Each of us lived with a family; mine lived on the outskirts of the village, on a peninsula of land that jutted out into a beautiful expansive valley. It's a little hard to describe the setting; half the time I felt as though I could have been in New England during autumn, half the time it seemed like Arizona's dry red dust landscape. But out house was in the middle of it all, overlooking endless mountainside, and it was spectacular at sunset, not to mention the stars at night.
My host-mother, Jipo, was the teacher at the local school, which goes only as far as elementary level. Beyond that, children have to travel into town, Mae Hong Son, which is about two hours by motorcycle. There were fifteen kids at school, in two classes, and she taught the younger group, about 3-5 years old. Most mornings I would follow my host-mother and her 4-year old daughter, Meji, into school, where I learned the Thai script from bossy but well-intentioned five-year-olds, and perfected my crayon abilities.
my host sister, Meji
As a TBB group, we met in the afternoon for Thai language classes. I have to admit that after a couple of days this seemed unnecessary, given that the locals in Ban Huay Hee spoke their own, unrelated language: Pakanyoh, the language that had followed the Karen people from Burma. The first word to learn is the multi-purpose da-bluu, which is appropriate for hello, thank you, and good-bye -- pretty much the fundamentals in a home-stay situation!
Our curriculum focus was sustainable agriculture. Ban Huay Hee was certainly an agrarian community; nearly all the food consumed there is produced on their own land (picture overgrowth on a mountainside, agroforestry, rather than the quintessential southeast Asian rice paddy fields I was imagining). However, January is the dry season, and there's not much labor to be done. The seasonal farming was in the burning stage, when trees are hacked down and left to dry before being burned to restore nutrients to the ground.
Admirably, the community didn't adopt the industrial farming techniques that were popularized in the Green Revolution, but later proved to be environmentally damaging. They use the same methods they've been practicing for hundreds of years, and by any measure, they're self-sustaining. Seeing what it takes to be sustainable on this level, however, raises questions about how feasible it is to apply sustainable agriculture on a large, world-wide scale. This community devotes so much of its daily life to cultivation and food preparation, not to mention the land needed -- it's hard to imagine being able to feed 6 million people this way.
Food in Ban Huay Hee was, if anything, predictable. It was pretty much a sure bet that any meal, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, would be based on a large bowl of rice. In addition, there would be two or three side dishes that everyone shared, generally vegetables or egg, sometimes with small bits of meat. I was lucky that my host-family ate with me, rather than feed me alone, as other families did. The four of us ate together on the floor, and as I learned early on, you don't help yourself to more than a bite of the communal dishes at a time.
Other highlights of living in Ban Huay Hee -- a day hike to Doi Pui, the highest mountain in the area, where, at the summit, we encountered thirty or forty soldiers of the Thai army, who were in town as security for the queen's tour of duty through Mae Hong Son. They were by far the friendliest bunch of militia I've ever seen; they cheerfully insisted that we all take a group photo. The irony was that with one arm cradling their giant guns, they flashed peace signs at the camera with their other hand.
In the middle of our stay, we had a weekend trip to Mae Hong Son for independent student travel. Zach and I went camping on a nearby river bank, complete with a campfire and a chorus of tree frogs, all night long.
Back in the village, we continued to study agriculture, and went on short trips to the fields to see the various stages in the cycle of burning fields, leaving them fallow, and re-cultivating them. We had a go at chopping trees, the head of the village showed us how to blacksmith machettes, and we worked on media projects.
The farewell celebration was a nice night of singing, thank-you's, and presentations of our media.
with Jipo & Meji