Sunday, July 21, 2013

Road of Opportunity, Plenty of Opportunity

Three Lao Loum Farmers Heading To the Fields
Back in March, I wrote of a very interesting road, "A Road Less Traveled, A Path Often Not Taken" that we discovered on one of our excursions out to the Ban Chiang area.  When we drove along the dusty red road in March, the surrounding countryside was parched and largely abandoned.  Even then the photographic opportunities of the area were very evident.  We decided then that we would return to the area later this year during rice planting season.

Rice planting season is now in full force here in Isaan.  The rains returned in May and now we typically have some rain just about everyday.  Thundershowers often bring up to 30 minutes of intense localised precipitation.  The rains in May allowed the rice seeds to be broadcast over prepared flooded paddies.  The continuing rains kept the paddies flooded and allowed the seeds to germinate to create a rich bright yellow-green carpet over the Isaan countryside.  Now that it is July, the thick green carpets are being separated and the plants transplanted into other prepared flooded rice paddies.  The continuing monsoonal rains will nourish the developing rice until October when it will be time to harvest the new crop.

Yesterday was a good day to head back out to drive along that road less traveled and the path often not taken.  Although it was not a bright and sunny morning, it was a morning that seemed to promise no immediate possibility of precipitation let alone heavy rains. The overcast sky would also allow me to take the type of photographs of the planting activities that I had photographed previously.  The heavy overcast and cloudy sky created the soft light that clear, bright and sunny skies do not - especially late morning and at mid-day.  The growing rice plants and flooded fields are extremely reflective so soft light, in my opinion, is desirable. We set off around 8:00 A.M. for Ban Nong Han where we knew that the road ended.

We got to Ban Nong Han without any difficulty but quickly became confused - some would say lost.  We stopped several times and got directions.  Duang was responsible for getting directions because the people that we encountered or would encounter did not speak English.  After a while, Duang was hungry because she had not eaten breakfast back at our home.  We stopped at a very small village alongside one of the country roads that we had managed to get confused on.  We found a small market where the elderly woman also cooked noodle soup (Queteao).  I sat at the small concrete picnic table drinking an ice tea while Duang ate her bowl of noodle soup.  Very shortly I heard young voices saying words along the line of "There is a falang (foreigner) here"  Shortly afterwards, 6 young children arrived to look at me.  It was amusing to see them checking me out.  From an elderly man, we learned that the children had never seen a foreigner before.  I guess we were more than confused - we had to be LOST if we were somewhere were children had never seen a falang before!  I spoke with the children but they were very shy.  Unlike the children in the film, "ET", I was not offered any Reese's Bits or any Isaan equivalent treat.  While Duang continued to eat her meal, I saw several children come from the interior of the village to drive past me on their bicycles, eyes transfixed upon me the entire time.  This did not bother me in the least for they were just interested in someone they had never seen before - pretty much what I do so often with my camera.  They were just taking advantage of an opportunity to expand their world just a little bit.

With a new set of directions, we set off to find the road less traveled.  Perhaps it is less traveled because no one can find it?  We found a interesting narrow red dirt road that was headed off in what we believed was the right direction.  For quite awhile it appeared to be the road that we were looking for.  However, this road did not have any mango orchards that the road back in March had.  It turned out to be a different road but not a bad road.  The new road was very interesting.  There was no traffic on it.  It had no signs.  It was partially eroded by heavy rains, in fact in some places water from the higher land alongside of the road was pouring onto the road creating large puddles.

We found people planting rice in the paddies along the roadside.  I would get out of the truck and say hello to the people as I started to take photographs.  I was always closely followed by Duang who would explain to the people what I was up to.  She would then start talking to the people - finding out just as much about them as she was telling them about us.  That is the way it is out here in Isaan - people are very friendly and you are one of their own, you are like family.  As I walked about, bent down, and sometimes even squatted to photograph the planting activities, the air was filled with the sounds of Duang and the farmers talking.

After we had been there awhile a family of the farmers headed back to their home to eat.  Their home was like many of the homes that we see along the back roads of Isaan amongst the rice paddies.  These are not the primary homes of the people.  Unlike the rich American people of the early 20th century who had "summer homes" in exclusive communities along the beaches or in the mountains or even many Americans today who have a vacation home, hunting camp or fishing camp. the people of Isaan have a primitive home for work.  The small raised one room structures are where the family stays during the intense work periods associated with cultivating rice - planting and harvesting seasons.

Lao Loum Family Eating A Meal In Their "Work" Home

We stopped at the family's work home and socialized with them while they ate their meal.  Naturally we were offered to join them but we respectively declined having only recently eaten ourselves. I learned quite a bit from this family thanks to Duang's efforts.  I thought that the two older adults were the parents of two young children, three and four year old sisters.  I was wrong.  The two adults were actually the grandparents of the two girls.  It turned out that the young woman that I thought was the 18 year old sister of the young children was actually their mother.  The husband and father was away working.  He was far away working - working in Israel.  This is not all that uncommon.  Many Thai men and some Thai women go off to work in Israel, Taiwan, or Korea.  They can make two to three times their Thai earnings a month in those far away lands.  An aunt of the little girls was a widow.  She asked me to find her a foreign husband.  This is also not uncommon here in Isaan.  I have been asked by at least 95 Thai women to find or better yet bring them a falang husband.

The family had been staying in the partially sided house for four weeks and expect to stay there another two weeks until the planting is completed.  They will return in October for the labor intensive manual harvest of the rice crop.

Three Year Old and Four Year Old Sisters Ready to Return to the Rice Paddies
As they prepared to return to the paddies, Duang and I drove ahead back to where we first encountered them.  Duang recommenced her conversations with the workers - I suspect right from where they had left off.  Feeling more comfortable with the location, I set off to be more adventuresome in my photography efforts.  I left the relative comfort and safety of the roadside to walk atop the rice paddy berms, raised dirt mounds that create the containment for the paddy water.  These dirt mounds offer some challenges as well as opportunities.  They are either covered with a thick mat of weeds or are freshly created with a clumps of what was recently moist dirt.  There are opportunities to slip and slide off into the water on either side of the raised berm.  I know that I could personally cope with falling into the mud but I am fearful of the problems that would be created for the camera gear that I carry.  The heavy weed mat also provides opportunities to twist an ankle or perhaps to break a leg.  The weeds often camouflage holes or uneven surfaces of the berm.  I also am very attentive when walking along the weed covered dikes to ensure that I do not have an opportunity to be bitten by a snake.  There are Cobras and other poisonous snakes in Isaan.  Fortunately either due to my diligence, luck, or the actual scarcity of snakes, I have not seen a live snake other than in a show.

Worker's Quarters In Rubber Plantation
After taking some more photos, we continued along the red dirt road.  We came upon a rubber plantation - another opportunity to take some landscape photographs.  I got out of the truck to explore a lit bit of the plantation.  Further down the road a couple of dogs came partly up the road to my location, barking and let me know that they had their eyes on me.  For some reason I do not find the dogs in Thailand anyway as threatening or intimidating than American dogs.  I ignored the dogs and soon they ignored me, returning to their original locations.

The rubber plantation was an interesting combination of textures, shadows, and colors.  I first encountered rubber plantation 13 years ago in Malaysia.  This plantation was much smaller and younger but just as fascinating.

After a while I was joined by a small herd of what originally believed to be "guard cattle".  Several cows and calves approached me and the crossed the road.  About five minutes later an old hunched over man approached from the original direction of the cattle.  He was the herd tender.  I pointed to the direction where the cattle headed and told him "cattle" in Thai.  He nodded and headed off in the same direction.

Follow Those Cows!
Eventually and after several false turns we found the dirt road that we were seeking.  The road split a market area in two.  The road appeared to be a path to a parking area for the various stalls rather than a way back to Ban Nong Han.  I was very pleased and Duang, my reluctant navigator and guide, was very much relieved to be once again on the right path.

The road was more damaged from water than the road that we had discovered that morning.  Along the road we saw plots of corn, rice paddies, mango orchards, rubber plantations, cassava plots, and banana trees.  Although there was no traffic on the road, there was plenty of opportunities for work along its sides.

Where we had seen a parched and rather desolate countryside in March, yesterday the worker's huts were now all occupied and in many instances repaired.  The countryside was a brilliant and vibrant green.  We no longer left a large and long red dust cloud as we drove along the road.

There were several locations where people were busy planting rice.  At one of the locations I pulled over to the side of the road as much as I could without getting the truck stuck in either a ditch or in the mud.  A man and a women were planting rice in separate enjoining rice paddies.

Water Spews from Farmer's Hands As He Plants Rice

I walked out and along a set of berms to where the woman was planting rice.  A fairly large tree grew out of the berm so I walked up to it in order to lean against it to further steady my camera.  As my hand approached the tree, I noticed the the bark was a busy highway, heavy in both directions, with large red ants some that were carrying large pieces of vegetation.  In a flash I realized what they were - weaver ants.  Weaver ants are the creators of "kie mot si daeng" (red ant eggs) that many Lao Loum people enjoy eating.  I had encountered them before and it was not pleasant - I had stepped on one of their trails and my feet were instantly swarmed with biting ants.  The bite of the weaver ant is initially similar to that of a fire ant but does not contain the enzymes of the fire ant that dissolves proteins, causes welts, causes burning, causes scars and can cause death.  The weaver ant bite is just a mechanical bite.  I looked at my feet and just like before they were getting swarmed by red ants.  I hastily got away from the tree and commenced to frantically brush the ants off of my shoes along with the few that had started to climb up my trouser legs.  I had no difficulty brushing them off and despite my fears none had bitten me.  After several repetitions of inspecting and brushing off of ants, I seemed to have gotten rid of the ants.  Then I started getting a tingle up my leg.  Since I am not a President Obama I knew that tingle could only mean a red ant.  I rushed across the berms and across the road to get to the far side of our pickup truck. After hearing me shout to her as I hustled across the berms. Duang arrived at the far side of the truck just as I arrived as I ... dropped my pants to the ground.   She quickly found and destroyed the two ants who were climbing up my legs.  We all enjoyed the opportunity to have a good laugh!

Women Planting Rice with the Infamous Tree in the Background
Further down the road we encountered a woman harvesting rice plants for transplantation in another paddy.  It was too good of a photo opportunity to pass up.  Besides it was also a great opportunity for Duang to pass some time speaking Lao to a farmer!  I am truly fortunate to have a wife who indulges my passion so well.

A Farmer Harvests Rice Plants for Transplantation

Excess Water Drains from Bunch of Rice Plants

Farmer Shakes Water from Rice Plants

After photographing the woman, we drove down the road further where we found a newly constructed rice mill operating.  This was not a mill were 18 wheelers delivered raw rice and transported finished sacks of rice away.  This mill was a village mill run by one man with help from his assistant.  It was at this plant that neighbors delivered sacks of rice from their small holdings to have the husks removed from the grain so that it could be consumed by the family.  The rice was transported to and from the mill on the back of motorbikes, on hand carts, or hand carts attached to motorbikes.

Fellow Travelers On the Road of Opportunity
Our excursion along the dirt back roads of Isaan ended as we got back to Ban Nong Han.  It had been a rewarding and entertaining day along the roads of opportunity.  There had been many opportunities to take photographs but more importantly we had seen many opportunities for the residents; opportunities to make a living. opportunities for work - plenty of opportunitis to work.

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