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,




friend Nancy said...

Great headline! I'm about to curl up (as much as one can while at the computer) and read, but wanted to send a big hug first.... loved your last blog... onto this one...
ciao (for now)

Elisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elisa said...

Becca its elisa! Listen Im sorry i havent commented on your blog yet. But i hope when you do have access to this glorious and convenient thing called internet, you will have had a satisfying and worthwhile session of cold showers, no electricity, delicious food(?), and great memories/!pictures! to share. Did you bring a normal camera with batteries..for these times when you cannot plug a digital in to charge??
Anyway Have you read "You Shall Know our Velocity" by Dave Eggers? I finished it recently and your blog reminds me so much of it, although the things you do are by far way cooler and way "ohmygodshe didnotdrinkpigsblood-er" than anything eggers has to write. you may enjoy it though when you are home..perhapsss as a coming home present!
I wonder how long comments are allowed to be...
To wrap up, everything sounds amazing. You should maybe publish this blog in a journal/book/real paper. Or not. It is your blog...but I am just saying..Blog money=unlimited grilled cheeses and Bowling at Jerrys Deli 4lyfe.
Also I had pho for the very first time recently and thought of you. It is perhaps the most entertaining, interactive food i have come across..mmmm "fuuuuhhhhh"
Alsooo I should go to sleep because it is late and I have to wake up soon..
wooohooo lots of loveeeee
i misss youuu
hope all is well
skype date soon?
love elisa