Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival - Part 2

Having learned a lesson the previous day, we immediately took a Tuk-Tuk when we left our hotel at 7:30 A.M. to got to the Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival sites.

Our goal for the morning was to look at the large floats up close prior to the start of the morning procession which was scheduled to commence at 8:30 A.M.  We, or rather Duang, explained to the Tik-Tuk driver what we wanted to do.  He brought us to the area near Wat Sriubonrattanaram where the side streets were filled with the wax work floats awaiting the start of the morning's procession.

We were not disappointed at all with the access to closely inspect the wax sculptures.  There were no barriers or security to prevent you from getting as close as you wanted to each of the floats.  The biggest difficulty was attempting to take a meaningful photograph of the float without some one in the picture.  Thais like to be photographed and especially love to have their picture taken in front of something unique such as a large wax float as they give the "V" gesture or pose with Momma and Grand Momma.  I patiently waited for the opportunities to take my shots as the smell of the sculptures heating up in the morning sun transported me back in space and time to my young days back in Groton, Connecticut, to the days of melted Crayola crayons on hot summer afternoons.  Duang even more patiently waited for me to take my shots before moving on to the next attraction.

In response to posting some photos on my Facebook account, a friend asked about the wax sculptures.  The wax sculptures are not solid wax.  The sculptures and panoramas would be way to heavy and expensive if they were solid beeswax.  The heads are hollow.  The large figures are wax placed upon either Styrofoam substrates or on  chicken wire/plaster frames.  Wax is applied to the substrate and the details carved into the wax layer(s).  It is our intention to visit the area once again next year but earlier in July to witness the sculptures and panoramas being created.

In addition to the staging of the floats for the upcoming procession, the side streets were also filling up with performers who were also going to participate in the morning procession.  While the streets were filling with performers and people like us wandering around to get close up views, the sidewalks were filled with a combination of static stalls and wandering vendors selling soft drinks, water, food, balloons, and small toys.  Because of the religious context of the day, the start of Buddhist Lent, there were no sales of beer or the local version of moonshine whiskey along the procession route.  Unlike most events that we attend here in Isaan we did not see anyone consuming alcohol or any one under the influence of alcohol.  Also unlike so many of the events that we attend here in Isaan, we did not witness any fights.  I suspect (tongue in cheek along with a wink of an eye) that the lack of alcohol and the absence of fist fights are related. It made for a very enjoyable festival and from what I observed it didn't seem to impair anyone from enjoying the events.

The entrepreneurship of the Lao Loum people never seems to cease to amaze me.  There were all kinds of places - stalls, booths, or just umbrellas over an ice chest where you could buy water, soda, or juices.  It appeared to me that any one who had a cooler and the seed money to buy drinks and ice could set up to make some money.  I did not see any of the business licenses, health permits, tax ID numbers, or other bureaucratic requirements that would be required to do the same back in the USA.  I was very surprised to see that the prices for the beverages were not inflated because of the festival.  The cost of a drink was the same as the everyday price for the same drink at the 7-11 during the remainder of the year.  I could not help but reflect upon the outrageous cost of a soda or other soft drink at an American sports or music concert venue.

Intersections were popular locations for food vendors.  Food was grilled over charcoal fires contained in barbecues constructed out or steel barrels split in two and set up horizontally on metal legs.  Other foods were boiled or fried over small charcoal fires contained in two gallon sized refractory lined metal cans.  The odors of the fires and various foods that were being cooked added to the overall ambiance of the event.  Some large corporations were passing out free bottles of ice water and cold fruit juices.  With this being Thailand, no one was keeping track of how many a person was given.  Since it was getting later in the morning and despite the heavy clouded sky, it was hot and humid, I was perspiring heavily.  Fortunately the free drink people took good care of me and Duang ensured that I had plenty of soda to drink - soda in a plastic bag filled with ice along with a  straw ($0.35 USD each).  Often when you buy a soft drink from a vendor here in Isaan, the vendor will pour the drink into a small plastic bag filled with crushed ice along with a straw thus retaining the original container or more importantly being able to receive the fee for recycling the container for themselves.

Just as the previous night's procession, there were many dance groups.  The dance groups were from local and regional elementary and high schools along with universities.  They perform traditional dances to traditional music played by musicians riding along with them in a truck or to recorded music played (blared?) over large speakers mounted on a vehicle as part of their entourage.  The music is high energy and it is difficult to refrain from dancing to it.  Mahlam Lao music is played throughout Isaan all the time.  I have seen and heard it blasting from portable radios as people worked in the fields planting sugar cane and harvesting rice.  The previous night I was unable to get close up photographs of the beautiful dancers so one of my objectives for the day was to get some close up photos of the performers.  I was not disappointed with the opportunities that presented themselves throughout the day and evening.  I seriously believe that students are taught modeling and posing as part of their curriculum - they all seem to be so photogenic.

After the morning procession, we retired to the Wat.  According to the schedule of events there was to be "give King candle to Monk" and "give King loin cloth" from 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M.  at the Wat.  It seemed like it would be interesting if for no other reason to see what the event actually was.  We arrived at the Wat and it was curiously not crowded whats so ever.  A Monk arrived and blessed us along with the 5 other people who were there.  We waited a while - being entertained by a young toddler's antics while her mother was worshiping.  After a while a group of people arrived, obviously not involved in any kind of ceremony but a falang, his girl friend, and extended family.  As so often happens here in Isaan, Duang and the girl friend got involved in an extensive conversation - leaving the falang from Sweden and I to have our own extended conversation.  We never saw any "give King loin cloth" or "give King candle to Monk" but spent an enjoyable afternoon and received a blessing - not bad.

During the two days of the Festival I was often asked by people to answer some questions.  The questions were related to homework assignments for students learning English.  Because the students were often shy, the contact was typically made by either their teacher or their mother.  This allowed us to meet many people and learn more about the region as well as the festival.  It helped to pass the time quickly.

We spent some time talking to an older woman at a booth sponsored by a knife company.  The booth was actually a school where the company taught people to do fancy culinary carving using their products.  She was working on carving a lotus flower out of a piece of pumpkin.  The instructor had given her one of his flowers as a model.  His flower was absolutely gorgeous.  The were also samples of carved carrots and leaves carved from pumpkin.  Duang and I watched the woman, a boy who came along, and ate some lunch in the relative cool of the covered booth.  After awhile the woman finished her flower and did a leaf.  I praised her leaf and jokingly suggested that she specialize in carving leaves.  At this point, I tried my hand at carving a leaf much to every one's amusement.  There always seems to be something to do to either amuse yourself or others here in Isaan.

5:00 P.M. quickly rolled around and it was time to prepare for the evening procession but that is for another blog entry ...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival - Part 1 "The Begining"

Yesterday, 28 July, we returned home from a two day stay in Ubon Ratchathani to attend the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival.

Ubon Ratchathani is a six hour drive southeast of our home in Udonthani.  During the Vietnam or American, depending upon your perspective, War, Ubon like Udon was a large United States Air Force base.  Just as in Udon, the former air base is now the municipal airport.  The area around Ubon is agricultural and the city is a financial, educational, and market center for the surrounding villages.

Ubon is famous for their Candle Festival.  The Candle Festival is associated with the start of Buddhist Lent season.  On Asarnha Puja Day, the day of the full moon during the eighth lunar month (July since according to the original Thai calendar the first lunar month is December), there is a large merit making ritual that commemorates Buddha's first sermons. The merit making ritual involves offering candles to the Monks at local Wats and listening to sermons related to Buddha's teachings.

This year, Asarnha Puja Day occurred on July 26 with the start of Buddhist Lent, Wan Kao Pansa (the first day of the waning moon of the eighth month of the lunar calendar being July 27th.  Buddhist Lent?  Yes, there is a Lenten period that runs for 90 days.  The practise of Lent, "phansa", goes back to Lord Buddha's time.  To prevent Monks from inadvertently trampling freshly planted rice seedlings or harming insects in the thick mud created by the heavy rains of the rainy season in the months from July to October, Buddha required his disciples to remain in their monasteries during that period of time.  They were prohibited from spending the night in any temple but their designated one.  During the 90 day period referred to as "Khao Phansa" (rains retreat), the Monks do not make pilgrimages so they have time to study scriptures.  In the time before electricity, the Monks studied scriptures by candlelight.  For the start of Kao Phansa, Wan Kao Phansa, villagers would make offerings of candles to the Monks to assist them in their study of the scriptures.  Other common household items such as matches, soap, wash cloths, towels, and tooth paste are also offered to the Monks to provide for their needs during their 90 day retreat.  Offering items on Wan Kao Phansa is more beneficial for the donor than on other days.  The donors lives will be blessed with  happiness, wisdom, and health.

One of the large floats during Wan Kao Phansa night procession
The tradition of having a festival along with ornate candle offerings in Ubon started in the early 20th century.  The governor at the time was concerned about the number of deaths as well as injuries that were happening during the traditional rocket festival at this time.  The villagers were also getting injured in many alcohol fueled fights.  The Governor, who was a Prince, ordered an end to the rocket festival and the start of a candle festival instead where candles would be presented to the Monks.

For the first festivals, communities would gather bees wax and create fancy candles.  The fancy candle would be placed in a sedan chair, a chair that has long poles extending from it in order that it can be carried upon the shoulders of porters.  The candles were then paraded to the Town Hall where the Prince would award prizes to the communities that made the most  beautiful candles.

The competition for awards from the Prince over time caused an escalation in both the size and elaborate designs associated with the candles.  Candles increased from bamboo diameter size to banana stalk diameter size to today's large panoramas.  Candles evolved from simple smooth surface to surfaces decorated with papers and fabrics to today's extremely intricate carvings.  Today different colored waxes are entering into the competition for recognition.  The process continues to evolve with the goal always to get a leg up on the competition.

In addition to the traditional Thai wax creations there is also an international wax carving competition associated with the Ubon Candle Festival.  Artists from Spain, China, Germany, Japan, Poland, as well as some other countries that I can not remember submitted works of "wax art".  I don't remember all of the submittals because, to be frank, they paled in comparison to any of the Thai works.  One piece of "art" was a bull carved from wax.  The bull shape was created from a series of large flat surfaces akin to shaping the wax with a snow shovel.  Without too much hyperbole I believe that with a little effort I could create a similar wax sculpture.  Another international entry was a basic rectangular tower with some surface texture carved into it and a round ball atop the tower.  It would not be unrealistic to contemplate that with some training i.e. 2 to 4 weeks I could produce a similar work.  As for the Thai wax works, there is no way no matter how much time or training I received that I could even approach the beauty, complexity, or intricacies of their art. To me comparing the the international works to the Thai works would be like comparing or rather trying to compare sculpture by Michelangelo to a brick wall.  The winning international competition entry was a Panda from China.  It was interesting bordering perhaps on "cute" but hardly jaw dropping or inspiring.

International competition winner from China - "Panda"
Thai wax carving - Ubon Ratchathani

The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival now includes entertainment such as dancing, traditional Lao Loum music and singing competition.  With this being Isaan, there were all kinds of booths as well as stalls to purchase food and soft drinks.

The Candle Festival actually started on June 28 with the international artists commencing to create their works.  From July 1 to July 31 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there were cultural performances.  During the last two weeks of the Festival, people can view demonstrations of local silk weaving as well as watch the large wax floats being built and carved.

Our visit this year was limited to the Asarnha Puja Day and Wan Kao Pansa events.  We scheduled our arrival on Monday 26, 2010 so that we could witness the ceremony "ceremony of inviting the candle of Royal watercourse and king loin cloth (Phaarbnamfom cloth)" starting at 15:30 to 17:00 followed by the Bai Srii ritual and "celebrating the King candle".  After lunch at our hotel we inquired about the location of the various ceremonies and were told that they were about 1-1/2 to 2 kilometers away.  In America we have a saying about things being a "country mile away".  The implication is that out in the country distances are not accurate and one mile could very well be more like 3 or 4 miles away.  This must also be true here in Isaan.  We set off for what was supposed to be only a 1 to 1-1/2 mile walk to the festival site.  After quite a ways walking along on the typical urban Thai sidewalks, uneven, broken pavement, various tripping hazards and obstructions, we asked for directions from a local shop keeper.  She informed us that it was another 2.5 kilometers away.  That decided the issue.  We were going to take a Tuk-Tuk the rest of the way.  My camera backpack was filled with two digital cameras, a flash, spare batteries, rain gear, and an umbrella which made it about 12 kilos (25 pounds).  My shoulders were aching.  We flagged down a Tuk-Tuk and for 60 baht ($1.80) he took us though 4 police traffic barricades to deliver us exactly at the Festival site.

The Festival was concentrated at two locations, Ubon National Museum and Wat Sriubonrattanaram, which are fortunately across the street from each other.  By chance or fortune we ended up at the Ubon National Museum.  It was here that the international wax sculptures were on display, along with a small performing stage as well as numerous refreshment stalls.  After wandering around for awhile we gravitated towards the performing stage area.  There was a competition going on.  Young girls from 5 years old to around 14 years old were each performing the same song.  The song is a very upbeat about spicy pappaya salad, "Pauk Pauk" (Lao) or "Som Tom" (Thai), which along with sticky rice is a staple of the Isaan diet.  The song is an invitation to passing people to come buy and eat the girl's very tasty food.  It is a sort of "Hee Haw" type of song and dance routine.  It is not sophisticated but it is definitely very entertaining.

We stayed at the competition from contestants number nine to the last contestant number 26.  We heard the same song 18 times - no it was actually 19 times.  Before the winners were announced, the young woman who actually recorded and made the song popular came out and sang the song.  She may have been twenty-two years old but came out wearing a schoolgirl's short plaid skirt, knee socks, and high heel boots.  The schoolgirl theme or perhaps "fantasy" is very popular in Isaan.  Just as the competition ended, the rain started.  This is the rainy season and it rained both days during our stay.  However it was not much of an issue since we are accustomed to being wet, we brought rain gear, and the rains never last very long.  The longest rain lasted about 30 minutes and the shortest shower was about one minute - almost like a bucket of water being drained from above.  At first I thought it was man made and part of the night procession light and sound show.  We found shelter from the rain where soft drinks were being sold.  It was a good time to refresh ourselves and to relax.

After the rain shower we went out to the street between the two sites.  This is where the procession was being held.  On one side of the street there was a very formal grandstand complete with leather sofas, metal chairs, beverage service and all the amenities that one would expect for dignitaries.  Across from the grandstand were bleachers that ran out of sight.  There were some signs indicating section and row numbers.  Since it was around 5:00 P.M. with the event scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. the bleachers were empty.  Duang brought me over to the bleacher section directly across from the center of the grandstand that had a canopy over it using scaffolding along with tarps.  I protested to my wife that we had to pay money and have a ticket to sit there.  She assured me that it was free.  She confirmed it with another person sitting in the area.  We climbed the bleachers up to the very top where I could stand to take photographs without blocking any one's view.  We sat there watching the preparations for televising as well as staging the show.  A fire truck came along and washed down the street which I thought was rather odd.  Later it all made perfect sense.  The dancers walked barefoot along the street.  As part of the performance, some of the dancers supplicated themselves on the street.  The intent of the washing was to remove any debris that could harm the performers.

The show was extremely entertaining.  It was a merit making ritual as well as a light/sound show.  Prior to the start of the show some men came along and passed out yellow candles to all the spectators in the vicinity of the grandstand.  Some boys set out a series of white tea candles on the street forming a lit pathway from the road through the gate of the Wat behind our location.  As part of the merit making ritual, dignitaries and performers carried lighted candles as well as offerings along the parade route  into the Wat circling the grounds three times.  The entire event was on national television.  We got a phone call from home that our 15 month old grandson, Peelwat was enjoying the event on television.  However every time that he saw a falang (foreigner) he would point at the TV and say "Nee Nee" ("here here" in Lao) indicating that he thought that he saw me in the crowd.  I guess it may also be true that all us foreigners look alike - at least to a 15 month old!

There were intermittent showers but they did not affect the performers at all.  We were dry underneath our canopy and we remained quite comfortable all evening.  Part of the show involved dancers dressed in traditional Thai minority costumes performing folk dances to traditional music in simulated fog.  It was very impressive.  I am constantly amazed as well as taken aback at the beauty, grace and poise of Isaan women.  In the Isaan culture beauty is highly valued, regarded, and sort.  The dancing reflects the culture of the people.  Another impressive sight at all these events in Isaan is the participation of families.  It is quite common to see three and four generations of a family watching these events and rituals.  Babies and toddlers are introduced to their culture and heritage at a very early age.  The people of Isaan are proud of their heritage and are taking steps to ensure that their culture is passed on to future generations.

Most of the performers were high school and university students.  A vast majority of the performers were female, followed by Ladyboys, and only a few males.  It seemed a little curious to have high school boys dressed up and acting like women but here in Thailand it is a common sight.  No one pays it much attention and such behavior is tolerated here.  Some of the "Ladyboys" are not very proficient and are not fooling anyone.  You will often see them at the back of the dance troupe as it passes.

A big part of the evening was  the procession of the large floats that communities created for the festival and merit making.  The biggest float and most elaborate float was commissioned by His Royal Highness the King.  It was grand and jaw dropping.  Most of the floats contained mythological creatures from the Himmapan Forest as described in the classical Thai literary masterpiece "The Ramakien".  One creature is the Garuda - a hawk like creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.  Another is Erawan - a three headed elephant. Thai mythology involves an amalgam of Hindu as well as Buddhist myths, legends, and creatures.  During the Candle Festival these are brought forth in wax carvings.  The combination of these creatures, the dancing, the music, and the lights makes for an unforgetable experience.  It was another reminder of why I enjoy living here in Isaan so much.  It is exciting, unique, and invigorating.

After nine hours away from our room, we returned to our hotel at 10:30 P.M. exhausted but eagerly anticipating the next day's events.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Frustration and Sulking

I stayed up late last night to write the next installment of my Blog entry, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform? - Part 2". I was very pleased with it. After spell checking it and making the necessary corrections I went to publish it. The blog kicked me to a Thai language version of the site and I could no longer locate my completed blog entry. For some inexplicable reason the blog was not being automatically saved as I proceeded with writing it. Only the first half of the first paragraph was actually saved. GRRRRRRR ....

Rather than attempting to rewrite the blog today, I focused on other activities and must admit I have been doing some sulking over the matter.

Tomorrow there are other items which we will be involved with so I suspect I will not get around to recreating the blog entry until 29 July.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Comprehensive Immigration Reform? - Part 1

The phrases "I support comprehensive immigration reform" and "We need comprehensive immigration reform" are bantered about quite a bit now in the United States. I suspect that as we approach the mid-term elections we will hear more and more these phrases.

To be honest, which I feel that I can be because of my age and the fact that I have no political aspirations, I have no idea what "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" means.

Many times in my past career I found that young people, myself included, were reluctant to question statements to obtain a better understanding of rather obtuse statements. I suspect that we all felt that by questioning we would be demonstrating their lack of experience on the subject. As I got older I overcame this reluctance to question and request confirmation of my understanding of such statements. Interestingly enough, rather than viewing the questioning as being due to inexperience, people admired the knowledge that motivated the questions especially when responses to the questioning led to a completely different understanding than the initial statement would typically lead one to assume.

It is in this line of thinking that I question what is "Comprehensive Immigration Reform"? My suspicion is that the term is much like the phrase "I am sorry" - a phrase that is expressed in vain attempts to get out of uncomfortable situations or to avoid having to suffer consequences for unacceptable behavior. The statement "I favor Comprehensive Immigration Reform" could very well be akin to "I am not _______. Some of my best friends are ______"

What is the desired goal of "Comprehensive Immigration Reform"? What is the desired outcome when Comprehensive Immigration Reform is enacted or enforced?

Is the intent of Comprehensive Immigration Reform is to eliminate the matter, or reality of illegal immigrants?

Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform a national security issue and solution?

Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform an economic issue and solution?

Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform a political issue and strategy?

Does comprehensive immigration reform apply to Brazilians? Malaysians? Canadians? Algerians? Thais? Vietnamese? (I have purposely selected nationalities of countries where I have worked and lived there by acquiring a first hand knowledge of the peoples).

Does comprehensive immigration reform apply to all people who desire to legally immigrate to the USA? Only the "rich"? Only the highly skilled? Only the highly educated? Only the young? Only the old?

Does comprehensive immigration reform address only Mexicans? Only Hispanic peoples?

I have a suspicion that the phrase "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" has been hijacked to address only the issues related to illegal entry into the United States through Mexico and that the general understanding of the phrase precludes the consideration of other nationalities. This would be a similar perception that racism is a solely "White on Black" and to a lesser extent "White on Brown" issue and not issue of any race on any other race with the concept of "Black on ____" as inconceivable.

So far from what I can perceive from over here in Thailand, the uttering of the phrases "I support Comprehensive Immigration Reform" and "We need Comprehensive Immigration Reform" is very much like waving either a crucifix or garlic clove in the face of a vampire - it ends a very uncomfortable confrontation but resolves nothing.

Of course to reform or change anything, the current situation and process must first be understood. Identifying the issues and processes are and should be the first steps in developing the intended goal of such changes and reforms.

How does some one legally immigrate to the United States under the current process?

The following options are available to certain people who wish to legally immigrate to the USA under the current processes:

1. Be sponsored by an immediate relative or family member

2. Be sponsored by an employer

3. Qualify as a "Special" Immigrant - Iraqi of Afghan Translators/Interpreters, Iraqis who worked for/on behalf of the U.S. government, Afghans who worked for/on behalf of the U.S. government, religious workers

4. Diversity Visa Program - Visa are issued from countries with low rates of immigration to the USA. These visas do not require a US sponsor. Citizens of the following countries are not eligible for participation in the Diversity Visa Program - Mexico, Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia, Pakistan, India, Haiti, United Kingdom, Peru, Jamaica, El Salvador, Philippines, Vietnam, Ecuador

Under the Diversity Visa Program, 45,000 permanent resident visas each year are issued to citizens of countries that have low rates of immigration to the USA. The number is supposed to be 50,000 but in 1997 Congress passed the Nicaraguan and Central American Act (NACARA) that required 5,000 of the 50,000 be available to the NACARA program.

People desiring to immigrate to the USA under the Diversity Visa Program apply during a specified 60 day registration period typically starting in October of each year. For the DV-2011 program received 12,100,000 (12.1 MILLION) QUALIFIED entries. Applicants were randomly selected, a lottery, apportioned over six geographic regions with a maximum of 7% selected from people born in any single country within each region. The regions are Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, with the final region being "South America, Central America and the Caribbean".

For DV-2011 some of the results were Laos - 2, Thailand - 77, Japan - 298, Israel (considered "Asia") - 129, Norway - 66, Northern Ireland - 201, France - 767, Denmark - 66, Chile - 63, Argentina - 134.

For DV-2011 the probability of a Diversity Visa to the USA would be awarded to a Thai applicant was 6.4/1,000,000. In comparison, according to US National Weather Service of NoAA the probability of being struck by lightning during your lifetime is 160/1,000,000 - 25 times more likely than the Thai getting a visa in the DV-2011 lottery.

To be successful in obtaining the Diversity Visa the applicants (lottery "winners") have to produce evidence of a high school education or equivalent as well to provide evidence of "two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience within the past five years". This disqualifies field workers, laborers, and housekeepers from getting a visa.

Given the low probability of obtaining a Diversity Visa Program visa, the only two realistic options available for legal immigration to the USA are to be sponsored by an immediate relative/family or to be sponsored by an employer.

Because of our marriage, I will be sponsoring my wife to immigrate to the USA. We have tried three times to obtain a Non-Immigrant Visa (Tourist Visa) in order that she could legally visit the USA. We were not successful and were not alone. We met people who had applied for Tourist Visas 3 and 5 times without success. In the year, 2008, 1,481,471 applications (application fee $131 each) for Non-Immigrant Visa to the USA were rejected on the basis of "Section 214(b) Failure to establish entitlement to non immigrant status" Translation - "They did not convince their interviewer that they would return to their home country at the conclusion of their visit to the USA". This is a determination is strictly up to and at the discretion of the interviewer. The decision of the interviewer is not subject to review or appeal. As I had written in a previous blog, , we finally were able to speak with an American official who advised us to seek an Immigrant Visa rather than a Non-Immigrant Visa for my wife to be able to visit the USA. Since Duang did not have a job in Thailand and a sufficient bank account, she would not receive a B-2 Tourist Visa. I also suspect that she would travelling independently with me rather than as part of an organized tour, she would not get a B-2 Visa even if she had a job and a significant bank account here in Thailand. We know of people with jobs as well as money who were denied Tourist Visas because of "Section 214(b) Failure to establish entitlement to non immigrant status".

Tomorrow, we will fly to Bangkok to commence the process to get an Immigrant Visa for my wife. The process that we are embarking upon is a streamlined and more simple process because of our marriage, which finally affords us some due consideration in our dealings with the US government.

Subsequent Parts of this blog will deal with the process of getting the visa. My intent will be to truthfully and accurately document what is currently required to legally immigrate to the USA. I believe that in doing so will inform others as to the current reality, perhaps to provide some understanding as to why some people choose to ignore the process, and most importantly of all give some background so that others can ask more pointed and relevant questions as to what people mean when they say "I support Comprehensive Immigration Reform" or "We need Comprehensive Immigration Reform"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Christian Wedding In Isaan

Yesterday, Saturday, we went out to Tahsang Village to witness a very rare event here in Isaan - a Christian Wedding. One of Duang's 93 cousins was getting married in the small Christian church that is next to the Tahsang Village Elementary school. With 22 surviving Aunts and Uncles along with 93 cousins there always seems to be some family celebration to attend to. With Buddhist celebrations along with my brother-in-law music shows, our life is kept quite busy.

Duang's sister is a Christian and attends the church which is across the country road from her farm. Through Duang's sister we have met and got to know the minister and his family. Typically when I am about ready to return to the USA, the minister, his family, Duang's sister and her husband come over to our home for dinner. They apologize for coming over but I tell them that they are always welcome to dine with us especially since they bring the food. As part of their visit there is a prayer for my safe journey as well as return to Thailand.

We arrived at the church along with Duang's son, his fiance, and our grandson, Peelwat, after the ceremony had started. The ritual was conducted entirely in Thai so I am not familiar with what was actually said. The ceremony itself did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary from what I had experienced at Christian weddings back in America.

There was music, singing, candles, flowers (beautiful flowers) and sermons as part of the ritual. Flower petals had been strewn along the aisle leading up to the front of the church. Chairs on each side of the aisle had been decorated with ribbons, bows and decorations. After what appeared to be the proclamation that they were man and wife, different aspects of a Christian wedding in Isaan appeared. The Baii Sii ritual, the Animist ceremony so prevalent here in Isaan, was not performed but unique aspects of Lao Loum culture were respected.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is pervasive in Lao Loum society. The respect that I observe and cherish now is not the respect driven by intimidation of the old Aretha Franklin song of the 1960's but a respect from acknowledgement of one's place as well as accomplishments in this life - more of a respect motivated from love.

The newlyweds faced the congregation, families, and guests and bowed as they each offered a wai.

The Bride and Groom, then left the raised area where the ceremony had been conducted and went to the large wood bench at each side of the church. The Groom's parents sat on one side of the church and the Bride's parents sat on a similar bench on the opposite side of the church. The Bride and Groom walked to each set of parents and knelt before them, offering them a wai (Thai gesture of respect). Private words were exchanged between the young couples and the parents. It appeared that the young people in addition to demonstrating their respect, they were requesting the elder's blessings. The parents offered them best wishes and good luck for their marriage. One of the fathers had a surprise. From a small plastic case that is well recognized here in Isaan, he pulled out a gold chain and placed it around the groom's neck.

The Bride and Groom then returned to the center of the church in front of the raised area. Together they held a silver colored pressed metal ceremonial bowl. It was a bowl identical to bowls that are used in Buddhist rituals. In Isaan, newly married couple do not receive gifts such as irons, waffle irons, crystal, silverware, china, bedding, furniture, crock pots, or fondue sets. Besides not having much practical use for such items and appliances, it is not the Lao Loum custom. Newlywed couples are given offerings of cash by wedding guests. For Saturday's wedding, the guests took turns singly or as couples to walk up to the Bride and Groom. It appeared that part of the ritual was for the other guests to witness your offering to the couple. After expression of joy and conveying best wishes to the newly married couple, the cash offering in the envelope that the invitation was kept was placed into the ceremonial bowl.

Once the guests had completed making their offerings, the Bride and Groom went off to the side of the church. They then made offerings to the Minister, their parents, and I suspect Aunts that had helped to prepare for the wedding. Parents and the Minister were given sleeping mats while selected Aunts were given a bath towel along with a Lao Loum pillow called a "mon". The "mon" is more than just a mere pillow for it is very often given as offerings to Monks in merit making rituals.

After distributing their offerings to selected people, the Bride and Groom exited the church to the guests waiting for them outside. It was time for the Bride to throw her bouquet. Just as weddings in America, the single women enthusiastically scrambled to catch the bouquet.

It was at this point that I had a surprise. Two of the guests came over to speak with me - two American men living here. One man was from South Boston not all that distant from where I was born and raised. The other man was from Oklahoma. We had a long conversation and it was a great way to end our Christian Isaan wedding experience. Duang joked me about having a tired mouth because I had talked so much.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Kwan's Bad Day

After viewing the loading of boats on the Mekong River on Tuesday, we headed for Tahsang Village. We took Highway 2 south back towards Udonthani, past Udonthani, and eventually to Kumphawapi. Driving along the roads in Isaan is always interesting with motorbikes often driving the wrong way on one way roads, less often a car or even a truck will be traveling the wrong way but they typically are in the breakdown lane so once you get over the initial shock there is not much danger. The maximum speed for cars on Highway 2 is 90 kmh (55 mph) but is 60 kmh for trucks (35 mph) I don't know what the maximum speed limit is for buses - not that it matters because they do not follow the maximum limit. The buses are terrors of the road. They speed down the road from 100 to 130 kmh (65 to 80 mph) except for for three occasions - when they are alongside the road broken down, when they have had an accident, or for many buses when they have pulled over to the edge of the road to either pick up or discharge passengers. We have seen several buses rolled over in the rice paddies that border much of the roads. The mix of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, and somlaws all going their separate speeds makes driving a challenge. There is no minimum speed laws on Thai roads so there is a great variation of speeds for any given section of road.

Another challenge for driving is the Thai use of traffic cones to mark road work or to indicate road hazards. Many sections of Hwy 2 from Udonthani to Kumphawapi is being repaired. Repairs consist of removing 4 meter (12 ft) by 12 meter (36 ft) sections of concrete roadway, excavating a meter meter deep hole which is eventually filled with concrete and steel reinforcement. To prevent vehicles from falling into the 3 foot deep large excavations, a traffic cone or barrier is placed at the edge of the hole - no warning as you drive along the road at 55 mph. You could very easily hit the cone as you drive into the excavation. The same is true for workers alongside the road. The cones or warning signs are placed about 10 meters (30 feet) ahead of the workers. We make it a point to minimize travel along unfamiliar roads after dark.

A pleasant aspect of road travel are the items, usually food, that you can buy at stands set alongside of the road. The new peanut crop has been harvested so there are many places where you can stop and purchase some freshly boiled peanuts. In about a month there should be a new crop of corn on the cob - freshly boiled. Various communities have their specialty and many people will set up tables and umbrellas along the road outside of their village where they sell their specialty. Given the area in which you are driving the items for sale can be honey, salt, rice, sausages, mushrooms, tropical fruit, coconuts, corn, bamboo stuffed with sticky rice and coconut milk.

For our trip back from Nong Khai the treat was fresh green coconut. The fresh green coconut is a double treat. The heavy husk is removed by the villagers leaving a fist sized (very large fist) nut which has had the top sliced off (think in terms of a jack-o-lantern pumpkin) The top has been placed back atop the nut and often the assembly is kept in a cooler with ice. When you buy the nut you are given a straw to drink the refreshing and nutritious coconut water. Once the water is consumed, you can use your fingernails to extract the very supple coconut flesh - equally refreshing and very tasty. This makes for a great treat on a hot and humid day. We had bought some on Monday and gave them to Duang's mother. On Tuesday we stopped at the same booth and bought more along with two special coconuts for $0.75 each. These special coconuts had coconut water, coconut flesh and pieces of coconut flavored gelatin - all of which had been kept on ice.

We arrived in Tahsang Village and immediately could tell that something was wrong. Many of the villagers were sitting on the raised platform across the street from Duang's mother's home. The villagers looked very worried as well as very concerned. We found out that Kwan, Duang's cousin's 2-1/2 year old daughter, had been run over by a motorbike. Kwan had just gotten her fingernails painted for the first time and had dashed across the village street to show her mother. Unfortunately a schoolgirl from three houses away was speeding down the street on her way to school. Kwan got run over by the motorbike and could not walk. She was taken to the local hospital in Kumphawapi on her grandfather's motorbike. Her grandmother and the mother of the schoolgirl went to the hospital on another motorbike.

Here in Isaan, the person who causes an injury is responsible for the medical costs of the injured. The schoolgirl's mother went to the hospital along with Kwan's family to fulfill her family's responsibilities to the victim.

Our grandson, Peelawat who usually plays with Kwan, was inside the market asleep. Here in Isaan village life for children involves playing in the street as much as playing on private property. Lao Loum people spend much of their time outside with indoor activities limited mostly to sleeping at night and eating of some meals. Raised covered platforms outside of Lao Loum homes is where adults and children spend much of their day - eating, napping, playing, and caring for children. If children are not playing on the raised platform they are playing in the street - riding bicycles, chasing each other or wandering around form one group of adults to another.

While we were visiting the village a young boy just learning to ride a bicycle came by. He was about 3 years old and was riding a small bicycle that had training wheels. He was being attended to by his grandmother. She had tied a piece of string to the bike that prevented her grandson from getting away from her on his bike. He had a small cap on and I could not help but be reminded of the Tour de France which is currently being held. However this guy looked like he could have been competing in the Tour de Tahsang. His bicycle was pink and appeared to be a girl's bike. However I have yet to see a local bicycle that is the traditional US "boy's" style bicycle.
Like the other villagers, we were concerned about Kwan. We stopped at the hospital on our way back to Udonthani. We quickly found Kwan and her entourage. Kwan was in good shape. She had a scratch on her knee which was swollen and was unable to stand. Kwan had seen a doctor and had her leg and arm xrayed. Her family was awaiting the doctor to interpret the xrays. I looked at the xrays and was pleased to see that Kwan did not have compound fractures. It appeared to me that she had a cracked bone in her leg up near her knee and a crack in her arm. After awhile actually a long while, a doctor was available and saw Kwan. After seeing the doctor Kwan was taken back to the emergency room where her leg was placed in a walking cast and her arm was placed in a soft cast. She was sent home with some Tylenol and Advil type medication. She is to return to the hospital on Monday. Rather than Kwan going back to tahsang on a motorbike, we took her and her grandmother back to the village in our truck. Kwan was tired and exhausted from her trying day.

Kwan was welcomed back by the relieved villagers. Soon she was surrounded by relieved adults and her oblivious playmates including Peelawat. The trauma of the day was relieved somewhat by fresh watermelon which Kwan seemed to relish. It was a sobering experience to realize how close Kwan had come to being seriously injured.

There was also the realization that such an accident could very easily happen to any one of us at any given time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Dock On The River

On Monday while Duang was off in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) taking care of my passport, I spent 6-1/2 hours along the waterfront of the Mekong River in Nong Khai, Thailand. It is hard to believe that it was 6-1/2 hours but time always seems to go by quickly along bodies of water. There appears to be something interesting happening around water.

In Nong Khai there is a large market along, or rather more accurately above the Mekong River. We are into the rainy season now so the Mekong River has greatly recovered from its historic lows of three months ago. Later this year there could be flooding. As I walked past the market, I came upon a place where steps led down to the river itself. I would estimate that the river was about 45 feet below the street level. There were three permanent flood stage markers close to the street level to monitor the water as it rises significantly in the flood season. It is quite impressive at times to see evidence of the variability of Nature in a single location.

After watching the people clean outside their hotels, stalls, or hotels, I wandered down to the dock on the river. Boats from Laos and Thailand crossed the swiftly flowing Mekong carrying passengers and cargo between the two countries. I spent several hours at the Thai Customs Station watching goods being offloaded by hand from somlaws (three wheeled motorcycles), pick up trucks, and lorries. Since it was Monday, there was a great deal of activity - especially exporting of bicycles to Laos. I must have witnessed the offloading of 500 bicycles each in its own individual cardboard box.

The offloading of the cargo in Thailand is performed by stevedores. I learned from them that they make around 200 baht a day ($6.00 USD) a day. The men dress just the same as the men working out in the fields. There are no hard hats, gloves, sturdy boots, or back braces. There is no personal safety equipment at all. Down at the wharf, some 45 feet lower than the street level, there are no life vests, life rings, or rescue equipment.

From what I could see across the river to Laos, about 1/2 mile away, the same was true - offloading by hand. From the sounds coming from Laos, it appeared that the stevedores over there were having a good time. It sounded more like a party than work. On the Thai side it was not all work. During lulls in the arrival of goods to be offloaded, the men played checkers. Their board was a thin square piece of sheet metal that once had blue squares spray painted as required to produced a grid of blue and bare metal squares. Their board had been heavily used for a long period of time reducing many of the blue squares to very faint smudges of color. The game pieces were a combination of beer, soft drink, and Kao Lao (whiskey) bottle caps. One player's pieces were smooth side down and the other player's pieces were rough side down, After watching a while, the men invited me to play. I had not played since a long night in a bar in Malaysia 10 years ago and then it was against my wife of that time. These guys appeared to be a much higher level of competition. I agreed and started to play. The first game was a tie. They changed my opponent and I won the next match. During the third match, we or rather my opponent started getting "comments from the peanut gallery" and advice from several kibitzers. Since I had made sure that we weren't playing for money (gambling is not legal here in Thailand ;-) ), I pretended to be upset and told the men in Thai that it was one man against one man and not 2 men, 3 men, or 4 men against one falang (foreigner). We all had a good laugh. As the match continued, my chastisement did not deter some of the guys, they were giving advise to my opponent - they were reminded of my words by their coworkers. Again we had a good laugh. I ended up losing this match but won my next three matches. It was all good natured fun and amusement. It was an easy way to burn up some time along the river and I enjoyed the time.

Unfortunately, I had not brought my camera with me on Monday. When I met Duang at the border, I told her of my adventure and we decided to return to Nong Khai the next day before going to visit family in Tahsang Village.

Tuesday we drove back to Nong Khai so that I could photograph the activity at the dock. Even better, Duang could translate for me to ensure that I understood what was going on especially the details that were not readily apparent. I want to be reasonably sure of what I write about. Sometimes I suspect that I might understand just enough to get confused. Having Duang to confirm and verify what I believe that I understand is very assuring. We arrived around 8:00 A.M. for the start of the work day on the river. Many of the workers from the day before were in place awaiting the arrival of the day's cargo. Some were finishing their breakfast on the steps of the Custom's House. Breakfast consisted of the Isaan main staple of "sticky rice" brought to the job site in a woven bamboo container called a "gong kao" - a sort of Lao Loum workman's lunch box. We have three in our kitchen. Balls of sticky rice are dipped into a sauce or into fish or sometimes vegetables by hand. Typically plain water is consumed with their meals.

Soon after 8:00 A.M. the cargo started to arrive. Somlaws, three wheeled motorcycles, arrived stuffed with all kinds of cargo destined for Lao People's Democratic Republic. Over the two days of observing work at the wharf, I saw just about everything - well I didn't see a kitchen sink but I did see two pick up truck canopies being exported to the LPDR. Over the two days I saw LG 29 inch televisions, small refrigerators, stuffed toys, hoses, plastic baskets, baby formula, motorcycle tires, truck tires, snack food, Coca Cola, Fanta Orange soft drink, Thailand's version of Red Bull, welding machines, bicycles, candy, motorcycle parts, car parts, washing machines, feminine hygiene products, plant seeds, and canned goods off loaded by hand from pick up trucks, somlaws and 10 wheel trucks. Trucks larger than 10 wheelers are too large to access the Customs House using the narrow city streets. I found it very ironic that some goods were originally manufactured in China were being exported from Thailand into a Communist state that actually shares a border with The People's Republic of China. I suspect that a contributing factor to this situation is the distribution networks available in all three countries. Here in Thailand there are not big distributors or wholesalers of goods. In general, goods are available to you, the consumer, through a series of small distributors and wholesalers with each adding a mark up. My Mother-in-law has a small market in Tahsang Village. One of her biggest selling items is Kao Lao (whiskey). She purchases about one case a week from small ethnic Chinese markets in Kumphawapi or Udonthani. I looked into the possibility of dealing with me for a greater volume perhaps 10 case purchase to get a volume discount. There was no volume discount. I looked into dealing with a larger distributor for either a volume discount or lower unit price and found that the alternative was not available. It is the system of distribution that makes Japanese cameras more expensive in Japan than in the United States. I suspect that a similar situation exists in Laos. It is most likely easier to import Chinese goods through Thailand than to deal with China directly for the small Lao businessman.

As soon as a vehicle pulls up to the curb to be off loaded, the stevedores quickly line up and off load the cargo. The cargo is staged on the sidewalk and entry way to the Customs House. The stevedores are heavily laden with the various pieces of cargo. I saw one man carrying 5 cases of powdered baby formula. Typically one case is placed on edge upon the stevedore's shoulder with 2 more cases added flatly upon this on edge case and the stevedore's head. When a stevedore gets tired and work slows down he can go across the street and lay down on a saht placed upon the sidewalk under the shade of a large tree. Some stevedores choose to play a game or two of checkers. The workers are paid by the "Boss" (Lead Stevedore"). The Boss collects 50 baht to offload a somlaw of cargo and 50 to 100 baht to offload a pick up. The big money is earned for loading the boat. The Boss is paid 10,000 baht for a full boat of cargo. He then divides the money up amongst his crew. Each member of the crew then pays him a fee for allowing them to work. If you is satisfied with their "contribution" he invites them to work the next day. If he is not satisfied, they can not work the next day. Typically the average stevedore will take home 200 baht for the day.

An agent for the exporter verifies the weigh bills and marks up the packages with a blue magic marker - a series of Thai symbols and numbers. Once in a while a Customs Agent will walk out and look over the goods. Once all the goods in a shipment are off loaded, consolidated, verified, the stevedores haul the cargo through the doors into the Customs House, through the building, and place it on a concrete pad high above the Mekong River (about 45 feet).

A crew of stevedores on the vessel moored to the wharf awaits the cargo. A stevedore up on the Custom House concrete pad slides the cargo down a long wood chute down to the vessel. Larger cargo items and hopefully delicate items are hand carried down concrete steps and place aboard the boat. A stevedore on board the floating wharf deftly uses his foot, soccer style, to direct and stop the sliding cargo arriving fro high above. To maintain his balance and perhaps to avoid an accident he uses a rope tied off to a railing to steady himself. I am reasonably certain this is a matter of personal choice rather than compliance with any regulation.

There are two wood slides down to the wharf but on Tuesday one of the slides was being reconstructed. Three men were busy replacing some of the boards on the chute.

After watching the two truck canopies being loaded on to the boat, we left to continue our trip to Tahsang Village.


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