Friday, April 19, 2013

Ban Nai Soi - Soybean Workers

Soybean Worker Carrying Bamboo Ties
As we drove north on Highway 1285 towards Ban Huai Phueng in search of more garlic workers after our first visit to the garlic fields, we came upon one more group of field hands.  I parked alongside of the road and walked down a trail to get where the people were toiling under the hot and bright sun.  If their labor were not difficult enough with the sun and heat, the sky, as is typical this time of year in Maehongson, was filled with a smoky haze.  Mae Hong Son province is very hilly and covered with large forests.  During the dry season, especially at the end of the season in April, Hill Tribe people burn the hillsides as part of their slash and burn agricultural technique.  In addition to the people set fires there seem to be many naturally caused fires.  The burning forests fill the sky with smoke, with the heaviest smoke often settling into the many valleys of the province.  Sometimes the smoke is so heavy that flight operations at the Mae Hong Son (Maehongson) Airport.

There are many fires burning unattended and without any effort to stop them.  At this time, it is necessary to put the fires into a proper perspective.  My wife often tells me "Thailand not like America"  Well in the case of forest fires; forest fires in Thailand not like forest fires in America.  There is a story about the famous American environmentalist, John Muir, encountering a forest fire in the Sierras in the early 20th century.  When the fire approached him, he got up and stepped over it.  A similar situation exists in the forests of Mae Hong Son Province - not that I would try or even recommend trying to step over them.  The trees here drop their leaves due to heat and the lack of water.  Many of the trees are teak which drop very large leaves approximately 18 inches (46 cm) in diameter.  Without fire the forest floor would quickly be covered to knee depth with debris.  If a fire were to occur with knee deep debris, the living standing trees would most certainly become involved in the fire - just as happens every year in Western USA where fire have been suppressed for over 50 years or more.  Here in Thailand with just about yearly fires, the forest floor is kept relatively clean.  The fires burn through an area quickly and relatively cool due to the lack of fuel, more accurately kindling.

Everyday that we drove along Highway 1095 we encountered many areas that were burning sometimes at the edge of the highway. Only a couple times did we see a smoldering tree laying on the ground.  Most of the time we saw burning leaves and weeds. Besides greatly reducing the risk of major forest fires, the fires benefit the environment by returning organic material (carbon and minerals) to the soil and also keep insects under control.

We left Maehongson at 4:00 A.M. and drove a major portion of Highway 1095 in the dark.  At one point I was confused.  In the middle of no where, I was trying to figure out what large village we were approaching. As we got closer and the road turned to give a better perspective, I realized that I was looking at an undulating fire line crossing across several hillsides.  Although the line of fire was very long, the fire was burning slowly and appeared to be no more than 18 inches high.

Women Gathering Up Soybean Plants
It is under these smoke filled skies, that the people of Maw Hong Son live and work year after year.  The second group of workers that we encountered along Highway 1285 were not garlic workers.  They were people harvesting soybeans.  The sun dried soybean plants were being gathered and bundled together using narrow strips of bamboo.

A Worker Carrying Soybean Bundles to A Pick Up Truck
A man would suspend the bundles on each end of a long bamboo pole carried on his shoulder and carry them across the parched fields to a pick up truck parked alongside of the hut where the workers eat. Just as with the previous garlic workers, these soybean workers were just as kind, hospitable, and amused.  I was immediately offered and accepted a drink of water from them.  Duang and I arrived just before lunch so we went with the workers to their rest hut which was located at the end of the fields and adjacent to the flowing stream that runs along the length of the valley.

As the workers relaxed and ate their meal, I stood around and talked to them through Duang.  Without any warning one of the men reached out and gently touched the hair on my forearm - something that has happened many times to me while in Southeast Asia.  I have a great deal of body hair which my wife refers to as "Koh Ling" (Monkey Hair).  Men in Southeast Asia do not have much body hair so in addition to standing out as a foreigner, my hairiness sets me apart from others.  Rather than get upset about people touching me, I make a joke of it all - putting my hand out and asking for 20 Baht ($0.60).  The people are typically shocked and when they realize that I am only joking - we share a good laugh.  I have found that if you are willing to laugh at yourself you will always find someone to laugh with you.  With your guard down and demonstrating that you are approachable, the fun usually begins.

Women Shelling Soybeans Next to Rest Hut
Some of the women had set up next to the hut and were removing soybeans from the dried pods.  One of the women gave me some to eat.  I moved around to take their photographs.  As I was standing taking some photos, the man who appeared to be the big boss was talking loudly to someone.  I continued to shoot when I realized that he was talking to me.  I looked at him to see what the problem was.  Between his pantomime and motions of the women next to me I realized that I was standing on some of the soybean plants.  I was so embarrassed and apologized   I went over to him and offered my forearm and told him that he could have TWO touches for FREE,  He laughed like crazy telling Duang that he was just joking.  He took his two free touches and indicated to Duang that I was a pretty hairy guy.  I pulled my shirt down a little to expose part of my hairy chest to him.  He seemed impressed and laughed. Through Duang I told him that I had a lot more hair but that I was not going to show it even if he paid me.  We all shared a great laugh.

We spent about an hour and one-half with the soybean workers.  Asking and answering questions about each other's life.

We found no other workers that day, and headed back to Mae Hong Son.

We had an objective and were pleased to have attained it.  The key had been making our own decision with input from others.  Our willingness to take a chance to seek out workers and to engage them were paramount to achieving our objective.

Once again our photography efforts were a sort of allegory for life.  One needs an objective to develop a plan to achieve that objective.  Having and embracing a desire to explore the world about you presents opportunities for you to enrich your life and the life of those that you come upon.  As much as we may be tempted to live in fear; mindlessly in fear despite what the actual risks may be, life is so much more enjoyable when lived to its fullest extent.

Toiling In the Fields of Ban Nai Soi

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