Thursday, October 31, 2013

Field Course Themes Pt 2: The People

This is a post about people. A description of Agro course is really incomplete without stories from the people I met and the places I stayed. ISDSI really stresses the idea of cross-cultural exchange.  Even though I had stayed with host families in Chiang Mai,  I really began to understand when I got into the field.  As simple as it sounds, at the start of Agro course I hadn't fully recognized that cross-cultural exchanges are in fact two-way exchanges--that as much as we love meeting new people and learning about their culture, the Thai people love having students and learning about our culture. One woman even said she loves looking at our faces because they are so different!

These exchanges really happen in every interaction here, but were greatly facilitated by two major components of ISDSI courses: home-stays and community meetings.

The host family stays have been a true gift. These families really take us in as their own with love and utmost concern for our comfort, well-being, and our stomachs. They are patient with our broken Thai and share their recipes, stories, and traditions with us. Some of the host families didn't speak Central Thai either and learning to communicate was a challenge and an exercise in patience and level-headedness for everyone involved, but the families managed to keep a smile through all of it. 

The community meetings were also very cool. At nearly every place we visited we had an hour meeting with community members and leaders to discuss significant cultural traditions, problems faced by villagers, and ask questions about any topic we wanted to know about. Some meetings had specific topics and others were more of a free for all. After we had asked all our questions, we let community members ask us a few questions of their own.

The cultural-exchanges were a really beautiful experience. The people we visited shared their knowledge with us and the experiences felt beneficial to so many people in wonderful, story-worthy ways. I can't go over every meeting or activity or moment we had--we had a lot!--but here are some highlights from Agro course.

The first 5 days or so spent at UHDP we were in a cabin. My favorite part at UHDP was jumping in to help with food clean up even though the mothers said they would do it. Here in Thailand, the older generation always says they will take care of things, but you really have to insist or just sit down and wait for them to give you something to help with. It's kinda like everyone is a Jewish grandma who will say she doesn't need help, but really you know better. There, I learned that Thai style of rubber banding things which is different from the US and SOO COOL! Probably the #1 most useful/cool piece of knowledge I've gotten so far and I'm damn proud of it.  Also,  I got that info/experience by just jumping in, not waiting for instructions or directions. That's the way it is with experiential learning, you just have to be there and ready. I couldn't tie it right the first 5 times, but Mae was patient with me and helped me until I got it.

From UHDP we traveled to Bahn Dang Nauk. Bahn Dang Nauk is a Dara-Ang village. The Dara-Ang are a group of people from Northern China that migrated down into Burma and then into Thailand during the wars that have wracked Burma. They are Thailand's most recent immigrant group and similar to the US, the newest immigrants are the ones that are currently being most oppressed by both the people and the government. Bang Dang Nauk was the poorest village that ISDSI takes its students to visit. No one in the village has full citizenship and they face a lot of issues of access to food, land, and other basic rights/necessities. 

The passion with which the people at Bahn Dang Nauk spoke was unforgettable. From my westerner's perspective it was so hard to understand why these people were targeted when they seemed no different from "officially Thai" people living down the road. Learning about citizenship issues in Thailand gives some perspective to issues in the US.

After the meeting, a few of the women brought out goods to sell to us. There was one hysterical grandma who kept changing the price on her goods for all of the students and we talked with her a bit as best as we could. 

We stayed that night with host families Bahn Dang Nai who spoke some Central Thai, but mostly Northern Thai which has a lot of differences.  In contrast to BD Nauk, this village had been established longer. While the people living there at BD Nai many issues with landownership, water access, and citizenship, the area and community is more established. At home, we sat and made slow small chat, and then our Mae pointed out to her belts that all the women of the older generation were wearing. BD Nai was also a Dara-Ang village and they have traditional dress which includes dyed belts made of Rattan that are beautiful. 

That night, I sat down to do homework in the living room, but I heard chatter from outside. I realized that my reading was important, but I only had so much time to speak with the people here so I ran outside to find a group of women chopping pumpkin and bamboo for our breakfast the next morning and again just sat and listened and watched until they started talking with me and eventually let me help. EVERYONE uses machetes here. They wouldn't let me cut because it was too dangerous, but I did get to break up bamboo shoots and felt just a small bit part of the sisterhood that these women had with each other. 

This very flattering picture my Mae and me at Bahn Dang Nai

Next we went to Bahn Huay Pong, a village that has both Dara-Ang and Red Lahu people living together. Our meeting in the evening was with several men from the Dara-Ang community and somehow the evening turned turned to love-stories. Someone asked about getting married in this village and that led us to asking about the differences between flirting now-awadays vs when the men we were speaking to were courting wives which led to a full demonstration of Dara Ang flirting! The men must travel at night to the house of the woman he wishes to court and just walk straight into the house of the sleeping family and start playing music, either on a traditional guitar or flute. He must play until the woman wakes up and talks to him. If the man loves her, he must offer her a tea bag and if she accepts, they get married. [I may have over-simplified that a bit.] Oh! And the man must do this all with his face covered by a towel or covering of some sort! Well, after asking dozens of questions the man decided just to get up and show us, he grabbed a flute, put a towel on his head and showed us how it's done! 

During our stay, we also toured a very successful agro-forest plot owned by Jawa-Jalo, a resident of the Red Lahu community at Bahn Huay Pong.  Afterwards we got to speak with him about his plot and he told us that since he switched to agro-foresty from monoculture, he puts 10% of his income into direct savings. 

Jawa-Jalo showing us the money he has been able to save since switching to Agro-forestry from monoculture. 

At Bahn Mae Mae,  I didn't understand my Mae AT ALL, but that didn't keep her from talking with me. That day, we got to bathe in the river. It was freezing but so beautiful and invigorating. All the girls put on our pasin (sarongs) and got in with our Dr. Bronners soap to clean up.

Our sleeping arrangments at Bahn Mae Mae
Our last home-stay was in the Mae Ta villages. Mae Ta is a sub-district (tahm-bone) with seven villages. It is a tradtional community founded more than 300 years ago by people fleeing war. For a number of years Mae Ta faced issues with forest management, but now has one of the most successful models of community-based natural resource and forest management. We stayed in one of the villages of Mae Ta and learned more about the benefits of sustainable and organic farming. Mae Ta was by far one of the most sabai-sabai places and I had an amazing time talking with my host family.

It was there I made the some-tam pictured in my last blog post and heard some amazing stories from my Mae, Pi Chai, and Pi Sau (host brother and sister) about the beginning of organic farming, house our house was built, and issues facing farmers today.

At Mae Ta, I biked every day from home to the community gathering place where we had all of our meetings. There isn't a more romantic idea of studying abroad then riding your bike to school through a small Thai village looking out over the rice fields and mountains as you go. It was perfect and I felt like a kid again in those times riding my bike through town.

 Also, the house of our family was extremely beautiful as well and I don't think my pictures even begin to capture it.

Sleeping Quarters at Mae-Ta

The bottom story of the house at Mae Ta

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Field Course Themes Pt. 1: Food


Hello friends! I'm [temporarily] back online, and I must admit its been a stressful return to the city. It's loud and smelly and I had a lot of emails to attend to. I sit here having completed my first of three 3-week long field course expeditions  with so many thoughts and stories and pictures. Instead of listing all of the activities we did, I'm going to try to focus on two themes: food and culture.

[Author's note: This post turned out way long, so I have split it into two parts. Also, there is some talk of pig guts, not graphic though.]

Just so everyone has some context, here is a brief itinerary of my field course:

10/7-10/13: Live and Learn at the Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP), an NGO that runs and agroecology demonstration and resource farm and works with local communities for capacity building.
10/13: Travel to Chiang Dao, a subdistrict of Maerim. Stop at Bahn Dang Nauk for a community meeting and then hike to Bahn Dang Nai where we will live and learn for two days.
10/15: Hike BD Nai to Bahn Huay Pong
10/16: Hike Ban Huay Pond to a temple, drive to Chiang Dao and take Song Tows to Bahn Mae Meh
10/17: Midcourse seminar at Fair Earth Farm, the farm of our teacher Ajan Jeff
10/18: Travel by van to Mae Ta, live and learn with people there.

I know there are a lot of confusing terms in there. Essentially Thailand city-planning goes, Jamwhat, Tahmbohne, Amphur, Moobahn, or Province, District, Subdistrict, Village. Anywhere you see Bahn, it means a village (though village can also mean neighborhood or area). All of our studies this course were in the Chiang Mai Province. Additionally, all of our stays were home-stays except at Bahn Huay Pong where we stayed in a long house.


Though we read many relevant articles throughout field course (and carried them all in a giant textbook through the whole course), the Omnivore's Dillema, written by Michael Pollan, was the bulk of our reading on this course. Having no other leisure books, I immeidately began reading and quickly became immersed in Pollan's writing and ideas. On the bus ride up to UHDP, I counted how many products on the ingredients list of my snickers came from corn, something Pollan discusses in Chapter 1. From Day 1, my emerging question for this course was, "Where does my food come from?"  

This is not the first time this question has entered my brain. Summer of 2010, I read Jonathon Safron Foer's book Eating Animals in in 2013 I heard a presentation by Dr. Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pig, and Wear Cows. Each experience led me to a brief stint as a retail vegetarian, but I always inevitably returned to meat, letting the voices of disgust and protest fade away to a partitioned area of my mind. 

To know the truth of our chemically sprayed vegetables and factory farmed animals is uncomfortable and unappetizing. Eating meat, but even eating in an industrialized food system, requires "an almost heroic act of not knowing, or now, forgetting" (Pollan, 84). It requires significant cognitive dissoancnce. In the past, I'd always managed to keep that black veil between my knowledge and my eating habits so I could continue enjoying my meat. I went into the agroecology course with the goal of removing that veil and the cognitive dissonance. 

UHDP was a great place to start my food journey. After introductions and activities about the agroforest and organic farming (including making compost and natural bug repellants) on Monday and Tuesday; Wednesday, we took part in a pig slaughter.

Wednesday morning we woke up, ate breakfast then went to clean and feed some of the many pigs UHDP raises. By 8:30 in the morning we were standing in front of our pig. 

My friends saying hello to our pig. 

The whole process is rather simple. First, the pig is hit with a bat and knocked out, next his throat is slit and blood drained into a silver bowl. The pig is then carried to a metal sheet where hot water is dumped on him to ease hair and top-layer-of-skin removal. The butchering begins and the pig slowly transforms from animal to meat. 

Students could take part in a number of ways, but the UHDP staff took care of the more technical parts of the day so that the pig would be killed as humanely and quickly as possible. 

I could go into more details, but for this moment, I won't. By Wednesday afternoon students and community members were working together to prepare a delicious meal and the smell of BBQ wafted through the air. Throughout the day, I had concerns about my ability to eat dinner, but any concerns I had disappeared with the first cheem (taste) of meat. 

Thursday, it hit me. The day started off with a really cool activity, "Food from the Forest." Along with UHDP staff, we went into the UHDP agroforest to gather edible food for making lunch. My group's job was to gather bamboo. The bamboo can be cut and used to cook rice in as well as cut thinly and used for twist ties. Bamboo is the coolest. We also had to gather banana leaves for a variety of uses in preparing the meal, mostly as containers for lop, a Thai minced meat dish that we cooked in the banana leaves over the fire. 
Banana leaf!

The rice goes inside the bamboo with water.
The banana leaf acts as a plug and the rice gets steamed. 
I was hanging out by the fire waiting for the food to cook when a Mae came up to  the table with a giant metal pot of pork rinds. 

Wanting to help, I grabbed a spoon and started to help stir the congealed mass of skin and fat, but the smell and sight were too much and I walked away feeling queazy.  I started to flash to the killing and butchering and bloody parts of Wednesday and feeling queazier and queazier. By the time lunch was done, a feast of pork, pork rinds, frogs, catfish and rice--all gathered by us from UHDP--I couldn't bring myself to eat any of it. I couldn't even eat the rice, the physical act of chewing disgusted me. I excused myself and slowly walked to our cabin. As soon as my head hit the pillow, tears came. 

Rationally, I understood. Killing a pig serves multiple families meat for several days, especially since people who kill the pigs use every part of the animal, even parts people in the US would usually throw away. This pig had been realised for food. It had lived a good pig-ife at UHDP and we killed him humanely, giving him dignity even in death. Despite knowing all this rationally, I was upset and felt like vomiting. 

Michael Pollan also kills a pig and feels delayed remore and disgust. Disgust, "the fear of incorporating offending substances into ones body" is an emotional response due to evolution. It is meant to keep omnivores from eating food that would make us sick. Pollan accounts his disgust to the sights and smells of pig guts, something humans shouldn't eat, but then he goes farther; quoting Paul Rozin, Pollan  writes that eating animals, "confronts us with the reality of our own animal nature." 

I think this is where my disgust came from. The killing process is messy, bloody, violent, and even barbarics as we club the pig over the head and throw our machetes full force onto chopping blocks. All of the UHDP staff readily admitted that they disliked the killing, and only 1 of the 3 staff we worked with had ever even actually done the clubbing and killing part. 

I went into the course wanting to remove my veil and once I did, I was't sure I made the right choice allowing myself to be so vulnerable. 

Quoting Peter Singer, Pollan writes that we can either "stop eating animals, or look away." Here in Thailand, I am trapped between these two choices, unable to commit to either, but maybe there is another option.

In Bahn Huay Pong, we happened to be there on a day of celebration. We watched as several families took part in a pig slaughter. Watching the families doing everything so skillfully, it seemed so normal. In Mae Ta, my family had been given meat from their family that had recently killed a pig and all of our meat from the week there was from that pig. In Thailand, where I can neither look away, nor stop eating meat, maybe I can look closer. Maybe I can understand where my food is coming from and see the value in knowing and thus enjoy the meal even more. 

This is the conclusion Pollan ends up reaching in his book saying that meals based on nearly perfect knowledge of the food could be the perfect meals. For now, this is my conclusion as well and I have been so thankful for The Omnivore's Dillemma for helping me through my food journey. 

Agro course has been about far more than meat though. I've learned about native species of Thailand and growing forests to collect non-timber products like medicine, food, and household goods. I've eaten locally rasied and harvested, fish, milk, rattan, bamboo, chili peppers, passion fruit, palmello, longan, lamyai, banana, black sugar palm shoot, black sugar palm fruit, fishtail palm, pumpkin, beans, cassava (yucca), sugar cane, tea rice, papaya, butterfly flowers (fried!) and many other cooking spices. And those are just the ones that come to mind immediately! 

I've picked my own fruit and I can tell you where exactly nearly everything on my plates the past few weeks is from and what the plant it comes from looks like. For some things, I even know the market value, what season its grown in, and how to save the seeds for future growing seasons. I've also been inspired to garden in the future and maybe even have a few egg laying hens. 

I also learned a bit about cooking along the way and how to get out of or into any situation with bamboo and chili peppers. They are seriously the macgyvers of plants. 

Agro has been super cool in so many respects. Also, I encourage anyone who hasn't read Pollan yet to pick up his book and read it, take a few things to heart, and hit up your local farmer's markets. I know I will certainly be eating more local and organic food in the states because of this course. 

Eating Rattan shoots with Nam Cheem (chili condiment).

See all the smaller bushes on the hill, that's tea!

My friend Hannah with freshly picked palmello in one hand and papaya in the other. 

Eating Dinner in Mae Mae

My host sister in Mae Ta, she did most of the cooking, but I helped a bit. 

The most delicious Some Tam ever, I will be making it all the time at home.
It is the most amazingly flavorful dish, sweet, sour, and spicy! 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Quick Update

Hello friends and family,
        It's been two weeks since I've written and it will be another three before I write again. Monday morning I leave for my first Experiential Field Course (EFC). This past week we have been learning about agroecology, an ideology that applies principles of ecology to agrarian settings. As part of the course we are learning about the history of agriculture in the world focusing in on the US and Thailand. We are also reading Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dillema. 

To give you a bit of context: most everyone would agree that we are in a bit of a crisis with agro-businesses and are current agricultural practices developed over the last 100 years, but especially post-1950s with the widespread use of chemical fertilizers as the military industrial complex converted to the agro-industrial complex. There are two large movements suggesting solutions to the current food crisis.  Either we (1) turn to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or (2) turn to agroecology based farming. The stuff we are learning seems particularly pertinent as there is debate in the US right now over whether GMOs need to be labeled or not. As part of the course we visited our Ajan's organic farm as well as a CP (Charoen-Pokphand) animal feed processing factory. If you don't know what CP is, you should, they are the largest animal feed producers in the world, a huge vertically integrated agro-business, and have investments in about every field you can imagine. The two field trips manifested wildly different emotions surrounding agriculture.

Monday, our group splits in to 2 smaller groups. I will head up to Mae Ai, the northernmost district of Chiang Mai,  and spend the week at Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP) working in farms and preparing food from the ground up. On Wednesday, we will be killing and eating a pig. For real, for real. After a week with UHDP I will head to Chiang Dao and live in a home-stay with local villagers who have worked with UHDP to cultivate an extensive agro-forest.

In short, life is about to get way cool.

As for the past two weeks, they have been good. Last Thursday we had a farewell party and said goodbye to our host families. We all wore traditional Lanna (the historic Kingdom of northern Thailand) clothing. Saturday, we moved into apartments closer to the city. Saying goodbye to my host family was very difficult and I already miss them all very much. We grew pretty close and had a lot of fun together. I am going to see them at least once more before I leave the country.  Life in the apartments is a completely different feel and to call it an apartment is a bit of an overstatement. It's more like a hotel room without a kitchen, so we eat all our meals out. It's chill, but I'm excited to head out to the field.

Just to clarify, I will have not have access to computer/phone/communications devices of any sorts. ISDSI has its students unplug for the field courses.

That's about it for now. Talk to you in 3 weeks. :)