Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thai beaurocracy at its greatest

Today, I had to get my motorcycle license. Granted, I've been driving without it for weeks now, and the vast majority of Thais never get them - it's just not that big of a deal. However, the program wants me to get it, so when the students come, I can show them my license and say, "No, sorry, you can't drive the motorcycle- you need one of these." Even the DMV-equivalent knows that everyone drives illegally - there's no permit, so you have to have been on a bike before in order to pass the road test without any previous license, plus they watch you drive in on your motorcycle in order to take the test, and drive away if you fail.

So even the very basis of acquiring a license is a total scam. We tried to convince them that our American drivers licenses should count, as the last intern group did, but to no avail. You arrive at 8:30. At 10, you are shuffled to a room to watch a 90 minute video in Thai, farangs included. There's no English option and there's no way of getting out of this obligation, even though they know you will not understand a single word. After the video, they tell you more information in Thai, so you're done with at around 11:30. Then they don't offer the written test until 1, so you have an hour and a half to do whatever you do when you're stuck at the DMV - we found food. Then comes the written test - Its 30 questions, you need to get 25 right. There is a poorly-translated version in English, but all the information is from the Thai video for which they had no substitute. How do we know the Thai rules of the road, which no one follows because no one has a license? The test repeats questions because it's on random assortment, so if you get it wrong once, you get it wrong six times. Also, you might get one question twice, with completely different answers both times - how can a road sign mean two different things? Who knows? There are these tiny little diagrams that are supposed to show you different situations on the road, but they're maybe the size of a passport photo, and completely indistinguishable. It's a complete crapshoot. Anyway, you have two chances and if you don't pass, you can't take it again until the next day. Maybe Thais will be able to study the book in that time, but what is an English speaker going to do? So now, its already 2 and we've been at the DMV since 8:30, and haven't accomplished anything. Cait managed to pass the written part, so we wait for her to take her driving test at 2:30, which she, unfortunately fails as well. UGH. 

So we walk out of there, completely license-less, knowing that we have to come back and do it all over again. I was feeling dejected and less confident about my motorcycle skills, which was stupid because I didn't even get to the driving part. Josh let me drive him home on the bike (see what I mean about the failing and not caring?) all the way down the MetroPop (the equivalent of the highway here) for the first time, so that was exciting! Such a stupid system - I will never complain about the DMV again. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

a centimeter is the width of your pinky

So I left you off in a sentimental place last night, but it's not only 24 hours later, and I have some absurdly epic stories about the time where we were supposed to plant rice in Udon.

It started as soon as I got back from the office last night, and exhausted ready to pass out from our trip to Chaiyapum. Clearly that wasn't going to happen. I rode the motorcycle back so got home first and realized that the lock on our house which is usually vertical is now horizontal, and the key that used to fit in the vertical lock is much too small for the horizontal one. Thailand is the only country in which your landlord would change your locks on you and not tell you until you return home after three days away and find your key doesn't work and a note in the door with Thai and a phone number. Luckily, it's the only country where if you call that number, someone will show up at 11 at night with your key in hand and a smile on his face.

Thailand's also the only country in which you can just show up to someone's doorstep a province away and ask them if you can help plant ("bloog") rice ("cow"), and they just might let you. Maybe. That was our mission today. Each intern group has a solo trip, where they have to get to a certain destination that the office sets up, and work with the villagers planting rice for a few hours. Of course, we happen to go on the day that no one is out working, and the NGO we were supposed to meet is sick, so we hang out with his assistants, 27 year old activists and researchers, who have no desire to spend their morning planting rice with us. They show us the field, the basics of transplanting rice, and the stream that the villagers use to fill the rice patties, and call it a successful trip. Out of pure interest, we go see the site of the potential potash mine in the community, and call it a day. The two guys were really nice, but clearly had no idea what to do with us. We wait on the side of the highway for a bus- somehow we manage to get on the right one, and then the real adventure starts.

First, there's a monk on the bus. You always have to wai to the monk. I do, and then keep saying "wai, wai, wai, wai" to the others, but they think I'm saying, "Why? Why? Why? Why?" so that's the end of that. Then, this is the best part, Becky leans on the emergency exit door, which is not closed tightly, and almost falls out of the bus. The monk has a field day over it, and tries to teach us that it's the "Emergency Door" which we understood, obviously. He continues to us, well Anne really, but for sake of the conversation, lies to the monk about a few things, including the fact that we helped plant rice with farmer's today, so she's sure to come back as something wretched in her next life. Somehow we made it back home by 2, and successfully completed our mission without any help.

Also, the weirdest things about Thai buses - the attendant feels no embarrassment in leaning over and adjusting your window curtain or air conditioner to see fit. For a country with so many cultural rules, who knew it was OKrai (our new favorite word) to change someone's locks or control their personal bus settings? Collectivist culture influences? Arai Godai (whatever)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Herb is a gift from the earth, and whats from the earth is of the greatest worth.

Samun Praiee - Herb
Pac - Vegetable
Ba - Forest
No Mai - Bamboo
Hen Jai - Empathy

I don't really know how to start this blog post - I've been reflecting about the amazing past few days for a few hours, and it hasn't even helped that much. We just spent two nights in Ban Huay Tap Nai Noi, a potentially dam- affected community that CIEE had never visited previously. Therefore, there were two aspects of this community that were different than typical homestays, in addition to the fact that I was there as one of four interns and not as one of thirty students. That, in and of itself, was incredible - I almost wish the four of us could just do the semester over again by ourselves - we had so much fun together, and managed to pull off three exchanges, reflections, check-ins, planning sessions, and community chill time, by ourselves - well of course, with the help of our wonderful translator and friend, Poi. Our intern coordinator, Josh, was sick so he couldn't come, so it gave us confidence that we really have the ability to facilitate ourselves and have a successful community stays, which is only going to get more challenging once students get there.
The fact that it was CIEE's first time in the community presented additional challenges, but another level of excitement as well. We didn't have previous knowledge, pass-ons, reports, or final projects to fall back on when we needed information about the community - it was on us to be able to tell the rest of CIEE, students and staff, about what's going on this community. At first, we were getting bogged down in details and really intense stories about the village's history, which was extremely interesting, and we were so interested in and loved hearing about, but we needed to go back to our goal of being able to provide a concrete, big picture snapshot of the community to our own people back in Khon Kaen. There would be potential for student’s to go back and fill in the details later. It was the first time, where I really felt the presence of the bigger structure of the program, and how I fit in. We weren’t making any promises, but both the community and CIEE were relying on us to be successful liaisons, and we only had two-ish days to build brand new relationships and figure out the complicated chronology and current organizing strategies in an unfamiliar place.
I think we did a good job – In a check-in sandwiched between a really overwhelming, information- heavy exchange and an extremely efficient, passionate one, we took a step back and asked ourselves two questions that Aj. Dave would want to know when we get back. “What is the learning potential for students?” and “What are the organizing needs and current status of the community?” I think I’ll answer these in this blog, which will come full circle with the ways that this homestay was different from previous ones, which I mentioned briefly earlier.

What is the learning potential for students?
Endless obviously, but two things stuck out in my mind as especially profound. Firstly, this is a community that has not yet been affected by a dam. They have been fighting for twenty years so as not to have the dam constructed. Unfortunately, this is not a fight that students see often. CIEE often takes students into communities that are already struggling from the negative effects of a development project, like a dam or mine. The fights are often retroactive – How do we close the mine that’s already torn off the top of our mountain? How do we preserve our culture despite losing our wetlands? Organizing is still so strong, but it’s of a different nature. The long term goal of Huay Tap Nai Noi? To cancel the construction of the dam. End of story. All are valuable organizing lessons for students, but this is of a unique nature. Secondly, when we talk to villagers from Rasi Salai or Pak Mun (dam-affected) or Na Nong Bong (mine-affected), we hear stories of how incredible the wetlands or mountains were, how much they provided for the villagers, how independent and self- sufficient they were before the project, but for American students, who did not come from a culture of living off the land, it is difficult to imagine a true supermarket in the wetlands or forest. However, after this trip, I will never forget. We went on a five- hour hike through the jungle, on the mountain, where you can’t take five steps without a paw or meh stopping to explain the value of a certain herb, root, vegetable or animal. You literally can find something to cure every ailment from back pain to allergies to tape worms in your dog to constipation to lice. We picked practically our entire dinner that day, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, and gra teo, a flower that they mix with a spicy sauce or soups. We were taken to bat caves, and followed the dogs when they dug up a lizard that lives underground. We were shown all the land that would be flooded, which brings me to my third student learning opportunity. At CIEE, we learn about a lot of connected issues, but often in disconnected spaces. We learn about agriculture, land issues, dams, and mines, in separate contexts, in separate communities. Often, students make the connections between issues, but it is so blatant in Huay Tap Nai Noi. The land that would be flooded would not only be the jungle with all the resources that the community needs, or the protest village they set up in flatter land so as to prove to the Royal Irrigation Department they were serious about stopping the dam, but also the huge fields of cassava plants, a cash crop that brings them income, but also has them spraying large amounts of land with canisters of chemicals. This community has all the same problems as our agriculture communities, but that’s not on their radar necessarily, because of the dam problem. Similarly, these villagers have been getting manipulated into paying tax or rent to various government entities and private investors due to their tribal ethnicity and lack of land titles. Same issues that are happening in Baw Kaew, but again, the dam is the bigger deal here. The houses set up in order to prevent the dam are amidst cassava fields on rented land – see, you can’t miss it – oh, and the water from the dam might be going to a potash mine… really, you can’t miss the connections.

What are the organizing needs and current status of the community?
Huay Top Nai Noi is the most prominent force between Chiang Ta Preservation Group, which consists of villagers from three other potentially- flooded communities. One of these communities is Huay Top Nai Yai, the original community of the villagers we stayed with, the village they left to set up the protest village. Although the Preservation Group consists of four different villages, there are still two other communities that will be affected that have not joined the group, and the group’s numbers are dwindling. The RID has become increasingly successful at convincing villagers that their houses will not be flooded, not mentioning their livelihoods, or the true destination of the diverted water. The Preservation Group, who has been fighting the dam since 1989, when it was approved by the cabinet, has had (clearly) a successful campaign, but that has been marked by a plethora of struggle and violence. Once, police shot a villager in his farm, and barricaded the road out, so other villagers could not drive to the hospital to save him. On another occasion, some government officials burnt down the sala, kitchen, chicken coup, and other communal properties of Huay Top Nai Noi. However, despite fear of the dam and fear of the RID and government, they have continued their fight. They had been working with the Assembly of the Poor, a strong national organization, which started fighting with Pak Mun dam, and has now reached out to communities all over Thailand who are suffering from development projects. AOP has a lot of pull in the government, and has had many successes. However, with the recent deaths of their founder and another AOP leader, as well as the political instability, AOP has had a lot of internal turmoil and has had difficulty supporting smaller communities such as Huay Top Nai Noi recently. Whereas Paw Wilai, the head of the Preservation Group, used to go to meeting monthly with AOP leaders and groups all over the country fighting potential dams, those meetings are currently paused. Instead, the group has begun working with the Friends of Activist Network (FAN), which is based in Bangkok, but their organizing strategy hasn’t been well defined yet either. It seems like the group is in a transition period between organizers and networks, which has been affecting their organizing potential. Right now, they’re working on fighting the Environmental Impact Assessment, which was recently published, but not completed, because the villagers have not accepted it yet. The RID wasn’t even going to complete one, but the villagers were successful in demanding that the study be completed. However, it completely underestimates the value of the land on which the villagers subside. They offer compensation for flooded land, but only 50 baht for naturally growing trees, such as the lan, which provides the villagers with food, shelter, and income – one leaf is worth more than 50 baht, never mind the entire tree. However, imported tress that investors would be able to bring in, would be compensated to a much greater extent. Have you ever heard of investing in land that you know is going to be flooded, because you know you could make money off of the compensation? It’s sick – these investors would buy one tree, and just take pictures of it in different places, so it would look like they had more trees so they’d get compensated more. Meanwhile, the villagers can’t get one leaf worth of compensation, nevermind that the villagers have never been told where they might move if their houses and livelihoods are flooded. It seems like they’re taking things step-by-step, working on the EIA, and then fighting for the completion of Social and Health Impact Assessments, as well, keeping the long term goal of project cancellation in the front of their minds always.

I was nervous at first to go into a community that had never had farang students before. I often think that the reason I feel so at home in villages is because they’re so used to CIEE students coming and going, it’s totally comfortable, so this would be more uncomfortable and distant. It was the complete opposite. Meh Et, Paw Wilai, Nong Bed, and others, took us into the forest and into their homes like we had known them forever. They shared their fears, their histories, their hearts, and their laughter. The “Land of Smiles” was truly alive in this community, and they were excited to teach us everything they knew about the forest, cooking, and fighting for their rights. Paw Briac (who had awesome pants, btw) said that they’re fighting for the future generations – there were these two girls under the age of two who were loved by the each and every villager – they had an entire community fighting for their rights, so they can live in an undisturbed environment, so they know they’re village will be safe. I apologize for the length of this post, if you’ve even made it this far, but when we asked how CIEE students could be most helpful in their organizing strategy, they asked us to share their stories, so here it is, intertwined with my own. I just talked to my parents, and shared how much I missed Maine and how much that walk in the forest reminded me of the back woods of Embden, but how happy I am that I decided to come back – it’s for communities like this, for finding new jungles to enjoy and new students to inspire and new perspectives to relish in.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Baw Kaew

Have you ever celebrated a village's birthday? We just returned from the 2nd birthday party for Baw Kaew, a protest village that was set up 30 years after the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) kicked villagers off their land in order to create a national eucalyptus forest. Two years ago, the villagers with the support of the Isaan Land Reform Network, decided to move back onto their own land and refuse to leave, while fighting for a community land title. Although a subcommittee of the government declared that the FIO does not have the right to be using their land for profit, they continue to do so, and villagers have been arrested for trespassing and such. The process for receiving a land title is a long struggle, but the villagers remain hopeful that their fight will be successful. Their NGO was talking about the potential dissemination of the FIO, and the consequential privatization of the eucalyptus and other cash crop economies, and how that might affect villagers. We weren't necessarily there for information, as much as to congratulate and celebrate, but I'll be able to give a better community update when I return with the students. 

Baw Kaew is community that I had visited as a student, and it was incredible to see how much the community has grown. They've built much more permanent structures, including a sala and a seed bank in which the villagers collect seeds for display and information dissemination to visitors. There were many more local plants sprouting up around the village, allowing colorful flowers and fresh aromas to seep through the ominous eucalyptus trees. The villagers take great pride in these structures, showing their power and permanence. It was a great feeling to return to a familiar community; my paw recognized me and was happy to see me, even though I only stayed with him for a night at the very beginning of my semester a year and a half ago. Anne, who worked on the Human Rights Report for Baw Kaew in Fall 2009 was the talk of the town.

As all village celebrations are, this was quite the party. Tons of people came to support Baw Kaew, a band played last night, and Thai PBS filmed a panel discussion this morning. The party happened to fall on the same day as Buddhist Lent, a huge holiday, so all the children were off from school. Additionally, CIEE is hosting an International Faculty Development Seminar in Thailand now, so the ten American professors on that seminar stopped by to exchange with the NGO working in Baw Kaew this afternoon. It was great to indirectly get a community update, because they were asking a ton of questions - I also got really excited for the students to come, because it was the first time I witnessed people learning about new community issues and becoming passionate, which I will get to see over and over for the next year! The weirdest part about the entire stay is when someone told us that they thought Americans were wasteful because we threw out sanitary napkins, in Thai. We had no idea what he was saying, until someone explained it as "a cloth that only women use," and we got it from there. Bizarre.

My camera was dead so I don't have any pictures, but it's amazing being here in the fall, during the rainy season. What was brown and dry when I was here as student is green and lush, full of life. The landscapes we drove through today were breathtaking, mountains overlooking rice patties, with cows grazing and  farmers transplanting. It's some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen, and I'm just going to have to keep you waiting for visual images, sorry. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Exciting things and a mistep

First of all, I would like it to be known that Harry Potter 7 Part 2 comes out a full 24 hours earlier in Thailand than in the United States. The first showing is at 11:50 am on Thailand's July 14th which is just about midnight in the states on July 13th. Perfection. I'll try not to spoil it.

Second exciting thing, we're going on a homestay!!! We went to dinner last night with Dao Din, KKU's student activist group, and P'Govit, a mentor and NGO who works closely with CIEE invited another NGO and a Paw from a dam-affected community to eat with us as well. They told us about the dam project in the community and how they would like student's help in creating a research/ human rights report that they could present to the government. We're going to start building a relationship between this community and CIEE this semester and the interns are going to be the first to go! It's a forest community in the mountains (!!), so we're going to go hiking and pick vegetables, such as mushrooms, bamboo, cassava, and sugar cane. We'll do some sort of project with them after our visit which is exciting, since those will be conducted mainly by the students after the semester starts. I'm just excited to talk about dams again, and get back into the communities!

Speaking of students, we got the roster today! Something else exciting and also scary.

Speaking of scary, we got monsooned today - I don't really know how to describe the amount of rain that was falling. Maybe a bath tub per square inch per second. Maybe that's enough. Depending on how you fill your bathtub. A huge, full bathtub. (The bathtub is foreshadowing, fyi). Cait had dinner with Josh, so Anne, Becky, and I were on our own and stopped in one of the restaurants by our house for dinner as the rain poured and poured. We had Thai tutoring at 6, which is why we left the house at all, and didn't wait out the storm in the restaurant after eating. Our house, and the restaurant, is down a gradual, but extraordinarily long (miles) incline, so all the water from the university was barreling down the road that had maybe one or two grates for drainage. Not enough. Otherwise, there's a ditch on the side of the road that should act as a gutter. It should, when there's a normal amount of rain, which this was not. We walked out of the restaurant and the water was up to my mid-calf, almost my knee in some spots. You couldn't see the ground at all - it was a river picking up everything on the street along the way and we were walking against the current. I could have canoed more successfully. The tires of cars and motorcycles were covered, and we tried to hitchhike in someone's pick up truck because we looked like crazy farangs trying to wade our way through this nonsense. But no one looked as crazy as me when I took one step too far to the right and fell into the ditch and got completely submerged (see the bathtub thing?). I had no idea where I had gone for a second there - I felt like I had apparated - I wasn't quite so lucky. But, being me, I laughed as hard as I could, handed my bag with my (potentially waterlogged) laptop in it to Becky, thanked Anne for finding my flipflop, got up and continued the trek. Soon after, we flagged down a songtao to take us the rest of the way, since the puddle of rain water in my pants was getting pretty unpleasant. We made it to the office only 5-10 minutes late and learned some more Thai. Mai ben rai- that's what flood season's all about.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sam Wan (Day Three)

We've just barely gotten over jet lag, and have managed to move in to our new office and house (see pictures below), meet with a few of our mentors, and complete some contemplative education activities - we did our first one today, where we had to flip a small cloth from one side to the other while all standing on it and not touching the ground, and then reflect on the process - we were very successful, but it's more about the process than the outcome anyway. We've even managed to throw in some time for daily GRE studying and relaxation. These first two weeks are all about getting oriented to the program and our surroundings, and building relationships with one another. The four of us already have such a strong friendship, and it's been amazing getting to know each other on a deeper level and figuring out the best ways for us to understand, utilize, and challenge our strengths and weaknesses to become a cohesive whole. We had breakfast and lunch with the program's closest mentor, who led us through meditation exercises, and helped us find a common reason that the four of us came back to Thailand. Although we are all have different backgrounds and different motivations for returning to Thailand, we were all able to understand that "changing yourself to change others" was a good place to start.

It is so weird being back - it's really exciting to be in this position, where I'll be able to facilitate the learning and change that I underwent as a student here for other students, but all these memories and stories are continuously flooding back, as if I never left. Eating at my favorite restaurants, driving down familiar streets, and walking past my old room, is so bizarre, since so much is going to be different. Becky, Anne, Cait, and I are working on distancing ourselves from our student experiences to grow better as interns while also using those past experiences to inform parts of our relationships with incoming students.

I'm so glad I gave myself this opportunity to come back. I'm in a really different place with the program, in terms of its education model, emphasis on group process, and community organizing, than I was when I left, in a good way. I've let go of a lot of the frustrations that I held with the program last May, and now realize how much I had come to appreciate them over this past year back in the US. Not only am I excited to begin working on the projects that were the motivation for my return like the Rasi Salai Learning Center and Green Study Abroad (Climate Action Plan), but I am ready to challenge myself in facilitation, contemplative education, and reflection.

Cait, Anne, and Becky in our office (the best arrangement CIEE has seen thus far)

Ban Farang 2.2

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Made it

Made it to Thailand. Probably the worst intercontinental flight I've had to date. Firstly, I'm sitting behind a very large man, which is fine except his seat won't sit up straight so he is legitimately leaning into my lap for both flights. Then, I go to take my bag out of the overhead bin and someone has a loose tennis racket in there which falls out and wails said man in the head and gives him a minor concussion and he starts cursing at me and telling me how he lost his job and missed his flight- bad news. Not my fault. Across the aisle from me is a Catholic missionary who's going to teach seminary in Thailand, and decides its his job to watch me sleep for the rest of the trip (because if his wife were traveling alone he'd want to make sure someone was watching her), and then update me on when and how I was falling asleep and how hard I was struggling on the flight from California to Japan versus Japan to Thailand. Brutal.

Enough ranting- I'm stoked to be in a familiar airport, waiting for my last flight after quite a long series of air travel! I do love surprising Thai people with my minimal amount of Thai speaking skills. Even giving them a "Sawadika" (hello), "Kapunka"(thank you) or being able to say where you're going, "Mahawitialay Khon Kaen" (Khon Kaen University) and when "Hoc Mong" (6 am) gets them really happy. Then they start jabbering, throwing some Isan (Northeast region) slang around and you have to tell them "Pud cha cha" (speak slowly!) and "My cow jai" (I don't understand) which gets them laughing even more. Some attendants had a field day when they asked how many people I was traveling with and I said "nung cone" (one person) and they pointed at my luggage and laughed, because there's so much. "Nung pbee!" (One year!) I protested. "My ben rai" (No worries).