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....