Thursday, February 27, 2014

Salt of the Earth

Harvesting Salt - Ban Dung, Thailand

 "Salt of the Earth"

Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the salt of the earth
Lets drink to the two thousand million
Lets think of the humble of birth
Salt Of The Earth lyrics © ABKCO Music Inc.
My ambition and goal for my photography, as well as in writing this blog, is to extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse into other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind and to demonstrate that, despite our appearances, we are so much alike.
Living here in Southeast Asia, I have plenty of opportunities to act on my ambition and to strive to fulfill my goal. I have been able to photograph many activities such as subsistence rice farming, sugar cane cultivation, brick making, knife making, cassava rice cultivation, melon farming, broom plant harvesting and countless cultural events of the various peoples who inhabit the region.
My quest has been made much easier by the friendliness of the people and the easy access to their daily work, activities, and celebrations.
Last Saturday, we drove out to Ban Dung to observe and photograph the production of salt - an activity that we had not watched before.
Recycled Sugar Bags Filled With Rock Salt
Alongside of Highway 2096, the road from Ban Dung to Ban Muang, just outside of Ban Dung is the salt production area.  Off to the right are a series of what could be mistaken for rice paddies.  Each of the flooded contained areas is about the size of the typical rice paddies here in Isaan.  However there is no vegetation growing in the contained areas or on or along the low dikes that border them.  The area around the dikes is a wasteland - crusty ground of various colors from brown to yellows to beige and to white.  The water contained in the paddies, which are actually evaporation ponds (salt pans), tends to be yellowish browns in hue.
When the rains have stopped, starting in October, the evaporation ponds are prepared and repaired for the upcoming production season.  When the rains return, typically in May, salt production halts due to the diluting effects of rain on the solar evaporation process.
Wells are drilled throughout the salt production area.  Fresh water is pumped into the wells to dissolve the underground salt formations.  The ensuing brine solution is then pumped through exposed PVC pipes throughout the evaporation area of the facility to fill the prepared salt evaporation ponds to a depth of approximately 10 inches.  In about 10 days the water level has decreased to about 4inches and salt crystals have precipitated out of the pregnant liquid.  Workers then harvest the rock salt by raking the crystals off the salt pond bottom using long pole squeegees into rows from which the workers will scoop the rock salt to fill recycled sugar bags.  Periodically workers come by with an "iron buffalo" (naguya) and wagon to collect the filled bags and transport them to a central location to be dumped in a large pile to await the arrival of buyer's large trucks.
Part Of Fluid Distribution System
Boys Playing At Salt Well
That is the technology and science regarding the salt production.  However like just about all things in life technology and science are just a part of the story.  The other part is people, the people who initiate, maintain, and control the processes .  It is the mostly anonymous and unidentified workers of our worlds that plant the crops, harvest the crops, process our foods, mine our minerals, create our modern necessities and conveniences. 

Harvesting Rock Salt Off Of Evaporation Pond Bottom
The salt production workers, for the most part, are unidentifiable.  Just like the rice farmers, the salt workers are covered head to toe.  They wear hats with large brims for protection from the strong sun.  For additional protection from the sun they cover their face with cloths leaving only their eyes exposed.  Where as Westerners will spend a great deal of money to obtain a tan during the winter and lay out exposed to the sun during the summer, here people spend money on special creams and wear additional clothing to prevent getting dark skin.  There is a bias against having dark skin because it identifies a person as an outside worker and member of the lower status groups.
Since they are working around so much salt and water, the workers also wear rubber boots and gloves.
Scooping Up Rock Salt
The workers appeared to be an equal mix of men and women with the women focusing on harvesting the salt and filling the bags while the men occupied themselves with loading the bags onto wagons, transporting them and emptying them on to a large pile.
An "Iron Buffalo" (Naguya) Hau;ing Bags Of Rock Salt
Most of the workers commute to the salt mine from Ban Dung and smaller surrounding villages.  However some of the workers, the supervisors, lived at the mine site.  No doubt their additional duties for the supplied housing involved providing security and maintaining the equipment as necessary outside of normal working hours.
Supervisor Housing Located Above Evaporation Ponds
We were driving along Highway 2096 when we spied the salt production area.  We turned and drove a short distance down a dusty dirt road to the center of a residential complex of the salt mine.  In the middle of the complex there was a large pile of rock salt.  At the far end of the area there was a large group of children huddled together on the ground playing some kind of game.  Off to the side of the children was the outhouses for the housing as well as workers in the field.  We parked the truck off to the side and out of the way.  Upon exiting the truck, as I was getting my camera backpack, Duang told the people that we came to see the work and to take pictures if it was OK.  There was, as is typical. no problem.  We then walked down to the evaporation ponds.
 Woman Worker Filling Bag With Salt
We wandered about the various dikes that separated the evaporation ponds.  Workers were busy raking salt crystals off of the bottom of the ponds.  Other workers who had completed piling the rock salt from their pond were occupied scooping up the crystals and dumping them into bags.  A team of three workers was busy going from pond to pond collecting filled bags. loading them on to a wagon, transporting them up to the residential area and dumping the bag's contents on to the every growing pile.
Peelawat Resting In Worker's Shelter
My five year old grandson and I set off to photograph the workers in the evaporation ponds while Duang followed behind at her own pace.  After awhile Peelawat became hot and tired , so he rested along with my camera bag, under a worker's shelter, a primitive tepee constructed from three poles and a plastic tarp with two sahts placed on top of one of the dikes.  By now curiosity overcame some of the older boys who were part of the congregation up in the residential area.  They followed me around and I took some photos of them doing things that any young boy would enjoy - playing with the water, pipes and well of the fluid distribution system.
Duang was not bored.  She kept busy talking to the workers as they toiled.  She has a great curiosity about people so she is often engaged with the people that I am photographing.  She then fills me in on the details so that I have a better understanding of what I had photographed.
Offloading Rock Salt On To Central Pile
It was around lunch time when we headed back up the hill to the residential area.  A mother and her three children were sitting on a raised platform outside of their house.  Here in Isaan you do not ignore people and just go about your business.  We went over to her to socialize a bit before leaving.  I always view these interactions as an opportunity to learn more about the people and their work.
I generally do not give money to people that I photograph.  Typically we spend time talking with them - even answering the questions that they have about us and our life.  What I often do is to buy some refreshments and food that we share with the people.  For me this is more personable and expresses gratitude better than just handing over some money.  The people had allowed us to share in their life and giving them money seems to be rather impersonal and detached.  Sharing food and refreshments gives us an opportunity to share some of our life with them.  I have found that although we often consider our lives to be rather plebeian, other people view us as just as interesting as we view them.  You see ... we are so much alike.
As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote ...
Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the salt of the earth
Lets drink to the two thousand million
Lets think of the humble of birth
Let's celebrate the anonymous and faceless people who struggle and toil to make our world a better place.
Let's celebrate the anonymous and faceless people because, in Allen's World, they are the real celebrities.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Red Lotus Sea Gallery

"Nymphaea Lotus" - Red Lotus
A gallery of photographs of last Sunday's visit to Thale Bua Daeng (Red Lotus Sea) is now available for viewing on my personal photography website.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sea of Red Lotuses

Morning Over Thale Bua Daeng

A long, very long time ago, in a land, most likely very far from you, the people tell of the creation of Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake as part of the Pha Daeng and Nang Ai legend.

In the legend of Nang Ai and Pha Daeng, Nang Ai's beauty and fame catches the attention of Phangki, son of the Naga King, Phaya Nak. Nang Ai and Phangki had been fated by Karma to be reborn several times as soul mates but there were problems.  Phangki was many previous existences was only interested in satisfying himself and Nang Ai had been a dutiful wife but not a real over to him.  She had prayed to never be paired with him again.  In a new life she has secret trysts with Pha Daeng, the ruler of Phaphong.

Phangki shape shifts himself into a very handsome man to court Nang Ai.  Phangki is not successful in his efforts to win over Nang Ai from Pha Daeng. Frustrated he once again shape shifts, this time into a white squirrel to better track and keep an eye on Nang Ai with the intent of finding an opportunity to kidnap her.

When Nang Ai and Pha Daeng see the white squirrel, they order a royal hunter to trap it.  The squirrel, son of the King of the Nagas, ends up dying.  The meat is fed to the people of the town.  It miraculously keeps increasing until 8,000 cartloads of meat are fed to the people of the city and surrounding villages.   Phaya Nak, King of the Nagas, vows to kill everyone who has eaten his son's flesh.

After eating the squirrel meat, a very large thunderstorm suddenly hit the city.  Since that did not typically happen, Pha Daeng tried to escape quickly with Nang Ai on his horse, Bak Sam. from the rising flood.  All of Isaan was turned into a swamp. The escape was not successful. Nang Ai was swept off the horse by the tail of a naga.  The spirit of the white squirrel had become King of the Nagas and had taken Nang Ai into his underwater kingdom.

Pha Daeng was devastated by the loss of his true love, Nang Ai, and soon dies.  His spirit recruits and organizes an army of spirits from the air to wage a long war against the Naga Kingdom.  The war eventually ends in a stalemate, both sides too tired to continue.

It is said that the Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake is a remnant from the flood and the trench that can be seen today in Tambon Pho Chai was created by Bak Sim's erection as he ran to escape the flood.

Today at the end of Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake there is a natural wet land called Thale Bua Daeng or Talay Bua Daeng (Thai names often have two or more English spellings) "Sea of Red Lotuses" or "Red Lotus Sea"

From December to February, the red lotus bloom across the swampland.  A festival is held each January at Wat Ban Tium to celebrate the blooming of the red lotus, "Nymphaea Lotus" which is actually a lily and not the lotus so reverently and extensively used in Theravada Buddhist rituals.  It doesn't really matter for just as "Arose by any other name would smell as sweet", a flower such as blooms there be it called a lily or a lotus looks just as beautiful.

"Nymphaea Lotus"

There is a key to viewing the red lotuses besides going in December to February, you need to have your visit between 6:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. when they bloom.  When there is too much light the flowers close up.

To view the red lotus sea, you need to take a boat which will bring you out into the swamp to be in the midst of the blooms.  We arrived at the boat rental area about 7:15 A.M. on Sunday and rented a boat without any difficulty.  My wife was told that there are 60 boats that take people out on the waterway.

It costs 500 baht ($16.50 USD) to rent a boat for 2-1/2 hour tour.  As Duang, our grandson Peelawat, and I were preparing to pay for our boat, some people off to the side asked us if we would like to share the cost of a boat.  We agreed and were joined by three very pleasant Thai women.  The boats are very comfortable and ours had nice sahts (woven reed mats) on the seats as well as on the deck.  I estimate that the boats have about 9 person capacity.  They go slow and have PFDs (personal flotation devices) for those who wish for them.  The water is about 2 meters (6 feet) deep.

There are rest room facilities at the parking lot and there is an island part of the way through the tour where the boat will stop if the passengers need to use the bathroom.

Red Lotus Bloom
Most of the tour is along cleared channels through the dense vegetation on the water's surface.  About midway through our tour, our guide stopped the motor and poled our boat into the mat of lilies off to the side of the channel.  Within arms reach there were 5 to 6 beautiful blooms that kept me occupied photographing them.  Throughout the tour we saw many different kinds of birds.  We saw a fisherman pulling in a net and plucking small fish out of it.  In the distance we saw a couple dugout boats that appeared to be harvesting plants.

A delicacy here is lotus seeds.  Alongside of the road in the proper areas, you will come upon local people selling lotus pods.  Within each pod are many seeds - sort of like raw peanuts but without the shell.  People eat the raw seeds fresh out of the pod and they are very good eating.  The seeds are often processed into a paste and used as filling in oriental pastries - even better tasting.  I do not know if these pants have a seed pod or if the seeds are edible however I did eat part of the plant.

On our way back to the parking lot we passed many booths selling local foods, soft drinks, and drinks like fresh lemon ice tea (Thai style - fresh brewed hot tea, fresh squeezed lemon, sugar, and condensed milk poured into a paper cup of crushed ice).  One stall had a treat made out of the root (tuber) of the red lotus.  The tuber had been cut on a diagonal to form slices about 1/2 inch (12 mm) thick - exposing the internal chambered structure.  The slices, according to Duang, were then cooked with sugar, banana and coconut to create a semi firm sweet treat.  The vendor was very clever in having a small bowl available for free tasting.  We tasted and bought a bag to take home and enjoy.

It was a great side trip on our way to return Peelawat to his home in Tahsang Village.  It was even more enjoyable to see him excitedly recount his adventure to his family and friends in the village.

We have put the Thale Bua Daeng Festival on our list of to do things for next January.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baan Mat Funeral

I have now caught up with editing and post processing all of my photographs to date.  The front sidewalk across our property has been pressure washed to remove 5 years of accumulated diesel soot and assorted molds to reveal  uniform grey concrete surfaces.  Several house repair and maintenance tasks have been completed so now is the time to catch up on some blog writing.

At the end of January, Luang Paw Pohm Likit, the Forest Monk, called Duang to inform her that one of the women that we knew at the Ban Mat Wat had died.

We had first met the woman in October when we started going out to visit Luang Paw Pohm Likit.  She lived in the near by village of Baan Mat.  Everyday she went out to the forest to bring offerings of food to Luang Paw Pohm Likit and participate in the merit making along with the other lay people.  She was 76 years old with two sons and two daughters.  She radiated a certain dignity and appearance that belied her age in a region where people age quickly due to the hardships of day to day living.  It was readily apparent that she had a "good heart", a nice person.  She was one of the people who had come to visit me in the Kumphawapi Hospital when it was actually my father-in-law who was in the hospital.  Upon realizing the miscommunication, she and the others stopped by our home to visit me on the way back to their village.  We had not been out to Baan Mat due to all our responsibilities regarding Duang's father's death and then one week later the death of his sister-in-law, Duang's aunt.  The woman from Baan Mat had been sick for a week in the hospital before dying.

We had to take an alternative route through Baan Mat to get out to where Luang Paw Pohm Likit stays.  The woman's home was on the direct route - the one lane, narrow concrete lane through the  village leading to the dirt  roads going out into the fields and forest.  As is typical for funerals, weddings, house warmings, Tambon Roy Wan, and Monk Ordinations, the family had set up pavilions, canvas canopies, in the street.  Beneath the pavilions, guests sat in plastic chairs at wood tables eating and drinking.

Duang and I were transporting the Forest Monk for the funeral ritual.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit has a very humble Wat without any crematorium for funeral rituals.  The deceased woman was going to be transported to a nearby village that had a very large Buddhist school as well as all the other facilities of a fully developed Wat.

Luang Paw Pohm Likit sat in the front of the truck with me while Duang sat in the back.  The seating arrangement which is expected practice here serves two purposes.  The first is to show respect to monks because they are considered to be a higher status than lay people.  Being a Monk places a man further along the path of enlightenment than ordinary lay people.  The second purpose is to help ensure that a Monk does not have contact with a woman.  A Monk is not allowed to touch a woman.  When a woman makes an offering to a Monk, she either makes it through a male next to her, drops it into the Monk's bowl, or places it on a cloth that the Monk has placed in front of himself.  Once the woman has placed the offering on the cloth, the Monk pulls the cloth to him thus completing the offering and signifying acceptance of the offering without risk of contact.

After paying our respects to the family and to the woman at her home, the three of us drove to the nearby Wat for the funeral ritual. This was the fourteenth funeral that I have attended here in Isaan in roughly five years.  There are many common elements to the funerals but each one has unique variations and subtleties to distinguish them apart.

All the funerals have been Theravada Buddhist rituals, both Dhammayuttika Nikaya and Maha Nikaya sects.  The Dhammayuttika Nikaya sect is the smaller sect, younger sect, and more conservative sect of Theravada Buddhism here in Thailand.  However as far as I can see the rituals are the same as the much older Maha Nikaya sect.  The difference is not in what they believe but how the Monks practice their faith.  The conservative Dhammayuttika Monks eat only one meal a day whereas the Maha Monks are allowed two meals a day.  My observation has been that the Dhammayuttika Monks wear the darker brown robes whereas the other sect robe's are the brighter saffron or orange robes.

Removing the Coffin From Refrigerated Casket

As was the case for Duang's father's funeral ritual, both Dhammayuttika Nikaya and Maha Nikaya Monks participated in the the funeral ritual for the woman from Baan Mat. For the funeral at the end of January, a big difference was the number of Monks involved in the ritual.  There were 23 Monks in attendance, which far exceeded any other funeral that I have attended.  Typical funerals have 6 or 9 Monks attending.

Typically a major portion of the funeral ritual is performed in a sala - an open pavilion on the Wat grounds - corrugated metal roof, 4 foot high walls - if any at all, tiled floor, raised area for Monks to sit on mats, and a shrine in the corner at the same level as the Monks.  For this funeral, the ritual was performed in a large, very large assembly area for the school students.  The area was so large that I was confused exactly where to go.  Some of the lay people sat on the floor out of the view of where the Monks were - their view blocked by portable school bulletin boards containing announcements, student art, and lessons.  As is always the case here when I look confused, the people smiled and pointed for me to go to the front directly in front of the platform where the more senior monks were located.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit welcomed me and reassured me.  He speaks some English so he gave me some pointers on what to take photographs of.  I consider myself to be fortunate to live amongst such tolerant and friendly people.

A Grandson During the Funeral Ritual

In taking photographs of recurring events, such as funerals, I strive to explore a different aspect or focus on some unique individuals in an attempt to avoid taking the same photograph over and over along time.  I often start off to an event with some specific approach in mind.  Quite often that planned approach is abandoned for the opportunities that present themselves at a particular event.  One of those opportunities is documented in the above photo.  It is a photograph of a Novice Monk.  It is a photograph of a grandson making merit for a deceased grandparent. It is a photograph of mourning.  I have literally hundreds of those types of photographs, so why take this one?  The uniqueness of this photograph is the juxtaposition of the young Novice Monk's robe and the glass of Orange Fanta.

I have never read it any where nor have I been told that it is necessary or required to make offerings of Orange Fanta Soda to Monks but it seems every time that I witness offerings to Monks it includes Orange Fanta.  On the other hand when making offerings to the spirits of the home, garden, or land, Duang and many others offer only Fanta Strawberry Soda.  I have yet to see Fanta Strawberry or Grape Soda offered to Monks.

Monks Accepting Offerings
This funeral was different in that there were many offerings of robes, blankets and towels to the Monks.  Rather than placing the offerings on top of the closed coffin and offering them one by one to individual Monks, the offerings were placed on a series of stepped tables in front of the coffin. In groups determined by apparent seniority the Monks went up the stairs to the coffin and individually accepted an offering.  This seems very strange and goes against every thing that I have read about being a Monk but it is what I observed.  I even just refreshed my memory and verified my memory's accuracy by reviewing my observations this evening with Duangchan.  She confirmed what I saw and did not see was accurate.  I guess this but another example of "There are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that they actually are"

The Abbott Taps Farewell On the Coffin Three Times With A Daugchan
One typical element of this funeral was the number of children in attendance.  here in Isaan children are not sheltered from death or the funeral ritual.  I have attended a funeral where the local elementary school was let out of school to attend along with their teachers the funeral for a villager.  Children get excited over the throwing of coins wrapped in colorful foil paper along with candy that is tossed to the crowd from the steps of the crematorium just as the coffin is rolled into the furnace - a gesture of giving up of all of this life's and world's goods by the spirit.

Children are allowed to run, play and be joyful as long as they are not doing it in the sala.  The children can always found in the space between the sala and the crematorium eagerly and energetically biding their time for the money toss.  The presence of a foreigner at this funeral taking photographs did nothing to dampen the children's enthusiasm.  I had met the children earlier at the woman's home.  They tentatively tried their rudimentary English skills on me and I was all too willing to try my even less rudimentary Thai skills on them.  We quickly found common ground and bonded over talking about animals.  I knew the names of some animals in Thai from watching Nat Geo Animal Planet on television with our grandson, Peelawat.  Recently we had watched a program about lions, "sinto", and I had developed a pantomime of a sinto turning its head as it was making a huge yawn.  The children loved it - much more so than my impersonation of a "tau" - turtle.

It was not long after I relocated from my position in the sala in front of the Monks that I was reunited with the children.  I took some photographs of them which I willingly shared with them.  Seeing themselves in a digital photograph only encouraged the children to be more creative in their posing.  The ultimate pose that they created was a reenactment of  a the sinto.  It was a fun way to pass the time.  Rather than getting upset with the children or with me for encouraging them, people inside the sala pointed out approvingly to Duang what was going on.  They told her that I had a "good heart" and that I was good with children.

Our day at the funeral ended with us driving off with Luang Paw Pohm Likit not into the sunset but away from the wisps of smoke that commence to flow from the stack of the crematorium.

It had been a good day.  It was good to help the Forest Monk and even better to pay our respects to a nice woman.  Here in Isaan with the openness of funeral rituals and the involvement of so many friends, family, and neighbors there is quick closure to the death experience.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Scouting Day

Scouts Cross A Rope Bridge

Here in Thailand, in addition to the yearly Elementary School Field Day, there is also a special day dedicated to Scouting.

All school children participate in a scouting program.  The scouting program seems to be modeled after Boy Scouts of America however boys, girls, and lady-boys all participate in the program.

Wednesday is scouting day at all Thai schools.  Boys and girls, grades 1 and above. attend school wearing their scouting uniforms.  During the day they are taught scouting and living skills.

Once a year they gather for an overnight jamboree where the elementary school scouts in grades 4, 5, and 6 demonstrate and practice their scouting skills.  The location of the jamboree rotates amongst the schools at the sub-district level.  Last week the honor of hosting the 200 scouts of Tambon Nongwha was given to Tahsang Village Elementary School.  Duang and I had attended the jamboree the last time that Tahsang Village hosted the event.

We arrived at the jamboree in the afternoon after participating in the setting of the first two columns for the new sala in Baan Mat. Upon parking our truck near the pavilion set up for dignitaries, some of the young men, older brothers and uncles of the scouts helping for the day, off loaded the truck of the five cases of soft drinks that we were donating, and several 8 cubic foot bags of various snack treats that Duang's son and cousin had donated for the scouts. Volunteering and making donations to support the children here in Isaan is wide spread.  Although the faculties of the schools were instrumental in organizing and supervising the day, they had plenty of support from mothers, grandmothers, fathers uncles, aunts, and other family members.the community here in Isaan is an extension of the families.

Off to the side behind where we had parked, many women were occupied preparing food and washing dishes in the school's outdoor facilities.  They were preparing food for all the adults involved in the day's activities.

After making our rounds of hellos to everyone, I was brought to the dignitary area to sit down with the local government officials who were observing the activities.  One of the teachers came to me with a glass that appeared to be lemon iced-tea.  It was a warm day and dusty for sure so I welcomed a refreshing drink.  I was shocked to discover  that what I assumed to be iced-tea was actually whiskey and soda water.  I had drunk about one-half of it when the teacher returned to top me up.  I thanked her and explained that I did not want to drink because I had to drive home.  As Duang explains to me ... "Thailand not like America"  I could not imagine drinking alcohol at a public school event being allowed in the USA let alone having it provided by the school!  Several more times during the day and night I was offered a drink but declined.  Although there was drinking, everyone behaved properly.

The seven camp sites around the perimeter of the Tahsang Village Elementary School had already been set up.  Each of the seven schools had their own encampment - a combination of small two person tents, a lean two shelter using a large tarp or a lean two created by erecting the ubiquitous pavilions used for funerals, weddings, or celebrations for monk ordinations and laying the assembly on its side on about  a 30 degree angle.  Saht, woven reed mats, were then placed upon the ground to complete the shelter.  Some of the campsites also had a properly erected pavilion which served as shelter from the sun and a place to rest during the day.

In the middle of the encampments was a large pile of wood stacked into a tepee shape - the bonfire for the evening program.  Several fluorescent light fixtures were mounted vertically on poles in a large circle around the wood pile.

Throughout the school grounds teams of scouts were engaged in many activities.  The scouts had been organized into teams of either 12 boys or 12 girls.  The team members came from many different schools. I surmise that the objective here was to have the scouts learn to work and cooperate with people that they may not necessarily be friends or even be familiar with.  Each of the teams had and identity, such as "dog", "rabbit", "monkey", and a flag which identified the team - a white background with a red picture of the animal.

The teams did not compete against each other or did they race against the clock.  The objective for each team was to visit each of the approximate 10 activity stations and have the entire team complete the objective.  Each of the activity stations was structured to teach a lesson as the scouts achieved the objective of the activity.  Some of the objectives were team related and some were individual related.

Behind the building that serves as the indoor assembly area for the students, the teams were faced with an activity that stressed the needs as well as benefits of cooperating as a team.  The team was split in two groups of 5 and two separate leaders for each group.  The groups were confronted  with two long and heavy wood timbers. Each timber had 5 sections of tire nailed to the top, forming stirrups.  The groups used the stirrups on their left and right feet to shuffle forward.  In order to move forward a prescribed distance and return to the starting point, it was necessary for the group members to synchronize their individual movements and their magnitude.  The individual leaders provided direction and a cadence for their group's efforts.  After completing the task, the adult scout gave a talk to the students and signed off on the team tally sheet for the activity.  The 12 person team then moved on to the next station.

The Rooster or Chicken Team Reports In to Activity Station
 Upon arrival at the next activity station, the team reported into the adult scout.  They lined up pretty much in formation and gave a chest salute to the adult as their leader and standard bearer announced their readiness for the task.

After the activity station of crossing a moat on a single rope bridge, the scouts moved on to a station where they climbed up a rope ladder to a tree limb and back down a similar ladder on the other side.  The ladder was a continuous ladder that was actually too long. If no one was counteracting the force of a climber on one side, the ladder would move towards the ground on the climber's side making climbing even more difficult.  The key to the team's success was for the team to ensure that climber's were on each side of the ladder at any given time as well as for team members to anchor the ladder at each end.  Again the activity stressed the benefits of cooperation and the need for individuals to act for the benefit of the team.

Not all the activity stations involved physical effort.  On the other side of the building that serves as the school assembly, one of the male teachers was bare chested, had a bright yellow smiley face painted on his ample belly, a bright pink cloth wrapped around his mouth and an Indian, as in Native American, headdress. He remained hidden out of view until a scout team had settled down on the ground.  To the sound of some drum beats and wild music, he would jump into view and perform a wild dance for about 5 to 10 seconds before quickly disappearing out of view once again.  An adult leader then questioned the team as to what had just happened and to describe their observations.  The scouts learned that they need to be observant and aware of their situation (situational awareness?) as well as that as a team their observations were more complete than any individual's observations.

Later in the afternoon as the teams had completed all the activity stations. they were called to assemble on the school play field.  There was a team of adult leaders, male and female, that played conga drums, tambourines, and finger cymbals along with singing.  I was extremely impressed with their professionalism and performances.  They sort of reminded me of tent revival evangelists and new age motivational speakers. The got the scouts involved in sing alongs and group body movements.  More importantly and impressive was how much fun and enthusiasm the scouts were exhibiting.  They were fully engaged with the scout leaders.  I asked Duang about the leaders.  It appeared to me that they were not your run of the mill volunteer parents.  She told me that the scout leaders had been trained and certified by the government.

Could have been "Simon Says" - Isaan Style

After the scouts had completed their group exercises with the adult leaders. the woman leader announced where the boy's and girl's bathroom areas were.  I thought that was a little odd since the scouts had been there since the morning and surely must have gone to the bathroom at least once so far in the day.  She also warned the girls not to go to the boys bathroom or they might grab them and "Boom Boom" them.  I know that there is now sex education in elementary schools in the USA but I doubt it is so blunt.

By this time I had to go to the bathroom, I knew that the teacher's bathrooms were located between the female and male student's bathrooms, - about 75 to 100 feet away.  Upon getting to the bathrooms everything made more sense to me.  Off to the right was the boy's bathrooms.  An outside shower had been set up next to the outhouses.  Poles had been placed in the ground with a 4 foot high tarps wrapped around them.  Inside boys were showering in the open air with their heads and shoulders exposed to view.  I suspect the same was true for the girls to my left but I did not look - no real need to know.

In addition to showering, the scouts also were responsible to launder their clothing from the day's activities.  The scouts were getting a good dose of personal responsibility.

Adults had prepared food and cooked foods but it was for the adults to eat.  The scouts had to prepare and cook their own meal.  Soon there were at least 7 small campfires burning upon which pots of ... rice were being cooked.

After going into town for our dinner, Duang and I returned to the jamboree for the evening program.  This time in addition to being another glass of whiskey and soda, a garland of banana blossoms was placed around my neck in thanks for our donation to the scouts.  We had returned with our grandson and five other small children from Tahsang Village.  They wanted to see the fire and show.  The children were very well behaved and we enjoyed their company until their relatives arrived later at night to take them home.

There was a very involved ceremony between the scouts and the local government dignitaries for lighting of the bonfire.  It turned out that the fluorescent fixtures were actually black-lights that created a dazzling effect on the body paint of the "Indians".  Once the bonfire had been set ablaze, the government officials and I had to join the Indians in dancing around the fire.  We did three revolutions around the fire.  I was able to show the scouts some dance moves from the late 1960s to their great amusement.

Each school then performed a skit.  After around the 4th skit of not having any idea of what was going on, I heard a khene behind me.  I saw a man sitting off to the side of one of the encampments, so I headed out to check it out.  By the time I arrived he had joined 4 other men who had been busy eating and definitely drinking.  Once again I had to decline the gracious offer of whiskey.  The men were having a great time. One man played the harmonic rhythmic music typical of Mahlam Lao and Mahlam Isaan music.  One man was playing percussion on the foam ice chest while a third man kept time by banging a metal spoon on an empty soda water bottle.  The fourth man sang songs.  The fifth man got up and had me get up to join him in a dance.  I know how and enjoy dancing Lao so once again I surprised the people.

This is how traditional Lao music started - small groups of villagers huddled around fires and playing music for their own entertainment.  For me it was special event to be able to witness and participate in.such a tradition.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Building A Sala

Sand Is For Concrete and It is for Playing Too

They say that time waits for no man.  Two days ago I found that time has moved on and left me behind - behind in writing a blog entry about building a sala for Luang Paw Pohm Likit, the Forest Monk.

While others may ponder the answer to the question of what came first the chicken or the egg, I am often contemplating the question of what should come first - a blog entry or more photographs.  I had an idea to write a blog entry about the sala, worship hall, for the Forest Monk.  As it turned out to be I have become very busy with taking photographs of two funerals, elementary school field day, fabric weaving, and two trips to Lao so the blog did not get written.

Current Sala for Wat In Baan Mat
A Sala is an open pavilion that shelters people from the sun and rain.  At a Wat, the Sala is where merit making rituals are performed.  The offering of food to the Monks takes place in the sala as well as funeral rituals.

The current sala for the Wat outside of Baan Mat is very primitive.  It consists of a bare concrete slab that is sheltered by a thatched roof that is supported by 3 to 4 inch diameter tree columns and a lashed bamboo roofing sub-structure.  The thatched roof apparently was not waterproof so there is now a large plastic advertising banner draped and lashed over the thatched panels to improve the weatherproofing.  At one end of the sala there is a raised bare concrete platform the width of the pavilion where the Monk sits and off to his right on the raised area is a shrine.

Far End of Current Sala
The end of the pavilion that is raised has some polyethylene nursery cloth (sun and bird protection) attached to the pavilion columns to provide additional weather protection.  Apparently the weather protection was not completely adequate because a sloping sheet of recycled corrugated metal roofing has been suspended over the shrine to deflect any rain from it and on the outside four large waterproof election signs have been attached to bamboo poles to serve as a quasi wall beyond the nursery cloth.

Excavation for Footing and Materials to Mix Concrete
At the end of January the construction of a new sala was started.  Holes for the columns of the structure had been excavated and the workers were in the process of pouring the footings for the columns.  I had spent my working career involved in the construction of heavy construction facilities as well as a few commercial facilities around the world so the building of a new sala piqued my curiosity and revived memories of times gone by - visions of projects past, present, and yet to come?

There is no worry about frost and subsequent frost heaving for a foundation here is Isaan.  Earthquakes are also not a concern in this region.  High winds are also not an issue here.  With the absence of these considerations the excavations for the footings were shallow and dug by hand.

Reinforcing steel for the footers utilized smooth small diameter bars rather than the larger diameter deformed concrete reinforcing steel (rebar) that I am accustomed to.  The workers only used one mat of reinforcement per footing rather than the two mats that I had experienced.  It appears to me that the reinforcement add to the sala's footings contributes mainly to distribution of the heat during curing of the concrete than to increasing the load bearing capacity of the footing.

After the footing had been poured and cured, the workers placed a section of reinforced concrete pipe on the footing in the excavation - putting a round concrete ring in a square hole - it can be done and quite easily if you pay attention to dimensions.  I have no idea what the purpose of adding the concrete pipe to the column foundation served.  Through Duang, I asked the "Big Boss" why they were adding the concrete pipe when they could save labor and money by just pouring the foundation against the exposed earth?  I didn't get an answer and Duang told me "Thailand not like America" which translates into "things are different" and "don't ask any more questions".

To control dimensions and orientations, the workers had set up batter boards outside of excavations and outline of the new structure.  This being Thailand, the batter boards were bamboo poles rather than  finished lumber.  Strings were pulled from nails driven into the bamboo holes to establish center-lines or offsets as required.  Elevations were established using a very simple device - a water level.  A water level is a flexible transparent hose filled with water.  The height of one end of the tube is adjusted so that water level at one end of the open ended tube is adjusted to match a predetermined elevation.  The water level at the other end of the tube will match that predetermined elevation.  By repeating the process many items can be set at the same elevation.

Through the use of tubing, string, nails, and bamboo poles the workers had a system to ensure that the columns would be set properly for a square and flat building without the use of sophisticated, delicate and expensive surveying equipment.  The workers were building the sala the old fashioned way - using very old methods.

On Wednesday we arrived at the Wat at 8:30 A.M.  The morning offering of food to Luang Paw Pohm Likit typically starts around 10:00 A.M. but prior to offering food on Wednesday there was to be a special ritual of setting the first two columns of the new sala.  It had been determined by the Monks that the opportune time to commence setting the columns was "09:00 12 February 2557 For this special occasion, there were 8 Monks besides Luang Paw Pohm Likit.  I recognized some of the Monks from the Buddhist school and Wat in a nearby village where we had attended a funeral ritual earlier this month.

There were also more lay people than is typical on any given morning.  Building of a sala earns merit for the participants - extra incentive no doubt to the adage "Build it and they will come"

Woman Places Offerings of Coins and Leaves In Excavation

Offerings to the Spirits - Coins and Leaves (the fresh leaves inside the excavation)

As formal preparations were made for the ritual, people at their own pace went from excavation to excavation making offerings.  The offerings were coins and fresh leaves.  This has nothing to do with the official practice of Buddhism but as I have written several times before "there are the ways things are supposed to be and the way that they are".  Many aspects of Buddhism as practiced here in Isaan are actually remnants of the previous dominant religions in the area - Hinduism and even further back - Animism.

The offerings are made to the spirits - the spirits of the land, the spirits of the garden, and the spirits of the home.  The offerings are also made in the name of the spirits, the spirits of departed family members, so that they too may earn merit from this special occasion.  The coins are offered to bring good luck and good fortune.  The leaves are offered as reminders of the impermanence of this life.  There was also a plate of food offered to feed the spirits.

I was somewhat surprised to see that most of the excavations did not have the section of reinforced concrete pipe placed inside of them. It is possible that no more sections had been placed since my observations of two weeks ago.  There was also no longer a stock pile of reinforced concrete pipe laying around the site. Perhaps they actually listened?

While people were making their individual offerings, others were busy preparing offering that would be placed on the actual columns to be set.

Lay People Prepare Offerings of Banana Stalk and Sugar Cane

The offerings to be attached to the columns were different.  The first column offering was a woven vase shaped bamboo basket containing a banana tree stalk and a pumalai (floral garland) of fresh chrysanthemums bound together with saii sin (white cotton string).  The second offering was also a woven bamboo basket but shaped like the baskets used to store trapped fish in the water when fishing.  This basket had a stalk of sugar cane and a pumalai of the yellow chrysanthemums - all bound with saii sin.

Hauling the Selected Columns To Location for Setting

After the people had finished putting the offerings together, one of the Monks came over, took the offers, and brought them to where the two selected columns were laying on the ground with all the other columns.  The columns were lifted by a truck crane and placed on the back along with the offerings and driven the very short distance to where they would be set.  The columns were off loaded and placed on the ground along side their respective foundations.  Under the supervision of another, more senior, Monk the offerings were placed and secured around each column with a thick saii sin.

As the Monks chanted and the people either knelt or assisted the crane, the columns were lifted and set one after the other.

Monks Connected to a Column By Saii Sin
Rigging the Second Column for Lift

Setting the Second Column
In writing this blog today I noticed that the first column was not actually set until around 09:15.  I questioned Duang about this and she reassured me that it was OK.  The best time to start was 09:00 but that it was OK to set at 09:15 - just not 10:00 or 11:00.  Thailand is known as a land of tolerance and I guess that means tolerance in scheduling of work activities even of a religious nature.  It is part of the charm that I find so interesting and fascinating here.

The Forest Monk, Luang Paw Pohm Likit, did not supervise the setting of the columns or lead the ritual.  He wandered about the area and acted as a host.  According to Duang, you don't preside over the building of your own temple.  It makes sense now that I think of it.  To preside over and lead the ritual would be to demonstrate want and desire which Buddhists strive to free themselves of.  With the other Monks carrying the religious load, Luang Paw Pohm Likit is freed to only accept the offering from the people of the new sala.

As soon as a column was set, workers scrambled to brace it with long bamboo poles.  The four bamboo poles were attached to the column with pre-cut double twisted  iron wire. The bamboo braces kept the columns from falling over in the wind.  It was at this point that I became concerned.  No I was not concerned about the safety aspects of the work that they were doing or their lack of personal protective equipment.  I was concerned about the location of the columns.  The batter boards had been dismantled before setting the columns.  There were no scribe marks on the footings to indicate the required center lines for each column.  No one was taking any measurements or sightings either by eye or instrument to ensure the proper location of the columns to each other or to the overall planned structure.  Actually there were no plans - blueprints or plans of any color.

After several inquires and expressions of my concern, through Duang as my interpreter and my pantomime, I kept getting the same answer  "No problem, set all columns, then Big Boss come and take care, make everything 100%"  Hmm OK but ... I had forgotten "Thailand not like America"

After the columns had been set, the people and Monks returned to the adjacent existing sala to have the daily merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks.  There was a vast quantity and variety of food for the day.  I joined the gathering, after the Monks had selected their food, to have my second of three meals for the day - a delicious bowl Ratna (Lat Na) - Thai thick and wide noodles in gravy with mushrooms, and seafood sausage.  When it was time for the Monks to leave, the senior Monk gave me two bottles of Coke and one water that he had been given but was not going to drink.  It came in very handy for the remainder of our day.

While people were making merit and eating,  the workers were moving the remaining columns for the sala the old fashion way - bamboo poles and plenty of people

Transporting Pre-Cast Column to Its Foundation

As we prepared to leave, we offered a ride from the Wat into Baan Mat to three elderly women who had walked out for the rituals.  They were happy to take the ride for the road is now very dusty and  the temperature was in the low 90s F.  As they placed their bags and baskets in the pickup bed, I pointed to the pickup bed and said "10 baht" and then pointed to the back seat of the cab and said "20 baht" - they knew that I was joking and started laughing.  Every one got in the back seat and told me "Thank you, good luck to you, Money come soon to you"  After Duang translated I turned my head around, looked back at them and said as I pointed to each one "Yes I know money come soon, 20 baht, 20 baht, 20 baht ... 60 baht total!"  Duang translated but it wasn't really necessary ... they understood and were laughing their heads off.

We dropped them off in the village no more money than I had started with but so much richer for the experience.  The people here have a wonderful and very large sense of humor which makes living here as a foreigner who can not speak the languages, Thai and Lao, so much easier because humor is communication that everyone understands and appreciates.

Today  was a special religious day.  Duang went to the Wat to observe the holiday.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit and several of the others asked where I was and why I had not come - the Big Boss was on site making everything 100% for the columns.  They were laughing that I had made a big deal about the other day and then when it was to be done, didn't show up. They did say that I needed to come out tomorrow morning to see.

Yes, humor ... you have to be able to take as much as you give to truly appreciate it ... and to be appreciated.


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