Saturday, January 17

Upland Holistic Development Project

TBB has spent the past week at a farm in Fang, in northern Thailand.  The farm is part of a program called Upland Holistic Development Project, which essentially experiments with various sustainable agricultural methods and recommends the best techniques to local farmers.  Many of the fourteen communities they work with are ethnic minorities, who migrated from Burma thirty five years ago and lack the benefits that come with official citizenship.  

At the farm we've seen the methods that UHDP is attempting to implement in nearby villages.  We've even been able to try our hand at preparing chemical-free compost catalysts, tree propagating, and organic livestock feeding.  For more on UHDP's goals and methods, to check out their website (listed at the bottom of this posting). 

Mornings are spent taking Thai lessons with two teachers who will travel with us for the rest of the month.  Thai is (another) tonal language, with its own script, but we're working mostly with phonetic phrases that will be useful in our homestays.  After class, we generally have a  TBB seminar that focuses on our topic of the month: sustainable agriculture.  We read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a well-written journalist who explores the state of contemporary food (primarily in the US).  It's a really fascinating and eye-opening book about the industrial process -- the history and the governmental policies that created and reinforced the current system.  We've also watched a film, on a similar note, called The Future of Food.  Both are recommended, particularly if you've enjoyed Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation; these are similar but a little more substantive.  

Yesterday TBB not only observed but indeed participated in a pig slaughter.  The group was fairly apprehensive upon learning what we'd be doing, but in the end it was an important experience.  After all, most of us eat animal products daily and are so far removed from the process that it's hard to conceptualize the system.  I'll describe the process, so if you're weary of animal slaughter, skip the next couple of paragraphs.

The first step was to knock the pig out with a wooden club.  This was the most difficult part of the whole process to watch.  To minimize suffering, this was done not by a TBB student but by one of the four or five local men who led the efforts.  At the first blow, the pig was on the ground, convulsing and writhing, and it took two more whacks to render it unconscious.  This was when the most adrenaline was running in the crowd, but also the moments when we had to keep moving quickly.  Immediately six people grabbed the pig's legs and hoisted it up onto a bamboo structure where the experts pushed forward the executioner: Zach himself wielded the knife and thrust it into the pig's chest.  I caught the spilt blood in a bucket, and within maybe thirty seconds the worst of the drama was over.  

We next had to shave the pig's coarse hair.  We loosened the hair follicles with boiling water and scraped off as much as we could with blunt blades.  What was left had to be singed off with burning palm leaves, and after hosing off the corpse, we sliced open the pig and removed the organs.  The whole butchering process took a couple of hours and nearly all the parts of the body were consumed in some way.  

Amazingly, no one threw up or passed out, and everyone attended.  It was challenging to be so involved in the process of killing of an animal that we had seen walking around, but the process felt more humane than a massive livestock factory slaughterhouse, where most of our meat originates.

Saturday, January 10

Sun & Surf in Thailand

After a lay-over in the Bangkok Airport – home to the recent political protests – we reached the beautiful beaches of Thailand.  We would spend our enrichment week relaxing on a small island in the south called Koh Tao, becoming certified to scuba dive.  We stayed at a little dive resort right on the beach, nestled in a beautiful cove, in bungalows overlooking the ocean. A bit isolated from the heart of the town, it was a very serene location, with plenty of hammocks to kick back in. 

According to the 2005 version of Lonely Planet, Koh Tao is a gem precisely because locals don’t spend their time catering to tourists, and even electricity hasn’t reached the island. It’s amazing how much a place can change in just four years: now, I’d say 95% of the island’s economy is tourism-based, the place is covered in resorts, restaurants, and adventure sports outfitters.  And as for the electricity – it’s everywhere. 

The scuba course was four days long, and began with a number of boring instructional videos.  The first two days we also did foolish bubble-blowing activities in shallow water.  So when it came to day three, I was numbed into expecting very little from diving, and it came as a pleasant surprise when all of a sudden I found myself at the bottom of a beautiful coral reef, freed from gravity’s constraint, and able to navigate a National Geographic setting myself.  We made it on four dives, each about forty minutes, to a maximum of fifteen meters. What I never realized about diving is that you have to pretty consciously control your buoyancy – each inhalation and exhalation changes the volume of your lungs, and sends you up or down.  After a couple of minutes with the bizarre sensation, you get used to it and buoyancy maneuvering becomes second-nature.  It truly was the coolest experience – we got up-close and personal with the most bizarre neon fish, did back-flips on the sandy bottom, and had an underwater dance party.   We saw stingrays and barracudas, not to mention sea cucumbers galore. 

    We were lucky to have beautiful weather, and we’re leaving Koh Tao with healthy tans (or some of us – there’s a good amount of burn, too).  Besides scuba diving, we rented kayaks, indulged into cheap Thai massages, and enjoyed amazing cuisine.  The pad thai and curries are delicious.  I’ve been missing out on pad thai all my life; when we ordered it at home, it always came with shrimp, so I just never bothered to try it.  It is so, so not bad.  I also love the eating culture here – at local restaurants, and most shops, too, you take your shoes off before entering, and meals are eaten around low tables on lounging cushions. 

            In transit we spent a night on a larger island, Koh Samui, where I had a pretty striking experience walking back to our hotel through the red light district (safely, with Sandy).  Tiny little open-air bars lined the main street, competing music blaring from the speakers, and prostitutes blatantly promoting their bars.  Thailand had a large stake in the sex-tourism industry, and though it’s illegal, it’s also largely overlooked.  I looked up the issue online, and learned that in Koh Samui, a small little beach town, there are more than 10,000 prostitutes.  Having just read a book on modern-day slavery (A Crime So Monstrous, by Benjamin Skinner) the walk through the bar neighborhood was particularly unsettling.  I have no idea what proportion of those girls were coerced into their positions, but I also sense that women with economic options choose to go into the business.  So far we’ve also seen a couple of lady-men, whose presence is proportionally high in Thailand because it’s culturally acceptable for men to transform themselves into women. 

We’ve been pretty cloistered away on a touristy island, so it makes sense that I haven’t seen any indication of the recent political unrest.  I wonder how much evidence of it we’ll see later on in the trip, when we go north to study sustainable agriculture in rural homestays. 

Thursday, January 1

Final Weeks in Vietnam

After celebrating Christmas with the group in Quy Nhon, I visited Nha Trang on independent student travel with Emily and Renee.  We spent a couple of nights in the backpacker’s beach town, in a little hostel just five minutes’ walk from the ocean.  Of course, it’d been sunny all month while we were stuck in sweaty Ho Chi Minh City, but once we reached the shore, it clouded over and drizzled.  We got a couple of hours of sun in, lying on the beach, enough to redden a bit.  Other than that, we enjoyed the little town: we had an amazing Indian meal, homemade ice cream, browsed the book exchange shops, played badminton.  It was a fun challenge to make our own hostel reservations, secure bus tickets back to Ho Chi Minh, and be in charge of all our own meals. 

  We took a public bus back down to Ho Chi Minh City along a beautiful costal route.  We returned to impending media projects and planning for our student environmental conference.  That evening, though, when we went out for dinner, we could sense unusual activity in the city.  It was a Sunday night, but the place had more energy than we’d seen all month.  We learned at the restaurant that it was the night of the final match in the South East Asia soccer championships, with Vietnam competing against Thailand.  The game stretched on for hours, and we kept catching glances of it on TV as we worked on media projects.  It looked like it was over for Vietnam, but they won in the last moments on an exciting kick.  The city absolutely went mad.  They won at maybe ten or eleven o’clock, but the celebration lasted well beyond four a.m.  Around midnight I ventured out of the hotel to explore the festivities, and it was an absolute mob scene.  Everyone was joy-riding through the city on their motorcycles, waving the red Vietnamese flag, banging trash cans, and reveling in general mayhem.  At some intersections, it was so crowded that it was literally impossible for a pedestrian to make any headway.  It was probably the rowdiest crowd I’d ever seen, but it felt completely safe and good-natured.  I think in comparison to Red Sox rioting, this was a national accomplishment, and felt united rather than divisive.  On the other hand, I can also see how intense fervor could turn dangerous in a mob setting with that much energy and collective emotion. 

On New Year’s Eve, we hosted our student environmental conference.  We’d invited local university students, and about sixty attended.  For three hours, we shared our media projects, learned about Vietnamese students’ efforts in environmental clubs, and discussed conservation.  It turned out quite well – it was very organized and ran smoothly – but I think we perhaps overestimated the collective English level, and in the limited time, it was hard to get very many insightful ideas.  The Vietnamese students, however, seemed very willing to participate, and tossed around ideas about emissions-trading and governmental regulation.  The most concise point that I took away from our discussion was that Vietnam lacks two things in regard to environmentalism: awareness, and alternatives.  Most people remain ignorant of the consequences of their actions, and even those that realize the detrimental affects of particular behaviors don’t have many other options.  

We celebrated the New Year at a fancy hotel party where there was a buffet, live music and performance, and a balloon cascade at midnight.  New Year’s isn’t a very important holiday in Vietnam, but in Ho Chi Minh City it’s celebrated in certain neighborhoods.  The entire hotel district was decked out in more lighting than during Christmas, and one street was even named “Times Square”. 


Not long afterwards, we were having our last Vietnamese iced coffees and on our way to the airport to head for Thailand ...