Thursday, January 30, 2014

My 500th Blog Entry

This marks my 500th blog entry of "Allen's World".  Some how I feel obligated to mark this milestone with some type of profound entry.

I started writing a blog in July 2008 to share observations and experiences of living and travelling in foreign countries.  I was motivated, just as with my photography efforts, to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse of other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind and to demonstrate that despite our appearances we are so much alike.

The Buddha is quoted as saying "Everything changes, nothing remains without change"

There have been many changes in the five years that I have been writing this blog.  On personal levels there have been births, deaths, marriages and all the other life events that mark the progression of our lives.  We have observed and, at times, participated in many festivals and cultural events which, through enriching our experience, have changed our life in giving us alternative perspectives of life.

We have observed other changes in our world.  The small and rather funky Luang Prabang International Airport which provided an intimate introduction as well as departure to the area has changed into a stereotypical airport now.  It now as sky-ways to access airplanes rather having to walk on the exposed tarmac to reach your plane.  Airbus A320 twin jet airplanes now regularly use the airport in addition to the small twin engine turboprops that service the airport.  The terminal is now large and spacious - a monument to progress but at the cost of lost intimacy..

Throughout Udonthani Province, rice paddies are being filled and commercial structures as well as homes.  Even some of the farming methods have changed.  Up to this year, I had not observed any mechanization in the harvesting of rice.  This year I observed six separate locations where combines were harvesting and threshing the rice crop.

Life is about choices - choices of what we do or do not do.  Every action or lack of action that we take has it own set of consequences.  These consequences are sometimes intentional but often are unintended.  The lack of experience and the lack of knowledge increase the likelihood that our actions or lack of actions will have unintended and definitely unforeseen consequences that will affect our life as well as the lives of others.

I do not like being told by others, especially those who believe that they know better than me what is best for me, how to live my life.  In my blog I try not to tell others how they should live their life.  The choice on how they live their life is their decision.  What I strive to do with this blog is to share, to educate, with others the ways that others live their lives, often quite different from living the way that we are accustomed and most comfortable with.  In sharing with others I am providing information and perhaps if others decide for themselves, alternatives, for their lives.

This blog is meant to be non-judgmental. Our reality is shaped by our experience and perspective.  "Allen's World" is not my confiscation of the world, your world, but sharing of my experiences and perspectives which define my reality and in so doing define my world.

In sharing aspects of other cultures, my hope is raise awareness and appreciation of how other people live, and what they believe.  My blog and associated photographs are not meant to deride anyone or any culture. "Allen's World" is meant to inform so that others can make their own assessments and to make better informed decisions.

Just as the diversity of flora and fauna is considered to be desirable, I believe the the diversity of human cultures and traditions are treasures to be protected within their nationalistic environments. Just as there are many routes to travel on a journey to a specific destination, these cultures and traditions provide choices along our life journey.

The willingness to inform others of your culture by living it and setting a good example is admirable.

A willingness to explain, and teach others about your culture is commendable.

A willingness to incorporate desirable aspects of other cultures into your life or culture is wise - change that you can choose.

Starting and maintaining a blog has had one unanticipated consequence for me.  Through the blog, I have literally and figuratively met many interesting people who have influenced as well as enriched our life.  Duang and I cherish the friends, old and new, that we have connected with through the blog.

Life is a journey which is marked with changes. The changes, good as well as bad, shape and define our individual realities.  I hope that this journey will be interesting and informative as I continue to share it on this blog.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Isaan Alternative Medicine

Shaman Applies First Treatment to Duang

Living here in Isaan provides me with many unique experiences and interesting opportunities.

"Allen's World" is a more spiritual world than the world that I lived in prior to coming here to Isaan.  When I write the word "spiritual" I am not using the connotation of Judeo-Christian beliefs, or Judeo-Christian practices.  The spiritual nature of "Allen's World" is the beliefs and practices of a belief system that predates the birth of the major religions of our time.  Here in Isaan and in particular, my wife and the other ethnic Lao people, is a strong faith and fear of the Animist faith.  Animism is the belief in spirits and their power to affect every aspect of our daily lives - for good and for bad.  The commitment to Animism is that it has survived the arrival of Hinduism and subsequent  arrival of Buddhism to the area.  Rather than eliminating the Animist beliefs and practices, the Hindu and Buddhist faiths tolerated and often incorporated the indigenous Animism into their system.

Animist believes provide answers to all questions great and small as well as solutions for all problems.  It binds the community and provides reassurance as well as stability to the ethnic Lao society.

A large part of the Animist faith deals with matters of health.  Ceremonies are often held to ensure that the 32 spirits required in one's body to ensure good health and good fortune are bound to the body to ensure that they can not escape.  These ceremonies are also performed to bring missing spirits back to a person's body.  The ritual involves making offerings to the spirits, invoking their help through chanting, and tying short pieces of string around a person's wrists to bind the spirits.

A Shaman Treats Peelawat's  Blood Infection
 When our grandson was just a toddler he developed a blood infection in his foot.  The family brought him to the local hospital in Kumphawapi for treatment.  Peelawat was given intravenous fluids and antibiotics to fight the infection. The family also summoned the local shaman to come to the hospital to treat Peelawat.  The shaman came to the hospital and proceeded unabated to treat Peelawat.  His treatment involved examining the foot, chanting, saying some prayers and spraying the affected area with red betel nut chewing saliva from his mouth.  Peelawat instinctively understood what was going on and pointed several of his other "boo-boos" to the shaman for treatment.  The shaman smiled but did not feel it was necessary to treat those old injuries.

Duang spent last week end in Tahsang Village, taking care of Peelawat while her mother was in Laos on a religious retreat in Vientiane.  We had discussed it and agreed that it would be best for Peelawat to remain at his home with all his friends that to spend the weekend with us.  Duang returned Sunday night to our home Sunday night with a very runny nose, very tired, and with a sore throat - all of which we attributed to her stay out in the village.

Monday she was still sick with what we believed to be a bad cold.  That evening we went into town for a great meal with an old friend and a new friend who were on their way to Laos from the USA.  We went to bed around 11:00 PM with Duang complaining about having pain in her abdomen and pain in her back.  She also indicated that she was hot, as in burning, inside and outside at specific locations on her torso.  She had great difficulty sleep and at 03:00 she went to the Emergency Room at the Military Hospital three quarters of a mile from our home.

Duang was diagnosed with shingles, herpes zoster, by the doctor.  She returned home with five different medicines to take and an appointment to return to the doctor in seven days.  The next morning, Tuesday January 21st, as is my habit whenever we get medicine, I went on the Internet to determine just exactly what were the medications as well as what are the treatments for shingles.

From the Internet I determined that Duang was to take antivirals for shingles.  Duang had told me that she had like a snake inside of her that would spread and if it had completely encircled her she would die. In questioning her the previous night about the condition she told me that she had gotten it from food in the village.  I had immediately though of liver flukes from unpasteurized pla daak (fermented fish  - 6 months minimum). I was definitely confused and was preparing to go back to the hospital and find someone who could explain to me in English what was going on.  By the time that I finished my research on the Internet, Duang's condition had developed to the point that I could see the red welts on both her abdomen and back. The skin eruptions looked exactly like the photographs on the Internet for shingles.  I felt much better and then explained to Duang what she had and that she was not in any danger of dying.  She told me not to talk about the progression of the welts on her back because that would accelerate their migration - a request that I could comply with although I did not believe in its efficacy.

Duang After Being Treated the First Time of Nine Times
Duang took her modern medicine all day Tuesday - anti viral pills five times a day, anti-viral ointment three times a day, an anti-seizure/pain medicine once a day, Tylenol. and Valium for sleeping at night.  Of course as is the case here, a great deal of time was spent throughout the day consulting with family and friends.  Many people confirmed that if the welts from the "like snake" inside of Duang met up to form a complete circle around her torso she would die.  On the brighter side, Duang's condition was not a rare one.  Many of the people had either had or knew of some one who had had the same problem.

One of Duang's best friends. Madame Gei, had had the condition as well as her husband.  She knew of a special man, a shaman, who had cured her, her husband, and two of her friends.  This was great news ... to Duang.  Wednesday morning we drove out to Madame Gei's home and followed her to the shaman's home.  Madame Gei did not know exactly where he lived but when we stopped and asked people they knew exactly who we were looking for.  We parked are vehicles there, crossed the main road, and walked a short distance down a narrow street to his home.  He was not home but a call was made by his wife for him to return home.

After a while, the middle aged man returned home.  In addition to being a shaman he is also a policeman!  I knew that he had cured people of the condition before but I was not sure what his qualifications were.  Duang asked for me and I learned that his deceased father had been a shaman with healing knowledge and powers.  The policeman had watched and learned from his father.

He had Duang sit on a plastic chair out in the street.  He placed some betel nut chewing material in his mouth but without the leaf or lime.  After a few chews and making an offering prayer to the spirits. he sprayed the semi dry material forceably on the welts on Duang's body.  This was the first treatment of three for that day to be followed by two more days of three treatments each.

That evening Duang returned home in much better spirits and in much less pain as well as itching.  It was a vast improvement over the previous day and the morning.  Was it due to the antivirals that she had taken and continued to take?  Was it due to the shaman's treatment?  Perhaps a combination of the two?  I don't know and it really didn't matter.  She was feeling better and in better spirits which is all that mattered.  The shaman called that night to check on her condition.

The next day when she went to be treated, he checked her welts and told her that she had been scratching them which he had told her not to do.  After being caught and called out, Duang no longer scratched the eruptions.

Duang's abdomen after two days of treatment
After two days of treatment, Duang is feeling better and confident that tomorrow will complete her treatments.  She continues to take her modern medicine too.  I call to ensure that she maintains her prescribed schedule for taking anti virals.

Duang's back after today's treatment

Tomorrow Duang will receive her last three treatments from the shaman.  On the 28th she will return to see the doctor at the hospital.  The good news, for what ever reason, is that she is able to sleep. the burning is gone, the pain is much less and she is in good spirits.

In Isaan there are more than one way to live and more than one way to be cured.  Personally though I will stick to modern medicine if my body is not able to first heal itself.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Allen's World, 2013 In Review

Now that just about everyone has gotten out their "Year In Review" or "2013 In Review", I thought that I would share some of my favorite photographs for the year that just concluded.  Staying here in Thailand gives me the opportunity to actually have two years in review, 2013 as well as the Buddhist Era year of 2556.

Life here in Isaan continued to be very interesting as well as fulfilling.  There were more than a year's share of festivals, family events, travels, and ordinary daily activities to keep me both satisfied and more importantly happy.

So let's see what the past year brought forth.

January - Udonthani

February - Ban Chiang
March - Si That

April - Maehongson

May - Ban That

June - Yellowstone National Park

July - Ban Nong Han

August - Ban Tahsang

September - Ban Nong Han

October - Sakon Nakhon

November - Ban Tahsang

December - Luang Prabang

It had been quite a memorable year as every year is.  It was filled with joy, sadness, challenges like all the previous years.  It had been a year of many opportunities just as all previous years and as I know this new year, 2014, will be - for everyone.

Knife Makers of the LPDR

Khmu Knife Maker In the Highlands Near Luang Prabang

I enjoy witnessing and documenting handicrafts by the local peoples of Southeast Asia.  This affinity for appreciating and being fascinated by people making things for their everyday life stems back many years to when I was a child.  Our family for many years had a garden that supplied the kitchen with fresh vegetables.  In the Fall my mother would can tomatoes, and pickles.  Best of all we would scour the countryside for wild grapes that we would pick and my mother would magically turn into paraffin topped jars of exquisite grape jelly that would last until the next Fall.

In Southeast Asia there are still countless opportunities to experience people making do for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.  Depending upon the time of season there is rice planting, rice harvesting, peanut planting, peanut harvesting, cotton weaving, saht weaving, silk weaving, sugar cane planting, sugar cane harvesting, butchering of animals, weaving of fishing nets, fishing, making ethnic treats over outdoor charcoal fires, building gunpowder rockets, and many other interesting activities that help to definite the local cultures.

As a child back in Connecticut, we often went on field trips as part of a family outing or as part of a school class.  Two places that we went to often were Mystic Seaport and Old Sturbridge Village.  Mystic Seaport focuses on the New England whaling industry of the 18th and 19th century while Old Sturbridge Village deals with 18th and 19th century rural New England life.

Both the Seaport and the Village are living museums with people performing tasks and using the resources as well as the techniques available to our ancestors during the period that the museums focus upon.

Mystic Seaport Blacksmith Making Lantern Brackets

One of my favorite living exhibits at both of the museums was the blacksmiths.  The blacksmiths at Old Sturbridge Village were typically occupied making nails.  The blacksmiths at Mystic Seaport, if you were fortunate, would be making a harpoon head.  If you were not so fortunate they would be making brackets or hinges for ships.

I first encountered knife making in Southeast Asia in 2010 during our trip to Luang Namtha, Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).  We ended up visiting many ethnic villages in the surrounding area.  One village that we visited was a Khmu village, Baan Sopsim, where several men were working together making knives.

That experience was a subject of a previous blog:

Knife Making In Baan Sopsim

On our second trip to the former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, we went out to a village, Ban Hat Hien, renowned for the resident's metalworking skills.  We witnessed knives being made out of recycled leaf springs from the suspensions of motor vehicles.

Once again our experience there was the subject of another blog entry:

Ban Hat Hien Knife Makers
On our last trip to LPDR in December 2013, we wanted to return to Baan Hat Hien to watch the people make knives out of the recycled steel.  On the morning of our second day in Luang Prabang, we drove out to Baan Hat Hien which is located next to the Luang Prabang International Airport.

We got out of our rented tuk tuk, a very small pick up truck - perhaps 1/2 ton capacity with very small wheels, and started to walk around the village.  Many things had changed.  There were more houses in the village than during our last visit three years ago.  Some of the wood, bamboo, and thatched houses had been upgraded to cinder block and corrugated metal houses.  The location where we first encountered knife making in the village was gone - replaced by a house.  The village square area was now filled with houses.  However as we walked along the road towards the village Vat we encountered a familiar sight - a man and his wife still banging together ... banging glowing bright yellow steel on the same makeshift anvil that they were three years ago to produce knives.  Their metal working operation in the front yard of their hoe along the village dirt road had not changed a bit.

After three years, still banging away, together
The man and his wife recognized us - I suspect that they don't get many foreign visitors who spend an hour with them, talking and taking photographs.

Wife tends to heating steel in a charcoal forced draft furnace(?)
Over the past three years, the division of labor between the husband and wife team had not changed.  The wife was responsible for heating the steel.  Her duties included tending to the charcoal fire that was utilized to heat the steel to a near white temperature.  She added bits of charcoal as required to keep the fire going and she turned on and off the small electrical fan that blew air underneath the fire to keep the fire hot enough for heating the steel. She held the shaped steel in the fire with long metal tongs.  With the same tongs, she quickly transferred the heated metal to the makeshift anvil located within arm's distance to her.  She held the heated, but quickly cooling, steel over the anvil as her husband banged on it to further shape it and commence to put an edge on what was to become a large heavy knife.  In concert with her husband and without any verbal communication she would move and turn the knife blank to facilitate the shaping process.

Shaping the knife blank
The steel cooled quickly from almost white to a bright yellow, on to a dull yellow, a bright red, to a cherry red, then on to dull red followed by a grey color.  When the steel got close to the grey color, the husband took over holding the knife blank and hitting it with the hammer while his wife pivoted to place another blank in the fire to heat up.  By the time the husband had completed his fine adjustments to the cooling steel shape, another piece of steel was hot enough for forging by the team.

Completed knife blanks were cooled, water quenched, in a tub of water between the husband and wife.  This process "freezes" the metallurgical structure of the steel so that it has acceptable properties for a knife.

Periodically the team would heat the up to then, neglected ends, of the knife.  Using long metal tongs, the husband would burn the hot end of the knife into prepared pieces of bamboo that became the handles for the knives.  This generated a great deal of smoke as the hot metal burned and also created steam as it penetrated the bamboo.

Burning A Bamboo Handle On To A Knife
After about half an hour, we left and moved on along the village road.  We walked towards the sounds of metal being forged and shortly came upon another family knife making enterprise.

As steel is  heated in the background, a young man grinds an edge on to a knife
This was a fairly large enterprise with about six people, not counting the children and their mothers who were watching close by - sometimes too close, involved in the metal working process.  There were also some family members next door involved in producing the charcoal that will be used in the fires to heat steel.

Mother and daughter working to make charcoal

I don't know exactly how many people were actually working to produce the charcoal.  There was a woman and her grown up daughter who were working their butts off - hauling wood up the hill, splitting the logs in two or four depending upon their size, and loading the split wood over a fire pit as part of the process to make charcoal.  Making charcoal, to simplify the process and explanation, is essentially baking wood.  Baking wood in an oxygen deficient atmosphere drives out the volatiles from the wood leaving behind carbon (char) that burns at the higher temperatures that are required to work steel.

A wife splitting log to be used to produce charcoal
There was an older man watching over the two women who were working so hard.

I did not see him working.  Through Duang I asked him why he was not working.  He replied that he was too old to work but that his young wife and his daughter were good workers.  I then asked him what I could do to get my wife to work so hard because my young wife does not work like that and I am too old too.  We all had a very good laugh except for his young grandson who was not all that thrilled to see a "falang" (white foreigner).

Splitting logs - Khmu style
Unfortunately for the little boy, we were around for a good while.  Duang had made a deal with the next door knife makers to buy a knife - a special knife.  She agreed to buy a good knife that could cut bone.  I expressed concern about a knife that could cut my bones to everyone's amusement.  Duang assured me that she would not cut my bone with the knife.  She said that if I were to be a "naughty boy" she would use the knife to cut something else on me that has no bone in it!  Everyone roared with laughter ... including me after feigning fear.  Everywhere we go in Thailand and Lao, the people enjoy and are ready for a good laugh.  Seldom do we leave them wanting.  It makes for a good time for all, gets everyone to relax and to be happy.  It often makes for better photographs too.  Oh - the other special thing about the knife was that we got to watch the people make Duang's knife from the very start.  The price of Duang's special knife - roughly $7.00 USD cash.  The cost of watching it being made from a piece of recycled steel - a few laughs mainly at my expense.  The price of spending some quality time with the knife makers of Ban Hat Hien - priceless

Making Duang's "Special Knife"
Our adventures into knife making in Lao was not over for this trip quite yet.  The next day we spent in the highlands overlooking Luang Prabang.  It was a day of unexplored territory and people for us.  It was a great day spent at Lao, Khmu, and Hmong villages.

At the first Khmu villages that we stopped at we came upon an old man making knives in his forge attached to back of his house.

Old Khmu Blacksmith
Working by himself he was producing knives like we had seen down in the valley.  These knives are all purpose utility knives.  They are used for butchering animals, harvesting sugar cane, food preparation, cutting firewood, and collecting food stuffs from the surrounding forest.  You will frequently see people of just about all ages with both a woven basket and one of these knives strapped to their backs.

There is a legion about Icarus who flew to close to the Sun which melted his wings resulting in him plunging into the sea and drowning.  The good blacksmith of the village did not get too close to the Sun but there is evidence that he has gotten too close to the fire.  Unlike Icarus the blacksmith has not perished, in fact he has thrived to be 90 years old.  The effect of his getting too close to the fire is that a portion of the plastic frames of his glasses have melted and deformed.

Our encounters with knife makers was concluded for that trip.  It had been very informative as well as entertaining.

I returned to Thailand once again with an appreciation and admiration how the people of this region are able to make do with what they have available to them.  The ability to fashion a living from their environment for me is an inspiration.  It is also testament to their self sufficiency.


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