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.
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…)