Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Isaan Area Back Roads

Tobacco Drying In Isaan

From a Facebook friend, we learned of the Bun Pha Wet Festival in Roi-Et.  After seeing photos from my friend's previous visit to the festival seven years ago, I decided that it would be a pleasant trip for us to attend this year's festival.

Roi-Et is a small, approximately 36,000 people. agricultural centered town three hours from our home.

We went to the festival expecting to see people dressed in traditional clothing and performing traditional Lao as well as Thai dances.  We knew that there would be plenty of small booths, stalls, and motorcycle sidecars selling soft drinks and all kinds of food.  We anticipated that we would be able to witness merit making and rituals involving Theravada Buddhist Monks.

As is the case for all wonderful trips, our expectations, as well as anticipations were exceeded.  We got to meet face to face for the first time my Facebook friend.  The first night we witnessed a wonderful presentation of the Vessantara Jataka by local university students.  We met a very nice local couple who invited us to spend Sunday night at their home.

Sunday morning while following our new friends out to their home in the countryside along some back roads, I saw many homes that had wood drying racks set up in their front yards.  The drying racks were heavily laden with strings of relatively small pale leaves.  I asked Duang what it was and she told me it was the same flowers that you cut and make into cigarette to smoke.  OK - I then knew that it was tobacco.  Coming from Connecticut, I am familiar somewhat with tobacco cultivation - Connecticut River Valley tobacco for cigar wrappers - the background for the film "Parrish"

As a child, I remember staring out the car window as large wood tobacco drying barns  and large swathes of the countryside, draped in white cotton, whizzed by.  Connecticut tobacco was grown under artificial shade to soften the sunlight and increase the humidity to soften and make a better tasting tobacco leaf.  I remember that the leaves were rather large, but then again I also remember the glacial rocks that I played upon back then being much larger than they are today.

The leaves that I saw along the back roads of Isaan were about 6 inches (16 cm) in diameter and the plants in the dry dusty fields were about 2-1/2 feet high (76 cm).

Tobacco Drying In The Front Yard

On our way back to our home, I stopped alongside of a back road across from a home that had several racks of tobacco drying under the hot Isaan sun.  Our typical high temperatures each day are now in the range of 36-40C (97-104F) and with the absence of the monsoonal air flows, our humidity is still low.  Several times when I rinsed my hands on this trip, I could actually see the water evaporating off of my skin in the sunlight.

While Duang waited in our truck, I crossed the road and busied myself taking photographs of the tobacco racks.  I was not there very long when I heard a man's voice coming from further back of the property.  I looked and saw a shirtless middle aged farmer.  He was saying something about a foreigner taking photographs.  I yelled out to him in Thai that yes the foreigner loves to take photographs. Quickly he was standing by my side.  I showed him some of the photographs that I had just taken.  He liked them and he started to point out some shots for me to take.  After a few more shots, he grabbed my arm - sort of like a Boy Scout assisting an old lady to cross the street, only in this circumstance he was leading me deeper onto his property towards his drying sheds.
Tobacco Drying Under Cover In Drying Shed

This type of behavior is not uncommon here in southeast Asia.  Quite often the local people encourage as well as nourish my enthusiasm to document their culture and way of life, by sharing more personal or private aspects of their world with me.  Even when the "special" shot that they point out is not necessarily a shot that I want, I take the shot and share it with them - a small gesture of gratitude for their kindness.

Tobacco Hanging From Roof Soffit
The farmer and I returned to the side of the road where I called out to Duang to join us.  There was too much conversation and undoubtedly way too much information going on in Lao for me to understand.  I needed my interpreter!

Isaan Tobacco Farmer In Front Of Small Market

Duang joined us and we all walked over to where several people were eating and drinking.  The people were family members of  the farmer.  Quickly Duang was engaged in full conversation with the people interrupted only by my asking questions about what I was photographing or about the tobacco farming process.

Tobacco Seedlings Ready To Be Planted
The family rotates their tobacco crop with rice.  The paddies where they had harvested the tobacco that was drying all over their property will be planted with rice in May or June dependent upon the arrival of the monsoon rains.

The tobacco takes 10 days to properly dry.  Representatives of large companies will come and buy the tobacco crop.  The farmers are paid 150 Baht a kilogram ($2.27 USD a pound) for the dried tobacco.  By comparison, in 1999 Connecticut River Valley tobacco farmers were paid $45-50 a pound for their crop.

The family buys tobacco seedlings from commercial growers for planting their crops.

Our unplanned and unexpected visit with the farming family lasted thirty minutes - time well spent.

Time travels fast when you take your time to experience what there is along the back roads of Isaan or anywhere that you find yourself.

Taking the time to stop and smell the roses or in this case, the tobacco. has its own rewards.  Life is better when it is fully experienced by stepping out of our comfort zone to learn more of our world.

"Allen's World" is always offering opportunities to experience and learn for those willing to take the time - for those willing to step out of their comfort zone.  The world that you live in also offers opportunities to discover, experience, and to celebrate the diversity of life - it only requires that you choose to travel along the back roads of your world - wherever it may be.

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