Sunday, November 29, 2009


It is hard to believe that the semester is almost over now. It is final project time and we are all working like mad. Time really flew on this program, part of it has to do with the fact that we never formally recognized any weekends. Every few weeks we would get 2 personal days which were rarely spent relaxing, they were more wisely spent catching up on homework or running personal errands. Also having no days off is a bit confusing. I compare it to see sickness, hiding out in the berth of the ship during a storm, the inner ear becomes confused, unable to stabilize itself with the constant horizon. When there is no weekend to give the week perspective it becomes a little disorienting. As a result days of the week have no formal meaning, I rarely know what day it is, it simply isn't necessary to know. When Im not sure of the day of the week I frequently guess Wednesday. I began to realize that I suspected it was Wednesday everyday. This might be because everyday there is a pile of work to be done that doesn't go away. In a lot of ways this semester has just been one long hump day.

But this feeling has finally come to an end. I failed to blog about the 3rd and 4th units which were equally fascinating and meaningful experiences, things are just busy and I tend to procrastinate the things that are not immediately necessary to my performance as a student here. In a nut shell; unit 3 consisted of examining the effects of hydropower on the Rasi Salai, Hua Na, and Pak Mun communities. All these communities have been impacted by their respective dams in typically negative ways. Displacement, loss of livelihood, loss of culture, environmental degradation; its all there. Also they were lied to and manipulated by the Thai government. We had a very interesting exchange with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. The fourth and final unit had us consider our consumption of gold in the community of Na Nong Bong, where a local mine has disrupted the lives of the villagers. The practice of open pit mining for gold has polluted the soil and water, 54 of the community members have cyanide poisoning from the water. They were informed that they should no longer drink the water because the cyanide levels are so high. None of these problems existed before the mine yet there is no way to conclusively link these problems TO the mine, no formal tests had been done prior to the mines installation.

I will go into final projects soon (hopefully) I have to go write a paper now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Some photos from the past week or so

Hua Na Dam.

A rice field in Rasi Salai I worked for a day.

The family I worked and stayed with in Rasi Salai. A family that gathers rice together, eats together .


Laos. We got to go there for a couple of hours, this was pretty neat.

This is a pretty random and incomplete post, I guess I just wanted to get a couple photos up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unit 2: Rural and Urban Trends

Do not let the boring title fool you, this unit was quite intense. I was a unit facilitator for this unit along with 5 other classmates. Our job is to prepare and present a briefing before the unit, facilitate exchanges with communities and organizations, and handle the general logistics of said exchanges which are the meat and potatoes of units. This unit was slightly different from the others as the 6 days and the 27 group members were split in various ways. The group was split in two, one half went to live and work at a landfill first while the other half was split again and sent to two different slum communities. These smaller groups were reunited after a few days and sent to the landfill community to relieve the previous group half. The half that left the landfill was now split in two and sent to two entirely different slum communities. If you didn't understand that its because its confusing.

Anyway, I was initially sent with 5 other students to the Parnsawan Slum community. All the communities we visited have been working with various NGO's and Networks to attain land leases. The communities of squatters are all set up on previously unused and neglected stretches of land near train tracks. The SRT (State Railroad Authority of Thailand) owns the land they have been living on for, some of the communities are as old as 60 years. Recently (past 15 years or so) the SRT has been threatening to evict these communities because in an effort to increase their revenues want to sell/rent these pieces of land to private business. The State Railroad hasn't been doing so well in Thailand and they desperately need to make more money or risk closure. As a result many people were displaced and once squatters became homeless. Organizations such as NGO-CORD and CODI as well as the Khon Kaen Slum Network and 4 Regions Slum Networks have been working with these communities in an effort to get them land leases so that they wont be kicked out of their homes. The communities we visited were in various stages of this process. In addition to achieving leases the NGOs also assist these communities by providing them with money for infrastructure, bt 20,000 per home for reconstruction. Also when a home receives a lease they are alotted a permit number which allows them access to electricity and clean water for much cheaper. If the community is "illegitimate" they have to pay for temporary meters which are more expencsive.

The community I stayed with is quite successful, they have a 30 year lease on their land that they have to renew every 3 years. A road through their small community, access to clean water, irrigation, meters for electricty, and even a small community center. The ideal success story. Yet the threat of eviction still looms over their head, their lease is only for 30 years, half the age of the community, and there is no promise or guarantee they will be allowed to renew it after that time. It is still SRT land and they can do whatever they want. Other communities are not as successful as Parnsawan.

The other students went to Robmuang, they are not as far along in the process as Parnsawan but they are working diligently to catch up. Certain people there have fears, their lease is only for 3 years, so they are hesitant to use the bt 20,000 on their homes if it is just to be torn down. There are many other communities that have been struggling for a long time and the NGOs and Networks are doing their best to aid, but it is an uphill fight. I was impressed however by the sense of pride the communities have, they are by no means wealthy or living in comfort ( at least by western standards) yet they are all happy and grateful for everything they have. I found my communities inspiring but I know that there are just as many unsuccesful communities that are not quite as lucky ( I always have to fin the negative).

We said goodbye to our "slum" community, I say "slum" because we joked that ours was like The Ritz-Carlton of slums, quite cushy - I slept on a bed, and my neighbors had a western toilet complete with toilet paper (luxurious). Then we met up with the other small group and went to the landfill. We heard from the previous group that the landfill was "intense". But that word doesn't fully prepare you for the grotesqueries we were about to endure. We didn't live ON the landfill perse, about 20 meters away to be precise, close enough that it's stench was easily carried on a soft breeze.

Here is about where the Unit got a bit nasty. We worked on the landfill with the community digging with hooked tools for recyclables: bottles, cans, bags, cardboard, whatever was worth some money. We donned heavy rubber boots, long pants, and many of us (myself included) wrapped scarves, kerchiefs, or t-shirts over our mouths and noses to better cope with the smell. For some the fetor combined with the intense heat and heavy work was overwhelming, a few vomited, some immediately gave up and went back to the houses. Most managed to hang on and work but for all it was a bitter struggle. Id like to say that this has to be one of the hardest most brutal jobs out there. I used to pride myself and boast that I could handle just about any hard laboring job there was; I have toughed it out working as a logger, clearing trail for the forest service and fighting forest fires. All of those jobs were intensely physical but I could do them again. I sincerely doubt I could do this again, nor do I have any desire to. I barely lasted a day but these people do this all day, everyday, and many have been doing it since they were children.

There are nearly endless health and safety related violations and issues. The water which they drink, cook, and wash with they get from a well behind one of the houses. It has leachate from the landfill in it. It was tested for arsenic (which it has a low level of), but thats the only chemical it was tested for. They have requested for more tests but there has been some sort of delay for the past 2 years (great). There is a nearby incinerator for some of the more hazardous wastes, as a result the air is heavily polluted and many of the children develop respiratory problems.

Just being on the landfill itself poses a myriad of safety concerns. The children frequently play there or help their parents scavenge. The adults wear thick boots but the children often run about in sandals, no one wears gloves or proper masks. The boots are good but not the best, many have sliced their feet deep on broken glass that went right through the rubber. Also there is the threat of medical waste, the hospital has to dispose of their waste properly, but many smaller clinics dont have the same restrictions. Their used needles end up in the landfill, one of the older community members stepped on one once and it went through his boot and into his foot. The potential for the transmission of diseases is omnipresent as well as the threat of serious injury, a child was crushed to death a few years ago by a dump truck that couldn't stop in time as she dashed in front of it.

The community has to search harder now for the recyclables, they are harder and harder to find, this is because of the economic crisis. Because of the crisis there are more street scavengers competing for the valuables. Most are snatched before they make it to the landfill. The landfill workers have to spend more time digging on the landfill to make ends meet. Despite all these hardships they dont want it any other way. Threats have been made to close the landfill for years now, the community claims that they will follow the garbage wherever, it is their livelihood and many know no other trades.

Just seeing the landfill, working in it, smelling it, was extremely disconcerting. I have read about landfills and seen them on TV and in documentary but you can never fully fathom what it is until you are in it. It is a towering monstrosity of stink and filth and disease and disgustingness, and it is entirely manmade. While wandering these dunes of waste I came to ponder humanity and how we are truly living in an unsustainable society. Miles of trash how could we possibly go on like this? How can we consider the production of this amount of trash okay? Its because we have stigmatized it, and rationalized it and MADE it okay to not care where it goes. We dont have to deal with our waste. We produce it and place it in a bin and put on the curb and then on tuesday its gone. Out of sight, out of mind - we never have to see that yogurt carton again. It was that realization that hit me the hardest, that I had helped create this, that I was just as much a part of the problem as anyone else. And no one is intentionally creating this, its just how things are. Undoubtedly I was rooting through some of my own refuse, I have been in Thailand long enough now. Its odd that I have more a relationship with my garbage in Thailand than I do in the states. I have no idea where my garbage goes at home, I take it to the dump on saturday, and they take care of it.

But what is the answer? How can we create less trash? There is no formal recycling in Thailand, and if there all of a sudden were to be recycling then all these scavengers would be jobless, it would be removing their livelihood. Do I worry about environmental impacts or human rights violoations? What is the proper course of action?
There is none, I hate that. As an idealist I have to have something to do, something to work towards, a goal an ideal. But some problems are just that: problems. And theres not a whole lot you can do but maybe alleviate some of the symptoms; give these people better boots, clean their water....keep making garbage? I feel very powerless right now, and I hate to leave off on such a note especially because there were many positives to this unit I could elaborate on. But for now I have a bunch of assignments to attend to.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nagas With Attitude

This post should have been published on Oct 5th, but due to time constraints I didn't finish it until today:

I just returned today from an adventure to Tamui, a very small town in Northeastern Thailand on the mighty Mekong River. The reason for this venture was to partake in the annual festival that takes place to celebrate the end of Buddhist lent and also in hopes to see the legendary Naga spew fireballs from underneath the muddy waters of the Mekong. Every year at this festival the Naga, a five headed serpent that at one time protected the Buddha from being rained on, consumes the enemies of Buddhism and shoots these fireballs into the night sky. Thais flock from miles upon miles away to witness this event. They all drink Lau Kau (white rice whiskey), feast, set off fireworks, and light an assortment of things on fire to celebrate this illustrious occasion. The amount of things set on fire is truly a spectacle to behold; Thais love to set things ablaze and this desire is nurtured at a young age as supported by the many Thai children I witnessed running through the streets throwing firecrackers and shooting roman candles at eachother. I suppose these fireworks are meant to coax the Naga to perform his legendary fireshow.

When I found out what we were doing I was a little skeptical, only because I had not heard the stories. If there were fire breathing water serpents anywhere in the world I felt I would have heard about them by now, I adore such legends and still firmly believe that Bigfoot should be placed upon the endangered species list (its only a matter of time before somebody catches one and then before we know it every Joe Shit-head is gonna want a stuffed bigfoot above their mantle). But the plot thickened and I heard stories and read articles and watched bits of a documentary on the issue. There have been countless eyewitness accounts, photos and footage (just like Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFOs), nearly every town on the Mekong reports the same occurences of fireballs shooting from the water on or around the 5th of October. I thought that it was just some event at first, just some contraption under the water that was set off every year. But that would imply that the fireballs would happen every year and in the same spot, which is not the case. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not, sometimes in Tamui, sometimes in Nong Khai. The randomness of the event piqued my curiosity.

I was expecting Tamui to be a rather large town, the sort of town that might be able to afford to place a fire launching contraption under the waters of a swiftly moving river. However, it was quite small and extremely rustic. I saw Laos across the river: green, mountainous, quiet; the long winding drive down narrow dirt roads for several hours had me suspecting something, but this confirmed my suspicions: we were in the middle of nowhere. Who would bother to put a fire cannon out here?

We arrived late in the evening but the event was not until the followingnight. I woke the next morning aching to see the Naga, it was unbearable. But it was time to play the waiting game. The fine folks of Tamui and the couple thousand other people who suddenly showed up on their doorstep are quite adept at this. They have found that the best way to wait for a Naga is to promptly begin drinking.

The program arranged homestays for us at the village. My friends Morgan and Brodie and I were staying with an older couple and their family. Our Paw fed us Lau Kau with our breakfast as a pig was slaughtered and butchered next to the elevated platform we were eating on and now getting drunk on. Its really quite amazing what you can get used to, I had never witnessed a pig hacked to bits while forcing rice whiskey down my gullet and eating fried bamboo shoots before. It seems a little odd on paper but at the time I don't recall having any problem with it. Even when my Paw thrust another glass of Lau Kau into my hands with his own blood soaked mitt. I remember rationalizing that the high alcohol content would probably kill any bacteria or traces of trychinosis as I drained the blood smeared glass.

Im not a good drinker, I dont have the stamina. Usually I prefer to have a couple of drinks and avoid attention, hangovers are just not worth it to me. But when the situation calls for it who am I to go against the grain? Because I was in a new culture and waiting to see a Dragon I decided to make this one of those occasions - by noon I was wasted and passed out in the middle of some weird Thai drinking game. When I came to several hours later the sun was going down, I was in a strange house, covered in beer bottle caps and had an epic 5-star (when someone slaps your bare back very hard with an open hand, it leaves the outline of 5 fingers, thus "5 star") on my back that Im sure was not the work of Thai hands. I paid it no nevermind and began to wander about the small town. Every corner I turned more booze was offered but I was in no mood for strong drink. I went to the banks of the river, "where is this Naga?" I moaned quite roughly in english and began to bay a few english profanities. Something that is nice is that Thai people dont understand english, so you can swear and cuss and not worry about anything. Unless a few sensitive english speaking classmates happen to be close by and inform you that "even though they don't understand, it doesn't make it right". I didn't argue because they did have a point. Instead I mumbled "shit" one more time (just audibly) and padded dejectedly back to my house.

The smells of Isaan cooking greeted me as I entered the grass-thatch Chateau. My friends saw me and innocently inquired as to the state of my back. I smiled, they did get me good, and I would be lying if I said I didnt find 5-stars amusing. I tucked into the sticky rice and fried pork and veggie stir fry and didn't come up for air, Isaan food is too good.

With bloated bellies we made our way to the riverbanks and onto a large platform built in the trees overlooking the river. We had a phenomenal view of all the goings-on. Gigantic shimmering bamboo fireboats, smaller fireboats, fire propelled hot air balloons, professional strength fireworks displays, all sorts of creative things, all hand made, all painstakingly crafted and all soaked in oil and set ablaze. I settled in with my friends and host families, watched the show and waited patiently for the Naga. I was offered more beer "nah I dont wanna pass out again and miss the Naga"; I began getting bit by bugs and considered walking back to get my repellent but I didnt want to risk missing the Naga, "Hey Tommy lets go down to the river and set a boat on fire with this guy" ---"Cant, you have to walk away from the river to do that.....Naga". I was NOT going to miss this Naga. As it got later and passed the announced Naga time of 930 a few skeptics began to antagonize the true believers: "I told you guys, 'Nagas' dont exist". I shot them sour looks and explained that firebreathing watersnakes keep their own schedules.

An hour later and well past the announced Naga time I was pissed. "Where is this Naga?" I shouted to no one. People had begun to give up and my spirit was very nearly broken as well. I hung on because I could see P'Joy over my shoulder. P'Joy (our bus driver, native of Isaan, and master of all things badass - like making crossbows and knowing everything about the forest - he had witnessed the Naga on many occasions) he was holding strong, resolute in his posture and staring fixedly at the water, he knew it was just a matter of time. I sat and waited and from time to time would glance back to make sure he was still there. I turned back at one point and noticed he was gone, he didnt come back. No Naga this year, I knew it was time to call it quits. I sweared in english, wandered back to my house and fell to my bed like I had just been dumped. In a way my heart was broken.

For many this trip just affirmed what they already knew, that Nagas dont exist. I however am still hopeful - I guess deep down I think that I will somehow be able to tame these ferocious yet noble beasts and then perhaps...I dont know... hang out with it. I don't know if I will ever have the opportunity to hang out with a Naga or even be able to see it shoot fireballs. You might be interested to know that although the Naga did not show up in Tamui this year, fireballs were witnessed in Nong Khai. Just a little food for thought....

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Unit 1: Agricultural Trends

We just returned yesterday from our first Unit. We spent a week visiting with and exchanging with organic farmers, NGO's, and community members in the Yasothon, Roy Et, and Kalasin provinces.

The majority of our time was spent in Yasothon where we spent 4 nights. My friend and classmate Dan and I had the priviledge to stay with a very good-natured family of organic farmers in the small town of Talah. This was a very inspiring unit, I learned alot and my perspective on food has certainly grown. Before this unit I considered myself pretty aware of the current problems with food politics, having read "The Omnivores Dillema", and other similar publications. I try to buy fair trade when I can and love farmers markets when they are in season. But this week has really opened my eyes to food systems and how closely related they are to many worldwide problems besides hunger, such as global warming, globalization, the loss of culture, and poverty. I will be unable to look at food the same way and I hope I can keep these lessons in the front of my mind.

The Green Revolution sweeped the world in the late 50's and early 60's. Praised as "the solution to world hunger" it implemented massive machinery and the introduction of genetically modified crops, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all designed to increase yields so that more food could be produced and more people fed. 50 years later hunger is still and problem, this is because narrowly focusing on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power, especially access to land and purchasing power. In a nutshell - if the poor don't have the money to buy food, increased production is not going to help them.

The chemicals we have poured into the earth to produce more food are destroying the environment as well as our food, eating fresh produce grown on large single crop farms are now nearly as harmful to your body as highly processed foods. And these methods are not ecologically sustainable, it depletes the land of its ability to produce food, as a result more and more chemicals are needed to produce food, this wil continue until the land is literally rendered useless as has already happened to 6% of India's farmland. Food is no longer a part of our culture the way it used to be. Many of these problems are encouraged by current financial systems that seperate the producer from the consumer. Organizations that have attempted to cut out the influence of middlemen have been degraded. I was shocked to learn that Trans Fair a fair trade labeling organization was pushed by Starbucks to lower their standards. It used to be that 5% of total coffee purchased had to be fairly traded, this has been lowered to 2%. These models keep small farmers all over the world perpetually in debt and in a state of poverty, they are controlled by corporations and more and more are being pressured to switch to chemical agriculture to increase yields.

There is so much more to this issue than I can elaborate here, I stongly encourage everyone to read "The Omnivores Dillemma" as this helps to illuminate some of the issues.

The first day I got to work on my host family's farm. My father Jong and his wife have been practicing integrated agriculture on their farm for 13 years and sell their organic produce every saturday at the Green Market in Yasothon. Before starting this unit our Thai Ajaans equipped us with a small arsenal of Thai vocabulary useful to the unit. We learned the Thai words for mono cropping, integrated agriculture, chemical free agriculture, compost, chemical fertilizer, duck, buffalo, sugar cane, and a variety other farm related words and phrases. I had learned from previous experience and through my own extracurricular pursuits that the word for "shit" in Thai is "key". I combined this knowledge with my new mastery of the word for buffalo "kwai", what resulted was a phenomenal example of my prowess as a linguist and an inherent need to be crass in as many languages as possible. This is how "key kwai" was happened upon; literally "buffalo shit".

It is true that I did not invent these words per se, but I discovered how to put them together for myself. Never has an invention been so celebrated, the closest comparison could only be cro-magnon man and fire. After countless hours spent hunched over, furiously rubbing two sticks together an ember is produced that he nurtures into a roaring flame; he stands triumphantly above his glowing creation howling wildly at the night sky and beating his chest in dramatic celebration; an epic achievement and testament to the human spirit. Such was my discovery of keykwai. I used this word with unmatched enthusiasm, used it when I could and even managed to discover new applications for it. My inclination to use the word was only encouraged by my Thai family who seemed to find the word just as hilarious as I.

"Dan yu ti nai?" they would ask -- where's dan?
"key kwai" I would reply cheekly (I didn't know where Dan was either, but I did know how to make these people laugh). They loved this and so did I.

This mutual joke was launched to a new level of hilarity the day I proudly announced "Pom chuh-len key kwai", "my nickname is buffalo shit". My parents froze with disbelief, their eyes lit up and they stared at me with raised eyebrows and gaping smiles for a long moment before errupting into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Could it be that a simple farang had cracked the code of Thai humor? Yes, I was the apple of their eye. Modesty is not always my fortay and my success went straight to my head. I began to wonder if I shouldn't go national with my routine, such an act would surely make me a Thai sensation. This is still a work in progress, I have plenty of time to sort this out.

After laboring in my family's farm all day we gathered vegetables and fruit for the Green Market the next day. My paw woke at 3 am the next morning and went to the Green Market to set up his stand. We privledged few, Dan and I, had the luxury of sleeping in until 5am and then caught a ride to join our paw. It is still unclear to me why, but all of Thailand seems to enjoy buying their vegetables at the absolute ass crack of dawn. We sat with our paw all morning and Im sure we helped him sell all his produce, he received extra attention because of the 2 farang seated next to him. I did this pro bono, I didn't even ask for a commission although I probably deserved half the profit.

I should really tell you about the exchanges we had with the Green Market members, the Alternative Agricultural Network (an NGO), the community of Tahlah, a small group of sugar cane farmers struggling to become organic, and P'Bamrung and P'Ubon - two extremely influential members of this green movement. Each exchange lasted 3 plus hours and we discussed in depth current issues and regarding organic farming, government corruption and disfunctional systems of production and distribution. These exchanges were taxing and we would sometimes have 2 per day. But they were the meat of this Unit and we have many more ahead of us. I learned alot experiencing but everything I learned this past week was a result of these exchanges. It would be very difficult to condense these exchanges into a paragraph or two. I hope to go sort through my notes soon, but I haven't the time now. As of yet everything is still fresh in my mind, marinating. I would like to revisit this topic at a later date as Im sure it will be a recuring theme in this semester and my life. Id also like to revisit my host family in Yasothon, they politely invited me back in mid-November to help with the harvest season. However,Im not sure if Keykwai will have the free time.

Also Id like to note that upon returning to KKU I have informed my Thai teachers and my friend Yay- the woman who operates the convenience store I frequent, of my new nickname. They all find this hilarious, I am a Thai John Belushi.

This educational experience is brought to you in part by...

I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you all about the fine people who helped me to get where I am today. The Gilman International Scholarship program offers grants for "U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abrod. Such international study is intended to better prepare U.S. students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world". Scholarship recipients may recieve up to $5,ooo in funding and are selected on the basis of applicant diversity, a statement of purpose essay, a follow-on project proposal essay, academic progress and performance, fields of study, country of destination, length of study and lack of previous undergraduate study abroad experience. All students are encouraged to apply so long as they qualify for a federal Pell grant. Recipients are expected to complete a follow-on service project to promote education abroad and to help promote the Gilman International Scholarship program. One of the many reasons I decided to keep this blog.

If you are at all interested in learning more about the Gilman Scholarship don't even hesitate to press on the below link:

How can I tell you about the good people at Gilman without also telling you about the folks at The World Affairs Forum who are just as fine if not finer. They graciously offer The Norman Woodberry scholarship for "deserving university students to encourage study abroad for those interested in pursuing an international career". It helps to be a resident of or studying in Fairfield County, CT or Westchester County, NY, attending a four-year university or college, able to demonstrate financial need as determined by the Scholarship Committee, a contributor to school and community life, and to have a minimum B average. Recipients of the scholarship are committed to provide the World Affairs Forum with an end-of-program report and to speak before a World Affairs Forum audience on a minimum of 1 occasion following completion of the program.

Your need for more information about the Norman Woodberry Scholarship can be satified by clicking this link:

We now return to our regulary scheduled broadcasting

Friday, September 11, 2009

Week at KKU

The past week we have spent at Khon Kaen University. The days have been focused on various workshops and background lectures. The first day we had a writing workshop with Marwan Macan-Markar of the Interp Press Service. He has written about the Burmese military dictatorship, the Burmese cyclone tragedy and various other issues in Southeast Asia. He is a reputable journalist and an amazing writer. He tried to pass on some of his writing skills and interviewing skills to us so that we would be better prepared for the upcoming units. There are 4 units and in each one we will be participating in exchanges with community members, we want to get the most of these exchanges and Marwan helped to better understand what sort of questions we should ask when we are interviewing a subject and how we should ask them. His techniques are simple but direct; for instance its better to ask questions regarding facts and not how the subject feels about a certain issue. This seems like an obvious point but most people make this mistake. We got to practice our interviewing skills by interviewing a classmate, then we all got to compare our interviews and see where we could improve. The goal is to find an interesting angle to write about the person, it helps to have one before you start the interview but this doesnt always happen. This was a helpful class.

The following day we had a workshop with Nic Dunlop a freelance photographer and writer for a photography workshop. Nic Dunlop wrote "The Lost Executioner" a book about the Khmer Rouge war crimes in Cambodia. I had actually used excerpts from his book in a paper I wrote last semester about the Khmer Rouge. He is an amazingly talented photographer and we all enjoyed this workshop immensely, it was an honor to be in the room with him. There is a famous photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist, that he took. Also he is accredited with identifying and finding a Khmer Rouge senior member responsible for several thousands deaths. His trial is taking place presently. It was an honor to have a class taught by Nic.

He had us compose a photoessay that day and we all got to view eachothers work. He basically compressed as many photography lessons as he could into one day. This is to help us compose our own photo essays later in the semester. There are many talented photographers in the group, I however am not one of them. Photography is difficult and I have a pretty lousy camera as compared to most other people in the program. Im not sure having a better camera will help me however. I enjoyed this worshop and I think I learned alot from Mr. Dunlop.

The following 2 days we met with Ajaan Sulak a Buddhist grassroots activist and social critic. He taught us about Thai history, politics, and social structure; specifically the role Buddhism had on their development in Thailand. These were incredibly interesting and dense days, it difficult to cram all of Buddhism and its impact on society into two days but Sulak did a good job. We could all agree that he was an enlightened being and that we could all learn much from him. I bought one of his books and hope to read it one day when I have a free moment.

The next day we had whats called a "Thai Fun Activity" in the morning and it was alot of fun. We were split into groups of four and brought to the downtown market. Each group was given 300 baht, a list of about 20 items (in Thai, we had time to translate before) and 45 minutes to get all the items on the list as well as a photograph and autograph with a Thai policeman. This was a competition and we all knew it. I felt bad for the unsuspecting vendors at the market as 30 farang (westerners) were unleashed upon them with limited knowledge of the language and a desire to win a questionable prize (Japanese dinner with the Ajaans). If invited to dinner with the Ajaans I would probably have an ambivalent reaction, I just don't feel it would be SUCH a priviledge, we spend all day with them, to eat dinner in their company might be nice but nothing I want to do a backflip about.

Despite this fact I took to the competition eagerly and ferociously bargained with vendors for the lowest price possible for pink sandals, orange nailpolish, and yellow t-shirts. I suddenly needed to have dinner with the Ajaans more than anything else in the world. A vendor with broken teeth told me that the green plate I now needed to possess cost a staggering 15 baht. I laughed in his face. "5 baht" I barked insolently in broken Thai, "No" said he. I paid the 15 baht and moved on. I have not yet mastered the art of bargaining and I had only one succesful negotiation, paying 6 baht for an 8 baht dark blue pen. My partner Kati and I had gotten everything on our half of the list except for the Hello Kitty Notebook, I desperately called Jon and Liz, the other half of out team to check on their status and if they could find one quickly. But time was up and we all rushed back to the meeting spot knowing that being late was a penalty.

Groups were scored on whether or not they got the items on the list, how much they paid for them, timeliness, and if they succesfully got a photograph and autograph with a police officer. My group got all items except for the Hello Kitty Notebook, we were timely, and we got the photograph, however we were about 20 baht over the 300 baht limit. When results were tallied and the winners anounced I was astonished to learn that my group would be the privlidged few to enjoy japanese noodles with our professors. Other groups had not found the notebook either but most of the other groups had money left over unlike us. It was a relief that we won and my poor bargaining skill were not realized. I am sorely embarassed by my lack of bargaining skills for some reason, its almost an attack on my manhood. In reality it is a pretty useless skill, but I have a penchant for collecting useless skills and this one evades my grasp. I blame this on my lack of profieciency in the Thai language just like I blame my poor photography skills on my old and battered Cyber Shot camera. It only has 7.2 pixels, how can I work with that? Did they tell Picaso "no brush"? Its easier to blame.

At 1pm I have a Human Rights Workshop, tomorrow is my Thai midterm, monday the last orientation and Tuesday *gasp* a "personal day"!
"Personal Days" are described in the course outline as days where students are free to enjoy their time in Khon Kaen and to do whatever they might like. Feel free to enjoy the city, go to a market or see a movie, just relax, it is YOUR time.

"Whatever will you do with all this free time?" you might ask. "Why I will spend it writing the 5 page reflection paper that is due on wednesday" I would reply. I love "personal days", they always provide me with the opportunity to reflect, to take a proverbial "deep breath". I get to sleep in, laze in bed, lazily sip a cup of coffee and talk about something other than school with my friends over breakfast. See you then.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nontan and Hospital Visit

I just got back from my second homestay a couple days ago. Its been difficult to get these blogs done and alot has happened in the past 8 or so days. The group was split up into 3 groups and each group was sent to a different school. And then each person was assigned to a different student around 9-11 years old to spend 5 days with their respective families. My group was sent to the Nontan School not far from Khon Kaen University, only about an hour away.

My little brothers name is Tang, hes about 10 years old and a really sweet kid. My mothers name was Nok. And her husband ran a chicken rice stand not too far away from school. I stayed with them for about 5 days, each day I would ride on the moped to school with my host father. Buy breakfast at 7/11 and then walk to class. Each morning we had 4 hours of Thai followed by an orientation activity in the afternoon. Afterwards I would ride home with Tang, Ab nam (shower) and then go to the chicken stand to eat dinner. Often I would try to work with my host parents at the stand, they didnt allow me to do this the first day, but after I kept asking "Pom choy" (I help?) enough times they allowed me to work a bit. I was often very tired at this point of the night and waiting table was the last thing I wanted to do but I still wanted to experience what they did. They wouldnt let me work for more than an hour or too and then they would send me home with Tang so that I could "tom gan bang" - do homework.

I came to learn that my host parents worked incredibly hard. In the morning we all woke up around 630am. Then my brother would go off to school and my father off to open the chicken rice stand. My host mother would go to the local hospital where she worked mending laundry and scrubs. She would work there all day and then go to the chicken rice stand and wait tables. They would both work until 1 am everynight. Then come home to sleep only to wake up and start it over 5 hours later. This broke my heart, they were such sweet people, my host mom and Tang had a really good relationship. And they were always so good to me. Tang was very well behaved and worked very hard at school, at night he would often help me study my Thai and help me with my pronounciation.

I was just starting to become very comfortable with my new family when we were scheduled to leave for KKU. The house was alot more comfortable. I shared a decent sized bed with Tang, it was inside! and we even had a fan. The toilet and water buckets for showering were even inside as well this time. Life was pretty easy and I am not being sarcastic when I say that I was very comfortable there. Dousing oneself with cold water in the morning is not fun, but it gets easier, and with practice one can even learn to enjoy the process.

We came back to KKU, and the following day in class I was dismayed to realize I was not feeling terribly well. During a break a classmate felt my head and informed me the my skull was frighteningly hot. It turns out that I had a fever of about 103 degrees as well as a bowel infection (which explained the awful diarea). I was admitted to the hospital and was in a state of delusion on set by the extremely high fever. I dont speak much Thai but insisted on speaking as much Thai as I knew to all the doctors and nurses. I named my doctor Dr. Maw, Maw means doctor in Thai. I thought that Dr. Doctor was an appropriate name and made sure that everyone got to hear it and how funny I thought it was. Also for everyone's personal enrichment I decided it was my responsibility to list all of the colors in Thai as well as ask most of the nurses and attendees what they liked to do in the morning, "Don chao, wanee kun chu tom arai krap?". Answers were varied and I didn't understand them anway. My delerium quickly faded along with the notion that everyone was enjoying my antics after I was placed in a room.

I didnt have a very good time at the hospital. I guess Im just not much of a Hospital Guy. Also I dont speak much of the language, which makes very simple requests such as "may I please have another blanket? I am quite cold" and "may I have some water?" very difficult to communicate. The IV drip they put into my hand quickly irked me, its very difficult to get comfortable when you have something in your skin. Also I have seen many movies and episodes of CSI where people have died because an air bubble in the IV was passed into their veins, air in your blood is apparently fatal. So when I noticed air bubbles in my IV the next morning I became a little concerned. I flicked my IV tube a little to try and coax the bubbles up to the surface and away from my vulnerable veins. This backfired as the bubbles congregated into one large bubble that began moving swiftly towards my arm. I hurriedly pressed the button to call the nurse but decided she would not arrive in time and took matters into my own hands. The nurse opened my door and got to watch me pry the IV from my arm in a rather dramatic display of twisted tubing and spraying saline solution. I tried to tell her that I was about to die, that I had been in mortal peril. Air had been inches close to entering my veins where it would travel through my arteries up to my brain inducing a fatal stroke. I told her that I had just saved my own life. These words all fell upon deaf ears and my nurse quickly and quite curtly, I might add, replaced my IV and reprimanded me in Thai. I won that battle.

Every so often a team of nurses would enter my room, take my blood pressure and temperature and say nothing to me. I was quite feverish and out of it and never enjoyed these cold and informal encounters. Also the food was awful, I don't consider myself a picky eater and I genuinely enjoy Thai food. But when you have a 103 degree fever you are not always craving boiled rice, jellied mushrooms and steamed fish soup. I knew it was possible to get "western food" it was clearly labelled on the menu, and I very clearly indicated my desire for such items by pointing to the "fried egg" and "slice of bacon" on the slip of paper attached to my meal tray. My requests were always ignored without explanation, or at least without an english explanation. No one spoke english except Dr. Maw, but he was rarely seen. So when he came to see me the next day and my fever had gone down I knew it was time to negotiate for my release.
He agreed that if my fever didnt go back up in the afternoon I could go home. My temperature remained normal and I was free to go. This was a relief and Im sure it was also a relief for the hospital staff assigned to my room. Im still not sure if they allowed me to leave or if I was kicked out, Im happy either way.

The next week or so will be spent in Khon Kaen working on orientation for the upcoming units and classes. We have alot of assignments and projects to do and our days are all scheduled from 8 am until 6pm. Free time is a luxury we dont have right now, Im tired but happy.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I am studying for the semester in Khon Kaen, a small city in the northeast of Thailand . The course focuses on the human perspective on development and the environment. Over the next few months I will learn about development and environmental issues within a human rights framework through a combination of classroom discussions and practical, hands-on experience; involving several homestays in various communities throughout Thailand. Today is the 30th, the program formally started on the 21st and I have not had a free moment. The program said it would be intense and so far my days have been divided by intensive Thai Language immersion and cultural orientation.

After meeting the 26 other students in Bangkok we spent a couple nights getting oriented and then took off to a resort in Isaan (Northeast) for 5 days of Thai class and various other orientation activities. The resort was small, rustic, and situated on the banks of a picturesque river, complete with waterfalls and tributaries. In the morning we would start with 4 hours of language, a short break for lunch, and then the rest of the day was spent prepping the courses and attempting to teach us the do's and donts of thai culture. Various discussions were also scheduled during the meals where we would talk about readings that were assigned, the themes of which frequently revolved around globalization as well as education. These readings were a little lengthy and we had very little free time as it was. The group however is quite strong and motivated, we all want to be here and are enjoying the challenging material and demanding hours.

The Thai classes are extremely challenging. For 4 hours everyday we are not allowed to speak any english, even to ask a question. I am really enjoying the classes, I can say my name, where I am from and a few other simple phrases and questions. I am proud of the little Thai I know because it does not come easy. The language is tonal and difficult to pronounce correctly, "ma" can mean mother, dog, or cat depending the intonation.

After 5 days in the mountains we headed to Nong Jahn a small community based in a national park for the first of many home-stays. The people of this community are subsistence farmers and live nearly entirely off the forest and the animals and vegetables they raise or grow. We had the privilege of staying with these people for 2 days and a night and learn about their community and the challenges of such a society. Various laws passed by the Thai government have subjected these people to various evictions and restrictive laws over the past 60 years. They have been forced to leave, allowed to return, then restricted from hunting on the land, evicted again and finally allowed to return. The laws are designed to protect the land, but the people of Nong Jahn have little to no impact on the land they live their simple yet full lives on. The little electricity they use comes from solar panels and all their water is collected rain. We were split into pairs and assigned a family to spend the night. My friend Jon and I were assigned to a family of about 5 members. Their house was of simple construction, bamboo on stilts with a thatch roof. A covered porch on the front was the dining room and the guest room. When Jon and I both arrived at our house it was late in the afternoon, Thailand is hot and I was very sweaty, my "Paw" looked at us, then pointed to some large buckets of water off to the side of the house and said "Ab naam" (bathe). It is common for Thais to bathe quite frequently, it is HOT and even they find the heat oppresive at times. We had received a brief oral lesson in this fact and how we were to bathe in the Thai fashion. The custom is to don nothing but a sarong wrapped around your waiste, then dump the cold water over us with a small bucket, lather, and rinse. I now prefer this method of bathing, it feels great in the afternoon and wakes you right up in the morhing.

I felt a little awkward just because of the language barrier but our family like most Thai people were very warm and just laughed along with us. After our Ab naam I felt amazing, we dressed and then were taken to the towns simple gathering hall for dinner and a discussion. Dinner was delicious and spicy, we all sat on the floor in rows, the room was illuminated by long thin candles stuck securely to the floor with hot wax. After dinner we had the opportunity to speak to the community members with Ajaan John (Teacher John) as our interpreter. We asked questions regarding their social structure, their struggle for land rights, health and educational issues. It was inspiring and enlightening, I wish I could have spent more time with these people, they seem so happy and I really respect their lifestyle. Their lives are simple but far from easy, they work all day farming and maintaining the village. Also their children are beautiful and so well behaved. I believe its because their senses are not constantly assaulted by tv and pop culture, they dont have the need to be constantly entertained. We all had a great time playing with them, chasing after them and picking them up. My little sister Mew was about 8 years old and perfect. Before the town meeting we ran around and played together, but as soon as the meeting started she sat obediently in my lap and fell asleep. Having worked with many children at that age range in the States I can appreciate how well-behaved she and the rest of her friends are.

After the meeting we went back to our small house and settled under a mosquito net suspended in the porch where we slept for the night. It was only 9pm, and still very hot, but I fell asleep promptly and slept greatl. Language barriers can be exhausting, and so is sweating all day.

In the morning my family served us sticky rice and some spicy chicken with green beans. I still maintain that this was the best meal I have had in Thailand. After we ate our host father took us to the local Wat or temple. Some of the group had arrived before us and had offered alms to the monks in the morning. I had wanted to do this but it was difficult to express this desire to my host father for obvious language related reasons. But I still got to see the Wat and the monks so all was not lost. After that it was time to pack up and leave for Khon Kaen. I said goodbye to my host family and tried to pantimime that I would like to come back and see them soon.

The ride was only about an hour and a half long. We had an orientation and then recieved our keys and met our roommates. My roommates name is Oak and he speaks very little english. I had requested a roommate that didn't speak much english thinking that it would force me to learn more Thai. As a result my roommate and I just don't communicate that much, but we seem to like each other and get along pretty well despite the language barrier. Hes very easy to get along with and plus I wont be around too often this semester. I am here for 2 more days and then I leave for another homestay.