Monday, November 30, 2009

Yes, They Khene

Last Sunday, around 7:30 P.M., we received a phone call from Duang's brother, "Number 4", asking us to attend a performance that he was giving in Udonthani that night at 9:00 P.M. I always enjoy the shows as well as the very interesting people watching opportunities that the audiences always provide so we accepted without hesitation.

Well it turned out that the performance was not exactly in Udonthani, as in the city of Udonthani, although we had to drive through the city to get to the location. However, the village was in Udon Thani Province so perhaps it was our misinterpretation. Fortunately his girlfriend waited for us in her car inside the city so that we could follow her to the performance.

The performance was held in a small farming village typical of this area of Isaan - in the middle of the rice paddies, narrow streets, and a combination of raised wooden houses and concrete block homes.

Upon arrival we realized that this was another funeral celebration. Several awnings had been erected with guests seated at tables that had bottles of beer as well as whiskey set upon them. Some young women and young men were busy bringing food to the guests.

Off to the side of the awnings and next to the house was a long table. Upon the table were three "bahn" (Thai) "hehan" (Lao). These are handcrafted spirit houses made largely out of banana stalks and bammboo. They are quite ornate and are used as and in offerings to the spirits. Next to each bahn was a framed photograph of a deceased family member. Small yellow candles were burning in front of the photographs.

The people of Isaan, the ethnic Lao Loum, believe that the spirits of deceased people need to be nourished with food and drink. As part of their Buddhist beliefs, the people believe that they can assist their ancestors in the after life by earning "merit" for them. Buddhists believe that we are in a continuous cycle of of birth, death, and rebirth until we reach enlightenment. Until we reach enlightenment, our new life's status is determined on how we lived our last life and how much "merit" we had gained. Living relatives can earn merit for themselves as well as for their specified departed loved ones by making offerings in their name and honor. Often these celebrations are held one year following the person's death however the ceremony is quite often delayed until the family can save enough money to afford it.

Part of the celebration involves having a group like Duang's brother's to perform. It is quite interesting to see go-go dancers, electric guitars, and electric organ perform in an event associated with death. One thing for certain is that at these events there will be playing of the khene.

The khene is a free reed bamboo musical instrument. It is the quintessence of Lao culture and the Lao experience. The khene, which is also spelled "kaen", "khen", and "khaen" is a mouth organ comprised of several bamboo tubes of various lengths, each with a free reed inserted in them connected to a hardwood chamber. The instrument has been around for thousands of years and is considered the mother of Lao music.

Kaens come in various sizes but all sizes share the similarity of being constructed of two rows of bamboo tubes. There is a 6 tube size, 14 tubes, 16 tubes, and 18 tube size. The length of the khene is related to the number of the tubes with the 18 tube version also being the longest of the instruments.

The khene is played by blowing into the central chamber and using the fingers of both hands to change the notes. The instrument is related to the harmonica and accordion of Western music. The sound, to me, is a very rhythmic "sing-song" sort of like a "Hee-Hawing" or braying of a donkey. I find the music to be rather hypnotic and I can easily accept as well as recognize its ancient heritage.

As part of the morlham shows that are widely held throughout Isaan, a portion of the show is focused around the traditional music of Laos or more specifically "Lao" people. Laos is a political demarcation determined in a large part by the European colonial powers. The ethnic Lao people, in particular the Lao Loum, Low Land Lao, inhabit Northeast Thailand as well as Laos. The shows typically start off with rocking electrified music complete with go-go dancers. After about three or four of these songs, which seem intended to get every one's attention as well as to stir them up, the tribute to the Lao traditions starts. The recognition of today's music's origins as well as honoring the Lao Loum heritage involves singing with only a khene as accompaniment. The songs initially are performed by either an older man or woman. They sing traditional songs in the traditional style. The traditional style involves an introduction that involves the extended pronunciation of words in a sort of warbling tone. Each word is stretched out using the singer's complete range until it seems that they will run out of breadth. After the introduction, the singer sings in such a manner that their voice is almost as much an musical instrument as singing the words. As much as I detest American "Rap" and "Hip Hop" (I won't call them music), the traditional Lao music is similar in that it tells stories with the verses often being created on the spot. I am pretty certain that the violence and vulgar lyrics of the modern form is not used in the Lao.

For funeral celebrations the traditional portion is a greater part of the performance. I get the feeling that the traditional music serves as a link and bridge to the past a manifestation of the bonds that keep the family traditions alive. After several traditional songs, the band will play several modern songs - several of which utilize the khene. Since the khene is not an amplified instrument, the khene player will either stick a microphone in his belt or the singer next to the khene player will use their microphone to ensure that the audience can hear the khene.

After completing the modern music set, the performance returns to a very traditional ritual. The relatives of the deceased go up on stage and kneel facing the audience. The relatives have offerings of food, drink, and items such as sahts (woven reed mats) and mohn (ornately decorated small rectangle pillows)set before them along with a framed photograph of the deceased. A singer then will perform several traditional Lao songs in the warbling lament style with only the amplified khene providing the accompaniment.

After the offering ritual, the show returns to it's modern music. The khene player provides great entertainment during the modern songs. Whereas during the traditional music, he was very still and respectful, during the modern songs, he, as we used to say back in Rhode Island - "He gets down and dirty". The khene player dances and prances around the stage while playing. Quite often he accentuates a hard drum beat of the song with a severe pelvic thrust usually in time with similar motions by the go-go dancers. At times the khene player will jump into the air and move his feet through a bicycle motion while playing. On some songs that have fast driving beats, he keeps time to the beat with a flury of pelvic thrusts while playing. No one gets offended. In fact the more antics like this that he does, the more the audience goes up to the stage to give him money.

Yes he khene ("can" - a play on words, they are pronounced the same) and he does.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Big Box Battle -The Struggle Against the Multinationals

My stated goal in both this blog as well as my photography is to share and show how different people in various lands are but in doing so, show how much we are alike.

My experiences have demonstrated to me that people all want the same things - they want to be able to take care of their families, they want to be happy, and they want to live in peace - "Peace" as in the absence of armed conflict, and excessive interference from governments.

With the common desires of people, there are common conflicts and issues that confront people no matter their culture or location.

Earlier this week, I became aware of a current conflict in Khumphawapi that is not unlike the conflict that confronts many smaller communities in the United States. The conflict is the encroachment and impact of "big box" multi-national retailers such as Walmart upon the local business environment.

In Isaan, most people purchase their goods from small stores and markets. I have written about the market in Khumphawapi where vendors rent space either inside the open sided structure or outside to sell their items. These markets are situated throughout the larger towns. In smaller villages, such as Tahsang Village, some people run very small markets, approximately 10 ft by 10 ft, out of their homes to support some of their neighbor's needs. Night markets are set up on specified nights throughout the week to support the greater needs of people living in the smaller villages.

In addition to the above locations where goods and perishables can be purchased, there are larger distribution shops. These larger shops, typically around 30 ft by 30 ft and stacked from floor to ceiling, sell bulk items. It is at these locations, sort of like micro Costco or Sams Club, that the small village shops purchase their inventory to sell back in their village. The price of the goods in these distribution shops, typically owned and run by ethnic Chinese Moms, Pops, and Sons, reflects a discount to the bulk buyer.

Larger cities such as Udonthani have Western style big box retailers such as the British chain "Tesco-Lotus", and the French chain "Carrefour". These stores could be transported to the USA and would not be any bit out of place. In fact it is my understanding that "Tesco-Lotus" is venturing into the American marketplace.

Here in Isaan, the status quo is being challenged mainly by Tesco-Lotus. They are establishing stores outside of the metropolitan areas very similar to the Walmart practise. In addition they are building smaller local mega-shops sort of like mega 7-11's in cities. These endeavors are a threat to the status quo, culture and social fabric of the local peoples.

The current system of markets serves their communities on a very personal level. The vendors for a large part are selling items from their farms or that they have gathered. Duang's sister and brother-in-law often rent space at the Kumphawapi market to sell vegetables from their farm. Other people sell mushrooms that they cultivate at their homes. Shopping at these markets is a social event as much as it is about buying what you need. Gossip, news, and pleasantries are exchanged during shopping. This strengthens and cultivates a sense of community and community commitment unlike the sterile and impersonal experience of shopping in a big box multi-national establishment.

Tesco Lotus is planning on building a large store just outside of Kumphawapi. The land was back filled and prepared for building earlier this year. Construction has not started yet but appears to be imminent.

Just as Walmart entering into a small community, the planned arrival of Tesco-Lotus has stirred up some opposition. Across from the market in downtown Kumphawapi a sign has been erected - a very serious sign. The sign, as translated by Duang, states "You work for Lotus, You will die, now!" I guess it is up to the reader's supposition as to whether their death would be to natural or un-natural causes. For me, it gets my attention and I believe! Interestingly this sign in the middle of town, on the main road through town, 100 feet from where Police are either directing traffic or checking motorcycles for compliance to various laws, remains for over 5 days. We do not know who is behind this sign or similar signs erected around Kumphawapi as well as at the entrance to the projected Tesco-Lotus site but the commonly held suspicion is that it is the ethnic Chinese merchants. It is fairly common in Southeast Asia for the ethnic Chinese merchants to be suspected of any and most nefarious plots.

The struggle against and issues related to big box multi-national stores in Khumphawapi is very much like in the USA however the degree of intimidation being employed is obviously much more transparent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every Picture Tells A Story

The cliche, "Every Picture Tells A Story", has been used widely as well as often.

I would like to use it today to provide my interpretation of a few photographs from the recent rice harvest here in Isaan.

I had written about the rice thresher that had been used to thresh the family rice last Saturday. I described how it was old, had no doors, and was most likely held together by the many coats of paint on it. Today while editing photos from my other camera of the threshing process I came upon some photos of the thresher. One of the difficulties of maintaining a blog and taking so many photographs is that there is often not sufficient time to review and edit all photos before posting a relevant blog entry in a timely fashion. My preference is to post blogs in a timely fashion because it better connects this world with the readers world(s) in real time. I want to share the life of real people in real time with others to enhance the experience for all. This often requires a compromise with writing the blog and perhaps using all the optimum photos.

When I worked on the photos of the threshing machine today I remembered the cliche and it occurred to me that every picture tells a story but what story does it tell? It is like a picture of a 12 oz glass with 6 oz of water in it. Is the story concerning a half empty glass or a half full glass. We all know that the story is based upon one's perspective, experience, and personal agenda. So it is with these photos.

One story about these pictures could be centered around the negatives and the things that the thresher, machine and man, do not have. There are no doors, there are not adequate lighting, there is no air conditioning, there are no safety belts, there are no ..., he doesn't have much money, he doesn't take care of his equipment well, he doesn't look after his safety very well, he doesn't ... , he isn't ... This is the story of pessimism.

The story that I want to share is a story of optimism. I see a piece of equipment that is fit for purpose and gets the job done. In more developed countries or areas, a threshing machine could cost $100,000 USD or more - well beyond the ability of Isaan farmers to purchase or to support. This threshing machine, in its current state and condition, serves the needs of the local community of subsistence farmers. The owner besides being able to provide a needed service to his community as well as to support his family.

On a typical day of the month long harvest season, he will be paid about 8 bags of rice for a total of 240 bags for the season. One bag will feed his family for two months so he will acquire more than enough bags of rice during the harvest to feed his family. He will be able to sell the surplus rice to dealers and agents for about 500 Baht ($15.11 USD for 110 pounds of rice) a bag to pay for diesel fuel, and other operating expenses as well as to support his family.

In a one month harvest season, he will earn 117,000 baht or the equivalent of 9,750 baht a month for the year. This is no where nearly as good as the crab fishermen on television's "Deadliest Catch" but pretty good for a Thai farmer.

This story of optimism is also a testament to the freedom that many people here in Southeast Asia to make a living as best they can and anyway that they can. There are not many government regulations, permits, reports or applications necessary to start up a small business. The people are free to exercise their initiative and entrepreneurial skills to make a living no matter their economic status. They focus on what they can do rather than finding or wallowing in the excuses for all the things and reasons that they can not.

Although there is not a Thanksgiving holiday here in Isaan, I am sure that the Lao Loum people are thankful to be able to earn a living, with minimal governmental interference and involvement, even with equipment that is only just fit for purpose - a blessing that we should all enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Good Harvest

Saturday, 21 November, was the completion of the family rice harvest.

Cutting the ripe rice had taken three days of many family members in the heat and under the glaring sun. Four rhai, 1.58 acres of rice had been completely cut using only sickles. After laying in the sun for three days to further dry out, the cut stalks were bundled into sheaves using stalks to bind the sheaf together. Many of the sheaves had been gathered the previous day and transported to a central location of the paddy to create a large mound atop a fine mesh blue plastic mat. The mat captures for storage any rice kernels that fall off the stalks due to handling of the sheaves. It is surprising how much rice separates from the straw just through manual handling. The family are subsistence farmers so there is a great deal of motivation to minimize waste. The harvested crop will feed the family for the next year. Although there was a large mound awaiting the arrival of the threshing machine, there remained many sheaves scattered about the paddies.

The first task of the day, was to gather up the scattered sheaves and transport them to the large mound. Workers gathered up the dried sheaves from the field and tossed them up to another worker who stacked them up in the back of the farm truck. Once the farm truck was filled it brought the sheaves to the big mound where they were off loaded by hand.

The family uses the services of a local man who owns a rice thresher. The man is from Tahsang Village which was fortunate. The family field could be accessed using dirt roads through the sugar cane and rice fields rather than on the public highway. The threshing machine was mounted on the back of a pick up truck frame. It appeared to me that the vehicle could have been a 1957 Chevy. The vehicle was handed painted blue and I would not be surprised to determine that the paint was largely holding it together. There were no doors on the truck and the interior was completely gutted with wires, and remnants of fabric. I did not see any registration plates on the truck, or an inspection sticker on the windshield.

The man with the threshing machine does not get paid in cash for his services. He charges 4% for threshing a crop. For every 100 50 KG bags of rice product, he receives 4 bags of rice in payment. This may explain the dilapidated condition of his transport vehicle. The actual threshing machine was in better condition so once the machine got to the field, there were no problems or concerns. The Thresher goes from paddy to paddy, by appointment, each day threshing the rice of his neighbors. At the end of each day he returns home in his rig with his bags of rice payment stacked around his machine. On a typical day, he earns 8 bags in payment. Each bag is 110 pounds, 50 kilos, of rice and is sufficient to feed an Isaan family of four for two months.

The thresher eventually showed up at the paddy and was set up on top of the blue mat next to the large mat. The thresher is set over the mat to capture any spillage of rice from the process. Family workers took their work stations and the process was ready to commence. The owner of the threshing machine took his place on a small seat that protruded from the side of the thresher. In front of his station was a flat shelf that served to feed the sheaves into the thresher. With his hands the owner ensured a smooth and constant flow of material into the thresher. Workers atop the sheave mound threw sheaves down to other workers who through a combination of tossing and placing got a constant stream of sheaves on to the feed shelf. A chute located on the opposite side of the threshing drum forcibly ejected the waste straw, dust, and dirt off to the side to create a large pile of straw that will be used for animal feed. The afternoon winds blew the debris everywhere. To get the sun at my back to ensure better photographs I was often in the vicinity of the debris stream. When I changed locations for different perspectives, I was surrounded by straw cast about by the winds. The workers were also in the predicament - just a part of the job. Immediately upon returning home, I was banished to the shower to wash away the dust and straw that I had accumulated over 4 hours of watching and photographing the threshing operations.

At the end of the threshing drum, a screw conveyor ejected the rice. Other workers manned this station to fill the grain bags. Local hardware stores sell the bags for 6 baht each $0.18 USD each. Many of the bags have advertising on them for fertilizer as well as grains. These bags are apparently surplus, rejects, or recycled from others. Little is allowed to be wasted here in Isaan. The heavy flow of rice from the thresher filled the bags rather quickly and constantly. There was a choreography of motion to ensure that the bags were completely filled, removed from the discharge chute, and a new empty bag put into position to be filled without wasting rice as the machine continually shot out rice.

Several workers shuttled back and forth from the threshing machine to an area where the filled bags were being stored and sealed. One worker ensured that the filled bags were placed neatly and vertically in neat rows. He twisted the tops of the bags closed and tied them off with bamboo strips. The bamboo straps for tying the bags had been cut and shaved from local groves.

As the sun came close to setting, the threshing was completed. For the 4 rhai (1.58 acres) of land that had been planted in July, 38 bags of rice had been produced. The yield ended up being 2,645 pounds per acre - well below the United States average yield of 7,039 pounds per acre - a testament to the poor soil in Isaan as well as the lack of applying fertilizers. When the rice seed was first sowed, fertilizer was hand broadcast lightly - the first and only time that fertilizer was used. I have tried four times to grow some vegetables and herbs at our home - I have failed every time. The closest to any degree of success was squash which did at least sprout!

The thresher was paid one bag for his services. Thirty six bags were transported back to Tahsang Village to be stored in the raised rice shed at Duang's parent's house. Two bags will be reserved for seed to be used next July. The remaining 35 bags will be milled in about two months and used to feed the family and others over the next year.

The family will have plenty of rice for morning, noon, and night for the next year, so despite the low productivity when compared to United States standards, this year's harvest was a good harvest.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Latest Photo Gallery Available to View

There is a new gallery available for viewing on my photo web site.

The gallery documents the harvesting of this year's rice crop in Isaan, specifically in the proximity of Tahsang Village in Udon Thani Province - about 60 miles south of the Laos.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Threshing Rice Outside Tahsang Village

On Friday morning we drove out to Tahsang Village for a couple of reasons. Duang's daughter and her husband were still busy with harvesting the rice from the family paddy so we had the chance to care for Peelawat. Secondly, some of Duang's 93 cousins were going to be threshing their harvested rice just outside of Tahsang Village so there would be photography opportunities for me to take advantage of.

On our extended visits to Tahsang Village, I bring my camera gear as well as my laptop computer. While Peelawat sleeps I use the computer to organize and edit photographs. Lately I have been waiting until around 2:00 P.M. to go out to the fields to commence photographing. I find the lower light of the late afternoon more conducive to photographing the workers and harvested rice. The late afternoon sun gives an overall golden hue to the scenery.

On Friday afternoon when we was going out to photograph the threshing operation nearby, Peelawat was awake so we decided to take him with us. It was a bright and hot afternoon so we attempted to shield him with a large hat. Peelawat would not cooperate and kept brushing the hat off of his head. Fortunately near where the work was going on there was a typical rest platform. Rest platforms are scattered about the fields and provide some protection for the workers from the sun. The platforms have either a thatched or corrugated (usually rusty) metal roof. Workers eat their meals underneath the roofs and sometimes take a nap in the middle of the day to deal with the heat of the day. This was a good place for Duang and Peelawat to sit while I went about the field. Peelawat watched me the entire time.

The rice in the paddy had been cut and bundled into sheaves previously. A very large mound of rice sheaves had been created in one corner of the complex of paddies. The mound had been built up upon a very large blue mat of very fine mesh plastic netting. The netting captures the rice kernels that fall from the stalks due to handling. The threshing machine is also set up to ensure that the loss of product is minimized. There were also many sheaves of rice stalks scatter throughout the paddies. The first task of the day was to gather up, transport the scattered sheaves, and add them to the large mound. The workers set about gathering the sheaves and piling them into a wagon pulled by an "iron buffalo". The workers were in fine spirits, singing to the Mahlam Lao music that blared across the paddies from a portable radio that they had placed on the ground - UNTIL - until one of the cousins backed up the rice laden wagon over the top of the radio. The last song abruptly terminated with a large scrunching sound.

After awhile the threshing machine arrived. It was the same machine and operator that I had photographed a year ago at another cousin's field.

The machine was set up on the blue netting and the crew began feeding the sheaves into the middle of the machine. Dust and straw was forcibly ejected from a chute at the other side of the threshing drum. Additional debris was ejected from a screw conveyor beneath the drum at the same side as the straw ejection chute. Rice kernels left the machine at the back end in a heavy stream.. The rice was collected into 50 kilogram bags. As the bags were quickly filled, they were carried away to a storage area where their tops were closed and tied off with thin strips of bamboo.

We spent about an hour and one-half there before returning Peelawat back to his home. The little guy had done well on his first photo shoot in the field.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Isaan Rice Harvest - 14 and 15 November 2009

Undaunted by the previous, Friday 13th, day's adventures and motivated by the opportunity to spend some more time with 9 month old Peelawat, we returned to Tahsang Village on Saturday and Sunday to contribute to the harvesting of the family's rice crop.
On Saturday and Sunday the crop that was planted in July just outside of Tahsang Village was being cut. This field does not have red ants so I was looking forward to spending a great deal of time documenting and observing the activities there.

Duang splits her time between caring for Peelawat and cutting rice. Duang's daughter and Duang's mother have been sick so extra help is required to look after the nine month old baby. Saturday ended up being a "baby care" day. Duang's daughter was feeling well enough so she spent the day cutting rice. However, Duang's mother was still not feeling well. She had been to the hospital two days earlier with gastro-intestinal distress. On Saturday she was still rather weak. No problem - her youngest son came over to take care of her.

"Number 4", as he is referred to as since he is the youngest of four children arrived in Tahasang Village with an IV bottle and assorted items related to infusion. He is not a doctor. He is not a EMT. He is not a nurse. He is an entertainer. Apparently anyone with the money can buy IV materials for home personal use or on willing subjects. I was astounded. The IV bottle was made out of glass and contained a yellow liquid. I tried to read the ingredients but the writing was all in Thai. The bottle as well as contents looked identical to what I had seen being used on patients in the hospital.

A saht, a woven reed mat, was placed on the tile floor of the family market for Duang's mother to lay on. Polyethylene packaging twine was used to suspend the IV bottle from a wire that ran from a column to the exterior wall of the room. Duang's brother declined to use my belt as a tourniquet on his mother's arm to help bring up a vein (I had seen a belt used in many films where people were shooting up - wrapping around the upper arm and using their teeth to maintain tension around the arm). Instead he used several rubber bands to create an elastic band to tie around her arm. I was impressed with his knowledge and skill up to this point. He had flooded the IV tubing, installed a vent in the IV bottle, evacuated the air out of the tubing and run some liquid out of the needle. Now it was time to insert the needle into a vein. Finding the vein and inserting the needle proved to be more difficult. Eventually the process was successfully completed. Momma layed quietly on the saht for the afternoon.

Once Momma was settled in with her IV, our attention focused upon Peelawat. He had been sleeping in his hammock on the opposite side of the room and woke up as the set up of Momma's IV was completed. After he woke up completely and got accustomed to everyone, Duang decided that it was time for his bath. Since it was a hot and sunny day, Duang took a small plastic tub outside to the backyard to bathe Peelawat. She filled the tub with water from a hose and used the hose to rinse him off. Peelawat enjoyed his bath even though the water was not heated.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent working on the computer to edit photographs and playing with Peelawat.

On Sunday we spent most of our time out in the rice fields. I shot photographs in the morning and then the late afternoon to take advantage of the better light.

It was hot and humid all day long. I had left Duang back in the village to take care of Peelawat. After photographing the family at work in the fields, I took a walk towards the sun. I walked towards the sun for two reasons - I wanted the setting sun at my back to photograph the workers and there several groups of other workers in that direction. Walking over towards the other workers was rather difficult. The recessed paddies were filled with dry stalks of rice either vertical or laying almost flat. Out of respect for the farmers I did not want to trample over the unharvested rice. That left me the option of walking along the tops of the berms around the perimeters of the paddy. The raised area along the paddies are now overgrown with 4 months of unabated weeds. To make matters even more difficult, the berms are periodically cut by narrow trenches - perfect ankle twisters and ankle busters. The overgrown vegetation pretty much camouflages them. I had also watched a program the previous night about people getting bitten by cobras. I pretty much convinced myself that no snake would hang around the dry rice paddies so I cautiously plodded along.

I spent about 2 hours on this trek, stopping to photograph interesting scenes and stopping to rest as well as await the sun to get lower on the horizon. It was extremely hot and I sweated a great deal. I sweated so profusely that my fingertips became wrinkled as if I had stayed in a bath too long. Midway into my solo journey, I thought that I heard Duang's voice. I was too far to see her even if the rice had not hidden her. After deciding to return to the family, I had some good fortune - I found a piece of aged bamboo - a perfect walking stick. With the use of my walking stick, my walk back was much easier and less intimidating. When I got back to the starting point, Duang was there cutting rice. She had correctly surmised that I was going to be thirsty and had a can of Pepsi along with a glass of ice awaiting me. I have to admit that it was the best Pepsi that I have had in my life. The best Coke is a fountain drink at O Sanctuario outside the entrance to Machu Picchu but the best Pepsi is in a can out in an Isaan parched rice paddy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rice Harvest Season - 2009

The rains have ceased for about a month now. The rainy season is over and will return in late May.

The rice that was planted in Late July is now ready to be harvested from the parched paddies. A month without rain has converted the muddy paddies into hard compacted deeply cracked plots of land - the legacy of the clay composition of the soil. With the continued heat and humidity along with the brilliant sunshine the rice crop has matured quite well. Unfortunately for some people, there have been a couple of windy days recently. The effect of the wind on the heavily headed stalks of rice in many areas was to lay the rice over. Instead of standing about 3.5 feet high above the cracked soil, the rice has been laid over to be only about 1-1/2 feet off and roughly parallel to the ground. The lower height requires the workers to bend over further every time to pick up the stalks prior to cutting them.

The free market is in effect here in Isaan. In July, the cost to hire a worker to plant the rice was 150 baht a day - $4.53 USD. This was higher than the garlic harvesters were making near the Burma border in April. They made 100 baht of a day. Well now the price for rice harvesters from a nearby village to Tahsang Village is 250 baht a day - $7.55 USD. This was more than Duang's daughter wanted or could afford to pay to harvest the family rice. It had been decided that the family would harvest the crop themselves.

Everyone in the family had their duties and responsibilities related to the harvest. Duang's mother would remain at home and care for Peelawat who is 9 months old now while Duang's daughter and son-in-law harvested rice. Duang would cut rice. I was to photograph the harvest and help care for Peelawat. One condition of my retirement visa in Thailand is that I can not work. Helping the family harvest could be viewed as working so I was not going to be cutting rice. I did try it out for about 10 minutes but ran into problems. Duang's son and his girlfriend would cut rice after finishing their school for the day. Duang's youngest brother could not cut on Friday but he would come out on Saturday to do his part.

The weather had gotten a little cooler here until Friday when it was back to a high of 90 to 95F. We ended up driving out to a paddy that I was not familiar with. It turned out to be Duang's brother's paddy. We arrived about 8:30 in the morning and the workers set out cutting the rice immediately. I set up my camera bag on a raised platform along side of the paddy and next to a tethered water buffalo. I noticed that there were quite a few large red ants on the platform. These were the same type of ants that people added to their fish to eat on New Year's Eve - the ants with an aggressive attitude and strong bite.

After about 2-1/2 hours, the sun had gotten to me along with the red ants. Even when I was in amongst the rice stalks the ants were able to find me. Out in the bright sun in 95F heat with sweat running all over my body, I would get a sharp bite typically in a wet crease in my body. It wasn't long before I was fairly miserable. Duang told me to go back home and she would have her son bring her home later.

She was going to ride the motorbike out of the field to lead me to the main road back to Udonthani. She didn't move fast enough so I drove off om my own, determined to get home as quickly as possible. I surprised myself by using the Sun and dead reckoning to get back to the main road in Kumphawapi with no problem at all. I decided to take an alternative route to travel from Kumphawapi to Udonthani. I had traveled that route several times previously and believed that it would be more scenic than the customary route.

After awhile the alternative route turned into a construction zone - the road was being reconstructed. In Isaan, roadwork is a much more informal process than in the USA. Warning signs are usually set up right at the work sight - No, I have not misspelled the word, you sight the work site as you sight the sign. There is very little advance warning. There are no formal or as I suspect "trained" flagmen. Sometimes one of the workers will take a little time from his primary duties and wave cars along. In general, opposing traffic is left to themselves to sort out who proceeds and who waits. It all seems to work out but it is stressful.

I managed to navigate through the construction maze without incident when I noticed some opposing vehicles flashing their headlights - the warning signal for a police roadblock up ahead. Police roadblocks are quite common in Isaan. Police often stop cars to check for registration, proof of insurance, driver's license, and alleged violations. I have been waiting to be stopped for awhile. The new truck does not have registration plates yet. Sure enough I was flagged over to the side and approached by a policeman. I rolled down the window and he introduced himself and said a whole bunch of things that I had no idea what he was saying. I suspected that it had something to do with no plates so I told him in Thai "Loat Mai" (New Truck). I gave him the paper from the dealer and that seemed to work. He said some more so I figured it had to to do with insurance, so I pulled the paperwork out for the insurance coverage. He seemed satisfied with that but said some more. I figured that it had to do with my driver's license so I gave him that. Another higher ranking officer came by and looked at the front of the truck. The officer dealing with me told him "Loat mai" so I figured there was no problem with that. He then kept talking to me but I had no idea what it was about. I was at a loss. I pulled out my cellphone and called Duang for help. I told her what was going on and handed the policeman the phone. They had a casual friendly conversation so I figured that I was not headed to jail. He gave me back the phone and Duang was laughing. She said that the Policeman was hot and thirsty so give him 100 baht ($3.00 USD). I gladly helped him out, shook his hand for the third or fourth time and went on my way.

When Duang got home later in the day, she told me that Buddha had complained about me. I had not waited for her, so Buddha punished me for not listening to her. I have been with her long enough and have had enough experiences with her that I would not categorically deny or argue with her assertion.

That was how I spent Friday 13th here in Isaan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Doctor" Feel Good and the Wheels of God

Remembering back to English class in Groton Connecticut many years ago, I have always fondly remembered a essay or a short story by John Galsworthy the theme of which was "The wheels of God grind slowly but exceedingly small" The premise is that you may get away with something bad for awhile, perhaps even a long while, but eventually God or Justice will catch up to you and you will receive what you deserve. The quote is actually from a German named "Von Logau" and was translated into a poem written by Longfellow. I guess that stands pretty well as testament to the power of Von Logau's original words that two well known authors would later use them in their own works.

It is also interesting how these undoubtedly Christian inspired words and thought so closely parallel as well as reflect the Buddhist concept of "Kharma" - What goes around , comes around.

So what does this have to do with living in Isaan? Actually it has a great deal to do with something that I had previously written about in Mid-October - "Doctor" Feel Good. On October 14th I had written about "Doctor" Feel Good - the man who was performing wondrous things for the health of Lao Loum peasants from his home out in the middle of the rice paddies. He was giving injections to everyone who came to his home. I had gone with a sprained or bruised foot and had great difficulty walking. When he gave an injection of Valium to Duang's cousin who has epilepsy but he had diagnosed with a "bad heart" after listening to her chest and neck, I decided that this was not the "Doctor" for me or for my wife.

The villagers and family members that we had taken with us to see the "Doctor" all had a good laugh at the "Falang", foreigner who was afraid of the "Doctor" who had made them all "better". They all had a good laugh until they all nodded off to sleep on the way back to the village. Over the past month my foot finally got better on its own but I still got teased about how long it took because I didn't let the "Doctor" take care of it. Along with the teasing we heard additional stories of all the people he had helped to "feel better".

This morning we got a phone call from Duang's daughter. She had gone to see the "Doctor" this morning but he was gone. The police had come to complain (charge? arrest? him for what he was doing). The man fled and is apparently hiding out and but still "helping" people from some house further out in the rice paddies. According to Duang's daughter, he will stay hidden for about 7 to 10 days before returning home to resume his "good work". I guess he figures that the police will have forgotten about him during that period of time.

Duang's daughter was laughing and jokingly insinuated that I had called the police about him. That is not true. I am a guest in Thailand and do not want to cause or create problems for anyone.

Just as the wheels of God had finally ground small enough to get to "Doctor" Feel Good or perhaps Kharma had done in the "Doctor", I do not want to bring or create any cause for me to be in the same situation.

Tomorrow, we are off to harvest rice - the family rice that was planted back in July. It should be interesting. Just in time for the harvest the temperatures are up again to 95F (35C).

We had passed on the road trip last week with Duang's brother and his band to Chiang Rai, so tomorrow's harvest will be my first photography effort in awhile.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Hidden Treasure - "Museum of the Plains Indian"

In 2002, I had the privilege and great fortune of working in Calgary, Alberta for a project that was being engineered and procured in Canada. Calgary is a beautiful and vibrant city. I thoroughly enjoyed the months that was there during the first engineering phase of the project. Later in 2003, I would spend several just as enjoyable extended business trips there as engineering was completed.

Besides the attractions in Calgary itself, Calgary is a great starting point to access other areas such as Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Waterton Peace Park, and with reentry back into the USA - Glacier National Park.

I took full advantage of the Canadian holidays to take trips to all of the aforementioned attractions. As I was alone most of the time, I first visited them by myself and later once or twice again when my wife, at the time, visited me.

It was during a visit to Glacier National Park that we discovered a hidden treasure - Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana.

It has been written and said that "You can judge a society by ... " "the way it treats its young", "by the way it treats its prisoners", "by the way it treats its less fortunate", and "by the way it treats its elderly" It is my belief and I would like to add "You can judge a society by its art".

Nowhere that I have traveled throughout the world is this more apparent and appropriate than at the "Museum of the Plains Indian". The museum is located at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 89 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. Browning Montana is east of Glacier National Park. We had come upon it when we were traveling south from Waterton, Alberta on our way to East Glacier Park Village. We had been traveling for a while and the weather was not all that conducive to photography when I saw a rather nondescript simple two story brick building. The building looked very much like a small High School for the 1940s but had a large sign identifying it as a museum.

It turns out the the museum had been created in 1941. Inside there are permanent displays of native American art and handicrafts. Works from the Blackfeet,Sioux, Cree, Crow, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Northern Cheyenne, and Chippewa peoples are represented in the displays. Displayed items include clothing, toys, weapons, horse gear, and household items. In addition the permanent articles on display there temporary arts and crafts by Native Americans.

The articles are fantastic examples of the art and culture of the Plains Indian societies. The bead work is meticulous and very colorful undoubtedly reflecting the complexity and structure of its associated society. The artwork even in common mundane articles of daily life give testament to the sophistication of the Plains peoples. Upon viewing the exhibits all preconceived notions regarding the Native American culture are quickly and forever dispelled. Any society that is able and willing to invest the time as well as resources into such sophisticated expressions of beauty can not be considered savage. In the 1800's, as it is today, it seems "de rigeur" to characterise your adversaries as sub-human and simplify their culture to be no more than brutal savagery. Quite often the reaality is that the adversary's culture is as sophisticated and valid as the proponent's.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Museum of the Plains Indian for many reasons. Besides the numerous works of art and handicrafts, the museum has not been updated to be politically correct. The works speak for themselves and the open minded visitor is left to draw their own conclusions regarding the work and the artisans that created the works. Browning Montana is off the beaten path so the museum was not crowded whats so ever during our visit. We may have encountered 6 other visitors during our one hour stay at the museum. The museum is also very cheap to visit - current prices are $4.00 per adult and $1.00 per child during June to September. However, admission is free from October to May.

I would enjoy returning to the museum given the opportunity - I have a digital camera now so the photographs of the glass encased articles would be better than these scanned slides. Sounds like a good enough reason to return ...

Monday, November 2, 2009

The "Blue Mosque" of Malaysia

While working in Malaysia, I took advantage of local holidays, along with Sundays to get and about to see the country. One memorable trip was to visit the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. In addition to visiting the sights in the city, we made excursions to the surrounding areas.

We drove south west of KL to the Malaysian state of Selangor Darul Ehasan. In the capital city of Selangor, Shah Alam, is the magnificent Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque commonly and widely referred to as "The Blue Mosque"

The Blue Mosque is a modern structure which was completed on March 11, 1988 after 6 years of construction. The minarets of the mosque are 460 feet tall making them the second tallest in the world. They had been the tallest in the world for a period of time, but a mosque in Morocco has now eclipsed them for the title as well as national glory.

The dome is 170 feet in diameter and 350 feet tall at its apex. The dome is built using ceramic glazed aluminum panels. The use of paintings and pictures for decoration is not allowed so the dome is covered and decorated with geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy of the verses from the Holy Quran (Koran). I have read that the mosque has the capacity for 16,000 and 24,000 worshippers. I don't know. At the time that we went there, there were no worshippers. Because we were not Muslims we were not allowed inside so that I could have made a personal estimate of the capacity. There are some days when non-Muslims are allowed inside but our day was not one of them.

The mosque complex also has a park called the Garden of Islamic Arts which is inspired by the Quran's Garden of Paradise. It was a very peaceful and beautiful park with many flowers and plants. In the park we encountered many families with small children.

Although the weather was very hot as well as humid, our visit to the Blue Mosque was a very good experience as well as inspiring and well worth any temporary discomfort.


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