Friday, November 30, 2012

Bun Kaithin - Day 2

Tahsang Villager Places Sticky Rice Offering Into Monk's Bowl
Sunday, 25th November, was the day selected for Tahsang Villagers to celebrate Kaithina with the Monks at the "Outside" Wat.  The previous day, the villagers had celebrated the festival by making money trees to offer to the Monks in gratitude for all that they do.  Following the procession through the streets, 6 of 7, of the village, everyone returned to their homes for the night.  Some women prepared food to offer to the Monks the following morning as part of the daily merit making ritual.

Other women, such as my wife, chose to get up early on Sunday morning to prepare food for the Monks.  Duang woke up at 3:45 A.M. to prepare fresh food for our scheduled 6:00 A. M. departure for Tahsang Village.

We stopped at Duang's house in the village to pick up our Grandson, Peelawat, and my mother-in-law to drive out to the Wat.  Our truck was enlisted to transport many of the money trees, banana stalks, and decorations from the civic pavilion.

Villager's Offerings For the Monks
The partially completed Bot was decorated with the banana stalks, pennants, and colorful decorations.  The middle of the section where lay people participate in the ritual was filled with all the money tree as well as other offerings such as sahts (woven reed mats), mons (pillows), religious decorative bowls, artificial flowers, and handicrafts.

The religious celebration commenced as a typical merit making ritual where people make offerings to the Monks.  A Shaman leads the people in a ritual which offers the food to the Monks.  The ritual involves lighting of small candles, chanting, and presenting a small dish with the lit candles and some leaves to the Abbott of the Wat.  The Monks then perform their portion of the ritual by chanting.  One part of this ritual involves the lay people pouring water from a bottle or special metal container into a bowl as they and the Monks chant.  The water in the bowls is then carefully taken outside of the Wat and poured at the base of various plants or trees in another private ritual.

After that portion of the ritual was completed, the Monks ate while the lay people watched and prepared to eat after the Monks.  The Monks only take what they can eat,  After they have eaten, the remaining food is consumed by the lay people.  There is always a surplus of food.  On special days such as Sunday, there is a great deal of surplus of food as well as variety of food.  The eating of the surplus food sustains the very poor of the community.  My wife and her children were nourished by this arrangement many years ago.  The eating of the surplus of food also serves as an opportunity for the community to socialize. Each morning and especially on festival days, there is a sort of pot-luck meal for the people.

Nong, Peelawat, and Tey Playing in the Dirt
Nong of Tahsang Village On Ok Phansa Day - 30 Oct
After they finished eating, the Monks left the Bot.  The lay people took their time to eat their meal.  After finishing their meal, the people gathered up their money trees and other offerings.  They assembled outside near remnants of an earlier structure and chedi at the site.  By this time I had been surrounded by several of my little friends from the village.  My Grandson, Peelawat, likes to hang around me even though we can not talk about too much.  One of my new favorite models, Nong, likes to hang around with Peelawat , Tey and me.  She is 20 months old and likes to be one of the "guys".  Sometimes being one of the "guys" can be difficult and carries a price.  Last week Peelawat ran her over with his bicycle - not intentional but he was unable to stop in time or to avoid her.  Nong had a cut on her head and a scrape on her arm.  She has recovered fine and is back following Peelawat around, and doing whatever he or Tey does. Whenever I take a photograph, she runs up to me so that I can show her the result on the monitor.  The day before, she was seated in the back of a pick up truck.  I took her photograph and showed her.  She smiled and then pointed up in the sky and said something.  I looked and saw nothing.  She pointed again and repeated her words.  Again I was unable to see what she was trying to show me.  She insisted and repeated her gesture as well as words.  This time I tried very hard and saw a helium balloon floating away just about out of sight.  I have to admire and love the persistence of children!  I thanked her for sharing.

Villagers Assembling For A Procession Around the Wat
The villagers commenced their procession around the Wat.  I stayed ahead of them so that I could take photographs of the procession.  Peelawat stayed with me along with Tey and Nong.  The procession was lead by some men with long brooms, sweeping the ground ahead of the villagers.

As is the case in other religious processions, the people walked three  times around the remnants of the Wat.  They walked and danced to ethnic Lao music as the circumambulated the old chedi.  Everyone was smiling and very happy.

As the villagers were finishing up their third circuit of the chedi ruins, I broke off followed by 8 of the children.  I could not help but think of the story of the Pied Piper.  Anyhow, I removed my shoes and climbed the stairs to the area where the Buddha used to be kept, as I started up the stairs I looked back and motioned for the children to remove their shoes and sit down.

The Wrong Place At the Wrong Time
The Monks were inside the worship hall adjusting their clothing.  After awhile of taking photos, one of the Monks let me know that the ceremony was at the other hall.  I exited the hall and found all the children right where I had left them.  Together we all crossed the yard to the proper location much to the amusement of the assembled villagers.

Monks Commence Ritual to Accept Robes (Kaithin)
In the new Bot, there was a special ritual for the offering of the robes (Kaithin).  The Monks rather than the usual single line configuration, were set up in a semi-circle.  They all took turns chanting rather than the usual Abbott and one other Monk.  Chanting was first performed over the robes that were in a plastic shipping bag.  The robes were then removed from the bag, a braided gold colored belt was wrapped around the robes, and additional chanting was performed as Monks held on to the ends of the belt.

After the Monks had accepted the robes, the people took their money trees apart.  The process was done very deliberately and carefully - the bills all had to be facing in the same direction.  The  stack of bills were folded in half and secured with an elastic band.  The wad of cash was then placed into a plastic envelope and brought up to offer to the Monks.  The Monks gave special religious pennants to each family that donated.  The pennants are to bring good luck.  After all the offerings had been made to the Monks, the Monks passed out cardboard boxes that contained a religious statue for the people's home.

The offerings were counted and announced to the people - 109,127 Baht ($3,637 USD) which will be spent to finish the new Bot.

Once again I had the privilege to participate and document a unique event in the Lao Loum culture here in Isaan.  Be it a religious celebration, a funeral, a wedding, or the ordination of a Monk, the community bonds in Isaan are strong.  These bonds start developing at a very early age with babies and toddlers participating in all the rituals.  Some people would say that these are poor people but don't tell them that.  They think that it is all about being happy rather than what you have.  Personally I call the people very fortunate.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bun Kaithin

Tahsang Villager Dances Down Street Displaying Her Money Tree
The month of November is a period for Bun Kaithin here in Isaan.  "Bun" is a Lao word  that roughly means festival so Bun Kaithin here is the festival for Kaithin.  The Royal Barge Procession was conducted on November 9th so that HRH The Crown Prince could perform the Royal Kaithin Ceremony at Wat Arun.  The Royal Kaithin ceremony involved demonstrating  appreciation for the Monks by offering them robes called "Kaithin".

Throughout November and all over Thailand as well as the Lao People's Democratic Republic local people demonstrate their appreciation for their Monks in village celebrations.  For Tahsang Village, November 24th and 25th were the days chosen for their celebration.

Duang's Mother Working On Family Money Tree
Saturday, November 24th, the first day of the celebration started with each of the households making a money tree.  Often when cash is raised for offering to the Monks, a money tree is created out of a banana stalk.  Bamboo skewers are split and a small elastic band used at one end in order to hold a baht note.  The assembly is then jabbed into the banana stalk to create baht "leaves".  The banana money tree is  then paraded through the village with stops at each home seeking donations to add more leaves to the tree.

For this celebration there were some different types of money trees.  One of the village men had set up across the street from Duang's house in the village and was making money trees out of rice straw from the recent harvest.  Bundles of straw were lashed together with plastic ribbon to create three legged trees that had either two or three limbs.  Some of the straw money trees did not have roots to support the tree.  Those trees were placed in an empty plastic beverage bottle filled with sand.  Some families did not create a money tree.  They filled a container either plastic, earthenware, or glass with sand to support the bamboo skewers of baht notes.

There are some cultural mores associated with the offerings.  The first is that the offering needs to be as auspicious as possible. Rather than having a single 1000 Baht ($33.33 USD) note on a money tree, the Lao Loum people prefer to have 10 branches of 100 Baht notes or perhaps even better yet - 5 branches of 100 Baht notes, four branches of 50 Baht notes, and 15 branches of 20 Baht notes.  Just as a big public display is made at weddings to count and recount the Sin Sod (dowry), it is important to make a public display of the family's offering to the Monks - the larger the tree and the more branches the better the offering.  Some people will donate money to other's trees in order to participate in a grander display than they could make on their own.

On our way out to the village we had to stop at the bank in Kumphawapi to change money for dressing out of not just our money tree, Duang's mother's tree, and Duang's son's money tree, but money trees for several other family members.  Besides changing the 1000 Baht notes into smaller denominations, obtaining new uncirculated or at least crisper bank notes is desired.

The morning was spent in the homes, dressing out the money trees.  Everyone participated in the task.  Children, parents, grandparents, and great grandparents all helped.  At Duang's house, some visitors were also enlisted to help out.

Peelawat Dresses Out the Money Tree
Around mid-day some men showed up.  They were lay people from the Wat who handled the Wat's finances.  Monks are not supposed to handle money, so selected lay people handle banking and other financial tasks for each Wat.  In the case of the "Outside" Wat the biggest financial dealing involves building the new Bot (Worship Hall).  The laymen carried and maintained a ledger of all donations. Just as is done at a funeral wedding, the name of the donor and donation was recorded in the ledger.  The ledger will be presented to the Monks who will read it and incorporate the names of the donors in their merit making rituals.

The Family's Contribution is Recorded
After the laymen had concluded their visits, the villagers along with their money trees started congregating at the village meeting pavilion across the street from Duang's house.  The meeting pavilion is about 30 feet by 30 feet open sided and covered with a corrugated metal roof.  It is used for voting and village meetings.  When not used for public events it is used as a play area by the young children of the village or as a stall by travelling vendors.  On Saturday, the pavilion was all decorated with colorful pennants.  Several large stalks of bananas were hanging down from the roof on one side.  Across the street from the pavilion, a large truck was parked.  The truck was loaded with large speakers blaring out ethnic music.  It was quite a festive atmosphere.

The pavilion was a staging point for the afternoon parade through the village.  At 1:00 PM the parade started.  Men, women, teenagers, children, toddlers, and one falang (foreigner) set off followed by the sound truck.  Tahsang Village is a small village and the parade route was roughly 6 to 8 city blocks long - a loop through the village.  Three hours later, the procession was over.  Three hours?  Yes!  The procession stopped at just about every home along the route.  People had started drinking when they were putting their money trees together earlier in the morning.  Now that the procession had started, the drinking had become more prevalent.  Stopping at every house?  At each stop, people joined the procession; some after cajoling.  At some of the stops. people add money to some of the trees.  At many of the stops, people gave glasses of beer or whiskey to  the participants.  At every stop, besides dancing, there was conversation and joking with the residents - things that all ate up time quickly.

Parading Through Tahsang Village
One of the pleasures that I have is to witness and document the passage of time in Tahsang Village on an individual basis.  Babies are now young children.  Sons and nephews have become Monks and some have moved on to be husbands and/or fathers.  There always seems to be a new baby in the village to become acquainted with.  For every funeral, there is a spouse who carries on with their life.  Unlike many in Western countries, here in Isaan, they do not carry on alone.  Family. friends, and neighbors support the widows of the village.  One of my favorite subjects is Duang's Aunt who is a fairly recent widow.  She always transports herself with a strong sense of dignity and with a quiet resolution of suffering.  She makes it to all family events and village celebrations.  Saturday was no exception.

A Familiar Face - One of Duang's Aunts
During the celebration, along the entire procession route, a group of young boys danced with tremendous enthusiasm directly in front of the sound truck.  One of the principle dancers was Tey.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when we all thought that Tey would never walk.  Well past the age when children walk and run, Tey was still moving along by using his hands and arms to lift his bottom off the ground and use his stomach muscles to thrust is abdomen forward as his arms lowered his bottom once again to the ground.   Well Tey is six years old now and you would never know about his early difficulty walking.  Lessons learned:  Although you may have many answers, you rarely have all the answers.  Some problems are not problems.  Somethings take longer for some people.  Tey is now a dancing machine.

Tey and Other Village Boys Dancing Up a Storm

Village Boys Dancing Ahead of Sound Truck
The young boys were dancing like the older boys dance in front of the stage at Mahlam Lao shows.  The dance is what I call the Carabao (Water Buffalo).  It involves alternative stomping of the ground with one foot while hopping on one leg.  The body is bent at the waist while motions are made with the hands and arms.  It appears that a new wave of dancers is ready to take over the mosh pits to come.

The Joy of Being Young ... In Isaan

Youthful Enthusiam Can Be Contagious ... At Any Age

The end of the day, the end of the procession.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's Miller Time - In Isaan

The Tahsang Village Miller Loads The Shaker Table
"It's Miller Time" was the slogan for a beer that is brewed in the United States.  Personally I would never drink the stuff again.  Besides not tasting good and being gentle on my digestive system I totally disagreed with their marketing strategy which blatantly targeted specific groups of the population. Such a strategy might work for electing public officials but i do not have to participate in it for purchasing beer.

It's Miller Time in Isaan is not even about drinking beer.  If this blog were to be about beer drinking here in Northeast Thailand, it would be about It's Leo Time or It's Chang Time.  Most of the people that I know out in the villages drink Leo which is also my preferred brand.  More affluent villagers may drink Chang.  No matter their choice, the locals will drink their beer out of a glass filled with ice cubes.  It may sound a little strange but I can attest to how refreshing it is on hot and humid Isaan days or nights.

It's Miller Time for this blog deals with the final processing of this year's rice harvest.  The rice has been cut, dried in the field, threshed to remove the grain from the straw, the rice grain dried at the Wat or in the yard, and stored in the family granary.  The stored rice has a husk covering the kernel.  Some bags of rice which will be used next year for seed will remain this way.  Some bags that will used to make "puffed rice", sort of like popcorn, which is used in making the Isaan treat (I call it Thai Cracker Jacks) "Kao Tawtek".  The remainder of the rice which will be eaten during the year must have the husk mechanically removed, milled, so that the rice can be steamed.

Gathering Freshly Milled Rice
On the morning that I recently wrote about when we visited our grandson's school, I had visited the home in Tahsang Village where the local rice is milled.  Well today, we had to go back out to the village so I headed directly back to visit the miller.

Like many businesses here in Isaan, the man mills the rice on his home property.  In the USA there was a time when industry was also conducted at home.  The term "cottage industry" refereed to the practise.  Well here in Isaan cottage industry is thriving.

Tahsang Village Rice Milling Equipment
The milling machine is located in a shed at the back of the miller's home.  I had first visited and photographed the operation back in October 2008.  I have written several times about the Thai expression of "Same, Same; but different".  During my visit on Monday after a hiatus of four years I realized that the milling operation was "same same but different".  At first I thought that the miller had gotten rid of two of his machines but upon closer inspection, I realized that the miller had reorientated the equipment 90 degrees.  I pointed the difference out to him and he confirmed that it had been reorientated.  Later when Duang joined us, I had her tell the man that he had done a very good job relocating the equipment because it looked like the very same spider webs from four years ago were still there seemingly undisturbed.  We had a  good laugh.  But seriously, the equipment was just as heavily covered with dust laden spider webs as it was previously.  I guess if you know what you  are doing you don't have to clean equipment to relocate it!

Visiting the rice miller was a smorgasbord for most of the senses.  The first sense that is stimulated is sound.  Even from the street, you can hear the rice being milled.  Once inside the shed you hear a symphony.  There is the sound of belts driving the numerous pulleys, wheels and shafts that power the various sections of the machinery.  There is the sound of dried kernels of rice rustling along the vibrating shaker tables that separate the rice from straw and other debris that was carried over from the threshing or drying operations.  You can hear the rice traveling through various chutes that connect different sections of the machine.  There is a rhythmic slapping of the power transmitting belts.  Occasionally a chicken will shuffle along the compacted earth floor of the shed clucking in satisfaction upon finding some rice that has spilled.

The sense of sight is tantalized by all kinds of oddities and peculiarities of the operation.  The work area is rather dark and the air is dusty.  But the most stunning sight is the actual milling equipment.  The equipment is old; very old.  I suspect that it very well could be 100 years old.  The milling equipment comes from the age when machines were still constructed of wood, rivets, cast iron, steel, fabric, and leather.

Wood?  Yes, the elevated work platform was wood which is not all that unique or surprising.  The support columns were also made of wood - a little less common but again not surprising.  What was unique and definitely surprising was that the housings for the vertical elevators and many of the chutes that transported the rice were made of wood, wood that had a nice patina due to many years of use.

Leather?  Yes, the many belts that transmitted power from the single floor mounted electric motor located about 2 meters from the equipment.  A long leather belt was attached to a large diameter wheel mounted on a long horizontal shaft close to the equipment.  Other wheels of various diameters were also mounted on the horizontal shaft.  Leather belts of various lengths and widths transmitted power to the various specific locations on the machine.  The machine hearkened back to the time before machine guards were used or required.  Care had to be taken to ensure that your clothing or fingers did not get caught up in the belts.  The miller had no need to be around those sections while milling the grain but an excited foreign photographer definitely had to take care!  Besides being used for power transmitting belts, leather was used to suspend the various vibrating trays and tables that separated the grain.

Chute and Fabric Connector Tie Vibrating Table to Vertical Elevator
Fabric? Yes, fabric was used to make the flexible connections between the moving parts of the equipment.  In more modern machines these connectors would be constructed of rubber, neoprene, or Nitrile. In some places coated Fiberglas or nylon fabric would be used.  For this machine I do not know what was originally used.  Perhaps it was canvas.  Whatever was originally used is long gone and replaced by the miller with whatever fabric the family did not need for other purposes.  In some sections of the equipment it appeared that sections were being held together by strips of cloth; cloth that was coated by spider webs and dust.  The dust coated spider webs hung from all sections and pieces of the milling equipment as well as all exposed surfaces in the work shed.  The overall ambiance was of a haunted house or some laboratory where Frankenstein would be created - a great place to explore and photograph.

Milled Rice Spills From Milling Machine Into Recycled Plastic Bucket
The colors in the work shed were rather subdued because of the equipment's age and the uniformity due to heavy accumulation of dust.  The subtlety of the color palette was broken in places where the golden grain had spilled or could be seen traveling through the process.  Richly colored recycled fertilizer or sugar bags also provided a punch of color in isolated locations of the shed.  A small but steady trickle of pearl white milled rice provided .some contrast

Making Some Equipment Adjustments
There was a very pleasant faint smell of grain wafting throughout the work shed.  It was somewhat reminiscent of baked bread but without the alcohol accents of real baking bread.

Checking Out The Milling Process
Just as you should not touch items in a museum, I was reticent to touch the equipment lest I disturb the rich patina of spider webs and dust.  However I was not shy to plunge my hand into the bucket of freshly milled rice.  The texture of thousands of grains of rice pressing against my skin was just as you would expect.  But for me there was a surprise, the rice was warm; warm from the friction of travelling through and being milled in the machine.

Bagging the Finished Product
Miller time in Isaan had proved to be a most pleasant way to pass the morning.  Besides being pleasant it was also extremely informative.  As happens throughout Southeast Asia when you take the time to get closer to the people and their life, you learn that there are so many ways to live and to live happily.  The people are very adept at making do with what they have and prove that you do not have to have a great deal to get by.  they are also very good at solving their own problems either through their ingenuity or cooperation with each other.

As a Westerner, you realize that you do not need all that you would like to have or even think that you need.  Sure the equipment is old, very old but it does the job.  Newer equipment would look better but at what cost to the people who use the miller's service?  Currently his fee is 20% of the finished product.  If he milled 50 bags of finished rice for you, he would keep 10 bags and return 40 to you.  He currently has 500 bags of his own in storage and will some to a broker in Udonthani to obtain some cash.

Thanksgiving 2012

Today is Thanksgiving here in Thailand; a day like every other day here.

Thailand does not celebrate or recognize this holiday.

However people do not need any government sanctioning of any specific day to reflect upon, give thanks, and to rejoice for all that is good in their life.

Yes, today is a day like any other day for me here in Isaan. Every day I contemplate, give thanks, and rejoice for all that is good in my life. But it is on American Thanksgiving that I celebrate, share, and communicate it with people other than my wife.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.

Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather together to feast and celebrate the blessings of the past year. I believe that I am an optimist so a day of rejoicing and celebrating the good in life is not difficult. Some years are not as bountiful as others. Some years are more challenging than others. However Thanksgiving Day is a day to be thankful for what we have and not what we wished that we had or to focus on what we do not have. If for no other reason, being alive is reason to give thanks on Thanksgiving. With life there is hope; hope for a better tomorrow or some day after.

This Thanksgiving I am am thankful for so many things that I have. As much as I am thankful for what I have, I am thankful for the many blessings that I have had and some that I no longer can enjoy.

As much as what we have today brings us joy and contentment, it was yesterday and our past that have brought us to today. It is our past that has prepared us for today and for all the days to come.

Today, as for all days, I am thankful for the love, experiences, and guidance that I have received from family and friends who are no longer in this world. They have passed on and I can no longer enjoy their presence. They affected my life in ways that are impossible to quantify or for me to express into words. Shared experiences with them taught me and assisted me in developing my personal values. The memories of shared holidays, vacations, celebrations, and ordinary days with them remain both a comfort as well as inspiration. The gifts of family, companionship and friendship are reason enough to give thanks today as well as every day. I do not consider myself to be unique in this blessing.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country and time where, at that time, excellent quality free public education was available to everyone. A quality free education is a blessing to be thankful for. Even today in many parts of the world, children do not have access to free quality education.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country where I was free to fail and much more importantly free to succeed to the extent that I, myself, determine. My position and goals in life were not restricted by anyone or any institution. My parent's education, occupation, economic, or social status did not limit my prospects. Today, this is not true for many people even in some Western countries.

I am most thankful for the way that my parents raised me. Too often today, people blame their problems on their parents. They blame their current behavior on their parents. Blaming their parents, to them. absolves them of their individual responsibility and accountability for their own actions. I know that my parents did their very best in raising their family based upon what they knew and could at the time. Should we expect any less or demand anything more? I suspect that most parents do the same.

I was taught manners. Manners and etiquette allow individuals to function, interact and thrive in a society with minimal conflict. Manners and etiquette help to define our value and standing as an individual and to our society. The manners and etiquette that I learned as a child have allowed me to integrate into different cultures easily where I have worked and lived. While these may not be a blessing, they are things that I am thankful for.

I was taught that I was not special. I am not certain how well I learned that lesson. I suspect that most people have not completely learned that lesson well. However I learned to not expect or demand special privileges or preferential treatment. I expect to be treated the same as any other person. An off shoot of this lesson that I was taught throughout my youth was the realization that as an individual I had certain responsibilities to the group. I have the responsibility to not demand that the group conform solely to appease my wishes, practices, comfort level, or beliefs. I just want the freedom to be me and for you to have the freedom to be you. I do not necessarily have to conform but that choice is mine to make and I should be prepared for and accept the consequences.

I was taught that I could have anything that I wanted; as long as I first had the money to pay for it. I was taught and more importantly demonstrated each day. I was taught that anything worth having was worth working for. I was also taught that I wanted something bad enough I would work for it. If I was not willing to work for something, I did not need it. The gift of financial responsibility awareness has been a blessing in the past and hopefully will continue to pay dividends.

Today I am also thankful for my families and friends that are part of my daily life.
I am also content.
More and better possessions will not necessarily make me or anyone else happy or content. Happiness and contentment are a state of mind.
It is the longing and preoccupation with what they do not have that prevents so many people from being happy.
I am thankful that I am satisfied with what I have.
I am thankful that I am confident that I can have anything that I want if I am willing to wait and work for it.
I am thankful that I know that I do not need everything that I don't have or many of the things that I want.
These are trying times in the world today. The economic conditions are serious and intimidating. It is very easy to become overwhelmed about what negative things could happen.
I suspect that, especially in America, people are concerned and preoccupied with what the government can or will do to make things better for them - to solve their problems. Creating and giving away money will be no more of a solution or cure than putting a band aid on a cancerous tumor. It may be aesthetically better for awhile but the problem remains and only worsens.
Expecting others to do things for you and to solve your problems is to set your expectations too high - Who says that they will? What makes you think they want to? What makes you think that they can?
I am thankful that I am confident and convinced that I have the power and ability to solve my problems.
One purpose in this blog is to share with the readers how people in other parts of the world live. They are happy and content. They live very differently than people in the western world. Between how we previously lived in America and the way that they currently live, there is a great deal of latitude to be happy.
I am living a life in that zone and I am happy.
Getting to this point in my life has not been an individual achievement. Many people have influenced and contributed to my evolution to this point.
I am grateful and thankful to all who have taught, influenced, touched, trained and showed me how to be the person that I am today - especially my Mom and Dad.
In my travels, I have learned that in Islam, the religion of submission to God and not to man, Muslims do not pray to God for favors for to do so would be to question God's will and who are we to question God's will? I believe that Thanksgiving is a holiday when God is given his due, and not questioned for what he has given or not given to us; a day when we travel along the correct path if but for a short time.
My wish for everyone this holiday season is that you too can realize and appreciate the happiness that the opportunities of life provide.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Morning In Isaan

Rice Drying Out In The Morning Sun
 Monday morning Duang asked me to take her back out to her home village for the second day in a row.  She is working with her cousin to make new slip covers for our patio furniture and the task is taking longer than she expected.  I suspected that she knew that I would be less than enthusiastic to make the trip because she told me to bring my camera because we could visit our grandson at his school in Kumphawapi.  Her strategy was very effective - we left early in the morning, I carried my cameras and wore a smile on my face.

Pre-Schoolers (3 and 4 year olds)  Line Up for Start of the Morning Classes
We arrived at Peelawat's school just in time for the start of the day at 8:30 A.M.  The school is a large public school in Kumphawapi.  There are 1,400 students ranging in age from 3 (pre-school) to 15 (ninth grade).  Since it was a clear day, all students congregated and eventually assembled in the central courtyard.

The central courtyard was a concrete paved area dotted with trees, concrete benches, with several sections that had flowers and ornamental plants.  Portions of the paved area were set up with posts where badminton, volleyball, and takraw could be played.  There were also several stalls where students could buy food, drinks, and ice cream.  Our grandson, Peelawat, always asks for 5 Baht ($0.15 USD) to take to school to buy food.  The school provides milk free of charge to the pre-schoolers.

The school has a band comprised of bass drum, snare drums, xylophones, along with mouth organs (small plastic keyboards powered by blowing air into them through a plastic tube).  At the appointed time the band marched into place and there was a flag raising ceremony.  All the students sang the Thai National Anthem.  Afterwards there was a Buddhist prayer.  Thailand is 97% Buddhist and Buddhism is actually the state religion.  However the country is tolerant of other religions.  I have visited mosques in Bangkok, and attended Christian ceremonies here in Isaan.  I have also seen Mormon Missionaries here in Udonthani.

Pre-School Students and Classroom, Kumphawapi - No Furniture to Get Hurt On

Pre-Schooler's Bookbags

At the conclusion of the prayer the little children walked off to class with their teachers.  The older children seated on the concrete by individual classes, did some warm up type exercises for arms, hands, fingers and shoulders.  The school Principal; then addressed the student body.  He started slowly and gently about having the older students look out for and after the young students. he then built up to saying that too many students were not brushing their teeth and not washing their hands after lunch.  he built up to a crescendo about four "Naughty" boys had to go see him after the assembly along with their teachers as well as parents - apparently. according to Duang, the boys had been caught with video games at school.  The Principal was definitely not happy.

On our way back to the truck, I saw one of the teachers inspecting his students one by one.  Most students passed inspection and were given a nod as they passed.  Some students were subjected to a closer inspection, some passed and some others were told  something and received a swat across their backside.  Each teacher carried a one meter long and about 12mm diameter bamboo rod - something like the pointers that some teachers used for the blackboard when I went to school.  However here in Isaan the "pointer" was more versatile.  For the pre-schoolers it was used to help position the students where they needed to be.  For the older students it was used to strike them when they misbehaved or to humiliate them for infractions.  Yes, there is still striking of students, corporal punishment, in schools - at least here in Isaan.  The striking that I saw would no way near come close to causing injury or even pain but was humiliating for sure.  Personally I find that a little humiliation is a small price, especially a cost that be easily avoided, to learn that there are consequences to our actions or lack of action.

We stopped by Peelawat's classroom to see what it was like.  It was very clean and well organized.  It did not have any furniture for the students.  The students sat on the floor to learn their lessons.  This is just like most of their their homes - no tables, chairs of desks.  Outside of the classroom there was a rack where all the students had placed their shoes before entering the classroom.  On one wall of the classroom student's book bags were neatly hung.  The bags are used to transport their homework assignments to and from school.  Homework?  Yes, even at 3 years old, students have homework.

We spoke with Peelawat's teacher to determine how he is doing in class.  We knew that he was a good boy and behaved well.  However he is also very shy so there was some concern that he might not be learning as much as he could by not fully participating.  His teacher assured us that he was doing fine.  She informed this as she was multi-tasking.  Three and four year olds at the pre-school are toilet trained but for some boys, zippers and buttons remain a challenge.  A little boy had gone to the bathroom but was returning to the classroom with his shorts unzipped, unbuttoned and on the verge of falling to his knees.  With some help, actually she did it all, he was squared away at the classroom doorway and happily rejoined his classmates.

I Can Get By  - With A Little Help from My Teacher
From the school we drove out to Tahsang Village.  A relative wanted me to take a photograph of her second grand-daughter.  I had taken a photograph of her first grand-daughter, Kwan, and given her an 8 x 10 print, so she wanted one of her other grandchild.  No problem - I don't mind keeping my models happy.

The relatives, who live across the street, more aptly "wide sidewalk" from the "Inside" Wat were busy.  I pulled in to the Wat to park and was greeted by smiling, laughing, and exuberant relatives.  Were they happy to see their falang relative?  Perhaps.  Were they happy because although it was 10:00 A.M. they had been drinking "Lao Lao" (whiskey - a sort of moonshine)?  More likely!

Rice Drying In the Morning Sun at the "Inside" Wat, Tahsang Village
The men and some of the women were busy with the rice harvest. They had spread the ubiquitous blue netting on the ground at the Wat across the street to dry in the sun.  Much of the rice had already been collected and bagged prior to our arrival.  The men were loading the filled bags on to a wagon that would be pulled by a lowt thai lek across the street to their home.

Gentleman, Start Your Engine!
The guys started to tease me about taking photographs and not helping them to load up the wagon with the 50 kg bags.  I told them that I was a foreigner and that I could not work; the police would take me to jail.  As a condition of my Visa to stay in Thailand, I am not allowed to work in Thailand. Although true, everyone in the family also knows that it is my favorite excuse for not performing manual labor under the hot glaring sun.  the men were all in a great mood and kept up teasing until I finally gave in.  Just prior to giving in I saw a partially filled bag amongst the stack.  It was about 10 kg.  I went over and picked it up with one hand in such a fashion as to convey "So what is the big deal about loading up the wagon?"   The guys immediately caught on and pointed out that I needed to do a full bag.  I obliged and hoisted a 50kg bag on to my shoulder, walked over to the wagon, and placed it on top of the stack.  After overcoming the initial shock that I did, or perhaps that I could do it, the men all decided that it was time to go across the street for another drink - including me.  Since I was driving and you can not count on other people to follow the driving laws let alone staying out of your way when you may be driving impaired, I declined the Lao Lao and settled for a glass of Pepsi.

Filling the Family Granary

We crossed the street followed shortly by the filled wagon of rice sacks.  As happens in every family, there was one man who was not fully, if at all, to the physical labor.  Everyone was r
teasing him about it.  Strangely enough, when I started taking photographs of the other men working, he decided to help.  Well in all the activity that was going on, I did not get a shot of the one bag that he off loaded.  I told everyone that my camera was not fast enough to catch him working and that I needed my movie camera which was at home. Duang translated and every one roared with laughter.  I guess that it was a pretty good joke because I was offered whiskey once again which I declined.  The man subject to all our joking was sitting down and complaining ( I suspect jokingly) about hurting his shoulder.  I asked where and he pointed it out.  I drew closer to him and blew on it three times like I do when our grandson shows me his injuries.  This is similar to what some Monks do in a healing ritual.  I also gave him a little massage and told him that he was OK now to go back to work.  There was more laughter, and offers to drink whiskey.  He did do another bag and I did get his photograph.

With His Pakama Wrapped Around His Waist, A Villager Hauls A Sack of Rice
The sacks were carried from the wagon to the family granary - an elevated composite structure of wood and corrugated metal.  In the countryside of Isaan, you will see these structures at almost every Lao Loum home.  The year long supply of rice for the family and the seeds for next year's rice crop are stored in them.  I noticed some holes in this one and asked if they were going to fatten up some rats for Duang's mother to cook.  Last week she cooked a rat and offered Duang to eat some.  Duang refused.  I double checked to ensure that I understood correctly.  According to Duang people do not eat "small rats" (I am assuming she means mice) but they eat "big rat like chicken, big rat eat sugar cane" which sounds like your typical rats running around rice paddies, cane fields, and granaries.  Every one had another good laugh.

Another Sack, All In A Morning's Work

Milling Rice In the Morning At Tahsang Village
The morning was getting on but I wanted to show Duang the miller that I had visited earlier in the morning.  While Duang was paying her respects to her mother an father, I had wandered around the village to see what was going on.  It was so quiet because all the children 3 years and older were off at school, that I could hear the sound of some  machines.  I had a good idea what it was and followed the sounds to the backyard of the villager who mills rice.  This will be the subject of an upcoming blog, "Miller Time ...  In Isaan".  I had photographed a couple of years ago and earlier in the morning.  I had left to get more of my gear but had been delayed getting back to him because of the family next to the Wat.  The miller had finished his work, but I got to take more shots of the equipment while Duang talked to him - there is always something to talk about with just about anyone or everyone here in Isaan.

Scavenging For Scrap Metal
Duang was concerned about me getting too tired from the past two days of photography in the hot weather and admonished me to not stop on the way home.  I told her that I would listen - "a little bit".
Although I did not plan on stopping along the way, circumstances did not cooperate.  Once again opportunity presented itself to my curiosity.

Just outside of Kumphawapi is a sugar refinery.  Across the road from the refinery is a large vacant piece of land where the solid waste from the sugar refining process is dumped.  The waste is a very black sandy type organic soil that farmers use to fertilize their fields.  The waste is very smelly - an almost sickening sweet pungent odor; so smelly that Duang and I refer to it as "kee oi" (sugar shit).  Several times as we have passed the area, there have been many people going over the piles of waste.  I asked Duang why as well what they were doing.  She told me that they were looking for mushrooms.  Well this time there must have been 4 times the number of people that I have ever seen on the piles.  The sugar harvest is just barely getting started so the piles were not all that big.  By the end of the season the pile will be about 8 meters high and at least 200 meters by 200 meters.

I pulled over to the side of the dirt road perimeter of the area and parked amongst the somlaws, motorbikes, and pick up trucks.  I quickly determined that the people were not looking for mushrooms but were picking scrap metal out of the piles.  The piles this day were not just sugar refining waste but included concrete debris, industrial debris, rubber machine belts, bamboo, plastic sheeting and garbage - s if an industrial plant was being demolished and dumped on the field.  Despite the sugar shit odor there was also the smells of cow dung and palaa (at least 6 month old fermented fish) - not all that pleasant an environment to photograph in but it was new and different to me.  The people were friendly and I asked if they had found any gold and communicated to them with pantomime and my limited vocabulary that I wanted to find some gold.  We all shared a laugh, most likely at my expense, but it is such a small price to be able to photograph a part of other people's lives.

In the USA, there are special days when people are encouraged to bring their children to work.  I always smile at that concept for here in Southeast Asia everyday is bring your child to work day if not have your child work with you.  Small children are brought out to the cane fields, rice paddies, and on this morning out to the dump.  There was one little boy who was neither amused or pleased with my presence.  He was around a year and one-half.  He at first cried when he saw me but after being consoled by his mother just kept a weary stare at me for the entire time that i was there.  Luckily I had a longer lens on one of my cameras so as they say here it was "Good for me, good for him".  I was able to get my photographs without getting closer to him.

A Nice Drink of Water In the Morning

As Their Son Keeps His Eyes On Me. A Family Looks For Scrap Metal
It had been quite an interesting morning here in Isaan and as I drove back to our home listening to the ethnic Lao music I could not help but reflect upon what I had seen as well as experienced.  For Americans, tomorrow is Thanksgiving a day when people gather to give thanks for their blessings.  It has always been one of my favorite holidays, not necessarily for all the wonderful food and drink, but the realization of the things that matter in your life.  Although we do not celebrate it in our home here in Isaan, I am thankful on Thanksgiving and every other day for the blessings that I have received past, present, and anticipated in the future.  One of the blessings being "A Morning In Isaan" and another - still being excited by as well as interested in the life around me.