Saturday, December 29, 2012

All Is Not As It May Seem, or As You May Hope

The Charcoal Maker's Niece
Earlier this month, I wrote about the charcoal maker's niece.  In my blog I had indicated that the three year old girl had been offered to Duang and I to raise by her grandmother.  Her grandmother is not in good health, the girl's parents have not been seen or heard from in three years, and the grandmother wanted to be sure that the little girl's future would be secure.

Duang and I consider ourselves, at 49 and 63 years old, to be too old to commit to raising a young child.  However, Duang's son and his wife are interested in having a young child.  We shared the information with them over the phone and photographs over the Internet.  They were very interested in pursuing the matter further.

In the week before Christmas, Duang and I drove out to Kumphawapi to visit the little girl and her grandmother at their home.  Once again, as I had a few times in Bangkok, I visited a unique neighborhood, a neighborhood with streets so narrow that a full sized vehicle can not go down.  You access the homes by bicycle, motorbike, soemlaw, or tuk-tuk.  Duang and I chose to walk.

The neighborhood is one of those compact densely populated areas where there are no sidewalks and if the walls of the houses do not meet the edge of the street, there is no more than two or three meters of dirt separating them.

These are working class neighborhoods with many of the people working from their homes - small shops, small restaurants, stalls selling soft drinks or local cuisine.

These are working class neighborhoods where people live most of their day outside tending to their children and socializing with each other.

These are working class neighborhoods where there is no "Neighborhood Watch" programs because part of every one's day is to watch and participate in what is going on about them.

I enjoy these neighborhoods because there are so many great opportunities for photography and many children to talk to.  These are relaxed neighborhoods where people all know each other and if you are a stranger, will quickly know your name.

We did not know exactly where the little girl lived but after asking at two different locations we quickly and easily found their home.

The little girl and her grandmother lived under another uncle's house.  The older homes in Thailand are elevated approximately 2 meters (6 feet) above the ground on either wood or concrete columns.  Elevating the homes makes a great deal of sense - it minimizes the risk of damage due to flooding, it makes the living area of the home cooler by allowing for air circulation beneath the floor, it helps to minimize access of the living area by creatures great and small ranging from ants, termites, dogs, and chickens.

There were no exterior walls for the little girl's living quarters beneath her uncle's house.  In the center of the area there was a small area, approximately 3 meters by 3 meters (9 foot by 9 foot) where the grandmother and little girl slept on elevated platforms.  Their meager clothing hung on a clothes line strung between two columns of the uncle's home.

The floor of the living space was compacted dirt.  Furniture was limited to two raised wood platforms with woven reed mats, sahts, upon them. It was on top of these raised platforms that they ate, napped, socialized, played, and watched life out on the street.

Our visit went very well.  Although I did not understand what was being said, I understood a few key words and could tell from body language what was going on and how it was going on.  Another very interesting dynamic was also going on.  People, both men and women, kept stopping by to meet us and listen in to what was being said - obviously checking us out.  It turned out that a vast majority of the people were relatives who lived in the neighborhood.  It was obvious that they cared for the little girl.

The little girl was even more charming than the first day that we had encountered her.  She sat next to Duang and called her "Yai" (grandmother). She displayed a great deal of intelligence, and vibrancy.  She played with just a small doll's head and told how she would like to have a doll.  She told Duang that she recently had her fourth birthday but did not have any cake like the other children had.

When Duang and the grandmother walked off to buy some snacks, the little girl remained behind with me and entertained me with her natural modelling skills.

The visit went well, and Duang told the Grandmother that we would return the next day with Duang's son and his wife.  They were driving up the 8 hours to Udonthani from Rayong where they have jobs on an industrial estate to attend the ordination of his cousin as a Monk.

So far Duang's son and his wife have been unable to have a child.  Duang's son had spent about two weeks of his earnings to help pay the costs associated with his cousin becoming a Monk. This offering besides helping his cousin was also an offering in the quest to have a child.  If you read up on Buddhism you may find statements that Buddhists do not pray for divine intervention.  That may very well be true in the theoretical sense but I have found the practical reality is different.  I know many Buddhists who pray to Buddha for help, good luck, and myriad other earthly requests just as Christians pray to God, Jesus, or Saints for the same assistance.

We had told the little girl that the next day we were going to a big party in Tahsang Village. She said that she wanted to go with us and dance.  I thought that that was a great opportunity for my stepson, his wife, and the little girl to get to know each other better in a more relaxed atmosphere.

On the way back to our home, I asked Duang if the grandmother had asked for any money.  Duang said that the elderly woman had not asked for money but that Duang wanted to give her 19,000 Baht ($670 USD) for the three years that the woman had raised the child but no more money after that "gift".  I remarked to Duang that I thought that the story the grandmother had told us about the little girl not eating one day was not true.  After witnessing the concern of the neighbors and the quality of life in that neighborhood, I was convinced that if her grandmother was unable to feed her, family and neighbors would have.

The next morning, Duang and I did our weekly grocery shopping.  This week we added a simple dress, three pairs of panties, two little dolls, and six slices of birthday cake to our cart.  We went out to the little girl's home with my step son and his wife.

When we arrived at the home, there appeared to be no one around.  Once again our presence was noticed by relatives who helped locate the grandmother.  The grandmother and little girl were taking an afternoon nap.

The grandmother spoke to us for awhile and the woke the little girl up to meet with us.  We gave her the gifts and she thanked us.  There was a great deal of conversation but I sensed that things were different and I was sensing bad vibes.  Whereas the day before the little girl was charming, she was now rather reserved if not sullen.  It was obvious to me that things were not going well.

The grandmother said something to the little girl and the little girl had a meltdown.  We left shortly after that.  We stopped at a drink stall just around the corner from the little girl's home.  We had ordered lemon ice tea - not the add water to some powder drink but the fresh brewed tea and real lemon typical Isaan drink - made to order.  As we waited for our drinks, the five women at the stall and Duang struck up an animated conversation.  I didn't know exactly what it was all about other than it was about Duang and I along with why we were in the neighborhood.

On the way home Duang told me that the grandmother had talked to the little girl about leaving and going to live with my stepson and daughter-in-law.  I had not known what was going on at the time and sure would not have supported such a strategy.  Imagine being 4 years old, being woken up, meet two total strangers, and then being asked to leave your world behind to go live with them.  I suspect that it was not the best day the little girl has had  in her brief life.

Duang told me that the Grandmother wanted money every year whereas Duang's son wanted to make a single payment? Gift?  Offering?  This was apparently a deal breaker right from the start.  Duang then filled me in on the soft dring booth conversation.  When Duang told the women about being interested in having her son take care of the little girl, the women told Duang that it was not a good idea.  They said that the little girl was OK and had a good heart (nice), the grandmother just wants to make money.  According to them this had happened before but after a month the grandmother was demanding more money so the little girl was returned.

We were disappointed.  We were also sad for the little girl.  We did not feel bad about the gifts we gave the little girl.

We can not unilaterally change the world.  We are able to change the world one person at a time.  Our hope was that this little girl's life could be changed.  We were not able to change her life but perhaps for just a day we had made her life better.

Things are not as they always seem at first.  Things are not always as you hope or would like them to be.

Life is ... life is what it is.

So to paraphrase the late Paul Harvey "You know the rest of the story"  A story behind some of the photos for every photo tells more than one story.


In Gotham City, Batman drives around in his Batmobile.  His Holiness, the Pope, while traveling throughout the world is driven around in the Popemobile.

On Thursday, Duang and I attended a house warming here in Udonthani.  Duang's youngest brother had been hired to provide the entertainment for the celebration.  Here in Isaan, people have a party when they move into a new home or start a new business.  Part of the celebration is a merit making ritual where food offerings and goods such as robes and toiletries are given to the Monks.  The Monks and the family walk around the house three times before the Monks inspect the home and bless the home as well as occupants.

Monk Leads Procession Around New Home
After the religious aspects of the celebration have concluded, there is typically a live show to entertain the people.  The show typically lasts around 5 hours.  The celebration always includes a great deal of drinking and eating.

When we arrived at the new home, actually a new shop house, the religious portion of the celebration was about to commence.  The family will live on the second and third floors while the first floor is reserved for cooking and more importantly the family's whiskey distribution business.  I noticed an elaborately painted Mazda pick up truck parked in front of the home.

Nagas Guarding A Stairway In Luang Prabang, Laos
The truck was decorated in a religious motif, the mythological snake creature "Naga".  The Naga is a large snake creature that is found in Hindu as well as Buddhist religions. Nagas are not allowed inside of the temples but you will often find sculptures of the Nagas on the stairways leading up to the temples. For the Lao Loum people of Thailand and the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Laos) living along the Mekong River the Nagas are still believed to rule the river.

7 Headed Naga Outside of Temple In Luang Prabang, Laos
It did not take very long for me to determine that this tricked out vehicle, which I nicknamed "The Nagamobile" was the transportation for the Monk.  Monks are not allowed to drive but some temples have vehicles that are driven by laymen to transport the Monks.  In this case, it is a very special vehicle.



Headed Back to the Wat
I waited for the Monk to get back to the Nagamobile so that I could get some photos of him and his special vehicle.  Duang explained to him what I was up to.  As so often happens around here, the Monk was more than accommodating even requesting that Duang take pictures of me and him in front of the truck.

On the Road Again !
I often find myself smiling these days.  My smiles are neither condescending or scornful.  I am smiling the smiles that an inner joy and contentment brings.  Thursday was another one of those days of smiles ... thinking of the nagamobile.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Wish 2012

Lapa, Brasil

Another year has passed and once again it is one of Christianity's most holiest of holidays - Christmas

Hanoi, Vietnam
Bangkok, Thailand

Cusco, Peru
Curitiba, Brasil
This year I wish for everyone something that I am unable to purchase, make, or even give to you.

It is something that you can not even purchase for yourself.

I wish you ... Peace.

I am not wishing you "Peace" as in the lack of violence, or armed conflict, for to achieve that would require the cooperation and good will of far too many people, all people that I and you have no control over.

The peace that I wish for you this season is the peace that you can create and find within yourself.

The peace that comes from knowing that you have done your best and done all that you could.

The peace that comes from accepting and being comfortable with who you are.

The peace that comes from knowing that tomorrow will be better and the next day even better than   that.

The peace that comes from helping others in all the ways that you are able.

The peace that comes from living everyday as if it could be your last day.

The peace that comes from knowing that your beliefs and values are valid, and that although you have expressed them, you are not responsible to convince others nor do you need their agreement.

The peace that comes from knowing that others are not responsible for your happiness.

The peace that comes from knowing and accepting that you are not responsible for other's happiness.

The peace that comes from living your life as you choose rather than as you suspect others may expect you to.

The peace that comes from being self reliant and confident.

So for this season, I am wishing you the peace of happiness.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Kept On Truckin

Back in 1968, in the first issue of Zap Comix, there was a one page comic strip of many different men strutting confidently (i.e. about 25 degrees vertical from the ground with a distorted view of the bottom of their lead shoe) across different landscapes.  The drawings became iconic images of optimism of that era.

Even today there are many men over 60 years old that, to their embarrassment, still have a "Keep On Truckin" tattoo on their upper arm.

Well the other day during my stop at the staging area for sugar cane deliveries at the Kumphawapi Sugar Company, I came upon what I felt was Isaan's response to the proverb to "Keep On Truckin".

Parked amongst all the various models and ages of trucks heavily laden with freshly harvested sugar cane was an Isuzu lorry.  Lorry?  Lorry is a British term for "truck".  Upon close inspection of the vehicle, I could not in any good faith refer to it as a "truck".  Fred Sanford, the television character, drove a truck.  Jedd Clampett, another television character, drove a truck.  This vehicle was unlike any thing that I had seen before.

Riveted Bodywork - A Long Lost Practise
After some Internet research, I determined that Isuzu commenced manufacturing "lorries" in Thailand in 1957.  I strongly suspect that this was a lorry from 1957.  Why?  First of all the lorry did not have a sheet metal body. It had a STEEL body.  I saw portions of the fender that had RUST thicker than the sheet metal used in today's vehicles.  Secondly, portions of the bodywork were RIVETED construction.  I looked closely to ensure that the rivets were not for decorative effect.  Thirdly, the vehicle did not have doors on it.

No Need for Doors ... or Upholstery!
Closer inspection of the driver's compartment revealed a wood bench seat with no upholstery or cushioning other than a folded saht that the driver had placed himself.  There were no side windows either.  With no doors or windows there was no need for air conditioning.  There was no radio or GPS.  This lorry added a new meaning to "bare bones".

This lorry was obviously over 50 years old and still running.  This in itself adds a totally new aspect to the adage that they do not build them like they used to.  Given the lack of the Lao Loum "preventative maintenance" practises in regards to mechanical equipment, the fact that this lorry is still able to perform is a testament to the design and durability of its construction.  Here in Isaan, when something is broken it is typically repaired by shade tree mechanics.  With thick steel construction, dents are minimized, rust through is reduced, and repairs are easy to make when necessary.

The trailer portion of the lorry was constructed of wood and with a unique color scheme - definitely not original and most likely not even "lead free".  As I photographed the lorry I kept thinking of all the repairs that were made to keep this lorry... to keep this lorry truckin.

It appeared that the  windshield had been replaced.  The windshield seemed to fit properly but had a unique mechanism to keep it in place. Three ropes were strung across the face of the windshield to fasten it to the steel frame of the cab.

Yes this lorry has been kept on truckin long after comparable vehicles in the USA have been scrapped.

Once again I had witnessed how important it is that things be fit for purpose rather than "looking good".  Once again I had seen that planned obsolescence once could be resisted.  Once again I marvelled at the persistence and ingenuity of the Lao Loum people to make do with what is available ... for much longer than you might expect.

"Keep On Truckin"

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Making Charcoal In Isaan - The Way It Is For Some

The Kumphawapi Charcoal Maker
I am constantly on the look out for interesting people, places, events, and things to photograph as well as to write about as I drive around Isaan.  For a few months now I have had my eye on an interesting process taking place outside of Kumphawapi, across from the Kumphawapi Sugar Company.  At first, I was unable to take photographs because my cameras were in Bangkok for repair.  Once I had the first camera back I could have taken photographs but I was usually not with Duang.  Although I am not concerned about stopping and photographing on my own, this was a process that I had not witnessed before  and I knew that I would have a great deal of questions regarding what I would be photographing.  Duang is a great translator and is just as interested in what we are witnessing as I am.

Sometimes when I am returning to our home in Udonthani from Duang's home village of Baan Tahsang, I take a left on to a dirt road that allows me to bypass the congestion of "downtown" Kumphawapi.  About one block's distance down the road, there is large piece of land where lump charcoal is produced.

Dirt Covered Mounds of Burning Wood Fill the Air With Acrid Smoke
Here in Isaan, out in the countryside, a majority of the people cook out doors over an open charcoal fire.  The charcoal fire is contained is refractory lined metal can - very similar to a a two gallon sized paint can lined with cement to create a one gallon sized pot with an opening at the bottom side for charcoal.  If you live or have lived in the United States,you are most likely familiar with brand names like Kingsford or Royal Oak for charcoal briquettes for cooking.  However here in Isaan, the people use locally produced lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is made by burning wood in a limited oxygen environment.

Charcoal briquettes are manufactured from wood byproducts with additives that help them light easier and burn consistently. Besides wood charcoal, briquettes typically also contain coal, limestone, starch, sawdust, Sodium Nitrate, Borax, and wax.

Interestingly the charcoal briquette for cooking was invented by auto giant, Henry Ford.  He had been looking for a way to get rid of or more likely profit from the sawdust and scrap wood waste produced by his automotive factories,  For years people were able to buy BBQ grills as well as "Ford Briquettes" from Ford dealerships.

Late Saturday afternoon on our way back home from Thasang Village with our Grandson, Peelawat, the three requirements to do this blog came together - I had my camera, Duang was with me, and the man was making charcoal.  As it turned out, we arrived just in time, the collier (charcoal maker) had loaded his soemlaw (three wheeled motorcycle) with bags of charcoal and was preparing to take them to his patron.

It was an interesting time to take photographs, the sun was getting low, the mounds where the charcoal was being created where profusely emitting billows of acrid white smoke.  The collier, his young niece, and his mother were also interesting subjects to photograph.

The Collier's Niece and His Mother
Duang immediately hit it off with the Grandmother.  In no time and, as is so common here in Isaan, they were involved in a loud and quite animated conversation.  Peelawat kept to my side as if he were my Photographer's Assistant or interested in learning to be ... a photographer.  The collier's little niece, at first was somewhat shy but after seeing some of the photographs, soon was following Peelawat and me around.  She also wanted to see the results of each photograph that I took.

It was very apparent that these people were very poor even more so than the subsistence farmers that I am familiar with.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Duang give the grandmother and then the little girl some money.  She gave them 90 Baht ($3 USD).   I was not surprised for I have often seen acts of generosity and compassion by Duang.  She is very religious and lives her religion every day.

Peelawat and the little girl got along very well.  Besides "helping" me, they would stop and play in the dirt with a small toy that he had brought with him.  He seemed completely oblivious and definitely not judgemental of the little girl's poor clothing or her body as well as clothes covered with black soot. It is one of my observations of life that young children are not born with prejudices or intolerance - they must be taught.  Unfortunately, those are lessons too easily learned.
From Duang's conversation with the Grandmother, I learned much about the life of the charcoal maker.  he, himself, did not speak all that much - he had a throat condition which given his occupation does not surprise me but does cause me concern for his future.  He is 52 years old and has been making charcoal for the past four years.  Previously he had worked at pulling plastic out of garbage.

The land where he makes the charcoal is owned by a wealthy man who lives close by.  The wealthy man allows the collier to make charcoal on the land and buys the collier's production.  The charcoal maker stays on the land in a ramshackle hut to protect the charcoal and to tend the fires all day and night.  His three year old niece and his mother live nearby in a small house.  They come out to the site to help fill the recycled fertilizer or rice sacks with charcoal.

The charcoal maker put 5,000 Baht down on his soemlaw 15 months ago and makes 2,500 Baht a month payments on it. besides transporting the bags of charcoal to his patron, the man uses the three wheeled motorcycle to transport wood to the site.  People contact him to clear their property of trees.  He cuts the trees and brings them back in the soemlaw to turn them into charcoal.  He produces a batch of charcoal every 5 days.  He sells the charcoal for 120 Baht ($4 USD) a bag with a bag being a 55 kg fertilizer or rice bag.  The price is based on volume rather than weight.

His mother is 73 years old and is not in good health.  She is concerned about who will care for her granddaughter when she is gone.  The little girls parents disappeared three years ago and there has been no contact with them since then.  The grandmother believes that they have died.  I had noticed an ulcer on the woman's foot when I was photographing her.  Today when I was speaking to Duang about the woman I told her that I suspected that the grandmother had diabetes.  After I explained what diabetes was to Duang, she confirmed that the old woman had "too much sugar in blood",  It is surprising how many people in Isaan are afflicted with diabetes.

Three Years Old and Confident
The grandmother asked Duang if we would like to take care of the little girl.  This is not the first time that we have been offered a baby or a small child to raise.  I have always shrugged it off as people being polite - sort of like "Oh you like children very much.  You are very nice people.  Would you like to raise this child?"  I never wanted to consider the alternative that the people were serious.  It is a reality that I would not like to acknowledge.

Giving children to be raised by others is not all that uncommon here in Isaan and it does not necessarily always have "human trafficking" or "sex trade" connotations.  Duang's older sister was given to and raised by one of Duang's uncles because the family ,was not able to support two children.  No money was involved in the matter of Duang's sister and apparently no money was asked for in the offer that Duang received on Saturday. It appears to have been motivated by a desire to find a better and more stable life for a child when you realize that you will not be able to.   It is sad and heart wrenching to know the suffering that many people, especially children go through in this world.  Suffering with a face is much more difficult to ignore than descriptions on a computer screen or printed page.

Work Is Done, Ready to go Home
The little girl had not eaten the day before because her uncle had left early in the soemlaw to harvest some wood.  The grandmother was unable to walk to the Wat due to her hurt foot to receive the food that the Monks did not eat that morning.  Duang had learned this after she had given the money to them. She was pleased to hear the grandmother say that they would be able to eat the next day because of Duang's offering.  The grandmother had complimented Duang for taking the time and interest in them unlike many women, married to foreigners, who are embarrassed by others who are not as fortunate.  It is not in Duang's nature to be that way and having "been there, and done that" she would never allow herself to be that way.

The little girl does not go to school because the grandmother does not have money for clothes or books let alone the tuition for the girl to attend school. Free school in Thailand starts with the first grade (age 6).  Duang feels very sad for the little girl and tomorrow she will make some clothes for her.  She also has contacted a young childless Lao Loum couple who are interested in taking care of a small child - especially a well behaved and intelligent as this little girl appears to be.  They are interested and will meet her later this month.  Maybe, as Duang often says "Buddha will take care".

On the way home, Duang spoke with Peelawat about the little girl and her family.  She used it as an opportunity to teach him compassion for others and to teach him to appreciate the opportunities that he has in his life.  The greatest appreciation that we can have is to take full advantage of the opportunities that we have available to us.  Duang is teaching Peelawat that.  I often tell my wife that she makes me a better person.  It appears that she intends to teach our grandson to be a better person to.

Just as with death, sheltering children from reality protects them from nothing and prevents them from learning to cope with the realities of this world.

I doubt that we can change the world for everyone, but by changing it for one person it is a start - a start worth taking.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cassava Production

Cutting Cassava Stalks for Planting
Father's Day was a holiday here in Thailand on 5 December, but for Lao Loum farmers here in Isaan it was a day like any other day - a work day.  I have already written about the sugar cane harvest, the rice harvest, and the Kumphawapi Market so today I will write about the work associated with the cultivation of cassava.

Thailand is the largest exporter of dried cassava in the world.  Most of the exports go to China.  The largest producer of cassava is Nigeria.  I often ate cassava when I lived in Brasil.  You may even have a form or byproduct of cassava in your kitchen cabinet.

What is cassava?  Cassava, Manihot esculenta, which is also known as manioc and mandioca is a woody shrub originally from South America that has a starchy tuberous edible root.  The edible root is very much like a potato.  It is more fibrous and more mushy than a potato prepared the same way.  Cassava.  Unlike the potato, it is important to properly prepare cassava.  There are two varieties of cassava, sweet and bitter.  The bitter variety is typically used for industrial purposes. The sweet variety is the kind most likely to be eaten by people.  Both varieties can expose people to cyanide if not properly prepared.  The bitter kind has 50 times the concentration of cyanide compounds than the sweet.  Proper preparation of the sweet variety involves peeling and boiling the tuber ensuring to throw the water away.  the industrial variety needs to be soaked in water for 18 to 24 hours.

When the root is dried to a powdery or pearl type extract is known as Tapioca. Cassava can be eaten as "french fries", "potato chips", or "boiled potatoes".  In Brasil the tuber is dried, powdered, fried with butter, packaged and sold as "Manioc Flour" or "Farofel"  It is sprinkled on meat or beans for flavor and to thicken the consistency of the dish.

Cassava is a good source of carbohydrates but a poor source of protein for people.  It is grown because it does not require fertile soil or a great deal of water.  The cassava shrub is very drought resistant.  Because it can grow in poor soil and without a great deal of water, cassava is a natural choice for a cash crop here in Isaan.  It is called "mahn falang" by the Lao Loum farmers.  Cassava is used in rotation with sugar cane.

After the sugar cane is harvested, the land is plowed and cassava is planted.  After 6 months, the cassava is harvested and sugar cane planted in its place.  Currently cassava brings 2,700 Baht per metric tonne ($90.00 per 2,200 pounds) to the farmer while sugar cane brings 1,300 Baht per metric tonne.  Rice pays the most at 18,000 Baht per tonne ($600 USD).

Processing Cassava Stalks
For small farmers like Duang's relatives, they manually harvest the cassava tubers by first removing all the stems and leaves from the stalk.  The bare stalk is then pulled straight up to expose the tubers.  The tubers are removed from the stalk and placed in a farm truck or wagon.  Due to the rapid deterioration of the tubers after harvesting, they are taken directly to a local processor.  The bottoms of the stalks are cut off and the remaining 4 to 5 foot long stalk is taken back home to be processed for the next crop.

Cutting Up Cassava Stalks

Back at the farmer's home or at a willing relative's home, the stalks are stacked like cord wood.  The stalks are then cut into 8 to 9 inch long pieces with a heavy cane knife - one stalk at a  time - a job performed by both men and women.  The short pieces of stalk are collected in woven baskets.  The pieces are then brought over to a tub of water where they are washed and wetted down before placing them into recycled fertilizer or rice bags.  The stalk sections remain in the bags for three days, after which they are transported out to a prepared filed and planted by hand.

Wetting Down Cassava Stalk Sections
Packing Cassava Stalks Into Recycled Fertilizer Bags
Tomorrow morning, these sections of cassava will be planted.  We will be traveling out to Tahsang Village to witness and document the process.  Based upon her success in photographing me dancing during the street parade for Bun Kaithin, Duang is planning on photographing me planting "mahn falang"  Hmmm ... I may have to bring out that excuse that foreigners are not allowed to work without a "Work Permit" issued by the Thai Government.  Your wife wanting you to work is not sufficient authorization.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Battle Has Been Lost, Hopefully The War Will Continue

The battle has been lost but I hope that the war will continue.  What?  Is this another bitter article regarding American elections.  No!  Is this about whatever may or may have happened in Libya? Nope, not that either!  What about something to do with what may happen in Iran?  No, not today.

Today's blog is actually a follow up and update to a blog that I wrote at the end of November 2009,

"Big Box Battle - The Struggle Against The Multinationals" documented the battle to prevent the British multinational grocer, Tesco-Lotus, from building a big box store in Kumphawapi.  Local people, suspected Chinese merchants, had posted a sign in Kumphawapi stating along the lines that if you helped Tesco-Lotus to locate in Kumphawapi you would die.  Perhaps not necessarily a direct death threat but in a land of many spirits, karma, and things that go bump in the night something to take seriously.

Well now three years later, Lotus-Tesco will shortly be opening their Kumphawapi "Super-Store"  This pains me on a personal level.  Since the exit of the French multinational grocer, Carrefour, I have been doing most of my grocery shopping at Lotus-Tesco in Udonthani.  I have many fond memories of when I first became associated with Kumphawapi of shopping at the local market with Duang. Some of those memories and experiences were written about in August 2009:

Duang and I continue to use the Kumphawapi market as well as the local small shops to purchase food, beverages, and household items for the family out in Tahsang Village.  Every shopping trip to the markets and shops has been a pleasant experience and sometimes even an adventure. My blogs are not so much about my personal experiences but rather the documentation of some unique aspects of a special culture - a special culture like so many other cultures that under attack today by the forces of globalization and one world governance.

Outdoors Portion of Kumphawapi Market
On Father's Day here two days ago, we shopped at the market in Kumphawapi.  It was more than a shopping experience it was also a social experience.  Many of the vendors recognized Duang and had to share some kind words or gossip with her.  I was content to wander around taking photographs in an attempt to capture the atmosphere of a way of life here in Thailand.  Soon I had attracted the attention of some men who good naturedly pointed out things that I should photograph.

Fresh Bananas For Sale - $0.15 USD A Pound
Besides the social and communal aspects that the local markets provide, they also provide a greater variety and higher degree of quality of produce, fish, and meats.  The sellers at the local markets are independent vendors.  They pay rent for the space that they occupy at the market.  The market provides space and electricity.  The individual vendors provide the fixtures and equipment.

If they sell bad product, they will quickly be out of business.  Since most items are not packaged, it is easy to determine if a product is not at its freshest. The vendors are not capitalized so they must ensure that their customers are satisfied and perhaps just as important trust them. The market vendors are also more sensitive and responsive to the needs of their customers.  They have no corporate mangers to please, no corporate policies or procedures to follow or to hide behind.  All profits also remain within the local economy - locals helping locals.  Local solutions for local problems and situations.

Vegetables For Sale At Kumphawapi Market
Vendors often sell products from their local farms or products that they have gathered from local waters or nearby land.  Many local people have started to grow mushrooms as a cottage industry.  The fruits of their labors, both in variety and quantity, was readily apparent at the market.  There were also many tables of fresh vegetables; unpackaged vegetables that you could closely inspect, and smell before making your choice.

Fresh Fish Being Prepared For Sale

You Can't Find Fish Any Fresher Than These
One of the vendors that attracted my attention during our last visit to the market was the pumahlai vendor.  Pumahlai are fresh floral arrangements that are given as offerings to Buddha in the Wats, hung from rear view mirrors inside of motor vehicles, and given to people as gifts as well as demonstrations of respect.  In urban areas you can buy pumahlai at the intersections of major roads and at the markets.  They typically cost from 20 to 80 baht ($0.60 USD to $2.60) depending upon size and type of flowers used.  They are available year long and are one of the affordable luxuries that add to the quality of life here in Thailand.

Mother and Son Making Pumahlai For Sale
Since we visited the market on a holiday, there was no school in session.  The pumahlai vendor had her school aged son helping her to make and sell the floral arrangements.  here in Thailand and in Isaan in particular children help contribute to the family's economic welfare.  In extreme cases, such as was the case with Duang, children have to leave school after four years to work in the fields.  In other cases the children help to sell handicrafts along the highway when school is not in session.  Children are not sheltered for a long time from the responsibilities and accountability of adulthood or at least the awareness of contributing to the family's welfare.

You can buy products other than meat, fish, vegetables, and flowers at the Kumphawapi Market.  There is a section where you can buy fresh baked goods - one of my favorites being fresh waffles with corn and shredded coconut in them - great for breakfast and good for any other time.  In the covered portion of the market, there are stalls that sell dry goods and canned goods.  Other stalls sell the ingredients necessary for betelnut chewing - large sacks of the stuff!  Some stalls sell clothing, while others sell toys.

A Clothing Vendor At The Market
The market also has bathrooms, bathrooms where you need to pay a small fee to use them.  I always want to be honest and truthful in what I write in this blog so I have to  admit that I much much more prefer the bathrooms at the multinational big box stores than at the local markets.  I actually prefer the sugar cane fields to the bathrooms at the local markets.  This just reinforces the adage that no one is perfect no place is perfect either.  The market does provide a janitorial service to keep the area somewhat under control.

Sweeping Up At the Market
Our visit to the market was accented with the sounds of cleavers chopping fish or meat, various radios and CD players blaring ethnic music, the rasping sounds of fish being scaled, the din of good natured banter between vendors and customers, as well as the scratching sound of the market janitor sweeping up with her long stiff broom.  The music was so infectous that the man who was pointing out things for me started to dance.  I joined him in dancing Isaan style much to the amusement of everyone.  The vendors told Duang to bring me back some day - some day soon!

Janitor Wishing Me A Happy Father's Day
Adjacent to the market are several small shops that specialize in selling dry goods.  These are small family run operations typically by ethnic Chinese.  These shops will transport your purchases across the main road to the parking lot - just part of their customer services.

A Small Dry Goods Shop

Lotus Tesco has won their battle to built their "super-store" in Kumphawapi but I hope that people of the area continue to support their local solution for shopping.  I hope that they work to preserve their culture and traditions in opposition to the pressures of multinational corporations for mono culturalism.  Perhaps s I write this blog one Thai or hopefully more than one Thai is saying something along the lines uttered by Bluto from the film "Animal House" ... "What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is!"


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