Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dear Everyone,
I am grovelling, on my knees, begging your forgiveness, for the long wait between posts. I have no excuses. Well I do actually- there was only one computer with very slow internet for everyone at our hostel this month, and we were very busy. So I owe you a lot of information.
The end of Thailand was wonderful. The last night in Ban Huay Hee, we had a going away party in the open bamboo hut we used as a classroom. First they sang and danced for us (which was amazing), then we all had to sing for them. This time we were a little more prepared than we were in Shaxi, so rather than singing Mulan was sang Green Day's 'Time of Your Life' with Alexis playing guitar. Afterwards, we showed them all our media projects. I wasn't looking forward to that, because it seemed silly to show them things that would educate them about their own community, but it went so well. When they saw the stop motion film Renee, Katie R., and Lily made they laughed so hard. All of our families loved the media projects, and were so excited to see themselves and their lives on film. It was a really amazing night. The goodbyes the next morning were very tearful, and literally everyone in the town (the woman and children I mean, the men were out working) shook every one of our hands.
The enrichment week was nice, and relaxing. We took a really cool Thai cooking class. Some of us rode elephants! That was awesome. The last night there, right before we left for our two day journey to South Africa, almost half the group got a horrible 24 hour stomach bug, me included. That was really unfortunate. Luckily it ended not too far into our travelling, so we weren't too uncomfortable.
Then we got to South Africa! We're staying at Amakaya Backpackers. The nine girls are all in a large dormitory with a kitchen-ish set up (no oven), and a bathroom. The boys have a smaller dorm room, with no kitchen or bathroom. They have to use the ones in the main building. It's about time- the guys always have the bigger, nicer, rooms, even though there are fewer of them!
The first few days, we toured the townships we'd be working in, had lunch on the beach (which is really near Amakaya), and had orientation meetings at Plettaid, our partner NGO. After that, we started work. In the mornings we'd meet our care workers in the townships, and go around with them until 1 pm. John and I were partnered with Margaret, a Xhosa woman in the township of Kwanokauthula. She's this incredibly expansive woman- she talks and laughs loudly, and is not afraid of saying whatever she pleases. Becca and Noah were also working in Kwanokuthula, but with Pumza, a new careworker. She worked in Phase Three, the newest (and farthest away) part of the township. Margaret worked in Phase One and a little of Phase Two, both of which were very close to the clinic which was our home base. Becca, Noah, John, and I would all sit there in the morning before Pumza and Margaret met us, in the afternoon when they dropped us off and Percy (the TBB driver) hadn't picked us up yet, and in the middle of the day if the carers had to be in the clinic with a patient. Often passing people would stop and talk to us, becuase it was strange for four white kids to be hanging out in a township, especially at the clinic.
Whoops I have to go romp with the cheetahs and lions and get a massage from a crazy hippy lady (I'm on independent travel in Karoo), so I'll finish later.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Farm 2

Hey all. I am updating again! But it's probably going to be short. I'm pretty tired, even though it's not even 8 pm yet. In the village we go to bed and wake up with the sun, and two days in Pai aren't enough to change that. I'm lovely and clean and I slept wonderfully in my bed. I'm going to go have another shower soon- my second shower in two days! I can't even believe it. We just hung around today and looked at a bit of the town, and relaxed. It was very nice.
Anyway, the farm in the village:
They do slash and burn agriculture, which was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always thought of it as something done in the Amazon, that destroyed trees. Here, the cut all the trees in one of their eight fields to about a meter high, then burn the whole field. For a year they plant there, growing rice and other things they need. The crops are nourished by the ash, but weeds are largely kept in check by the burn. At the end of the season they harvest, and move onto the next field. Essentially, each field has one year of usage followed by eight years fallow. We've been reading a lot about sustainable agriculture, and we learned that for it to be sustainable, a field needs at least five years fallow for every year of use. By the time the field is harvested the tree stumps already have fresh shoots growing out the bottom, so during the eight years there is a lot of regrowth. This prevents erosion, and the eight years allow the soil to regenerate enough that they never need fertilizer. We talked to one of the women in the village, and she told us how even though they now buy some things from town (including, occasionally, meat) they never buy vegetables- they learned in their middle school classes that the vegetables from town have chemicals in them, which the ones grown in the village do not.
For my media project Becca, Katie C., and I are making a video about our host mothers. We've interviewed them all with translators, and are putting together a film about their lives and roles in the village and at the farm. It will only feature them speaking, with subtitles throughout. I'm really excited about it. The things we've been learning from them are amazing.
Last Saturday we went on a hike for hours, up to a really tall mountain behind the village. It was a nice hike, but very hot and steep. When we got up to the top it was really windy. As we were approaching the final peak, we saw a bunch of soldiers on the very top. They were all in fatigues with enormous guns (M16's, per the guys in the group), gathered around a tent. They watched us toil towards them, and as soon as we reached the top they pulled us into their group, beaming, telling us 'You take picture with my friend!' So we had a huge photo shoot, all of them and all of us. Three soldiers held a bunch of cameras and took pictures for ages. Some of the guards lay down and posed in front of the group, one even making a peace sign on top of his huge gun. It was awesome. Turns out they were the queen's personal guard, out on a training day. She's coming to Mahongsong next month so they've been scouting out the area. They live in the palace and see the King and Queen every day. I've never met such friendly soldiers. Seriously though, God help Thailand if it ever goes to war. I can't imagine them actually using those guns to shoot people.
It's the dry season right now, and they are not farming much, just burning the new fields. The whole country is so dry. The air steals all your moisture. My skin is like a snake. On the positive side, laundry dries really quickly. The smoke from all the burning fields makes a constant haze over the mountains.
I recommend you all read Omnivore's Dilemma, which is really good and will blow your mind. I'm going to have to change how I eat when I get home, dammit. I love meat! No worries, I'm not going to be a vegetarian, because I just don't think that ends up being healthiest or most sustainable. However, less meat seems to be the way to go, and grass fed, sustainably raised stuff for sure. I can't rewrite all of Omnivore's Dilemma and the articles we've been reading on this blog, but if you don't know how supermarket meat is being raised you should really check it out. It's awful. Not just in terms of cruelty, also in terms of health of consumer. American meat plants also export meat to Europe, but they have to export special meat killed and treated more slowly than the meat they sell us. Our supermarket meat is too unhealthy to pass European standards. Meat itself is healthy though, and when the animals are treated well they are a really good part of a farm, and can actually contribute to growing healthier produce too. So it's definitely better to buy that meat than not buy meat at all- vote with your dollars, as one of the articles we read said. The meat industry won't notice if you stop buying from them, but they will notice if they loose percentage shares of the industry (that's a paraphrased quote from Robin). Anyway, read the book. It's really interesting. That's totally longer than I thought it would be. Yay me! I'll be incommunicado again for a week or so, then I should have pretty regular access til the end of the trip, I think.
So adios!

Friday, January 30, 2009


So I've been living in the mountains of northern Thailand with the Karen tribe for the past two weeks, farming and weaving and chopping firewood and taking ice cold bucket baths whenever I can get up the courage. I'm spending the weekend in Pai, a really cool town about six hours away from the village. I absolutely adore Ban Huay Hee, but I'm so not complaining to have a real bed and a hot shower for three days. By not complaining, I mean I'm jumping for joy. And singing, and dancing, and shrieking... I'm completely over the moon. I was so, so dirty. Now I am clean!
My family in the village is great. I live with a grandma and grandpa in a large-ish bamboo hut with a kitchen, a living room, and a small store room. We share a bamboo outhouse with one of their sons, his wife, and their one year old baby (and Renee, who lives with them). Loads of chickens and pigs and small dogs live under our house, which is raised a good four feet off the ground on stilts of sorts. We've been learning Thai, but that hasn't helped me with my family. Only the younger people in the village speak Thai, the rest (aka my host parents) speak only the tribal language, Bakinyon (which I probably spelled atrociously). Like all the women in the village, my mother weaves. It's amazing, and there's no way I can describe it well enough to do it justice. So just wait, until I upload a video of her doing it. Renee and I have learned from her, and finally gotten good enough to not ruin whatever we're working on. It's the sort of loom that loops around your back, if any of you reading this know what you're talking about when it comes to weaving.
Because it's the dry season, they aren't doing too much farming. The harvest was finished a few months ago, so right now they are working on preparing the new field. They have more free time than they do in the main farming seasons, so there is a lot of weaving going on. Also, the women go every day to chop firewood, which is a really simple a way to describe this huge undertaking. My mother carries a large basket on her back, with a machete and ax in it. We literally hike up a mountain, to near where last years field was. When we've been walking for about twenty minutes or more, she and her friends decide it's a good place and proceed to completely destroy any fallen trees dumb enough to be in their way. They hack them into little bitty pieces and jam them into the baskets til they are overflowing. Sometimes they are done when the baskets are full- other times, they continue to chop down every tree they can get their hands on, chop them into logs, stack them, and abandon them. I really don't understand that part. It's possible they're letting the firewood dry out. It's possible they're starting to clear a new field. I have no clue. Either way, they finish their chopping, pack the axes into the baskets, and loop the basket strings around their heads so the weight is on their necks and backs. My mother here is a grandma, and actually looks extraordinarily like my (paternal)grandma back home. Yet she's only 48! She works all day, every day.
Ohhhhh wait, time for dinner. I'll write more tomorrow I swear! I have to tell you all about the farming in the village, which is amazing and totally sustainable and makes delicious, healthy food. Also about what we've been learning, and the hike to the top of the mountain and hanging out with the queen's personal guard when we got there (it was a training day), and lots of other stuff. That just there was a preview. Wait on the edge of your seats for the rest!
And delight in the knowledge that I am so, so, clean, and will be sleeping in a real bed tonight!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


We finished off in Vietnam well, hosting an environmental conference with about 60 Vietnamese students. I MC'd with Phat, the Vietnamese student who was our main guide/translator throughout the month, and our friend. We invited a couple of Vietnamese student groups to do short presentations of what they're doing to help the environment. New Years was wonderful, we went to this hotel party with a crazy show. There was a magician and a clown, also some dancing girls wearing bra tops and see through harem pants, who shook their breasts and did hip thrusts all over stage. We were all a little startled by that one. There was delicious food, and a million balloons in a net overhead, released at midnight. It was just really fun, dancing and hanging out. Afterwards almost everyone went to this Vietnamese club to continue dancing, which was incredibly fun. Phat and I were dance partners.
Next we went to Thailand, to live in bungalows on the beach for a week and learn to scuba dive. It was relaxing, and scuba was so cool. The day after we finished the course we rented kayaks and paddled around some coves and snorkeled. John and I basically swam over two sharks on a really shallow reef. There was a maybe four foot long one, then a smaller one following it. We passed them twice. I got pretty brown, and a few days later I started to peel. I looked like I had leprosy on my forehead.
Now we're at a collective experimental farm in Northern Thailand. It's so cold at night it blows my mind. Keep in mind I've been living in Southeast Asia for months, so it's not really all that cold by New England standards. We learned how to graft plants and identify trees in the agroforest, and went to a wedding between a Buddhist woman from one village and a Christian man from another. They did a lovely ceremony where the people in attendance give the couple a tiny sum of money (like, half a dollar) for good luck, then loop a string around their two wrists. By the end their wrists are completely bound.
Sorry I'm going through this so fast, it's just that I really need to do laundry soon so it will be dry by the time we leave tomorrow. I want to update my blog now though, because the internet is really patchy and may not be here later. If I can, I'll update more later.
We killed a pig! One of the farm workers knocked it out (which was by far the most traumatic bit of the process) by bashing it on the head with a large piece of wood. It started to seize which was scary, so everyone grabbed it and held it then Zach stabbed it in the heart. Afterwards we helped skin it, then cut it open and clean the organs and prepare the meat. We also tasted all the 'delicacies'- pig blood, pig skin, raw kidney, fried intestine, etc. It was pretty interesting, and tasted pretty good when we ate the cooked pork at dinner that night.
We're leaving tomorrow to start the two day journey to the mountains, to live with a hill tribe for three weeks. There won't be any internet, and minimal electricity. They are sustainable farmers, and also do orchid conservation. Apparently this is the season where they orchids are in bloom, so there are huge fields full of them. It sounds really amazing there. I'm very excited. I like what we're reading too- The Omnivore's Dilema. I recommend you all read it and get horrified about what we're eating. We've also watched a documentary that is a bit horrific, about our food. Also, I mistakenly started running a few days ago. Will I continue? Nobody knows. I didn't the past two days though, because we were pretty busy and I couldn't walk down the stairs I hurt so much. I can walk downstairs again, so I have no more excuses.
Anyway, I have to do my laundry or I won't have any clean underpants for ages.