Sunday, November 27, 2005

My Life as a Rice Farmer, Part 1

Ok, it was just two days, but I’ll put it on my resume.

My Thai-language tutor and good friend, Vinny, kept badgering me to spend a weekend at his boyhood home and parents’ rice farm, about a three-hour journey from our university town. He wanted me to experience rice farming close up and personal. Finally, with a weekend free coming up, I gave him a call, and off we went in his pickup truck to see life unlike my university environment.

Vinny is really a great guy: father of two older kids (high school and university students), husband of one wife, fish farmer, rice farmer, motorbike repairman, dormitory owner/manager, chili-plant grower, and anything else he can put his hand to in order to make a few extra baht to keep the family in food and clothes. With all that activity, he still finds time to befriend this farang—language lessons as often as I want, and an open door to do short tours around Isan in his pickup truck.

Vinny personifies the Thai idiom “naam-jai” (literally “water-heart”), meaning someone who is totally generous with no strings attached. My Thai friend sometimes stops by my little duplex to chat, and we go on for hours. He’s had such an interesting life—growing up near an American military base during the Vietnam war, working abroad in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He goes on how the Americans were so kind and helpful to his boyhood village. In some way, I think he’s paying back their kindness by being so kind and generous to me.

Leaving shortly after dawn on a Saturday morning, Vinny took on the role of a local tour guide—full of stories and history of the area. Here’s a string of snapshots of some of our temporary stops along the way which took the full day.

A long one-kilometer climb to the
top of a sacred Buddhist mountain.

In the steamy climate, and halfway
to the top of the mountain, this
position looks rather inviting.

An overweight Buddha image
reminds me why I’m panting and
sweating so much on the climb.

View from the top.

A former US bomb casing
converted into a temple bell,
now calls worshippers to meditation.

An artisan putting final touches
on an ornate temple altar.

You donate 3,000 baht (about
$75 US), and you get your name
on a fence section at the temple.

Must’ve been a good idea,
judging by the number of names
painted on numerous sections!

Thais have a quirky sense of humor when out in the forest.
Whenever they see a big overhanging rock, they love
to put sticks and objects under it as if the spindly little
struts were supporting it.
The small red lettering on the rock?
Temple notice: “Do not support this stone!”

This is one “stick” no one grabs to
support their forest stones.
It’s really an insect.

We came upon quite a large reservoir which the
local population finds many uses for.

Top: Freshwater clams at a nearby market.
Bottom: Freshwater shrimp from the barby anyone?
I'm suprised at how many "seafoods" have their
freshwater counterparts: mussels, crabs, etc.

Quite a beautiful national park
lined the shores of the reservoir.

Park visitors’ headquarters. Thai
national parks are well
organized and inviting places to visit.

University students conquering a nearby
rock outcropping at the park.

Asparagus vendors spreading their
veggies on the road shoulder.
This veggie is plentiful and cheap.

Herbal hawker selling his remedies.

Looked like weeds to me…

Tomb of a famous local monk.
Those elephants are life-sized!

So far, being a rice farmer seemed like a pretty cushy job--riding around in a pickup all day, enjoying the local sites with my personal interpreter and tour guide, savoring the local delicacies, taking snapshots like any other tourist. Loved it!

To be continued....
See post December 27, 2005

Friday, November 25, 2005

Interlude: Pause for a Shudder

Scolopendra Subspinipes or Tropical Centipede
Grows up to 8 inches (20 centimeters)
This is probably a “yawn” blog posting to my SE Asian friends, but I’m sure it’ll provide a good “yuck” response from my North American visitors.

About 3-1/2 years ago, I saw one of these things on a pile of ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Being new to SE Asia, I approached it to get a good picture and my native guide rather roughly grabbed my arm and pulled me away, cautioning me to steer clear (and ruining my picture in the process). He made it sound as though the thing would jump on me from a couple meters away. Actually, it turns out these are rather slow-moving creatures (all the easier to stealthily sneak into bed with you at night).

Last year, one of my university students was bitten, and told me the spine-tingling details. Like most students (and rural Isan residents), his bed in the dormitory is a palette on the floor. Therefore it was easy for one of these creatures to crawl up onto his neck and inflict a bite during the night. (Talk about a living Daraculan nightmare.)

He said that the pain was near-paralyzing. The medical clinic is just across the road from his dormitory. However, it hurt so badly, he lay there (near-motionless) for 2-1/2 days before being able make it across the road for medical help (he lives alone).

I just asked another native Isan resident about the local folk treatment:

  1. Heat up cow manure to just below skin-burning temperature.
  2. Mix it with a local herb (he can't remember what it was; probably the main effective ingredient!).
  3. Spread it on the wound, and keep it there until the pain subsides.

As a little boy, this informant was bitten and was treated by his grandfather many years ago. He said it took three days for the pain to subside. However, from what I hear, two to three days for the pain to subside is about the lifetime of the agony anyway. So who really knows if the folk remedy speeds up recovery or not?

I would be quick to add that I'm not purposely discounting most of the Isan folk medicine. These guys know stuff that the Bangkok-trained (or abroad-trained) doctors have never laid eyes on, and a lot of it is quite effective (personal experience).

After hearing some of these local stories, I've made a few New Year's resolutions:
  • I'm checking my shoes in the morning
  • I'm checking the bedding before I hop in at night
  • No more sleeping on the floor, which I've done often.
  • No more walking around in the dark (inside or outside) in my bare feet, which I've also often done since moving to Isan.
I'm no four-year-old wimp, but I've heard enough stories that make me want to exercise just a little more caution in daily life.

UPDATE: "Emergency and Chaos!" Read one of our readers' first-hand accounts with a centipede. At that web-site, scroll down to the Jan. 17, 2006 entry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Anyone Lose a Leg?

I've run over a lot of interesting things in my motorbike travels in Isan: snakes, rats, haystacks, boxes, and almost an elephant. However, yesterday's bizarre incident just won't shake itself out of my mind.

I was giving a lift to a student from the university to downtown, when we came upon something about 1 meter (3 ft.) long, a mixture of fur (hide?) bone, blood, and rather jagged on one end, I made a last minute maneuver, avoiding it, but looking through my rearview mirror, saw another motorbike behind me hit it. The object flipped up in the air, doing a couple twirls and landed further out into the middle of the road.

I dreaded asking, but road-kill shock drove me to it: "What was that?!" I yelled to my passenger.

It wasn't so much the information I received, but how it was conveyed that rattled me.

"A cow leg," he said in a somewhat indifferent, nonchalant manner. He immediately started chatting about something else: "Did you see the big dormitory they're building over there...?"

"Wait!!" The urgency in my voice stopped him mid-sentence. "Did you say a COW LEG? Like 'the leg of a cow?'" (making sure I was correctly understanding his grammatical construction.) "Cow leg? As in, 'There's a cow running around in a field somewhere missing a leg?' And I just saw it's missing part flipping around in the air back there? Like, I almost HIT it?"

"Yeah, so?" The non-surprise in his voice revealed to me that this was a non-event to him. It was then I remembered I was talking to a kid brought up on an Isan farm.

It was also at this moment he also realized he was talking to someone from a different planet who'd never quite confronted anything's bloody leg lying around Seattle's streets.

We rode on in silence; him, wondering what kind of sheltered life I'd lived until now.

And my thoughts?

I couldn't help picturing a cow trying to cross the busy highway, against the pedestrian "Wait" light, dodging, dancing among the racing cars, trucks, and buses. Finally, her luck runs out on the front bumper of some Nissan pickup.

Or, some farmer trying to milk an unsteady cow. "Hold on Bessy, just a few more minutes of this torture. Grab that barn pole with your teeth just a little tighter. That'll steady you".

Or overhearing a cow-to-cow conversation out in the barnyard: "Molly, did you forget to wear your prosthesis this morning? You really shouldn't leave the barn without it. You're unattractive when you hobble."

"Why me?" Molly bellowed in anguish.

Then again, perhaps it was just an overloaded rendering truck bouncing along the highway, dropping a few heads, legs and tails along the way. Most likely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What Thai Students Really Want

What does a 19-year-old Thai university student really want in life? In two of my English conversation classes, I asked the question: “If you were granted two wishes, what would they be?” Students responded anonymously on small slips of paper, and then after collecting them, I read their wishes to a very attentive class. Here’s a sampling of their answers:


I wish…

…that I will get a pretty boyfriend.

…my true love came with a nice guy.

…I lived with my boyfriend in Korea.

…I could find the most beautiful girl who would love me.

…I could find a soul mate.

…I could say “I love you” to someone I have a crush on.

…I married Prince William.


I wish…

…my parents could live with me forever.

…my parents could live in my dormitory with me.

…good health for my family.

…my family had enough money.

…bad luck didn’t happen to me and my family anymore.

…I lived in my family’s hometown.

…I had more time to spend with my family.

…I had more time to do everything for my family.


I wish…

…I could be stronger.

…I was taller.

…I could be more confident.

…I had much more knowledge.

…I were more intelligent.

…I was luckier

…I could be more beautiful.

…my body could be a better shape.

…I could be a nice boy for everyone.

…I was a good guy.

…I were a dancer.


I wish…

…I could travel around the world.

… I lived in America.

…I could study abroad.

…I was an actress.

…I were a Ninja.

…Thailand had snow!

…for world peace.


I wish…

…I had my own BMW car.

…I had a good job in a good company.

…I worked a part-time job.

…I could get a lot of money (more than a million).


I wish…

…for a grade “A” in Basic English Conversation class. (at least 5 students)

…I could be better at English.

…I could study better than last semester.

…I could find something…

…I could ask for many more wishes.


A few thoughts to ponder--

How many of these wishes do you identify with?

How many of these wishes could have originated from just about any university classroom around the world?