Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Most Recent Journal Entry:

Today is the 19th of July. I recently returned from visiting my friend’s home who lives in a farmer community in the mountains, a little over four hours away from Bangkok. It was a great experience and gave me ample time to reflect upon many different aspects of my life. I arrived at the bus terminal at four, an hour earlier than our original appointment. I’d just come from participating in an interview with a news reporter. The report was actually about my father in-law but he’d asked me to attend lunch and make a few comments over lunch. My friend Shane arrived at 5. We sat around and waited for the 7 o’clock bus to Chaiyaphum to arrive. The bus ride was quite long, nearly four and a half hours. We mostly sat and listened to music with intermissions of conversation. My friend warned me that his house was very poor and that I’d be surprised by the standard of living of people in his village. I stared out the window to the left of me, grateful for the time to think and tune out from the outside world. Sometimes temporary moments feel as if they expand and feel more like days. Night began to set in and the images outside my windows turned into blurs as we headed up the mountain.

We arrived at the province Thepsathid of Chaiyaphum at roughly a few minutes past midnight. We stopped literally in the middle of the street and quickly got off the bus. I saw some figures in the distance sitting around a fire. We walked up to them and my friend introduced me to his mother, aunt, and uncle. We headed to a wooden truck that his uncle drove to pick us up in. I sat in the front and began to take in everything. The air was clean and made me feel like I could breathe in limitless air and scarcely have to exhale. The truck had no windshield so the wind blew uninhibitedly across my face. In the distance I saw silhouettes of mountains. We drove down the bumpy roads while I continued to breathe in and out incessantly. We drove up to a dog sitting in the road sleeping. Instead of stopping, my friend’s uncle just drove over the dog with the dog perfectly aligned between the 4 tires. The dog was completely unharmed.

After a twenty minute drive we arrive at my friend’s house. His house was one room, the walls made of tin with a wooden base and a roof made mostly from what looked like dried palm leafs. His mother’s sister and parents lived on the same plot of land. We sat and talked for a while. They mostly spoke in a Thai dialect that is specific to their region. I sat amused and listened patiently as I tried to understand at least half of what they were saying. Amazingly, whenever they spoke to me directly I understood them completely.

We decided it was time to get ready for bed at about two in the morning. Before going to bed I took a shower outside in the outhouse; a small structure also made of tin. Showering consisted of drawing water from a bucket and washing my body with a bar of soap I brought with me. I couldn’t get my shampoo pack open so I also washed my hair with hand soap. Periodically I looked up to the sky. The sky seemed vast and extremely clear. I was in awe of the purity of this place. After I finished my shower I sat and talked with my friend Shane’s mother for a while. When he came back from his shower we closed our eyes and went quickly to sleep.

The next morning I woke up to the clucking of chickens and the sound of motors. It was roughly six o’clock in the morning. We woke up and quickly started walking the dirt path to reach the small school where the bus came to pick people up once a day. We planned to go see the daug grajiaw flowers that were famous in this region. Shane’s mother waved to neighbors and spoke a few words to them as they stared at us strangely, trying to understand what a farang (term used for people with white skin in Thailand. Farang actually means ‘guava’. People with white skin were given this name because of the white inside of the guava fruit) was doing in the village. As we were walking towards the school, a woman on a motorcycle stopped us and told us that we had already missed the bus. She offered for us to take her motorcycle for the day if we would just pay for the gas. However, we gave her a little more money and were on our way.

The flowers were beautiful and the atmosphere around them was even more beautiful. The flowers were high up in the mountains. The tourist site also had different areas to go to such as ‘the end of the earth’. The end of the earth was this view site that looked over a whole mountain range beneath. It was inspiring. We walked further threw this jungle and ended up a place called ‘beautiful rock’. Beautiful rock was a place where rocks had obviously either formed from plates shifting or once been under water and left these interesting shaped rocks.

After a few hours we decided to head back. My friend was worried that I was tired so he tried to take a shortcut. However, he didn’t know the jungle whatsoever. We ended up lost in this jungle for nearly a half hour. While walking through the jungle we passed many areas of tall grass. I was terrified that a snake would bite me and then I wouldn’t be able to identify it and then I would die from its venom in this small farming community. As we walked by feet were constantly beat against rocks and my flip flops started to slip from under my feet. As we walking through the jungle my flip-flop tore. My friend quickly fixed it and we ventured forward. Not long after we finally arrived back at the appropriate path. We walked another 30-50 meters and my flip-flop became completely useless. I decided I would walk barefooted. I walked barefooted all the way back to the beginning of the national park. As soon as I walked onto the road again a woman approached me who was walking with only one shoe. She said to me “See! We broke our shoes on opposite sides! I’ll give you my in tact flip-flop for your intact flip flop!” I peered down to her shoe. Her shoe was a women’s flip-flop with a slight heel and flower designs over the base of the shoe. I told her “I don’t think yours goes with me, but you can have my flip-flop”. She thanked me, took a picture with me and left quickly laughing with her friends. I now was completely barefooted and my feet were scratched and bleeding from the jungle trek. I waited for the bus with my friend while countless people made remarks such as: “I wonder where the farang’s shoes are? Is he ok?” Whenever I was close to them I quickly answered them and told them the story.

After leaving the mountains we went to the first store we could find and I purchased some replacement flip flops. Throughout the rest of the day we visited nearby waterfalls and enjoyed the beauty of Chaiyaphum. Young teens and families filled the waterfalls. A transvestite asked me to take a picture with him. We headed back to my friend’s house and relaxed the rest of the night. First we stopped at his old school, a small building with only six teachers. We discussed the school with one of his old teachers for a while and he explained to me the challenges that his school were constantly faced with. He spoke of literacy problems and children being compelled to help work the fields from such a young age.

We walked around and talked to his neighbor’s and family. His grandfather was a silent man who opened his mouth rarely and typically only to say jokes. His mother was similar. A quiet but sweet woman who obviously cared and sacrificed for me every moment I was there, quietly ordering her son to take good care of me. After chatting with everyone for a while, we watched a movie and headed to sleep.

The next morning I woke up to similar sounds. It was a Sunday. This would be the day I would help harvest rice and hoe the fields. We sat on a cart, pulled by a tiny motor and headed up a hill to their land. I was wearing a flannel shirt (borrowed from my friend’s mother) and a straw hat. As we drove up the hill, I thought about how interesting my life has become. I reflected on the last few years and couldn’t help but smirk as I traveled to this plot of land in this tiny village of Thailand.

After arriving to the spot I was handed a hoe and we started to clear all of the weeds between the plants. The plants were some kind of herb. I was terrible at agriculture. Red ants bit my feet constantly and I was incredibly slow. Luckily, my friend was pretty bad as well. As a result, he came down to Bangkok. He explained to me that he never was cut out for the agricultural life.

After helping his family for a while I said goodbye to them and walked down the dirt road to a woman rice farming. She was pulling rice out of the wet ground and putting it in piles wrapped with a string. I got in the water and helped her for a while. We had a pleasant chat and she laughed as I stumbled about. She told me that I must be open minded to come and spend time in a village with impoverished people. I felt happy that she would say that. Yet, I was overwhelmed with my experience and extremely grateful for everything they had shown me. I walked with my friend and told him that the living conditions and the wealth of his family mattered little. I told him that he was rich in a completely different way. I spoke of the warmth of his family and the communal style of his village. I also mentioned the safety of his home and said that he should be happy to come from such a place.

I kept thinking in my mind that helping ‘develop’ an area is incorrect. These people seemed so content with their lives. Their only discontent came from the fact that people told them that they had so little. It was almost as if their true poverty came when they had a point of comparison. At the same time I was aware that there are certain aspects of progression that could greatly benefit these people; for example, medication and new information on hygiene. Nonetheless, there is something that bothers me about the idea of developing a people. The idea of America being at the pinnacle of development is highly debatable. These people had much that I’ve never seen in a people. The idea of trade-offs ran through my head. Can someone who wants to live a communal lifestyle, with family, and on their family land really become exceedingly wealthy? Can someone who is extremely wealthy reap the benefits of communal living, a multi-generational family, and the safety attached to this environment?

After farming we headed back to his house and prepared to leave. I took a quick nap to catch up on the hours of sleep I’d been lacking. When I arose we took some quick pictures and headed back to Bangkok in a friend’s truck who was also heading to Bangkok to work. His mother also joined us as she was going down to take care of her daughter’s new born. As we left down the same road we came in on, his aunt said something that intrigued me greatly. I immediately reverted back to my initial thoughts as I drove down the road past midnight and also the recurring thoughts of being developed and developing that were a constant theme throughout my stay. She said simply that “I wish this road would progress; but that’s the only thing I want to progress. Everything else can stay exactly the same”. We flew down the highway back to Bangkok. I thanked his mother for his kindness and headed back to my wife, unable to articulate my experience.

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