Sunday, March 8, 2009

Epically Late, Epically Lengthy and Here For Your Reading Pleasure

Well. Hello there!

Yes, yes, I do know what the date is. No, I haven't been in a state of frozen animation for the past three weeks nor was I abducted by aliens (though not for their lack of effort…) The truth is, the absence of a blog post has been due mostly to the fact that we can't use the student laptops for personal projects/watching movies etc this month. The fearless leaders decreed it and it was so. Sadly, the internet here is incredibly slow, I didn't want to hog the one computer in the hostel for three hours, the internet café is open at awkward hours and is, if not as distracting a place to blog as the living room of the hostel where the computer there sits, too distracting for me to make the effort. So, you ask, why is this blog magically appearing now? That's for me to know and you, well, not to.

Anyway, if I remember correctly, last episode left off with us about to embark on an epic journey: 59 hours of plane trips and layovers and bus rides on our way from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. There may have been some cliffhanger about how I was going to blog about sustainable agri-something-or-other, but do forgive our producers, sometimes they get overzealous. We've long since moved on to all Public Health all the time.

So how was the 59 hour extravaganza? Well, long, clearly. Two nights sleeping on the floor in airports is always a thrill. But I can inform you that VAT tax refunds are a pain, the Dubai airport is incredibly overairconditioned which makes sleeping on the tile floor next to impossible but that they totally and completely make up for it by being the hub for Emirates Airlines, the clear favorite for World's Best Airlines as far as anyone TBB is concerned. I made a LIST of why Emirates is better than all others. THAT'S how good it was. And I will share it with you now:

· Each seat has a personal touch screen TV on which you have the option of playing video games, listening to music, getting updated on the flight progress or the latest BBC headlines, watching the plane's surroundings through the forward or downward cameras (nice for those in the section of four middle seats…like me…always) or watching any of probably 200 movies.

· There is a cupholder separate from the tray table AND it has an inner ring that can tilt so that your cup is upright no matter what the angle of the seat in front of you is.

· The ceiling over the aisle is dark with little lights in it that look likes stars.

· Even in Economy, you get a menu for the meal and the meals are quite good.

· There is a place every few seats to plug something in so you can charge whatever electronic device needs to be charged…like, say, an iPod that's been traveling for a day and a half.

· There is also a place to plug in a USB cord. Think of the possibilities.

· Internet access, although in Economy this isn't free.

· A little Do Not Disturb type sign that says Wake Me Up For Meals, one that says Wake Me Up For Duty Free and one that says, in fact, Do Not Disturb.

· And, get this, a phone in every seat so you can call any other seat for free! You bet we took advantage of that.

And the other nice thing, which really is more me finally getting good seat luck than anything to do with Emirates airlines other than that they fly a 3am out of Dubai which is, accordingly, not full is that I was, on our 2nd Emirates flight, seated in a middle bank of four seats with Dave and, oh wait, no one else! I was exhausted and needed desperately to sleep and it was incredibly comfy and like a gift from the airplane gods. :-)

Well, now that I've extolled the virtues of a commercial airlines without payment of any sort (where is my business sense?) I'll get on with the featured programming: South Africa.

Ok so here's what's up. We're living in a hostel, not with host families. The girls are all nine to one room of ten bunk beds and one rather large shower, but there is space enough to move around, a table, a desk, a little kitchen with a fridge, a microwave, a sink and a water heater. Surprisingly, the one shower thing isn't too much of an issue and although our room usually looks like some sort of massive natural disaster has taken place and left behind piles of clothing, magazines, the occasional Q-tip, I can deal with that. It's still possible to walk around without stepping on someone's stuff…unlike in the boys room. They're all five in one room too, but is more like a little corridor with beds (and no private bathroom…hahah!) and, as the average TBB male is messier than the average TBB female, it's only possible to get a few steps into the room before crushing someone's already wrinkled shirt. But in general we don't venture into that abyss. We just relish (politely and without rubbing it in) in the fact that Finally the girls have the better room. Yay!

The hostel has a living room area with very comfy couches, a TV on which we watch movies, a computer with very slooooooooow internet and a table. There is also a KITCHEN!!! And we can use it. Hallelujah! I've already made noodle kugel, challah, French toast and many eggs in addition to the dinner John and I cooked for everyone last Sunday night. (Dinner rotates between ordering in, TBBers cooking and going out…Our menu? A starter of a salad bar and charoses, then honey Dijon chicken breasts, sun dried tomato, pesto and goat cheese chicken rolls and noodle kugel and a desert of snickerdoodles and (store bought) ice cream…The snickerdoodles were too floury but everything else, if I may be so immodest, was really quite yummy).

But really, what are we DOING here? Well, I shall explain. We're in Plettenberg Bay working with an NGO called Plett Aid. Part of what Plett Aid does is send Home Based Care workers into the townships surrounding Plett. These are people (all women, at the moment) who have had three months of training in how to care for the sick and who go around on foot from house to house checking up on their assigned patients, changing bandages, taking blood pressure, arranging for clinic visits and if necessary pick ups in one of Plett Aid's two available vehicles. They are also often called on to help with DOTs, that is, Directly Observed Therapy (I don't think the S stands for something…but I'm not positive). DOTs is for patients who sometimes, for whatever reason, can't be trusted to take their meds. A care worker will show up at their house every morning, sometimes very early, and literally watch them swallow their pills because the cost of not completing a course of meds is high not only to the patient, but the everyone around them and, eventually, everyone everywhere. Take Tuberculosis for example. TB is a disease closely assosciated with HIV/AIDS. You or I may have been exposed to TB (this is what they test for at the doctor's office with the little prick on your arm) but we aren't terribly likely to come down with the disease as long as our immune systems are strong and we are otherwise healthy. The TB is dormant and we aren't contagious or sick. Because HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system, it is much easier for TB to become active and very dangerous. But TB is curable. There are all sorts of drugs available (well, ok, availability is an issue, but there are all sorts of drugs) to fight it. The problem arises when a patient starts taking the drugs, but doesn't finish. Then the mutant TB, the few bugs that are resistant to those drugs, can take hold and multiply and the patient, before he or she knows it, has a case of MDR-TB or multiple drug resistant TB. Tuberculosis isn't contagious once you start medication, but otherwise it's highly contagious. This patient can easily spread the MDR-TB and MDR is, for obvious reasons, much harder to cure that your plain old regular TB. Some places around the world are even starting to see something called XDR-TB, or extreme drug resistant TB. It's scary. Anyway, that was a very long explanation for why DOTs is needed in many communities around the world including in the U.S. You want to treat everyone who is ill, but you need them to be responsible about meds and not everyone is…some people need a little encouragement. Hence, DOTs. And THAT was a very long way to get to an explanation of what it is that we're doing here is Plett which is shadowing Plett Aid's Home Based Carers (HBCs).

We're working two to a carer from 8am to 1pm. Noah and I (China revisited) are working in a township called Kwanokathula (mostly, that's pronounced how it's spelled except that the "th" is just a "t" sound) as are John and Alexandra. We work with a black woman named Pumza; J and A are with Margaret.

But before I continue with that train of thought, more explanation is required. Bare with me:

South Africa was settled by the Khoi-San people who were mostly conquered by the Zulus who after about 150 years were conquered by the Dutch and then the Dutch by the English. This bit is really complicated and that's all I'm going to go in to. At some point, Indians (from India) were brought over to help with labor. This has resulted in a very mixed racial background for many South Africans, but in the common vernacular there are three options: Black, White, Colored. Black people are, as far as I can tell, direct descendants of the people that lived in South Africa before the Dutch showed up. In the North and East of South Africa this mostly means the Zulus, but here on the Western Cape it means the Xhosa (that's "click + osa" where the click makes you also hear the letter K…they speak Xhosa which is a click language and is so SO much fun to listen to and incredibly hard to mimic…the Zulus speak Zulu etc). Colored people are of a more mixed background: Indian, black, white…it's unclear. They generally have a bit lighter skin and speak Africaans, a derivative of Dutch. White people are of European descent. That one is pretty clear cut. Anyway, there was a lot of racism in the country which eventually, beginning officially in the mid 20th century, manifested itself in a legal system called Apartheid from the Africaans for something like "Separatness." Under Apartheid, where people could go, where they could live, what they could do and whom they could marry were all legally restricted. The colored and black people lived in neighborhoods called townships (separate ones) that often had no electricity or running water. They were basically slums. Apartheid began to fall apart around 1990. There was much violence and rioting and much death. It was a scary time according to everyone I've talked to. In 1994, Nelson Mandela, newly released from Robben Island, a prison in which he'd languished for upwards of 20 years, was elected president and Apartheid officially ended. The ANC, the African National Congress, has been the most powerful party since then and it has done many MANY good things in an incredibly difficult period of time. Still, it's run may be ending. As I type, prominent members are splitting off in a splinter party called COPE (Congress of the People). There is also opposition from the Democratic Alliance, or DA. A presidential election will be held later this month where the ANC candidate, Jacob Zuma, is favored to win. In another lovely twist, he's up on trial for charges of rape and his defense can be summarized as "I didn't do it. She wants money." and occasionally "She was sitting provocatively and my Zulu culture required me to have sex with her." The jury is out (not yet literally) on whether or not he's guilty, but the charges don't seem to be interfering with his campaign. I don't really know that much about politics here in South Africa and my summary was rather rudimentary but it's fascinating stuff and I'd love to spend some time looking more closely into it.

So today, people still live in the townships but thanks to the ANC most have running water and electricity (at least here in the Western Cape) and there are a lot of small cement government-built houses, although not even close to enough to go around and many people are still living in rudimentary scrap wood and scrap metal shacks called shelters. Many others, however, are better off.

OK. So. Back to where we were before that most recent tangent. I'm working in Kwanokathula which is a primarily black township, although there are colored people. There are also a lot of immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe which, if U.S. news organizations have been doing their jobs and you've been watching, should not be all that surprising. Anyway, the care worker Noah and I shadow, Pumza, is a 36 year old Xhosa woman who has been living in Kwanokathula for five years now. She has a one year old, Lilita, a five year old son and a fourteen year old daughter. The daughter lives with Pumza's sister in the nearest big city, Port Elizabeth, where she goes to school. Initially, I was shocked that Pumza had a fourteen-year old because I was prepared to guess that she was 24 herself. Age here is really hard to judge, much like in Ban Huay Hee, but in South Africa I find myself always guessing younger whereas in Ban Huay Hee I erred in the other direction.

Pumza has been a careworker for only four weeks and for two of those Noah and I have been with her. Before this she was many things: a housekeeper, a grocery store clerk, a nurse in an elderly home, and she probably won't do HBC for too long. It's hard work and she's already in school for early childhood development. She wants to start a cresh (like a pre-school and kindergarden) or even go to school to be a nurse. Pumza is, in short, really awesome. She can be quiet or commanding. She can be like a big sister or a friend or a mother. She has a slightly mischievous sense of humor and an ear for neighborhood gossip. And she'll stick herself in your business and make it her own – a good quality for someone doing HBC.

English is the most common second language in South Africa (a country with, I think, eleven official languages) and Pumza learned it in school as did many of the people we run into in Kwanokathula. She mixes up gender pronouns, which is incredibly confusing until you realize what's going on and begin to pay closer attention to the person specified at the beginning of the story. Aunt + he = she. Edward + she = he. She also adds "ne?" the Xhosa version of "you know?" to the ends of her sentences as in "She was very naughty, ne?" I love this. All in all, communication is not that difficult. Particularly after more than three months in Southeast Asia. I find myself picking up little bits of the speech patterns – I don't use contractions and I speak more slowly when talking to Pumza – which makes things easier still. Sometimes I translate from Noahese to Pumzaese, but mostly communication is good all around. Having spent so much time and effort trying to figure out even the littlest things in Ban Huay Hee, I was stunned at first to see how much I could learn about Pumza and Kwanokathula in a matter of hours. I had to retrain myself to ask questions after so much time trying to wonder only about things I could ask about through hand gestures and my rudimentary Chinese or Thai or Bawkinyal. Language, my friends, is a wonderful thing.

So we shadow Pumza. We are also simultaneously supposed to be conducting a survey for Plett Aid about how well their service is doing. Noah and I haven't started yet because the first week was about getting to know the patients and the second week was just incredibly erratic – we didn't really have a normal day of visiting patients, but we'll get right on it next week.

So on to the township and the patients. I'll give a quick rundown of what it is I'm seeing.

Kwanokathula is a nicer township than some. Qolweni (that's a different click that also sounds k-ish + "olweni"), the township Lily and Renee work in, is mostly the shacklike shelters. Kwanokathula has some of those, but there are also government-built cement block houses and every now and then some houses that have been built up and added on to so that they are big and nice and comfortable. There are even two or three big brick houses being built. Everything is one story, so big is a relative term…so is nice…but there are houses I wouldn't at all mind living in. And then there are houses that define tiny and stuffy and brittle and ramshackle. Most of the shelter-type housing in Kwanokathula are shacks that have been built on the property of people who live in government houses. Those people rent the shacks out to newcomers. After living in a community for a few years, you're entitled to a government house, but the government can't seem to build them fast enough and people end up in the shelters for decades. Clearly there is a range of housing and what's fascinating is that there aren't good and bad neighborhoods. A nice house with a well-kept garden could stand right next to a shelter (some are standalone and not connected to houses) or to a particularly rundown government issue house. Your home is what you can make of it.

Kwanokathula is mostly a residential area, but there are some little stores selling food and salons for doing hair. There are also South Africa's version of Cabinas or places to go to pay and use a phone. Some of these stores are in houses or additions to houses but many, mainly the salons and phone stores, are in those giant metal dumpsters you see outside construction sites in the states. It's pretty ingenious. Apparently, most of the salons are owned by Zimbabwean immigrants. Interesting.

The other thing that it's important to understand is this: much in the same way that within Kwanokathula a nice house will be sandwiched between a small cement cube and a shack, in Plettenberg bay a nicer township will stand directly next to an almost entirely shelter township which will be less than a mile from huge, fancy, state-of-the-art real-estate developments. Plett is a beach town vacation destination for wealthy South Africans and Europeans complete with two polo fields and beachfront property. Those fair-weather visitors can easily choose not to look over the next hill and see the poverty and disease in their temporary backyards and many do. This sort of behavior is easy to condemn on the surface until you realize that pretty much everyone does the same thing. How often do I go to South Central really? What do people say about USC? Yale? Bad neighborhood. But how many people really make it their business to do something about it? Particularly when it's just where they vacation. So I don't describe Plett to condemn any of it's inhabitants. It's just to give an idea of where we are and what it might be like to live in Qolweni and work as a maid in a five star hotel just a few miles away. And maybe to make us all look at our own communities more closely. (Which, incidentally, is exactly what we'll be doing in TWO WEEKS in New York and then DC).

So now, finally, to some patients.

After hanging out outside the clinic where we get dropped off in the morning (and where we meet no shortage of interesting people ready to talk about anything from racism to beer), Pumza came to pick us up and we were off. After a 25 minute or so walk to the other side of Kwanokathula we arrive at our first patient's house. (Pumza covers Phase 3 and part of Phase 2, Margaret covers Phase 1 which is where the clinic is. One more sidenote: neighborhoods are named for when they were built, so Phase 1 first, then Phase 2 and then Phase 3. Right now they're building Phase 4. The thing is, though, that it's WHEN and not WHERE so there are three sections of Phase 3 and they aren't all that close to each other…the upshot is we do a LOT of walking). The house is cement and larger than the government issue ones because the left half of it is a store. We walk up the four front steps and Pumza enters. Noah and I hang back, unsure of what we should do. Pumza explains to the woman inside who we are and what we're doing (she calls me Bianca and by the time I realize it's too late to correct her and I sort of like the name anyway) and invites us to sit down in the two metal chairs in the little corner that serves as a kitchen. From a room in the back of the house a large black woman walks out slowly and with much effort using a cane. Pumza talks to her for a few minutes and then we leave. She tells us, after we've left, that that was Julia (Ju-LEE-a). She is on RVDs (this stands for retro-viral drugs, also called ARV's or ART for anti-retro-virals or anti-retroviral-therapy, and Pumza writes it on her diagnosis sheet instead of writing HIV/AIDS in case the paper falls into the wrong hands…there is still a stigma around HIV/AIDS here) and recently had a stroke. A few days ago we went back to her house and made it farther inside. We sat for half and hour or so on a beaten up faux leather couch that serves to divide kitchen from living room. Julia's sister was watching TV and Julia's daughter and the sister's son were playing on the floor. Pumza was sitting next to Julia pulling the clenched fingers on her right hand gently apart, teaching Julia to do that as she watched TV and the like. The stroke affected the entire right side of her body making it difficult for her to speak and walk. Pumza said the stroke was due to the stress of hiding her HIV/AIDS status and that this is fairly common. As strokes go, Julia didn't seem too badly off.

Our second patient was Petras. We ran into him on the street, wheeling himself along. One of his legs was amputated after a car accident. His remaining leg, the right one, is a little swollen at the knee and twisted so that his right foot rests on the support intended by the wheelchair manufacturers for the left. He is also HIV positive. He's a very friendly, cheerful guy and Pumza mainly helps organize transportation for him to get to the clinic when he needs to. I always enjoy running into him.

Third was Edward. His house, though not particularly nice-looking from the outside is big and airy with big open windows and wispy chiffon curtains and is full of mismatched couches and cabinets and trinkets. Despite all of this though, Edward was dying. He had cancer. From what I gathered, he had prostate cancer, had had surgery, but the cancer had spread anyway – to his kidneys and lymph nodes – and there was nothing more anyone could do. It seemed that he'd had the best medical care he could get almost anywhere. He was 95 years old and it was just his time to go. His daughter, who I originally thought was his wife, was there to take care of him. She was warm and friendly, but obviously under stress and dealing with a lot of emotional pain. When we visited, we'd help her move him from his wheelchair to lying on one couch or another or back to the wheelchair. He was so thin that he weighed almost nothing. He could wrap his hand (which looked overly large compared to his body) all the way around his thigh. Pumza would help feed him to give his daughter a break and once, to give her time to shower, we just sat with him in the living room. Mostly it seemed, Pumza was moral support, more for the daughter than for the father, and that support was incredibly important. Edward died on Thursday the 26th, just hours after we saw him for the last time. I could tell he was worse than before. His eyes weren't focusing and his raspy whisper made only one attempt to escape his throat. But he died at the ripe old age of 95 in a perfectly nice house full of light and air with his daughter there to take care of him. This death was not the kind of death you hear about when you talk about people dying in Africa and it certainly isn't the norm, but it was heartening to know that there are people in townships who die with dignity and as much comfort and support as it is possible to have. I tried, once, to imagine what his life must have been like. He was alive before apartheid was institutionalized and after it was dismantled, long before TV and before any township had electricity or running water. I wondered what he thought about his country, about racism, about the future of his grandchildren, about these two foreign students coming into his home. I still wonder and I always will.

Incidentally, Pumza forgot to tell us that he died. I asked about a week later and she said "Oh yes. His memorial service was yesterday." Then Friday, a few days ago, we were shadowing Margaret with John and Alexandra because Pumza had to take her youngest daughter to the doctor (she's been sick for weeks and I'm really worried about her, but if anyone will get her good medical care, it's Pumza) and Margaret said she was going to a funeral later where everyone would dress in black and white and form a giant human cross. Turns out it was Edward's funeral. So while death is sad, this death, from the outside at least, was as unsad as a death could ever be.

Our fourth patient was a middle aged man with TB and HIV/AIDS. His leg was painful and he was going to go to the clinic. We've seen him once since then and it seems much the same.

Fifth up was a girl named Nandipa. She is seventeen, has epilepsy and is mentally disabled, the latter probably a result of the former. She speaks mostly nonsense words, drools all over herself and smiles almost all the time. She is like a grown up two year old. Her mother wasn't there the first day, but on the next visit she was (her brother was there on the third visit). Nandipa's mother's name is Eunice. She is a strong woman and cheerful, taking everything life gives her in stride. Still, she told us, she worries about leaving Nandipa home alone but she sometimes must because Nandipa's brother works and Eunice can't be home all the time. Nandipa can't be at school although there is a school for disabled children, because it is only for kids up to fourteen years old. Eunice worries that Nandipa will be raped. She can't know for sure that it hasn't happened already. Nandipa was shaking hands with everyone in the room – her mother, me, Pumza, Beth (who was with us that day) – everyone except for Noah. Her mother said Nandipa is afraid of men. She isn't sure why. She said it so matter-of-factly that it was even more startling. Rape was just one more dangerous fact of life and it's true. In South Africa, one in five men ADMIT to having raped a woman and one in four poor girls can expect their first sexual experience to be "coerced." There isn't really much we do for Nandipa other than check up on her to make sure she's still as OK as she was the time before, but I always enjoy going to see her.

Patient number six was Mandisi, a man probably in his mid thirties with a huge and wonderfully friendly smile. He, too, had TB and HIV/AIDS. He lived in a nicer house although he has since then moved to a shelter in Phase 3. I think he moved because he's gotten well again. Indeed, he never seemed ill when we saw him. He isn't skeletally thin and doesn't cough much. We couldn't find his new house the first time we looked because the address we got had the last two numbers flipped (we got the address from one of the women in the original house who I assume was a sister because he didn't inform HBC that he'd be moving which really annoyed Pumza). We spent thirty minutes looking for XX37 which was just not there…there was a XX36 and a XX38 but no XX37. Then, the next day, we were just walking down the street and he called out to us (from XX73) which was incredibly convenient and coincidental and yet not that surprising with all the walking around Phase 3 that we do. Pumza was literally on the phone with Ann at the HBC central office talking about how she couldn't find him. The shelter he lives in now is stand alone and two rooms. He lives there with another man and woman, maybe a brother and sister-in-law? But as shelters go this one is ritzy. The inside is all white with cabinets and a table and a refrigerator and TV (although the TV isn't the ritzy part…it seems that every house and shelter has one in Kwanokathula because there is electricity). It is neat and impeccably clean and the walls are well-built from sturdier wood, not piecemeal with bits of scrapwood and cardboard and corrugated tin. Still, it's close quarters.

Our seventh patient was a thin woman, probably in her mid twenties (but again, me and guessing ages here…) who has HIV/AIDS and TB. She spends most of her day at home sleeping and I don't know much else about her.

Our eight patient was a man in a wheelchair, maybe about 55 years old. He was friendly and spoke enough English to have a conversation with us. His wife told us, though, that at night he sometimes wakes up crying because of the pain in his legs. I'm not sure what his diagnosis is. I always enjoy visiting him as well. The first time we went to his house we ran into a large, well-dressed black man who had driven there in his car. It turns out he is the pastor at the local Methodist Church (they have pretty much every possible denomination somewhere around Kwanokatula). He stopped to talk to us for a while. He asked what we were doing and we explained. He said if we were studying health care we should go to Zimbabwe where we were really desperately needed. Then we started to talk about Mugabe. He said he liked Mugabe. He was a true African man – kind of an African's African type sentiment. He said he had been confused about what Mugabe was doing until he recently read something that said that Mugabe wants to step down and let another democratically elected leader take over, but the people around him won't let him because their jobs all depend on his being in power. He didn't seem to blame Mugabe at all for the massive crisis in the country. He was intelligent and articulate and this newspaper he'd read allowed him to understand how a man he admired so much could be President of a country in the middle of such a disaster. I didn't agree with his theory, necessarily, but I truly understand the need for a way to understand what is currently happening in Zimbabwe and I see where that reasoning is appealing. We've seen him around a few times since and he always waves. I love running into people for the second or third time and recognizing them and having them recognize us and feeling like I'm not as much of an outsider as I was a few weeks ago.

Ninth and last for that first day of visits (on any given day since then we've visited a maximum of 5 patients) was Michael. He had a clinic appointment for March 10th but he had to work that day so Pumza was going to arrange with Ann to fix the timing. We haven't seen him since then.

Our tenth patient is Andile. He wasn't around the first three times we visited his house, but the fourth time's the charm, right? Anyway, Noah and I were prepared to agree that he was about 24 but it turns out he's 42. He's very tall and very thin and is another HIV/AIDS and TB patient. We talked to his brother and nephew for a bit when we visited him the second (successful) time. I don't know much more than that.

Our eleventh, and currently final (although Pumza just got a few new patients assigned to her I think) patient is Marie. She is a big colored woman (she understands Xhosa but doesn't speak it and Pumza understands Africaans but doesn't speak it so they can still communicate) and lives in a tiny tiny shelter that backs up onto one of the less nice government-issued houses. There are two other shelters on the same property, but her's is the smallest and shabbiest. She lives with at least five other people including a fifteen year-old daughter, a girl of about four and a newborn baby. There are nails and pieces of glass and all sorts of trash on the dirt path that leads to their door (which Pumza cleaned up one day, as well as giving the daughter a couple of dollars to go buy bleach and soap to clean up their house which the daughter first refused because she was too lazy to go to the store which in the end took her about five minutes…there was a huge fight and the woman who owns the main house complained that Marie and her family were bringing disease into her home because they didn't like to wash themselves or their clothes which, while harsh, was probably true…I mentioned to Mandy that Pumza had helped clean and Pumza got a little talking to because she isn't supposed to help clean for patients…I felt bad that I'd gotten Pumza in trouble because she only did it because she couldn't stand to see little children living in such squalor, but at the same time Mandy is right and Pumza isn't a maid she's a home based carer…). The poorly built and slightly leaning house is wallpapered on the inside with cardboard. There is room for a bed against one wall the head and foot of which touch the two adjoining walls and room for about four people to stand close together. There is one small window to let in light and air but it doesn't do either well. Marie has TB as do two of her children. She is still breastfeeding and hasn't been able to walk since her pregnancy. She has no government ID and so can't file for a welfare grant which she desperately needs. We spent all day Wednesday at the Police Station and community center trying to get her one, but to no avail. She needs a relative with an ID to come vouch for her. As if the first visit wasn't enough of an ordeal. We were supposed to go two weeks ago, but the ground outside her shack was too wet for her to walk on so Ann left in the car and said she'd come back the next week. Last Wednesday Mandy came to pick us all up in the car and Marie, Noah and I sqeeeeeeeeeeeezed into the back seat with Pumza in the front and drove the short distance to the Police etc. complex that we'd walked by on the way to Marie's house. It had taken ten minutes for Marie to walk the twenty or so feet from her door to the car so once we got to the station Pumza had Marie walk the ten or so feet to a cement ledge that she could sit on and went inside to get the ID business in order. She came out five minutes later saying that the woman wouldn't come out to talk to Marie; Marie would have to walk down the long path to the office. If we had called, the government service would have sent someone to Marie's house, but since we were there already they wouldn't even bother to send someone outside the complex. Thirty minutes and two breaks later, Marie made it to the office. She and Pumza talked to the woman behind the desk, gave her the form Marie had already filled out and the passport photos she'd had taken and brought in. In addition to needing another person to vouch for her, she needed not only the name and address of the school she'd attended but it's phone number. The problem was that it had long since closed. I hope they'll let this detail slide when we get her father or sister to say Marie is Marie. While she was sitting in her plastic chair by the desk she peed – all over the floor and herself. Pumza and I helped mop it up and no one made a big fuss about it, but I was thinking later about an article I'd read in the NY Times a few weeks ago about a pregnancy complication not uncommon in poorer countries called a fistula. It's more common in younger and thinner women whose hips aren't wide enough to have children, but it causes incontinence and issues with the legs. I can't diagnose Marie and I know nothing about her medical history or much about fistulas but no one seems to know what's wrong with her aside from the TB and it's frustrating. At the very least, next week we should be able to get her an ID and she seems to be getting more motivated to help herself the more we visit her. When we came to pick her up last Wednesday she was dressed and sitting outside of the house as opposed to the first (failed) time when she was still in bed. She's a good person in bad circumstances and HBC is actually making a difference for her.

Alright. That's the end of the patients summary.

On another note, I haven't taken any pictures in the townships (and pretty few at all until yesterday when we went to monkeyland and birds of eden and a pretty beach) so I don't have anything really to post online (and with the slow internet and no access to student computers for personal use I couldn't anyway). I think sometime next week, our last week (!), I will take some photos of Kwanokathula and ask a few of the patients I feel more comfortable with if I can take their picture. We aren't really supposed to have valuables with us, but honestly Kwanokathula seems pretty safe, especially in broad daylight when we're with Pumza, and some other people have been taking pictures for their media projects. It's been nice not having a camera though because a camera automatically makes you a tourist and that is the very last thing I want anyone to think I am. Still, I want just a few photos to illustrate and remember.

Speaking of Birds of Eden…We went yesterday first to Monkeyland to see their free roaming monkeys which were pretty adorable and where we had our first legitimately good and thoroughly intelligible guide of the trip. Then we went across the way to Birds of Eden which is a giant netted enclosure for all sorts of birds. Unexpectedly, this was the most terrifying experience of the entire trip for me. How is that possible you ask? Oh, oh but it is…You see, right when we entered the enclosure, this little colorful parakeet type bird landed on Dave's shoulder. We shooed it away and it went to John. John encouraged it a little, because hey, it's cook to have a little bird on your finger. As we walked on, though, it followed us. I landed on Zach's shoulder, then back to John's. Then it divebombed me, landing in my hair and I shooed it away. I was rattled by the surprise attack, but I regrouped and continued on through this supposed Eden. All was well until, ten minutes later, John and I were separated and left behind by the rest of the group while I tried to take a picture of a pretty teal parrot. Suddenly, the bird divebombed me again. John shooed it off of me and it went to sit calmly on his shoulder. We walked on for a minute or so until it divebombed me again, landing on the right side of my head and biting to hold on to my ear for dear life. John got if off again, but it wouldn't go away. It was only happy sitting on his shoulder and when he tried ot shoo it it would attack me again. We proceeded to move through the exhibit, trying to leave the bird behind every now and then, unsuccessfully, and then rescuing me from its subsequent attack. Finally, John put it on the ground and told me to go ahead, he wanted to leave it there. The path we were on (the only path) led to a bridge which in turn led to a gazebo in the middle of a little pond. John's reasoning was that the bird wouldn't be able to fly over the water. I said it was a bird. He seemed to think this didn't disprove his hypothesis so I agreed and walked to the gazebo, never turning my back on the Killer Attack Bird. It stayed put until I was on the gazebo bit and John turned to leave. Immediately it took flight and at high speed headed right past John straight towards me. I ducked and John ran to get it off of me. The old couple sitting on a bench near us watched, bemused, as I shrieked bloody murder. We continued on to the other side of the pond, me dragging John along (he wanted to look at the birds which were actually pretty cool and I wanted to get to the exit as soon as possible so someone that worked at Birds of Eden could take the bird) and we ran into Beth at a little café where there was also a group of tough-looking tattooed Americans sitting and drinking coffee. John took the bird into the bathroom to try to leave it there, but it followed him back out and again divebombed straight at me. He shooed it off and it flew happily onto the should of one of the tough-looking Americans. I high-tailed it away before it could change its mind. When I got outside to the blessed freedom of NOT Birds of Eden, I found that my ear was bleeding from where the bird bit me (although to be fair, not that badly) so Sandy checked with the woman at the ticket booth who said that all the birds are checked for diseases and so I didn't need to go to the hospital or anything of that sort. Plus I've had all my shots so I'm probably alright. Still, I was thoroughly shaken and I started laughing and crying all at the same time. Then Beth started laughing at me because I had completely fallen to pieces. I was entirely aware of how ridiculous I must look, but I swear the Killer Attack Bird was one of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me. It just kept attacking and there was literally nothing I could do to make it stop and nowhere to escape to in the immediate vicinity. I don't expect any of you to truly understand the terror of the Killer Attack Bird, but I swear to you that I flinch a little every time I see a small bird or a shadow that moves like one flying overhead. As I type this, the fan in our room keeps moving the flap of a book in the corner of my eye that's sitting right near the door and I'm tensing up. I kid you not. I just saw it again and I looked over and my heart skipped a beat. I've been traumatized.

The last topic I'll address right now is media. I'm a solo group this month and despite the fact that we have peer review tomorrow I'm not yet totally sure what it is I'm doing. I've interviewed the three people I intended to, but I still have to figure out how to put the pieces together because the interviews didn't go exactly as planned and my original formatting idea won't work. We had a grand total of ONE WEEK from start to near finish (peer review requires a "near finished" product) for media this month which was a bit tight and all day yesterday we were out and about on this our only weekend to work on media. Still, it'll be alright. It'll get done. We'll see how well it all turns out.

Some of the media projects from Thailand are up, although mine is not. I did in fact turn it in on time while were were still in Thailand, but Sandy wanted to upload them all at once so she waited until we got to South Africa where, it turns out, the internet connection is not very good and video is too much data to upload despite her best efforts and hours of time. I guess it'll go up in the U.S. When it does I'll let you know. We were pretty proud of our video and think it's interesting so, you know, we would all sort of like people to see it.

Anyway, I'm getting severe bloggers fatigue and the fluttering book is thoroughly freaking me out so I'm going to sign off. Apologies for emails I've not responded to, but I do read them all. It's just that the internet here is so frustrating that I can't deal with it for very long. It should be better for the first two weeks we're in the U.S. (until we head to Virginia and our non-wired retreat for two weeks), but don't take that as an excuse not to email. I still love hearing about what's going on with everyone. I'll be home soon (!!!...well, ish…) and I need to be up to date!

Much love,


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Happy Valentine's Day!


(Renee just left us each one of those little Valentines you pass out to your class circa third grade complete with temporary tattoos…I got back from cooking class and it was stuck on the door to my room…cute!)


Anyway, I just saved this document under Blog –February 14th and realized the last one was titled Blog – January 30th (my creativity is infinite, I know). I have the exact opposite feeling than the one I had the last time I blogged – it seems likes it's been close to no time at all and here I am just over two weeks later. Oops.


Well, ignoring the time warp I seem to be stuck in, I have quite a lot to recount and expound upon so do bear with me and flex your skimming muscles. Here goes. Captain, enter hyper-speed.


I spent most of my last week in Ban Huay Hee working on Alexandra, Katie C. and my media project. Our third and final interview was Monday morning and from there through Friday afternoon all mornings and nights were spent editing editing editing. iMovie HD can put out a reasonably good product (probably one much better than ours will seem as ours isn't very showy) but it is absurdly idiosyncratic. Oh, why be polite? It's stupid. It does things like cut clips without asking and not let you rejoin them or, even better, magically regenerate a clip you're doing your utmost to delete. I have, in the past few weeks, truly seen the magic of Control+Z (or, actually, on a Mac, it's Command+Z which, for those of you less versed in the computer shorthand of my generation, is the undo button). Nevertheless, we had fun, even resurrecting MASH (that other relic from the third grade) while waiting hours for clips to upload and transfer. If anyone wants to look me up in fifteen years or so I will apparently be living in London on a poverty wage (which explains why my home is a shoe) with my one child and husband who is a Russian version of Mr. Darcy. I will be a successful actress. If you think about it, that isn't entirely illogical. Back on topic, though – media. We did eventually finish our project, adding the finishing touches early in our enrichment week, and it should be up on the website any day now. The summary of our core country time in Thailand is also courtesy of yours truly; the Koh Tao summary is courtesy of Alexandra. I highly, HIGHLY encourage everyone to check out all of the media pieces. I quite like ours, but I'm also a big fan of the rest. Our new media project group selection method is vastly superior to any of those previously tried. This is a very clear example of the fact that we first year TBBers are very much guinea pigs for the program. That's alright with me. While it would have been nice to have better this or that to begin with, the way I look at it, I'm learning about starting a business and crafting a curriculum in addition to international development and what not. Plus, Robin and Sandy and Beth really listen to our feedback. What we say will actually have an effect on the way TBB works next year and the year after that and forever onwards which is pretty cool.


Hyper-speed apparently cannot be reached without intense tangent interference. Sorry about that. Moving on.


Much of the rest of the week passed similarly to the previous one. I ate meals mostly with my family, had Thai class and seminar in the afternoons. I sort of stopped paying much attention to Thai the last week or so. I felt a little bad for our instructor, Ajan Danai. I would honestly describe his teaching methods as fun, but even so, attention waned. The problem was that no one in Ban Huay Hee spoke Thai at home or around the village. If they knew it at all it was for tourists and going into town. Learning the words for animals or bodyparts in Thai seemed exceptionally futile when I could just point to them and learn the Bawkinyal term. The thing that surprised me was that I found myself picking up not only words in Bawkinyal but grammar and sentence structure. I always thought that if I wanted to really learn a language, I would have to sit down with my textbook, memorize the grammar and then go for it. That's how I learned Spanish, after all, and it was really quite easy. I was wrong. Without anyone telling me, I figured out that "ah" is a question word and that "lee" means something to the effect of "already." It's a past-tense word. I can pick up languages! How cool is that?! I'm sure it hasn't hurt that I've now had introductions to grammar and structure in both Chinese and Thai, but still, very snazzy.


Certain noteworthy things did happen, however, and I shall now turn to an account of those. (One of those things, apparently, is that I have become British and leaped several hundred years backwards in time…an unconscious reaction to the Salinger short stories I'm reading perhaps?)


Thursday night at dinner, Fifa was an absolute terror. (My little host brother's name, henceforth, is Fifa. I finally heard several people call him that despite the fact that on direct questioning, my mother gave some other, longer name. Maybe Fifa is a nickname. In Thai culture everyone is given a name and nickname, often an animal, at birth. Or perhaps Fifa is Bawkinyal for Devil Child? I could be cute and call him Rosemary's Baby, but I won't. Now I'm being a little mean. To be fair, he could be cute. If you only saw a photo, you would think he is absolutely adorable.) Anyway, Thursday night he was certainly not cute.  He was the antithesis of cute. He threw multiple tantrums and peed on the floor. The pee, incidentally, was just left where it was to dry up. Ick.


After dinner, though, he was spirited away on my host father's motorcycle not to return for a day and a half. That left my host mother and I alone with time to chill. I sat with her while she ate her dinner (I always ate first, a guest right up until I left) and we did our best to communicate. Somehow, she brought up that she'd been to Canada. I acted duly surprised. I asked why (a Thai word I know that came in handy!) and she replied with many Thai words that I did not know. Then she made a gesture that vaguely resembled cradling a baby and I thought my idea of her going to Canada for medical care for a child might in fact be correct. When she'd finished eating, we headed home (or, to the other home, the one across the street where we hung out and slept). I though it would be a good time to show her the photos I'd brought with me of family and friends from home. She had the same idea. We both brought out photo albums and spent twenty minutes or so going through them. Her final album was actually a binder functioning as a scrapbook. A scrapbook of her trip to Canada. Finally, questions would be answered! It turns out that she went to Canada to attend the December 2003 National Gathering on Aboriginal Culture and Tourism hosted by the Lil'wat and Squamish First Nations. I guess she was some sort of Karen ambassador. In the age old tradition of answered questions begetting several more, I now wonder how she was picked to go. She was only 21 at the time. Maybe because her Thai was really good? Or she won some sort of contest? Whatever the reason, she clearly had a really good time on her trip. Snow must have seemed incredibly novel. (That scene in The King and I anyone? No?) She even brought out her passport to show me which I could read because it seems all passports are in English. Anyway, mystery solved and bonding initiated.


After photo time, there was still over an hour until I was due at the rongrien (school) to work on media. I don't remember who grabbed the cards, but out they came, all 47 of them. She seemed to ask me if I knew a game. Obviously I did, since I'd spent a lot of time the previous week playing cards in the Salaa during our large amounts of down time, but none of those were games I could explain without a common language. Mostly they were games that are difficult to explain with one. So I went to the fallback of all fallback card games: war. She caught on really quickly and we spent the rest of the time flipping over cards and watching our portions of the deck grow and shrink with the rhythm of the game. I got bored after a half hour or so, but on we played, through one game and into the next, which lasted a solid 45 minutes. (Every time I played war, I though of Grandma and how we used to sit outside at my grandparent's house in Rancho Bernardo and play. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how either a small child or an intelligent adult had the attention span to play war over and over again. I had no memory of epic, near hour-long games. I was so baffled that I convinced myself I'd forgotten a rule, that you're only supposed to play once through the deck, but I doubled-checked with another TBBer later and found I'd been correct in my original rules. This leaves the question unanswered.) However bored I might have gotten, we were spending time together, which was really awesome, so on I played. I worried that she was bored too and that neither of us would speak (or gesture) up, but judging by her future suggestions that we play war, she was perfectly entertained and so I was happy to join her in a game. She didn't seem to hang out with the other village women as much as they hung out with each other and I think she really liked having a girl to hang out and play cards with without a screaming two-year-old in her lap. I get that. So we played three or four other times and despite some boredom and stiffness from sitting awkwardly on the floor, it was quite an incredible and rather fun cross-cultural experience.


The last few days in Ban Huay Hee weren't terribly busy and I found myself going back and forth between being ready to leave and wanting very badly to stay. The entire community (which was mostly one giant extended family) was so welcoming and friendly and interesting that I would have been happy to stay. At the same time, I often had nothing to do and felt a little odd about eating meals with my family, maybe playing some cards or spending as much time as I could stand playing with Fifa (up to 2.5 hours) and then heading off to read or play cards with other TBBers. It was almost as if I had to either move in permenantly and become a working member of the community (which, lets be realistic, would never happen…hillside agriculture is just not my cup of tea) or move out. Still, I was sad to go when the time for leaving arrived and all the Mugahs (host mothers, but the word means Aunt in Bawkinyal) were sad to see us go. A few of them cried. My host mother apparently did, but by that time I'd lost her in the little crowd. We'd had a farewell party the night before where they sang, we sang (this time we were prepared!), we each gave thank you speeches to our families that we'd written in Thai with Ajan Danai's help and then we showed them our media pieces and they blessed our journey. It was much like our other farewell parties in structure, but felt much more intimate than the dinner in Kunming, the performance and subsequent singing of I'll Make a Man Out of You in Shaxi and even the fiesta in Bua, although that would be a close second. Our final goodbye, when we were actually loading the trucks, was similar in its difference. All the women and children and some men came out to see us off. In Bua we'd been picked up one by one in the back of Wilson's truck, in Kunming we were dropped off at the University and in Shaxi we were seen off, but we each knew only our own host families. The Ban Huay Hee goodbye was the most meaningful and the best as well as maybe the saddest. The Ban Huay Hee homestay restored my faith in the awesomeness of homestays (particularly after feeling like I wasn't even in Vietnam without a homestay, although that may be for other reasons as well) although if I ever consider doing a homestay again, it will be rural whether I speak the language or not.


And so we were off to the Fern resort for our enrichment week. This was spent mostly reading, heading into Mae Hong Son to use the internet and skype and hanging out with the crew. One morning we did go elephant riding, though. I sort of imagined that we'd go to an elephant preserve where elephants were rescued and tourists were welcomed, taught about the plight of elephants and allowed to ride them to raise money for the preserve. This idea had no basis in fact and turned out to be pretty far off. We arrived at the elephant riding start point to find a group of British ex-pat kids from Singapore dismounting the elephants. After they'd all gotten off and settled, we were paired up and put into the little chair things atop the elephants backs and proceeded to take the elephants on the same trail right back where they'd come from. The male elephants wore chains around their necks and the baby elephant that tagged along at the side of the female Katie and I were riding had a chain around its ankle that dragged out behind it. The man sitting on the elephant's head, the driver, so to speak, held a stick of about elbow-to-fingertip length with a slightly curved metal spike at the tip. He would from time to time whack the baby elephant with the spike when it was dawdling. It was pretty sad. As cool a photo op as elephant riding was and as neat as it is to be able to get so close to such majestic animals, it was mostly just depressing. I kept remembering that National Geographic or Discovery Channel special I saw that talked about how elephants mourn and bury their dead. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals and I'm sure that being chained and forced to walk back and forth on the same trail with three people sitting on my back would not be conducive to a happy life were I an elephant. This prompted pondering on where to draw the line with acceptable captivity. Cows? Ok. Dogs? Ok. Elephants? Maybe not so much. It has something to do with the fact that cows and dogs often depend on humans for their survival. It's almost a mutual thing. Although, of course, they can survive in the wild. Maybe, then, it has more to do with their being kept in accordance with their nature – dogs that herd and cattle that graze. Industrial cattle ranching? Not ok. Keeping a dog in an apartment in a big city? I don't know. It requires some more pondering.


There was also a white water rafting expedition, but I skipped out on that. I love rafting, but I needed a break from activities, some time to read up on the news and call home and blog. (See? I did need the time. I didn't even get around to blogging!)


Then Friday came the six hour drive to Chiang Mai and an expedition to the night market where many a (bootleg) DVD was purchased as a sort of last hurrah for Southeast Asia. I also got a really really really adorable elephant lamp where the body is made of a coconut and the limbs and head are wood. It's compact and wonderful and will be displayed prominently in my dorm room. Sandy got the same lamp for her baby niece which should, to be clear, be interpreted as a demonstration of the amazingly cultured adult taste of said infant and not in any other way.


Today six TBBers and I went to a six course cooking class which was really fun and resulted in very full stomachs and the possession of a yummy Thai cookbook which I intend to open again long before I reach California.


I have two more bullet points on my to-tell list: my thoughts on sustainable agriculture and about next month (before our epic 57 hour plane journey begins tomorrow evening) but I'm going to go watch one of my recently purchased DVD's now so that will have to wait.


In the meantime, new pictures are up.


Much love, especially on this, the Hallmark-proclaimed Day of Love,


Friday, January 30, 2009

Duhblu(t) and Sawatdee-ka from Mae Hong Son!

It's been ten days since I've had a bed or a warm shower (or a shower at all, actually…I have had some icy bucket baths, though) or a meal that wasn't mostly white rice, but somehow it feels like much longer. It's not that I'm uncomfortable or unhappy in Ban Huay Hee (the name of the Karen village we're staying in) – not at all – it's just that time has a way of morphing when days move slowly and instead of coming in 24 hours a day, news comes not at all. When I got to a computer today (we came in to town at 7am for our Independent Student Travel weekend) I spent the five minutes it took to load the New York Times website meditating on the fact that half the world could have exploded and I wouldn't have had any idea. It turns out that the world is mostly still around, although apparently North Korea is particularly unhappy with South Korea, Zimbabwe is imploding at an increasing speed and a World Economic Summit is in progress in Davos, Switzerland. Oh, and Obama is president (!!!!!!!) but still has the carpet designed by Laura Bush in the oval office as well as a set of green plates that he doesn't like because he hasn't yet gotten around to redecorating.


Some thoughts:


My instinct, on getting to our hotel room, was to turn on the TV and check BBC news. The first time I heard the words "President Obama" I stopped organizing my tote bag of stuff and did a little hop of joy. Later, Katie C and I (we're rooming together at a hotel with reasonable rooms and a beautiful courtyard area for $6 a night per person) got to watch his inauguration speech which Liz had downloaded to one of the computers. I thought it was pretty good. At one point I actually almost started crying – I think it was out of relief that Bush is out and someone that I personally think is intelligent, logical and practical now has the reins. There were no "nothing to fear but fear itself" lines but I really liked the bit about how the goal should not be to have big government or small government but to have a government that works. I mean, YES. THANK YOU. That should have been too obvious for stating, shouldn't it? Then again, this is all old news to you people. I fully appreciate the awesomeness of being in Thailand, but I would love to be in America following the news constantly during Obama's first few months, political junkie that I've become. Or is everyone sick of hearing about it now? It's when I have to ask things like that (and when the news says "The American state of Ohio") that I feel really far away.


On another news topic, Zimbabwe has now switched away from it's currency to using whatever other currencies people can get their hands on. Inflation has apparently reached a point where you're counting zeros to describe it – BBC news said it is 1 with 24 zeros percent. Wow. Sixty THOUSAND people have been stricken with cholera. HALF the people in the country will need food aid just to survive. What I can't figure out is: what is Mugabe thinking? From what I know about him, which is not as much as I should or would like to, I know that he fought for his country's independence and was loved by the people. He was a reasonable leader. He MUST have cared. Does he still care? Is he in denial? Has he been too corrupted by power and money? How can you hear those first statistics and not DO anything? What is going ON?


Anyway, to a quick description of Ban Huay Hee because I know that's what you're here for, isn't it? (Be honest, you just skimmed that last bit to see if it had anything at all to do with Thailand didn't you?)


The village is a two hour drive up a mountain into a national forest, but as the crow flies it's not really that far…it's just that the mostly dirt road is pretty carved up so you have to go slowly and by the time you arrive you and all of your bags are a light reddish brown because of all the dust. The village has apparently been in the same general location for 200 years so I think the national forest came second and has thus allowed the Karen to stay.


The villagers practice rotational agriculture which, although it involves burning fields before planting (called "swidden" agriculture) seems pretty darn sustainable. (Remember we're studying sustainable agriculture this month?) They plant a field for one year and let it lie fallow for eight. They can feed themselves off of the food they grow in those fields (which are on the sides of steep mountains and a lot of work to get to and to farm) as well as what they grow in their vegetable gardens (a relatively recent addition to the village food system). Actually, the food distribution in the village is really interesting. It seems mostly communal, as in you help plant and harvest what you will need and give 10% of what you harvest to a community stockpile (from which a few families purchase their food, for example the school teacher whose husband has a job other than farming and so doesn't harvest anything). The Karen in this village converted from their old animist religion to Christianity sometime between 20 and 40 years ago (which is when missionaries, both Thai and American, started to show up in the village) and we wonder if this 10% business is some form of a tithe because it seems the money from purchased stored food goes to the church. Fascinatingly, a man named Pati Saju with whom Robin and Sandy are staying and who speaks some English said that they converted to Christianity because it was much easier than their animist beliefs which required them to go make all sorts of offerings in the fields. Someone else seemed to think that Christianity was better because they didn't have to "make up" new spirits. Huh. Anyway, they have informal church on Wednesday nights and then more formal church (meaning in the church as opposed to someone's house and not meaning that small screaming children are not constantly present) all day on Sundays. My family has among its few possessions a Bawkinyal translation of the bible. (Before you go "Bawkin-what?" just read on a little…I couldn't be bothered to compose and better order this description because everything seems so interconnected and the information you are getting has been gathered in bits and pieces and in no logical order at all…apologies.)


The Karen, or at least the Karen in Ban Huay Hee because I'm beginning to gather that they aren't a particularly unified ethnic group, speak a language called Bawkinyal or, in Thai, Pasaa Karen which is what I call it because that is what my host mother, Viluhvuh (that's sort of how it sounds and not at all how it's spelled), calls it. The younger Karen speak Thai, but the elders (aka people in their forties and fifties) mostly don't. No one speaks more than a few words of English accept apparently Pati Saju. (I discovered today that the people I've seen a documentary about on the National Geographic Channel or something whose women put metal rings around their throats that weight down their shoulders and elongate their necks are also Karen and live somewhere around here…The documentary said their village has gotten very touristy and I believe it –I discovered that they were near here and Karen because there were a ton of photographs on postcards being sold at a coffee shop we stopped in at and they were called the "Long Neck Karen of Mae Hong Son"…Now I'm really curious about the history of the Karen people…I think they're from Burma originally because their script apparently pretty closely resembles Burmese script… I'll look it up on Wikipedia…)


Anyway, to the housing situation. It varies. Most of the houses are made primarily from bamboo with woven bamboo walls and bamboo floors over wooden crossbeams. Not whole, round bamboo, though. It's as if it's been chopped down and cut lengthwise such that it sort of unrolls into a scored sheet that is still connected and then left to dry. Once dry it's laid on the floor or used to weave some walls. It's beautiful and if the houses were spruced up and not located in a rural agricultural village they would be like bungalows at a swanky, secluded hotel. The general common structure is a room or two for sleeping and a room for the kitchen and one for storage. In between the two blocks of rooms is a little covered outdoor area for sitting or working or whatever. All the houses are different, though. One generalization I can make is that they are all raised, although some only a foot and others six or seven feet. My house, of course, doesn't follow the generalization at all. Or, I should say, my houses. Instead of having a kitchen segment and a sleeping segment, my family has a sleeping house and a cooking house across the road from each other (one main "highway" runs through the village, although the houses do go back from the street in one direction and have little side paths etc.) Our sleeping house is two rooms and made entirely from wood with a corrugated tin roof. It's elevated about 6 ½ feet off the ground so that it is basically a second story without a first and is not in any way pretty. Our kitchen house is also a second story without a first. The floor is wood, but the walls are bamboo and the roof is made of dried palm leaves. I have a feeling this house is older and the living one relatively new. The older one is much prettier. Under the kitchen house the family keeps its chickens. (Oh yes, we're back in the land of the 4am rooster crow). There doesn't seem to be a garden, nor does my mother seem to gather firewood so again, I'm living with an anomaly that no one can quite explain. Behind the kitchen house is the bathroom hut. It's a room (on ground level) about the size of a twin bed with a cement floor , bamboo walls and a tin roof. There is a tap to fill a bucket from which you can take bucket baths (there is running water in Ban Huay Hee due to what I think must be a gravity based system built through what I assume was a government project) and a blue porcelain squat toilet in the floor (this I know came from a government project). It's really quite nice. A big step up from my Bua bathroom (although other people in Bua had eco-toilets and so aren't quite as thrilled) although I think I prefer bathing in the Rio to bucket bathing. It's easier, although to be fair it does involve more pesticides and the danger of poisonous snake bites. The only problem with the bathroom is that it is WAY to far away to brave the journey in the middle of the night and that after dark I'm afraid to go in anyway because of the creepy crawlies that come out. The first night I saw a centipede that I think was poisonous (apparently a lot of them here are and they sting and it hurts) and the second night the eight eyes of a giant black spider glinted in the light of my headlamp. Since then, though, it's been alright. My wildlife encounters have been fully manageable. Fingers crossed. (Zach, on the other hand, was attacked by a spider he says was the size of his hand when it fell out of his mosquito net one night as he unfurled it to set up his bed. He finally got it outside of the safe perimeter of the tucked in net and the next night, as he was being tormented by it's skittering around the floor, one of the family cats came out of nowhere, pounced and ate it…so no more spider!)


I was given, I'm pretty sure, the room my family normally sleeps in. Most people were, I think. There is a king sized pad on the floor and a king sized square mosquito net (in a dashing bright teal) to go over it. (This square mosquito net thing is GENIOUS! I feel super cozy and protected from creepy crawlies once inside and since I'm sleeping on the floor I can actually tuck it in so that it functions, unlike in Bua…although the bright pink net with wire and mesh butterflies attached that Isabel and I had in Bua may have made the superior bed net fashion statement…seriously though, I kind of want one for college…it makes it feel like you have your own little cozy space. I wonder how I can explain the need for a bednet in Providence…hmm). I keep my stuff mostly in my bags so as to be neat and also because when I arrived I was pretty convinced that I had more stuff in my bags than they have in their two houses combined. Now I don't think that's true – I've seen all the laundry my mother has done – but I still feel better keeping the room at empty looking as possible as that seems to be the aesthetic of all the rooms. Stuff they do have is kept in big plastic bins so that if a bunch of people come over nothing needs to be moved.


So Ban Huay Hee does have running water, but, you ask, does it have electricity? Well, yes, sort of. Each house or building (so the school is included, as is the "salaa," our open air meeting area) is equipped with a solar panel. The government came in and set them up four or five years back because there is no chance that this village will end up on the actual electric grid pretty much ever. Most families use the electricity from the solar panels to put a little fluorescent light in each room and to power a small TV. No one has a refrigerator or an electric stove. In fact, no one has a stove. Cooking over an open fire is still the method du jour.


So that brings us to food. I don't want to give too much away, because one of the media projects this month is a movie about following a meal, but basically all kitchens contain a wok, a pot, a teapot and a stand to put them on under which a fire can be built. The kitchen in my family's house also has a bucket that can be filled with coals and used as a warmer or have a fire built inside so you can cook something over that as well. Most kitchens seem to have the cooking area in the middle over which is a bamboo structure of one or two levels that functions as a shelving unit. In our kitchen, the cooking area is in the corner (the rest of the room is empty) and there is no bamboo shelving. There is a wooden shelf in an adjacent corner and a few plastic bags hanging from nails that function as food storage bins, knife holders or trash bags as the need arises. Meals are basically white rice and a side or two. What happens is this: each person is given their own bowl of white rice and the communal dishes (in my house usually chopped lettuce with some pieces of meat stir fried together or some form of egg – boiled, fried, scrambled, omletted – often including tomato and onion) are placed in the middle. You take one spoonful of a communal dish at a time and eat it with your rice. I mostly eat with my family, although my father was away for several days and my mother would always make me eat first because I'm a guest and then she and my little brother would eat what was left over (which I'd try to make sure was plenty without being insultingly too much). A lot of TBBers, however, are brought together for every meal and served separately from the rest of their families. I've only done that twice and while it's nice to get to sit and talk during a meal instead of sitting in silence with your host mother watching you eat, it is cool that I get to spend most meals as family time. A balance is best, I think, not that I have any control over the matter.


Which brings me right to the issue of daily schedules or lack thereof. One of the hardest things for me about living in Ban Huay Hee is that I never know what I'm doing until I've already done it. It didn't take us very long to realize that we wouldn't be doing much farming. At first we were told it was because there were soldiers in the woods because the Queen is coming to Mae Hong Son (which is true) but it turns out that it is the dry season smack in between the November/December harvest and the late February burn during which very little farming is going on. (We have this great article in our reader from our partner program ISDSI about farming in hilltribe villages that talks about how the Karen eat basically just rice and about how in January no one farms…Unfortunately, no one told us about the no farming thing ahead of time…ah well). We did visit the old field, which was neat, but that's about the extent of our farming. (This is, fankly, fine with me…I'm not really in the mood to farm on a steep steep hillside…it just doesn't sound like my kind of thing). So what do we do during the day? Well, one day I went to collect leaves from the forest which we then ate for lunch and another day my mom taught me to string a loom. The Karen are master weavers, but my mom, in another anomaly, doesn't seem to weave nearly as much as other mothers do. Actually, to be fair, it's not really unexplained. I assume it's the presence of a fiendish two-year old son that prevents her weaving. It certainly prevented her teaching me to weave. A lot of people, though, spend the mornings weaving cloth or, in the case of boys, watching girls weave cloth or maybe helping to weave a basket. In the afternoons we have Thai class from 1:30 to 3:00 (although we just lost one of our two teachers to back problems and a dislike for rural areas…you see, initially we'd be going to a village called Meh Ta which apparently is flat not hilly, involves sleeping in beds not on the floor, has all sorts of vehicles going through and even has showers instead of bucket baths…it sounds "rural" along the lines of Shaxi not Ban Huay Hee and while it sounds like a really nice place to be, I'm glad we're in a rural village without the quotation marks because it's somewhere I probably wouldn't have found on my own or stayed in for three weeks…anyway, that is the location Ajan Gope signed up to teach in and so she's not coming back with us to Ban Huay Hee on Sunday)…Wow, tangent, sorry. So we have Thai from 1 to 3 and then seminar until 4:30ish. Dinner is 5:30ish and then I've taken to heading to the salaa and playing cards for an hour or so. Then writing, reading etc and bed. Up at 6. Well, now I get up more like 7ish (it started at 6 because that's what my family told me the first night and I followed orders for about three days before I started shifting to later) and some TBBers get up at 9…it depends on you and on your family. Then again, sometimes I'm up at 4 thanks to the cold and the roosters and some sort of cat fight always seems to wake me up around midnight…Anyway, I like to be up early and head to the kitchen while my mother is there cooking and sit with her and play with the family cat. (This cat, by the way, is orange and white and adorable and I love him. I named him Cat so as not to get too attached and also after the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's. And I've gotten the family to be substantially less cruel to him mostly because of my involuntary horror at the hitting, kicking and pulling of tails that was going on -mostly on the part of my little brother…still, Cat is no replacement for Mystery and Honey whom I miss dearly.)


Now, it seems I have yet to actually describe my host family. My mother, Viluhvuh, is, I think, 27 next month. She told me 26 and then 25 but I found her passport in my room and it says her birthday is February 22, 1982. It also says she went to Canada in 2003 which, although it explains the fact that she has a passport, is rather mysterious seeing as it seems that no one else in the village has been as far as Burma. I can't exactly ask her about it, though, because of a, the language issue and b, the fact that I  probably should not have been looking at her passport in the first place even if she did leave it out in my room. Anyway, her husband, she told me, is 22. He could be 18 he looks so young. He's really sweet and always smiles and he has one of the best smiles in the world as does my little brother. This brings me to my little brother, aka the devil child. You think I'm exaggerating don't you? Oh, oh I am NOT. Other TBBers will confirm that it is entirely possible that this kid is Rosemary's Baby. He hits not only the cat with sticks but his mother. And he kicks her. And he throws tantrums ever 2 seconds when he doesn't get what he wants. And these are calculated tantrums…you can see the thought process. And when he does something bad he smiles mischievously as if he knows he won't be punished. He won't be. And he's filthy and he drools everywhere and he spits on my and put his open mouth full of food on my leg so that I now have a giant spit stain circle on it. And he periodically wets his pants and even when he doesn't he just takes them off because he doesn't seem to much like the idea of pants so that about 50% of the time he's running around half naked. I'm not complaining so much as endeavoring to explain the horror that is my little host brother. Anyway, I couldn't figure out why my host mother let him be such a terror until I interviewed her for my media project (which I'll explain next). The first question was basic. What's your name, how many kids do you have, when were you married etc. She started crying. It turns out, she had another child that died. I don't know how or when (we haven't done the full translation yet but I have a feeling she doesn't say) but the wound seems pretty raw. I think this explains not only her overindulgence of the devil child but also the fact that I don't often end up at meals with other TBBers, that she doesn't eat very much and that she doesn't seem to do anything during the day except for cook and hang out with her son. It may also explain the visit to Canada, although I sort of doubt it since in 2003 her husband was 17 or 18…but then, Katie C's host mom had her first kid at 18 so it's not impossible. Anyway, I've tried to be more tolerant of my little brother, but he was so horrible one night that I think she actually decided that she would make him behave better, at least towards me, and in the last two days he's been infinitely more tolerable.


So media projects. I am a FAN of how we organized them this month. We got ourselves into groups based on ideas for topics and creative use of media so we will come out with 6 projects this month instead of 4. All of the projects sound fabulous. In only a few weeks you'll get to listen to a rap about sustainable agriculture, watch a video tracing a meal in Ban Huay Hee, read a short story about becoming sustainable, hear a song about cultural values while watching a photo montage, view a sort of stop-motion animation project and watch three women from the village tell their own stories. Except the projects are all much much much cooler than my pathetic summary just made them sound. The last one, though, is the one my group (which is me, Katie C. and  Alexandra) is doing. We're interviewing our host mothers about their roles in their homes and in the fields and how the village is changing. So far we're two down, one to go. The interviews with my mom and Katie's mom have been incredible. The last one though, which we're supposed to be doing Monday (although scheduling in Ban Huay Hee is near to impossible), could be the best yet and will definitely be the most difficult. It's Alexandra's mom. She's part of the older generation (aka she's 48) and speaks no Thai (and doesn't read in any language) so we'll have to do a double translation from Bawkinyal to Thai and Thai to English. She's a really really cool woman (I've hung out with her and I can tell, despite the fact that neither of us has any idea what the other is actually saying) and we're all really excited. So you all should be excited to see our media projects from this month…I think they'll be the best yet by far.


A quick aside: this media project really makes me (and Katie and Alexandra too I think) really want to interview my own family so all of you who count yourselves as part of that group had better watch out come May. I may be lurking in your living room with a voice recorder or video camera, armed with a packet of questions…


So we've been studying sustainable agriculture this month which frankly I was not particularly interested in last August and have become increasingly interested in as the year has progressed, particularly this month. I know I already recommended Omnivore's Dilemma (read it!) and the documentary called The Future of Food (watch it!) but I'm back to recommend Fast Food Nation (the book, although apparently there is also a movie). A few interesting or just plain terrifying facts I've learned from this book (which I've not quite finished yet) include:


·      Each head of cattle needs 30 acres of pasture for grazing (this sounds extreme to me and I'm not sure what kind of pasture they're referring to or what "need" is…can anyone elaborate?)

·      The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the U.S. is three times the national average

·      A 1995 survey showed that the typical "grower" (chicken farmer) had been raising chickens for 15 years, owned 3 poultry houses (each holding 25,000 birds and costing about $150,000 to build), remained deeply in debt and earned about $12,000 a year

·      A medium coke at McDonalds that cost $1.29 (circa I think 2003) contained exactly 9 cents worth of syrup…Soda has the highest profit margin for fast food restaurants

·      The typical U.S. kid spends 21 hours per week watching TV…that's 1 ½ months of the year (!)

·      Every month, 90% of American kids between 3 and 9 years old visit a McDonalds.

·      Every year, roughly ¼ of U.S. meatpacking workers (about 40,000 people) suffer an injury or work-related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid…and thousands of additional injuries and illnesses go unreported

·      Meatpacking plants today process up to 400 cows per hour (that's a cow every 10 seconds) as compared to 175 per hour 20 years ago and 50 per hour in the meatpacking heyday in Chicago closer to the turn of the 20th century.

·      The USDA buys the cheapest (and so worst) meat to serve in school lunch programs.

·      After an outbreak of E. coli linked to Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993, Dr. Russell Cross, the head of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said, "the presence of bacteria in raw meat, including E. coli 0157:H7 [the particularly harmful and potentially fatal strain], although undesirable, is unavoidable, and not cause for condemnation of the product."



Our seminars have been really interesting this month, too. Talking about organics and whether or not vegetarianism is more sustainable. I fully intended to write about our discussions and my thoughts on them, but this blog has gotten absurdly long and I have to go take advantage of being in a city so I'm not going to, at least right now. Read those books and watch those documentaries and we'll talk when I get back…I think this is a topic I'll be interested in for a long time.


One last thing: Mae Hong Son, while touristy, is really nice. Small, manageable…if you're ever in Thailand you should come here and then spend a night or so in Ban Huay Hee. (I didn't even get around to mentioning the fact that they have a Community Based Tourism industry there so you could absolutely do a homestay).


That's all for now. Keep keeping me posted on your lives…I read ALL the emails with pleasure :-)


Duhblu(t) and Sawatdee-ka

(Those are both hello and goodbye…)







Sunday, January 18, 2009

I Slaughtered A Pig Today And Other Stories

Hey there! This timely update brought to you by the Committee of Necessity, as in, I need to write now because I most likely won’t be able to for the next three weeks. So here I am. Let’s get going:

We’ll start with 

a Thai geography lesson. Below is (if I can get one to upload) a map of Thailand.

Just kidding. I can't. Here's a reasonably good one:

We started off our time in Thailand on Koh Tao, an island that is, I believe in the mouth of the elephant that is Thailand (a little South of Bangkok) From there we went to Chiang Mai which is in the Northwest of the country (the elephant’s right ear). UHDP, where we are now, is about three hours outside of Chiang Mai – I think to the North. We were going to go do homestays in a village called Mei Ta (I’m SURE that is spelled incorrectly so I wouldn’t try to find it on a map) which is an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai in a different direction. The thing was, we found out last week that since the village was so busy this time of year, we’d be paired up for homestays and there would even be two groups of three (which seems like quite a large burden on a rural family, but that’s how the village wanted it). I was kind of glad to have a homestay sibling – I just feel more comfortable with another foreigner around with whom to exchange looks of confusion or try to put together an intelligible sentence in Thai – but no one else seemed particularly thrilled, least of all our fearless leaders who’d thought we’d all have our own homestay families. Two days ago, an opportunity arose to have homestays in a different village. In this village there are so many families that want us to stay we may have to switch in the middle of our three weeks there…we’ll see. This village is six hours outside of Chiang Mai to the WNW, close to the Burmese border. The nearest big city is Mae Hong Son which we’ll stopover in tomorrow night to stock up on warm clothes. It’s chilly here! It’s two hours up to the village from there in some sort of off-road vehicle (at least, that’s the impression I got since it’s also faster to get down than to go up…)


The village, by this point you’ve probably realized that I’m not withholding the name for purposes of suspense so much as that I don’t know what it is, apparently has orchid farms that are in bloom as well as an old weaving culture. We’ll be helping our families on their vegetable farms starting quite early in the morning through lunch, then returning for an hour and a half of Thai class (so far, our teachers are fabulous, fun and I may actually be learning some Thai) and a seminar or other educational activity.  

There are 121 families in the village (or something like that) so we should be fairly close together (they may have been trying to make me feel better about not having a homestay buddy…no one has actually been to this village yet). There’s no electricity, I’ve heard, although we’ll have some solar powered generators to charge camera batteries or computers (which can be used soley for media project work this month). Ipods are a no go as is, clearly, internet. During our independent student travel weekend, I might go to Mae Hong Son or even Chiang Mai for a warm shower and some contact with the world. Otherwise, you’ll hear from me sometime in early to mid February. We have an epic two day journey from our village to S. Africa. Get this: drive to Chiang Mai, fly to Bangkok, to Delhi, to Mumbai, to Dubai to Capetown to somewhere else in S. Africa and then drive two hours to our final destination. This includes two 7 or 8 hour layovers. Luckily, we’re all fans of layovers (Sandy loves that she gets to say: “Good news! A seven hour layover!”) and we have several airplane lovers. Frankly, it’s beginning to feel weird to be out of airports for more than a few weeks at a time.  The point is, though, that there will likely be internet in those airports and plenty of free time.


So what have we been up to here at UHDP? What IS UHDP? Why am I asking myself questions? Anyway. UHDP stands for Upland Holistic Development Project. It seems to be basically an organic farming and agroforestry experimentation and outreach center. It was started by an American but has since been handed over and is headed by locals. It works with fourteen villages in the surrounding area, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices. There is a volunteer in each village that will implement UHDP’s newest (pre-tested) ideas and give a demonstration to other community members. The concept seems to be working pretty well.


We’re staying in one room with a bunch of bunk beds for the girls and one adjoining room of the same size for the boys. Keep in mind there are 5 boys and 9 girls. We’re noticing a trend: the boys get showers and we don’t, they get refrigerators and we don’t…we’re not seriously complaining, but it is rather funny that they care substantially less than we do about things like bathing and keeping cold yogurt in the room and yet get easier access to both :-)


Alright, now some chronological order is called for.


Day 1 at UHDP: Tour. We walked through the plant nursery, the pig pens and the agroforest. (Unfortunately, I always seem to end up on forest walks with no prior notice and am never appropriately dressed…in Bua I believe I fell flat on my bottom twice—it may have been three times…this time my skirted and flip-flopped self only ate it once—it was less muddy.)


Day 2: We started the day off (after our 7:30 am breakfast which I think is soon to sound like downright sleeping in) with our first real Thai class. Here’s a crash course in case you get trapped in Thai Town or want to show off at your next cocktail party:


Hello = sawatdee ka (if you, the speaker, are a woman) or sawatdee krap (if you, the speaker, are a man)…the t/d is a common sound, as is the b/p – our teachers notate them as (s)t and (s)p, as in the t or p sound after an s.


Delicious = aroy


Spicy = pet


I’m full = im laew


Sorry/Excuse me = kaw toat (with this one, you also wai, which is a bow with your hands together in prayer position…there are a seemingly endless variety of wais depending on the situation, but we were told it would be alright for us farangs – foreigners – to stick with one basic bow)


There you go! Now you too are on your way to speaking Thai. At least you have the important words. 

Anyway, after class we had a seminar looking at the values our families place on food – there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on convenient and fast. No surprise there.


In the afternoon we split into two groups. One went to learn about plant propagation and the other went to learn about composting. I was in the composting group. We first chopped down a banana tree (they only give banana’s once and then you have to chop them down to make room for the new upshoots). We carried it over to the composting area and helped to chop it up. Some of the pieces were mixed with molasses and put in a jar to ferment for six days at which time it would be fed to the pigs. (Apparently the fermentations adds 10% more protein). Other pieces were mixed with more molasses and left to ferment for a month. This mixture would be combined with water and added to the compost pile to speed up the decomposition process (it’s basically a bottle of bacteria…there is a commercial organic chemical that is used for the same purpose but made of fermented fruits sold under the name EM, which stands for something micro-organisms). Our next project was collecting dried pig dung to add to dried leaves and old thatch roofs in the compost pile. Finally, we made an organic pesticide by chopping up a root related to ginger, cintronella and nim leaves, pounding them together and dipping them in water much like a giant tea bag. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

Day 3: We had breakfast, Thai class and seminar (this time on how farming became unsustainable which was very interesting and led to a pretty philosophical discussion that I personally really enjoyed, although I know some people are not such fans of the very abstract). Our afternoon was occupied by a plant identification survey, or rather, a more thorough tour of the agroforest, stopping to identify and discuss about fifteen different plants. It was pretty interesting and quite bitter (I’m referring to taste, as we ate almost every plant we stopped at). It’s strange to think how most people today, especially city-dwellers, really know very little about plants and flowers etc. I can recognize maybe 15 types of flowers, some trees, a few plants and of course some fruit trees and other California agricultural products, but nothing that would allow me to survive in the forest. Then again, as that situation probably won’t present itself any time soon, those are brain cells I could be and am using for something more useful (like how to upload photos or download podcasts).


After dinner (have I mentioned that the food here I delicious? Well, it is. AND we wash our own dishes which makes it feel kind of homey) we watched a movie called The Future of Food. To be fair, it was rather one-sided, but it was fascinating and terrifying and, I think, worth watching (right after you watch The Corporation that is).  Did you know, for example, that 90% of the vegetable varieties grown in 1900 are extinct? That it is only recently that living things are allowed to be patented? That any farmer’s crops that accidentally incorporate the DNA of genetically modified plants become the property of the company that owns the patent for that plant DNA? Have you considered what will happen if the “terminator gene” (the so-called “suicide gene” that causes plants to produce infertile seeds so that farmers will need to keep buying seeds from seed companies) outcrosses and contaminates other farmers’ crops? I hadn’t. Now I have. Now I’m more than a little freaked out.


Day 4 – The Day of the Pig Slaughter: After breakfast we headed down to clean the pig pens. We scooped out the poo, swept out the dust, sprayed the floors with a hose, sprinkled on a cleaning chemical, scrubbed it around with a stiff broom and rinsed. When I say we, I mean various individual volunteers – there were only three little pens, after all. After learning a little more about pig feed and how pig farming here works (including the fun fact that the Buddhist communities around here prefer black pigs and black chickens because there is a goddess that favors them so UHDP gives it’s reddish brown piglets (I saw no pink ones) to the Christian communities) we headed to a sunny spot to hear Apat, a member of the Pulong minority who has worked at UHDP for 11 years, and a younger worker here, a member of the Lahu minority, explain their communities’ respective pig slaughter rituals. I say this a lot, I know, but it was really interesting, particularly the differences between the two cultures. One community slits the pig’s throat, the other hits it on the head and stabs its heart. It seems that pig slaughters are mostly for special occasions. For more minor occasions or religious offerings people tend to kill chickens.


After lunch, it was time. We went down to an open field behind a cement-floored area with a corrugated tin roof. There was a cage with a really cute sleeping pink pig. It had just arrived; it hadn’t been raised at UHDP. None of the UHDP pigs were of slaughtering age yet (or they were too old). We watched as two men tied rope around each of the pigs hind legs so that it couldn’t run far when the cage was opened. Ajan Tui (Too-ee…not that I’m spelling it right anyway) instructed Zach in the proper place to stab the pig to get the heart and kill it quickly (Zach was our designated pig slaughterer), then they opened the cage. One man bludgeoned the pig on the head as it ran out. It fell immediately and started twitching violently. It didn’t squeal. I think it had been knocked out and was seizing, but I can’t be sure.  He hit it two or three more times with a dull thud. I couldn’t watch. The sound of a wooden club on bone was gruesome enough. Four designated pig holders (some TBB students and some drawn from other visitors or interns here) rushed forward to grab the twitching legs and lifted the pig onto the bamboo and wood table where Zach was ready with a knife and Liz with a metal pot for collecting the blood. He stabbed the heart, opening up a slit about four inches long along the pig’s chest, and the blood gushed out and into the waiting pot. After a while, someone grabbed the pig’s hind legs and lifted them in the air, allowing more blood to drain out.


From there the pig was carried over onto the cement floor, covered with a blanket (Ajan Tui: “Go to sleep, little pig”), and bathed in scalding water to loosen the hair and top layer of skin (I think). The body was uncovered, a second large knife or machete was brought out and we began scraping off the hair two by two. After a few more boiling baths and a lot of scraping, the pig was returned to the bamboo table and we were instructed to stand back. A few Thai men grabbed what looked like large dried palm leaves or old pieces of roof thatch, set them on fire and began to bat the pig carcass with them, searing of the extra hair and then burning through a layer or two of skin. Some minutes later, after scraping off the burnt bits and hosing the carcass down, one man cut off a strip of skin and the underlying layer of fat and offered it around to eat. I decided that I would likely not butcher a pig ever again so I should try everything. Seared pig skin? Fatty…a chewy layer and then just fatty. Not my favorite.


Anyway, then they began to slit the body open down the center of its stomach. One man pulled out two handfuls of congealed blood that I swear looked exactly like cherry jell-o and then some scoops of more watery blood, all of which went into the blood pot, except, of course, for what we drank. What? Drank? Blood? Oh, yes. Many people cook a dish called Lap with pig’s blood, but you can also drink it fresh and it was offered so, according to my earlier decision, I had to try it. Katie R. and Zach both went for it, scooping out a palmful and sipping from their hands like someone drinking water from a spring. I dipped a finger in and licked off the blood. Several others did as well. Shockingly, it tasted like blood. Salty. Watery. I only had a little, so it was basically like sucking on a bad paper cut.


Once the remaining blood was drained, the innards were collected in a plastic bin (actually, come to think of it, it was exactly like the one I just used to wash my clothes…), the head was cut off and the body chopped into two halves. We were all offered a slice of fresh kidney. It basically tasted like fat. John really liked it. I’m not so much a meat person (read: until this trip hadn’t eaten anything mammalian in six years) so I wasn’t such a fan. The body and head were then carried up towards the kitchen for further butchering. Everyone was told to follow to help chop ribs, cut loin etc. except for three people who should stay to help clean the innards. I volunteered for that job. I figured cutting meat was a much less novel experience than cleaning the small intestine of a freshly killed pig.


So how does one clean the intestine of a pig? Or any intestine for that matter? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I now know. You cut the small intestine into sections of manageable length, then run water through it to flush out all the gunky fluorescent greeny-yellow liquid inside. (After this you can put it in a pot to boil or throw in on a grill). For the large intestine, you cut it into two or three pieces (as opposed to about eight for the smaller, longer one) and squeeze out the chunks of what would soon become poo. Then you rinse and, if you’re feeling fancy, turn it inside out and back again to make sure it’s extra clean. This part is really quite fun.  You think I’m kidding. I’m not.


Anyway, when we were done cleaning and grilling the innards, I headed up to catch the end of the chopping…it was choppy. Katie R took to the butcher knife like a fish to water :-) And, in conclusion, for the last seven meals we have had some form of pork. I’m not a huge pork person, but there is always something else incredibly delicious (like tonight, for example, pumpkin curry…mmm!)


Day 5: Immediately after breakfast we hopped in the backs of two trucks (but they had a sort of shell over them and benches, so it’s half car, half back of truck…the doorway out the back has no door and all the dust still gets in) and headed to a Pulong village about thirty minutes away to attend the wedding of a man who works at UHDP. It was amazing that they allowed 25 foreigners to just show up and join in. We arrived at the bride’s house just as the parade from the groom’s house in the next village over was turning the corner. The costumes reminded me a lot of one of the traditional outfits we saw in Shaxi, I think it was the Yii people, but it may have been the Tibetans, which was really interesting because in China we talked a lot about the ethnic minorities (because half of China’s ethnic minorities live in Yunan, the province we were in and because Sam was really interested in them) and how most of them cross borders between Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Southern China. Anyway, we took off our shoes and moved into the dark main room of the house. It was very crowded, but people eventually moved and most of us got to sit down and watch as the bride and groom had their hands tied together with string and then as guests approached with 20 baht bills (about 66 cents), placed the bill in their joined palms and wrapped the string around once more. Some of us even gave some money and wrapped the string. The bride didn’t look terribly happy, but she may have just been nervous. When she had to grab a bill out of the groom’s mouth with her own she giggled embarrassedly before making an attempt. Although marriages are still sometimes arranged in the community and the bride was 20 while the groom was 30, this marriage, we were told, was a love match.  After the ceremony, we went back outside to let the local guests have room to eat, but, before we could walk away for our tour of the village, we were told we had to eat something; it’s bad luck for guests to attend a wedding and then not eat anything. Sandy reminded us not to eat too much because there are a lot of us and they probably didn’t prepare enough food for 25 extra people, but the food was delicious and some TBBers couldn’t help themselves. I just had a bite of rice, but I heard that the rest was delicious which bodes well for our homestays.

After the wedding we took a tour of the tiny village, one of those that UHDP is working with. The entire village has been built on borrowed land. It belongs to the forestry department and when these Pulong fled Burma 35 years ago they were allowed to settle here to plant trees in the surrounding area. Now they must live with the constant threat of being moved away. If the forestry department wants them to leave, they have to leave. Part of what UHDP is trying to help them with is making sure that the people in the village get Thai citizenship. Those living here for more than 30 years or those born here are eligible and citizenship means that, among other things, higher education is free and hospital bills, no matter the actual cost, will always be 30 baht (about $1). Another thing UHDP has been encouraging is the cultivation of vegetable gardens to feed each family to sell surplus at the weekly organic market that began two years ago. They call this “backyard agriculture” and it seemed to be doing pretty well in this village. More than half of the fifty families had implemented the idea.

Day 6: Free day. That’d be today. I’ve been doing laundry, blogging and chillin’ out etc.


Tomorrow we leave early for our 9 or so hour drive to Mae Hong Son, stopping somewhere along the way to do a little last minute shopping. Then we head to our homestays. Important things to remember include:


1)   1) Check shoes for scorpions before putting them on.

2)   2) When you happen upon a snake, back away slowly. Their striking distance is not more than half their body length.

3)   3) Dengue mosquitos bite during the day so always wear bug spray.

4)   4) The head is sacred. Don’t touch anyone’s head. (This is harder than you’d think…at the wedding I had to try really hard to stop myself from patting the little boy next to me on the head).

5)   5) The feet are very un-sacred. Don’t point the bottoms of your feet at anyone while sitting. This is a serious insult.

6)   6) Don’t insult the king. Don’t even think about insulting the king. Don’t step on or kick any bills or coins because they depict the king.

7)   7) When walking by someone who is sitting down, say excuse me and duck.

8)   8) Don’t leave rice on your plate. Try to serve yourself so that you get enough but not too much.

9)   9) Smile. But remember that Thai people smile to express joy, yes, but also embarrassment, confusion and even disagreement (as in "it's impolite to disagree with you so to save face for both of us I will just smile"). This is somewhat similar to smiling in the U.S., but I think here it's much more culturally ingrained.

Incidentally, Katie C. and I watched The King and I last night and it was really entertaining trying to understand the Thai and laughing at the various levels of cultural insensitivity. However, I thought that one of the women was beheaded and no one was, so now I have this vivid memory of a scene in which someone is hanged or beheaded off-screen in some musical that takes place in Asia and I don’t know what it’s from. If this rings a bell, please let me know.

So, if you’ve made it this far, you may be interested in seeing pictures of UHDP or the pig slaughter or the wedding. Guess what? You’re in luck! I’m really on top of it and have ALREADY uploaded photos to Picasa! I know, right?

Anyway, that’s all for now. One more fun fact before I go: It’s now a very high compliment on TBB to tell someone, when they are doing laundry, that their clothes smell wonderful. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to have to readjust our time frame for changing clothes and showering when we get back home…then again, we’re going to college so maybe not :-P.

Signing off for a while (but still email me so that I can return to an inbox full of news!)

Much love,