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,



Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting Up-To-Speed

Hi there. Long time no see. My fault, sorry. Time just sort of…flew…


In case you aren't in a reading mood and are just glancing at this, I'll note that I put up Vietnam pictures weeks ago (I think…but my sense of time has left me almost entirely) and forgot to mention it. That cool armadillo-y animal, since someone already asked me, is called a Pangolin and the photo was taken at an animal rescue center an hour or so outside of Ho Chi Minh. We do do things I don't have time to write about…or am I purposely leaving things out so you'll still want to meet up with me for coffee during my three week back-to-normal-life period in May? Hmmm…


So I'm not currently on the world wide web. I'm writing this in word and thus can't check to see exactly where I left off. I think I was in Quy Nhon, no? Probably before Chirstmas? I'll go from there:


Christmas was lovely. Delicious. Wonderful. All sorts of happy, upbeat, positive adjectives, in fact. We took a bus to a nice hotel about thirty minutes outside of Quy Nhon where there was a yum brunch buffet (waffles, an omelet bar, bread, cheese, and, of course, pho – but very fancy pho…that's pronounced "fuh" by the way…sort of). While we were eating (read: pigging out) Sandy gave us each a mysterious packet of paper tied in a red ribbon. It turns out she had emailed our parents and asked them to gather emails from family and maybe friends. My packet had messages from most everyone I care about (if it didn't have one from you don't be offended…I said MOST everyone now didn't I?) and many people whom I'd had trouble getting to respond to my emails.


Best. Present. Ever.




(Incidentally, I'll take this moment for my usual reminder for those less correspondently inclined to please drop a line. Alright, I'm done nagging. You may continue reading.)


So, we had what may have been a conference room with a lot of chairs and a projector and screen in it to ourselves. It was right on the beach. It wasn't sunny, but hey, it is mid-winter…After eating, the first thing we did was the final installment of Secret Santa. Sandy had gotten gifts for Tram (Chum), Phat (Fat), and Vnang (Vuhnang) since they weren't Secret Santa-ing which was really sweet, and then we got down to business. You got one guess who your SS was and then they revealed themselves and gave their final gift. Then the SS guessed who had them and so on. I don't think I've ever seen so much happy in one room at one time. I would not have been at all surprised if someone opened a bag and out popped a rainbow accompanied by some butterflies and a smattering of flowers. My cheeks ached from smiling. I have the absolute best photos, the kind that make you smile just looking at the joy in them. Cheesy, cheesy, Becca. Moving on.


After Secret Santa a bunch of us went outside to utilize our private section of the beach (while a few wandered off to the top in Vietnam spa for massages…their signature treatment involved burying you in the sand…). Some volleyball went down (not very well, but very fun) and then some of one of Beth's games that involved jumping on your partner when I, the humble overlord, called "birdie on a perch" – last pair with one person off the ground was out. There was some shell collecting and sand-castle building (both traditional Christmas activities right up there with building your very own Frosty) and then we went in for a movie. A Christmas classic: Baby Mamma. I've now seen it twice. It's funny, but twice is definitely enough. Happily, it cost me less than a dollar (5 kwai, in fact).


So we had dinner, pretty darn good, and then, well, that was Christmas. All in all, it could have been a lot worse :-)


The next day we got up early and were on the bus back to Ho Chi Minh by 7 or 7:30. This ride was infinitely shorter than the ride TO Quy Nhon. A zippy 15 hours or so. Sadly, my pants did not survive the trip. Sliding over in my seat, the fabric got caught on the seatbelt and, well, not and ideal situation…I did some skillful pants changing (I had a clothing bundle with me as a pillow) and life went on. I sewed the rip on my brown fisherman pants with teal thread (very badly, if I do say so myself) so now they resemble pants that a costumer would give to someone playing a Lost Boy. I think the look rather suits me. (What really is sad is that one of my two pairs of good farming pants, albeit the less good one, would shortly get sent to the laundry in our new guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh and not return…)


Now this is when time really starts to blur, so forgive me if the next section is a little fuzzy. I would refer back to my journal, but as far behind as I am on blogging, my journaling has been an utter disgrace. And I was so GOOD about it for the first two months, too! I finished my first journal exactly as we left Ecuador and began my second on the Inca Trail. That second journal has yet to be entirely filled. I'm quite ashamed…And I'm carrying around a third so it had better get used…


Basically, the weekend after Quy Nhon was Independent Student Travel and the time in which we had to finish media projects. Badly timed, to say the least. Media projects did not go particularly well for anyone this month as far as I can tell. My experience was particularly bad, I think, and has soured me on group projects, possibly forever since I've never been their biggest fan. To be fair though, no friendships were irrevocably harmed in the making of our project.


Speaking of our project…what IS it? Well, it's NOT Google Earth, if that's what you're thinking. In fact, it is saved on this computer under "Not Google Earth." I spent quite literally ten hours  over a day and a half figuring out how to work the darned program and making a little video where the world spins, focuses on Vietnam which flashes twice, then the borders appear, then disapear, then an outline of Vietnam appears and one by one the areas sprayed with Agent Orange are highlighted in Orange. Then it all disappears, zooms out, and the world spins again. I describe it in detail because no one will ever see it. It's not in our project. Frankly, it doesn't belong in what we ended up doing and I never thought we should put it in – it wasn't very pretty despite my best efforts and my hours spent tracing the Vietnamese border and free-handing the Agent Orange spray areas from maps I'd found online. So I thought I'd regale you all with a story of my hard-work to make myself feel better. And also to discourage any of you from ever EVER deciding Google Earth would be fun to play with. It is not. Do not be fooled. Do not be taken in. This still doesn't answer the original question though. What IS my group's media project? It is, basically, a podcast with visual emphasis. The fourth project, after video, podcast and writing, will be referred to as "mixed media" in the future – we were basically the test run for out-of-the-box media projects. All in all, I think it could have been better, but some bits are pretty cool. Worth watching, at least, and informative I hope. (And if the final anecdote sounds like something I would say it's because I did, but for narration purposes I switched with Renee…Actually, if you find my voice grating you may not want to watch/listen to our piece…Fair warning has been given).


Did you catch how I said "test run for out-of-the-box media projects?" Of course you did. I know how you're hanging on my every word. Don't lie. Anyway, the idea is that our projects are getting stale. We're doing the same sort of thing every month.  Apparently, this is not what our fearless leaders intended or, more likely, it is sort of what they intended but is no longer seeming like a good idea. Some people, like me, enjoy doing projects like this. Most people, however, some would call them "normal people," do not. So, supposedly, we're going to be creative this time around. A photo-essay, a radio-play, a rap song may actually be in the works! (You heard it here first).


Fun Fact: Best Worst Country Song Ever? "Something Like That" by Tim McGraw…I had to look up the name – I have only ever known it as "The Barbeque Stain on My White T-Shirt Song"…enticed now? (Sorry, I got sidetracked when it came on on my shuffle on iTunes…it's on the Top 50 mix I made…that's how wonderfully bad it is :-) We all decided to make Top 50 Song mixes to share…very few have actually gotten made since we decided this in, oh, November, but we have four months left so there's time yet).


There were trials and tribulations, but the media projects did manage to get done before the deadline of our "Student Environmental Conference" and the conference itself was miraculously planned (albeit the day before it was held…not my ideal time frame for this sort of thing). How did the conference go? It depends who you ask, I think. I tend to expect more and be slightly cynical (but you all know me) so I'd say it went. There were no hitches to speak of (after an early scare where the sound on our media project mysteriously would not work to the point where we had to get other speakers) but the overall result was…well, I'm not sure and I guess that's the point. It may have helped the Vietnamese students network. I certainly don't feel like much was really shared beyond the few presentations given by club leaders. My small break-out talk group didn't speak too much English. Someone (I'm not quite sure who) actually came down to us halfway through our 20 minutes to translate which was really helpful, but still, I came away more frustrated than enlightened. Katie C. said something that pretty much summarized it for me, basically: We can't understand them or make ourselves understood by them, so we come away thinking that these really very intelligent, earnest, well-informed Vietnamese college students who care enough about environmental issues to take three hours of their free-time up on New Year's Eve to chat about them don't have much to say…and they probably think the same about us. It's pretty near impossible to express complex socio-economic ecological ideas at what was, at best, a third grade communication level. Too bad, really. But ask someone else and they might not agree. Maybe I'm missing the point entirely.


So that happened. It was New Year's Eve so we went back to our guesthouse (a different one from the one we stayed in the first time in HCMC—which was actually where we held the conference—because, being a government guesthouse, it cancelled our reservations when it found out more important government guests needed the rooms…they weren't too far apart, though, and the second one allowed the girls to be in rooms of three instead of six and to have refrigerators (!!! Yogurt !!! Although, the fridge in my, Katie C. and Isabel's room had the temperature controlling knob broken off and was more like a freezer so I guess the correct parenthetical would be "!!! Frozen Yogurt !!!" which was actually quite good if it wasn't TOO frozen…the milk, though, was less good frozen, and the Diet Pepsi actually exploded, so set your refrigerator to icy at your own risk).). I must apologize for my rampant parentheticals. I did warn your it would be blurry…Images of frozen yogurt get interspersed with PowerPoint slides when you sleep too little…And you get a little snarky which I'm sure you've noticed by now…Sorry.


Anway. New Year's Eve. Yes. We went to Rylan and his wife Hao's apartment for some champagne/sparkling juice depending on your preference (New Year's qualified as a "cultural experience" as far as alcohol consumption was concerned). We met a group of students there from St. Olaf's in Minnesota just beginning their time in Vietnam. They were nine girls spending a semester traveling around SE Asia plus their two leaders, a married couple of professors, and their two college aged sons who were joining them for the holiday season. They were all very nice. From there we all walked to a hotel in the touristy area where John and I had canvassed the restaurants. It had a massive buffet in the central courtyard as well as constant entertainment in the truest sense of the word: ballroom dancers, singers, competitive bar-tenders, a clown/magician, a scantily clad fire dancer…they had it all! And after midnight they had a hip-hop troop and four extra-scantily clad women who could really only have been strippers or Fifty Cent's backup dancers. The crowd of little girls watching was mesmerized. There was, however, a sign amongst all this high-end glamour that the financial crisis hit even Vietnam. Apparently this hotel's party usually goes from 9:00pm to 1:30am. This year it was 10:30 to 12:30. So, when the clock struck 12(.5), we mostly headed off with Phat and Tram to my third (count 'em!) Vietnamese club to booty-shake in 2009. Clubs in Vietnam apparently close at 1:30, though this one stayed open until 1:45 at which point we saw fit to head back to the guesthouse and fall into bed (or rather, shower off other people's sweat and THEN fall into bed). Not a bad way to ring in the New Year. We even got rained on by balloons at midnight which we then proceeded to stamp on in a scene oddly reminiscent of the groom stepping on the glass at a wedding. Don't worry though, it hasn't spoiled me for my tradition of late night movie marathons. I'm still a fan of that kind of New Year in-ringing as well :-)



Now I have a piece of sad news that I don't quite know how to transition into so I'm just going to go for it. We lost Isabel on January 1st. She went home kind of unexpectedly. It's not really my business to share so I think I'll just leave it with the fact that she didn't do anything wrong and we were all very sad to see her go. We wish her the best, will keep in touch and hope to see her soon. Love you Isabel!


For those of you keeping score, that's three down, one up. I say that only to point out that this year is fun, fascinating, a learning and growing experience, yes, but what it is not is easy.


After Isabel left (and Robin with her for a bit so we were down to sixteen total) we headed off for a week of beachiness in Thailand. We flew to Bangkok, then Koh Samui (a very touristy island off the coast…Liz looked it up and apparently there are 10,000 prostitutes on that ONE island…) where we stayed overnight in a very nice hotel by TBB standards with very, very comfy beds. Up early the next morning, we boarded a ferry to get to our ultimate destination, another island called Koh Tao. The man with the bloody bandage on his head and the guy on the stretcher attached to an IV coming off the boat were not good signs as to the quality of the ride. It lived up (or rather, down) to expectations. I do not get seasick. I really never have. Maybe once. But oh I was no match for this boat. The waves were absurd. I went to sit up top outside but was quickly cold and wet so I slipped into the "VIP" room for 50 baht (about $1.30) because it was close and easy to get to and there were seats available. This may have been my downfall. The tossing was much worse up high than it would have been below. People all around me started throwing up. My headphones had just broken so I couldn't turn my iPod up high – only the left side produced sound. I was fine until suddenly I wasn't. Luckily there was a guy whose job it was to hand out barf bags. I was then fine again. Until I wasn't. After that I just felt pretty gross. It didn't help that my bag got lost on the boat and we went to the hotel without it. My bags get lost so often though that I wasn't too worried. They always seem to find their way back. That boat company's bag system was horrendous though. I don't know the company's name or I would certainly tell you to avoid it. The boat ride back, which we all dreaded, was a different company. It was a single-hulled boat instead of a catamaran which should have made it less stable, especially since the waves were supposedly even worse than when we'd come, yet the ride was MUCH better. Whereas SIX TBBers lost their cookies on the way to Koh Tao, all cookies were thankfully kept on the way back.


We were supposed to get diving certified while on the beach. Our "dive resort" was really all dive and no resort which was a little disappointing, but the beachfront property was not to be argued with. Anyway, Emily and Dave were disqualified due to asthma (apparently honestly on medical forms is not always the best policy…a concept I'm still struggling to accept) and Alexis missed the course due to illness. I started it off and went on a dive the first day. It was fine, not too thrilling. Take it or leave it sort of. I did want to get certified, though. Still, I was so tired that I was just miserable spending all day in classes and on dive boats gearing up and then stripping it all off again, so I decided a day and a half in to our four day course that I would drop out. So there you have it, folks. I am a diving school drop-out (…hanging around the corner store…) Anyway, as much as it would be cool to be certified, for me it was a good decision.


I spent my week doing as little as possible. I read our assigned book, Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend. It is, of all things, really WELL WRITTEN!!! Hooray! (I always knew I was picky about writing, but I now realize how thoroughly it affects my ability to enjoy reading something…) I really, REALLY, needed a break. A break from feeling like I need to take advantage of every second and a break from all the people I've been seeing every day and night for the last four months (we just celebrated our four month anniversary or, as it could also be known, our half way point).  As someone said to me, this isn't just a trip, it's our year. Frankly, I am not naturally someone who does best in group situations. I very much enjoy some solitude. I also live on a calmer, more sober emotional plane. Oh sure I get stupidly thrilled about things all the time, little things usually, but I don't generally go around being actively happy or excited all the time…I am very comfortable and content on my quiet emotional plane hanging out with small groups of people and the constant effort to be social and exuberant finally got to me I think. I just needed a break. So I took one. Good decision.


Anyway, I feel much better, although four more months is still sounding simultaneously like a second and an eternity. I don't really consider myself much the homesick type, and I'm not homesick per se, but I wouldn't mind a week of a familiar neighborhood with familiar people who spoke a language that I understand and ate food I am familiar with. (The food in Thailand, though, is amazing, so I guess I'm ok with that, mostly). Frankly, I'd be happy to have a week in Bua again. Just a week of something like a place where I belong. This year has been a great experience so far and I'm sure I will continue to learn things about the world and myself, but it's getting a little harder for me to jump into new communities and new languages and customs. What's wonderful, though, is that all the hatred I built up associated with school has been relegated to the category where it belongs: Harvard-Westlake's version of school. It turns out, I quite LIKE school, much like I did through 9th grade. I miss having classes and books and schedules and extracurriculars or, rather, I miss how I imagine them to be at Brown. Experiential learning is useful and very intense, but I work well with books and I'm excited to get back to them. I feel like I'll fit really well in college. This year, TBB, is an invaluable and unbelievable experience, and I'm loving it, but it isn't something I could do for too much longer than I've signed up for. This is good realization. Now I'm not only excited about "college" but I'm excited again about school. Gap Year Objective 1: Check!


Anyway, I've got to get on the internet to upload this in the next 8 minutes before they shut it off so I'll give a quick rundown of what I expect for this month.


We're in Thailand. We're studying Sustainable Agriculture (a solution oriented month sounds lovely). We are partnering with a program called ISDSI which, for people interested in serious experiential learning, has a really cool looking semester abroad program. We will adapt one month of that program for ourselves. We will spend the next week in some sort of community/sustainable farming school and then will spend three weeks in a community that has in the last few years switched to sustainable organic farming. We will have homestays there and we will help farm. ISDSI has worked with this community for 10 years and seems really to value some of the key things we decided way back in Costa Rica that NGO's should value but tend to forget. These include seriously partnering with a community instead of "going in" to one as well as the idea that the goal of an NGO should be to put itself out of business. The length of this partnership also means that the homestay experience might be smoother than say, in China. We will have Thai classes daily and should be reasonable communicative by the time we leave. Thai seems difficult. We'll see. I hope so.


Anyway, that's about it. Internet access is looking like a no, except possibly this week at the farm school or on weekends if we travel the 1.5 hours into Chiang Mai (which is where we are now, by the way).


I miss and love you all,

Enjoy the inauguration for me!


~ Becca

 p.s. I just spend twenty minutes trying to put a few photos at the beginning of this post to entice you to look at my photos online, but it wouldn't work so, you know, feel enticed anyway?