Saturday, August 17, 2013

All Along the Back Roads

Harvesting Peanuts In Isaan

These are busy times along the back roads of Isaan.  The monsoon rains have transformed the countryside. The rice paddies are verdant rectangular patches dotting the land.  Farmers are still engaged in transplanting rice stalks from the nursery paddies to the paddies where the plants will mature and give rice kernels for harvesting in October.

Crop rotation is practiced here in Isaan and is a necessity due to poor soil conditions and lack of money for fertilizers or soil amendments. Dependent upon the time of cycle, the same piece of land is used to raise rice, cassava, sugar cane, and peanuts.

The sugar cane has undergone a rapid growth spurt due to the almost daily rains and is now as high as an elephant's eye.  The cane will continue to mature until December when the annual sugar cane harvest will commence.  In anticipation and in preparation for the upcoming harvest, the Kumphawapi Sugar Company is expanding and improving their truck staging area.  Three years ago the area where loaded sugar cane trucks waited their turn to enter the refinery to be offloaded was a large dusty field with huge billows of choking red dust rising from the winds or passage of trucks.  That area has now been paved over with concrete and surrounded with grass covered earthen berms to contain any run off as well as to restrict traffic.

Just down the road from the refinery entrance, the company is busy preparing the land to receive the huge amounts of organic waste from the sugar extraction process.  The sickening sweet smelling black waste material is sold to local farmers who spread it on their land in an attempt to improve the soil.

Cassava plants have also experienced a rapid growth.  Large trucks filled with cassava tubers are starting to travel along the back roads transporting the cassava harvest from the fields or interim gathering points to the processing facilities.

The heavy vehicle traffic from the sugar cane harvest earlier this year and the heavy monsoonal rains of the past four months are starting  to have a deleterious effect on the local roads.  Potholes and alligator-ed pavement are becoming more of a challenge when driving along the country roads.  Typically the roads will remain or get worse until after the next sugar harvest when the roads will be repaired only to be repaired in two or three more years.

Roadside Stand Outside of Tahsang Village
Now is also a time of abundance along the back roads.  Sweet corn is being harvested.  Peanuts are also being harvested.  Many fruits such as mangoes and custard apples are in season.  There are many roadside stands now where farmers sell their corn, fruit, and peanuts.  We stopped at one of the stands and bought mangoes, peanuts, and sweet corn.  Unlike the USA, you buy cooked corn at roadside stands.

Duang Selecting Bag of Peanuts to Buy
In one of the fields along side of the road, a man and woman were harvesting peanuts.  I had not photographed peanut harvesting yet so I found a convenient as well as relatively safe place to park the truck. Duang and I got out of the truck and commenced our cautious walk out to the harvesters.  It was quite a challenge due to the amount of overgrown weeds, the mud, and puddles.  The woman saw us cautiously approaching and yelled out to Duang with directions for the best route out to her location.  We arrived out to the woman without any incident.

Removing Peanuts From the Bush
The woman was seated on a pile of stripped peanut bushes under the makeshift shade of net cloth and two umbrellas - some protection from the hot sun but no relief from the oppressive humidity.  She removed the peanuts from the bushes and placed the peanuts in a plastic bucket placed off to her side.  Her fingertips were caked with mud that adhered to the peanuts as the bushes were pulled from the muddy field.  Like all the other farming activities here in Isaan the work was monotonous and oppressive.  In no time at all sweat was pouring down my forehead into my eyes and I was doing little but taking photographs!

Harvesting Peanuts
Not far from the woman, a man, I assume to be her husband, was pulling peanut bushes out of the soft moist ground.  The bushes came out of the ground with ease.  After he had accumulated several bushes, he walked them over to the woman's location and added them to her pile for processing.

Gathering In the Peanuts
More Peanut Bushes to be Processed
As I have found on my excursions out into the fields of Southeast Asia, the farmers seemed to appreciate the break in their monotony with my interest in photographing them.  I suspect that they find it amusing that a foreigner would be so interested in them that he would risk limb and dignity to go out to where they are working in order to take photographs.

My Mom used to often admonish me with the question "Who do you think that you are, someone special?".  Well, I know that I am not "special".  I don't believe that anyone should consider themselves to be special. However, just about everyone is "interesting" and along the back roads of Isaan there are many of interesting places as well as things and plenty of interesting people.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Isaan Hospital Care

Duang Bathes Her Father In the Hospital
Duang's father was hospitalized on Wednesday and remains there.  He has been in failing health for a while and I hardly recognized him on Monday when I was out at the village for Mothers Day.  He has lost considerable weight and his face now sports sunken cheeks.

On Wednesday he went to see the doctor at the Kumphawapi Hospital.  Duang knew that the hospital would be busy so she ensured that they would arrive relatively early at the hospital.  Apparently the family entourage did not arrive early enough because they were #125 in the queue.  After consultation, x-rays, and other tests, Duang's father was admitted to the hospital.

According to Duang, "Inside of my father no good".  Upon questioning her further to better understand what could be her father's problem, I learned that she has seen an x-ray of his lungs and she said that there were "big white spots that are bigger than before".  Duang's father is also short of breadth which sounds like lung cancer to me.  Why doesn't Duang know the diagnosis and prognosis of her father's health?  This is Thailand.  In general, doctor's communications, especially with the local people, are similar to that in the USA in the 1950s. Similar in that the doctor does not feel obligated to explain and ensure that patient and their family fully understand the situation. One of Duang's fears regarding her personal health issues is that the doctors would not tell her everything or even worse ... lie to her regarding her diagnosis as well as prognosis.

I have written several times about the strong social fabric of Lao Loum culture here in Isaan - the latest being early this week related to Mothers Day.  Another circumstance where strong family bonds and obligations come into practice is when a family member is sick.  Duang is the youngest daughter so she has the burden of ensuring proper care.  Her sister and brothers also help out and other family members also help out.  However it is up to Duang to ensure that her father is physically care for and lacking any help, she has to provide the care.

Physically care for a patient?  In Thai hospitals, not the international hospitals that have many foreigners as patients. but district and small town facilities that service the local population, nurses only provide medical care.  Bathing, cleaning, feeding, and assisting with bodily functions is the responsibility of the patient's family and friends. Hospital wards that I have visited in Isaan are very crowded - besides the closeness of the beds, it seems that just about every patient has two to four visitors attending to them or just socializing.  Outside of the ward, more family members and friends are located in the hallways and balconies awaiting their turn.

A Family from Bangkok Camped Out On the Ward's Balcony
During my visit at the hospital today, I left the ward to sit out on the balcony to provide more space in the ward.  There was a family camped out on the balcony - camped out literally and figuratively.  Through Duang I learned that the family has been living on the balcony for four days.  They took the bus from Bangkok to be with their father/grandfather who is in the same ward as my father-in-law.  The two children do not sleep at the hospital.  They sleep at another family member's home in Kumphawapi but the adults sleep outside on the balcony to ensure that care is available to the patient and to ensure that the patient does not die alone.

In the pediatric wards, the child patient typically has a mother or father sleeping with them in the hospital bed and often a grandmother sleeping on a saht (woven reed mat) underneath the hospital bed.

Typical Kumphawapi Hospital Adult Ward
Besides the beds in the ward, there were also beds in the outside corridors of the hospital.  Kumphawapi Hospital recently under went a major expansion.  Duang's father is in the old part of the hospital.  Some of the rooms and facilities of the old part of the hospital are being renovated or modified.  This undoubtedly is adding to the congestion at the facility.

Most of the patients were wearing adult diapers.  Stainless steel bedpans were also available for patients who could not use the common bathroom facilities.  I checked out the common bathroom facility and I was impressed with its cleanliness.  I was relieved to see that there were western sit down toilets - I could not imagine being hospitalized and having to use a squat toilet.  The bathroom also had shower cubicles.  Emptying and cleaning bedpans is a responsibility of the patient's family and friends.  The cleaning station was outside of the bathroom area on the balcony where I was sitting.  Duang used the utility sink to wash and rinse the cloths that she used to clean her father.

When I reentered the ward, I met the father/grandfather of the Bangkok family.  He had a distended abdomen that I suspect was due to cancer.  He was on oxygen and told Duang that he was on oxygen because he could not breathe and that he would soon be dead.  This attitude towards one's fate was not unique to this patient.  Duang's father has been saying good bye to family and friends for about two weeks now.  This morning, he told his sister that when he died he wanted her to contact an old friend of his so that the person could sing at his funeral.

Doctor Making His Morning Rounds

Duang was remaining at the hospital for the day, her older brother and sister would stay at night.  Before I returned to our truck to drive back home, Duang and I visited the maternity section of the hospital.  We enjoy visiting the new borns and it is good therapy after dealing with the stress of hospital visits. The maternity ward remains in its original location.  Unlike all previous visits to the ward, the door was closed.  We checked with the adjacent nurses station and were told that visitors were being restricted to protect the new borns from an outbreak of sickness.  The nurses did say that we could visit upstairs where sick babies were located.

We climbed the stairs to visit the ward where our grandson has spent some times for treatment.  There were two babies both five months old were being cared for by their families.  The babies were hooked up to IV bottles.  I stopped and spoke to and consoled each of the babies in Thai.  I am not sure if it was a sense of peace or fear, but both babies seemed to relax and be calmer from my attention.  When it was time to leave, one of the parents asked Duang for me to take care of their child before I left.  Duang asked me and I knew exactly what she meant.  Here in Isaan, Monks will puff air three times (Buddha, the Teachings of Buddha, and the Buddhist religious community) on people's injuries or pains to heal them.  I have also seen an Animist Shaman do the same to our grandson, Peelawat.  I often do the same for Duang's as well as Peelawat's hurts and pains. Tonight I asked Duang why the people asked me to take care of their baby.  She said that the family said that I loved babies and that they wanted me to take care so that the child would get better and be able to leave the hospital tomorrow.  I asked her how they knew that I understood what it meant and could do it.  She had no answer.  Perhaps the only answer is "This is Thailand" .  Many things happen here that can not be explained but can only be accepted for the way they are.

Kumphawapi Hospital, New Addition In Background

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thailand's Mothers Day - 2013

Duang and her older sister pay respects and make offerings to their aunt
Monday, 12 August, was a special day here.  It was one of only about three days without rain here in Isaan since we returned on 5 July.  The day was also a very special day no matter what the weather is or would be - it was the Queen of Thailand's birthday.  Since the Queen of Thailand is considered to be the mother of the Thai people, her birthday is celebrated as "Mothers Day" in Thailand.

Here in Thailand there is a strong sense of family and community.  There are few government programs for the social benefit of the people.  The strong social fabric of the people provides for the needs of the young, invalid, and the elderly.  Two tenants of Buddhism is to care for the young and to care for the elderly.  The first line of care providers is the family; family as in extended family.  Nieces and nephews are expected to care and provide for aunts, uncles, and cousins just as members of the immediate family are expected to.

These expectations are strong and well communicated.  During our visits to the hospital we always see teen aged grandchildren accompanying and assisting a grandparent.  On the few occasions where we have seen an elderly person struggling alone, Duang has expressed sorrow for the person and contempt for the family.  As I looked around the waiting room at the other people I strongly sensed similar emotions from the other people.

Once I read a comment related to these blogs that I write.  The reader was asking that since I write about people who they would consider to be poor, the reader was curious as to how the Thai people differeniated as to who was poor.  My reply went along the lines that the people do not use material possessions as the prime determinator of wealth.  A person with a great deal of money but is not happy, and is not loved, respected and taken care of by their family would be considered to be poor whereas a person with few material possessions but was happy, loved, respected and taken care of by their family would be considered to be well off.

Duang, Duang's daughter, Duang's oldest brother, Duang's older sister, and Duang's nephew pay respect to Duang's mother
There are four national holidays when Thai ppeople are expected to return to their family's home.  The holidays are New Years, Songkran, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day.  Children are expected and under considerable peer pressure to visit their parents to show their respect as well as to honor them.

On Mothers Day, children give offerings of fresh floral arrangements (pumahlai) and cash to their mother and favorite aunts.


Duang's Aunt Accepting the Offerings

There is a specific ritual for making the offerings to mothers on Mothers Day.  A small plate is placed on the raised platform where the mother is seated or on a table in front of the seated mother.  The participants place the offerings in the plate and say things along the lines of "Thank you for everything that you have done for us, the help that you give us and for taking care of us".  After saying this, the participants supplicate in front of the mother.  They then rise up and respectfully offer up the plate to the mother.  The mother raises her hands to the plate in a gesture of acceptance while thanking and telling the participants that she wishes them good luck as well as good fortune.  Part of her blessing includes a reaffirmation of the social compact to care for the very young and to take care of the elderly.

Duang's Aunt Gives Her Blessing

Caring for others is the strong foundation of the culture.  Manners and respect are taught at a very early age. When we go out, I make it a point to visit with the babies and young children that we encounter.  Unlike in the USA where such behavior would be extremely questionable and suspect, here in Isaan the parents are quite flattered.  I am always impressed that the parents, starting with children as young as 9 months old, require their children to show respect to me by performing a wai (placing the hands together in a praying position and bowing the head).

Our grandson is now 4-1/2 years old and is aware of the social compact, when he has candy, he always ensures that he shares it with me.  He also shares his soda with me.  Now we have to work on him to share with his grandmother Duang.  He always wants to go to Ta Allen's house (Grandfather Allen) to eat "kao falang"  (foreign food).  He loves macaroni & cheese, spaghetti, shredded pork for chimichangas, pizza, and new this weekend - levepastej (home made Danish liver paste).  He seems to like any food that I make unlike his uncle Perk, Duang's son, who hates all foreign food.

Duang's son and his wife came to our home in the evening.  They had offerings for Duang and brought me some fresh pineapple from the market.  I had to sit next to Duang on the couch as they paid their respects. Although I pointed out that it was Mothers Day and I was not a mother, Duang said that I was like a father. As Duang accepted their offerings, she was telling them many things in Lao.  When the ritual was completed, I asked Duang what she had told them.  She said that she was wishing them good luck and fortune.  She also reminded them that good luck and fortune would allow them to take care of us when we got older.  Upon hearing that I told Duang to tell them that I was counting on Peelawat to take care of me because he liked and understood "kao falang" (foreign food), if I counted on Perk, I was certain that I would starve.  We all enjoyed a great laugh.

I live in a country of strong traditions, manners, respect, and where people still deal with each other on a one to one basis.  For that I am very content and grateful.  Mothers Day is a special reminder and manifestation of that each year.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Goes In, Eventually Must Come Out

Grandmother Placing Betel Nut In Her Mouth

Most people have undoubtedly heard the adage of "What goes up must come down".  This statement refers to gravity and indicates that whatever is thrown up or placed in an elevated position will eventually succumb to gravity and return to the ground.  Here in Isaan, or for a matter of fact any where, there should be another adage just as valid - "What goes in, eventually must come out."

We all are knowledgeable regarding the consumption of food or feed and how eventually the waste products of digestion are eliminated.  Well here in Isaan there is another biological process or rather habit where what goes in must eventually come out - betel nut chewing or betelnut chewing.

I have written about this tradition a couple of times in this blog:;postID=2045625586301875052;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postname;postID=2702231181177359983;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=1;src=postname

Yesterday, 12 August, was Mother's Day here in Thailand.  Duang and I drove out to Tahsang Village to pay our respects to her mother and one of her aunts.  There always seems to be something interesting for me to photograph so I brought along my camera backpack.

Sure enough there was plenty to photograph - children paying respect to their mothers, children playing, road side produce stands, peanut harvesting, and saht weaving.

 A grandmother and her grand-daughter were set up in the community building(?) of Tahsang Village to weave locally harvested reeds into sahts.  The community building is an open sided corrugated metal structure with a full concrete block wall on one end and three three foot high walls on the remaining perimeter.  There are opening in two of the low walls to allow the passage of people, dogs, chickens, and children in and out of the sheltered area.  The structure is used for village meetings, local as well as national voting, government sponsored instructional programs, Songkran celebrations, occasional marketplace for traveling kitchenware or household goods vendors and most of all as a  play area for children.  It has a roof and a concrete floor so the children frequent the area to play out from the sun and/or rain; besides the low walls are great for climbing on and jumping off.

Yesterday besides being an area where our grandson and other village children were playing, the area was being used by the grandmother and her grand-daughter to weave the ubiquitous Lao Loum floor and ground covering - the saht.

When I arrived the grandmother and grand daughter were engaged in stringing the loom that had been placed on old sahts placed over the concrete floor.  After working together to get the loom fifty percent restrung, they took a break.  The grand daughter went off to visit friends next door to the community area and the grandmother retired to one of the plastic chairs kept in the area for events.  As she walked across the floor the chair she was carrying a small woven basket with her; a small woven basket that you often see being carried by older Lao Loum women here in Isaan.  The basket does not contain food (far from it!).  The basket does not contain needlepoint or embroidery supplies.  The basket contains her accouterments for chewing betel nut!

Grandmother Getting Some Lime (Chemical not Fruit) for Betel Nut Chewing
I am not a fan or proponent of betel nut chewing which I find akin to chewing tobacco or "dipping".  I was traumatized by my introduction to chewing tobacco many years ago.  I was born and raised in New England and never played baseball so I was not accustomed to chewing tobacco or even "dipping".  After I had graduated from university and joined a large engineering/construction company, I was assigned to a project in Lake Charles, Louisiana where many of the men chewed tobacco.

One of the subcontractors had a very colorful superintendent, I believe by the name of Hub or Hoke Meadows.  He constantly chewed tobacco and therefore was frequently spitting out tobacco juice wherever and whenever he chose to.  He was involved in the site preparation of the site in an area that I was responsible for.  One day there was a problem and he drove me over to the site in order that I could assist in the resolution of the problem.  It was terrifying for me sitting in the front passenger seat of his company pickup truck.  It was not his driving that bothered me.  It was not exactly the rough and bumpy terrain that we were driving over.  What bothered me immensely, was the rocking back and forth of the coke can that he kept on the dashboard of the truck,  the coke can that was about half filled with his spittle and tobacco juice!  As he drove, he would reach for the open topped container and add to its contents.  I lived in fear that the can would topple over and spill its contents on to me.

Here in Isaan I do not have that fear because the people spit the red juices from betel nut chewing into a plastic lined small bucket.  However I find the practice just as revolting as tobacco chewing.  My mother-in-law chews betel nut as well as most of her friends.  I tease her in Thai about if there is "red water in the truck" I will not let her ride in our pickup truck ever again.

Chewing betel nut involves a process involving a tree leaf, betel nut slices or chips, and chemical lime.  These ingredients are combines to produce a plug or packet that is placed in the mouth.  I have witnessed two distinct rituals to prepare the ingredients.  One method is to use small mortar and pestle to grind everything together and then pack it into a metal tube to make a small plug to place in the mouth.

My mother-in-law just like the woman whom I photographed yesterday use a less labor method to prepare their "chew".  They take a leaf or two in their hand, sprinkle some betel nut slices or chips on to the leaf, smear some chemical lime paste on to the betel nut and then fold up the leaf or leaves much as people fold up a chimichangas (Mexican food), and place it in the side of their mouth.  After a while the packet or plugs produce copious amounts of red spittle that they discharge from their mouth into their little buckets.

What Went In Is Now Coming Out
Yes, what goes in, eventually must come out but I often wonder why it was even necessary for it to go in. However, I am a guest.  This is their culture and it is not mind so I will keep my mouth shut ... just like I did in Louisiana.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A New Photo Gallery Is Now Available

A new gallery on my personal photography website is now available for viewing and purchase of prints.


The gallery contains selected photographs from our June visit to Yellowstone National Park


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.