of all shapes and sizes adorned the backs and hands of many people and many people found it fit to just take a lazy dip in the moat. The sides of the streets were packed not only with the partygoers but also with entrepreneurial Thais selling water guns, buckets, and of course ice. Ice was the x-factor. Everyone is wet so throwing warm murky moat water on someone who has had warm murky moat water thrown on them for the past hour just really loses its appeal. Now standing in the tropical Thai heat and blasting someone with ice cold water is a different story. That never gets old!

It being an outrageous festival and the group of us feeling a bit outrageous ourselves, we decided to stop in front of a pub that was blasting Western music and had a sizable group of both farangs (foreigners) and Thais dancing and “playing water.” We soon found out that not only were there Thais and farangs but also the always outrageous “gatueys” or “lady boys.” They were the most enthusiastic people “playing water” and basked in the spotlight. They would stop traffic in order to do their signature cat-walk down the middle of the street, all to the boisterous jubilation of the crowd. We “played water” there for hours all the while drinking delicious Thai beers that by the end of the can was surely three quarters of that ever so appealing moat water. I was sure I was going to die of a mysterious water-borne disease, but here I am still kicking.

In other parts of the city there were huge stages in set up where bands were playing and of course copious amounts of water were thrown. Even in the out reaches of the city it was impossible not to get soaked by the young Thai children enjoying this festival, which has to rank as one of the top festivals for children in the whole world. At night the Thais settled down and stopped playing water, but that didn’t exclude you from getting soaked by the over-eager farang.

With a little variance this is how the next four days continued to pass. The nights grew increasingly crazier and meeting another male volunteer the following morning with a full face of makeup and no idea how he got it elicited little more than a few snickers. To be honest, a story just does not do Song Kran justice. It really needs to be experience first hand. For any of you who think you are intrepid enough to take it on, is only a short 10 months away!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fishing: Karen Style

The other day I was privileged to go on a fishing expedition with my friend Da-Na. He had talked about taking me down to the river to “look for fish” for quite some time and we finally got around to going. The river runs fairly close to my house but we had to hike for a little over an hour to get to the best fishing area. We followed the river for a short while and then cut up through the mountains. As we went through the forest Da-Na was constantly showing me plants that you could eat as well as the ones that have medicinal value. The forest here is exploding with orchids. Attached to nearly every tree is a myriad variety of these exotic flowers. The forest here is a thick green jungle during the rainy season but as the dry hot season progresses the leaves fall and the forests is transformed into a different world; a world of the orchid. A few of the orchids were starting to bloom and Da-Na assured me that in a few weeks the forest with be ablaze with yellow, red, purple, and white orchids. I can’t wait to see that! Orchids are prized by the villagers as well. Nearly every Karen porch is adorned with them. I decided that I wanted to have the same for my house and Da-Na has insisted on fashioning me some orchid holders made out of local trees. One of these days soon, when he is finished with the holders, he said he will take me out to the best part of the forest to collect orchids. I’m pretty pumped! It’s amazing how much knowledge all the people here have about the forest. It is a knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation as the kids venture into the forest with their parents.

Being in the forest is second nature to them. While I had my hiking shoes and breathable clothing, my friends were wearing flip flop sandals and long sleeve shirts to protect them from the sun. A large portion of the river near my house is flat and sandy with few rocks. Where we journeyed the river was rocky and absolutely gorgeous. Little waterfalls spill clear water into deep pools that bordered by green saplings. In between the rocks the sand creates inviting pools and there are stretches of flat sand interrupted by the small rapids. The river bank is adorned with tropical trees and bamboo, all in a different state of foliage. Some are green year round while others are turning red and orange and all of this is complimented by the yellow foliage of the changing bamboo. I’m going to be making some trips to camp near the river here soon and it will definitely be on the agenda for my family when they come to visit.

When we reached the river the fishing began. Now this is not the American toss your line in the river and wait for a fish to bite. Our fishing expedition, including Da-Na, his wife, and his cousin, were outfitted with little spear guns, nets, and goggles. I wasn’t sure how they would go about fishing, but soon I found out. Da-Na threw on the goggles and dove face first into the deep pools surrounded by rocks. He stuck his head into every nook and cranny and soon apparently spotted some fish. He said some things in Karen to his wife and soon she was off searching for some unknown implement. She came back with a small bamboo rod and Da-Na quickly make two cuts in the end. His wife then busted out what looked like a smoke ball fire cracker. Da-Na placed it at the tip of the bamboo and lit it. I think the first time he didn’t quite get it where he wanted it and the little “smoke ball” exploded with force. Water went splashing everywhere and I think my ear drums were permanently damaged. Everyone had a good laugh and then he quickly pulled out another one. This time I kept my distance, but Da-Na was more prepared. He lit the firecracker and quickly stuck it deep under the rock. A faint thud was heard and soon small stunned fish were being snatched up by the fishing crew. The fish in the river are at the biggest six inches long and the majorities are large minnow sized which according to Da-Na are much more delicious than the big fish that can be caught elsewhere. We made our way up the river in a similar manner until it was time for lunch.

Da-Na busily made a fire and his wife started preparing the “cold gang” which consisted of roasted peppers, some sort of lime like fruit we collect on the way to the river, onions, herbs, water, and some other ingredients I wasn’t sure what were. Bamboo sticks were gathered and the fish, without being gutted, were speared onto the sticks and roasted over the open fire. Several off the whole small fish, guts head and all, were placed into “cold gang.” All the ingredients as well as rice were packed into banana leaves. We sat to eat and I went about trying to extract the small amount of meat from the small aquatic critters that were placed before me. Da-Na, with a chuckle, said that you could eat there whole fish, no problem. I took his word, but decided that I wouldn’t eat the head, guts, or fins. It was fun and the cold gang was actually pretty tasty.

In the late afternoon we started making our way back to my village. We ran into several other boys fishing and chatted for a while. There were not quite as accomplished at fishing as Da-Na, but still managed to get a few fish. We made it back to the village and sat down for some Karen tea and some friendly chatting. After a short time I was on my bicycle back to my house for a good nights sleep! I’m just amazed at the experiences that I continually have living here in the mountains of northern Thailand. I will never forget them!