Monday, August 31, 2009

Return to the Farm

Hello!  I apologize for the long time it has been since I have written a post.  Here is an update on our travels:
After the trekking in Laos, we decided to leave the country as soon as possible.  Partly because we were ready to leave Laos and partly out of necessity because of our lack of money (money was stolen while trekking) and the lack of ATM's in Laos.  We headed straight for the Laos border of Huay Xai, across the river from Huay Xai is the small Thai town called Chiang Khong.  The trip to the Laos border took about two days.  We had a very strict budget all the way because we had very limited funds and we did not want to take money out of an ATM until we reached Thailand again.  
After two days traveling Southwest through Laos we got to Chiang Khong and stayed one night.  We found a fantastic Korean BBQ Restaurant which was teeming with locals in Chiang Khong.  We had a feast on all sorts of Thai vegetables and meats (including liver, heart, and other misc. meats).  Unfortunately the next day my stomach did not think this meal was so fantastic.  Our next destination was Chiang Rai, only about two hours away from Chiang Khong, but the bus ride was excrutiatingly long because of my stomach pain.  We spent a few days in Chiang Rai re-enjoying the relative comfort of Thailand.  After our hiatus from farm work, we were ready to put our boots back on and get dirty!  We made contact with a farm 70 km north of Chiang Mai called Amee Doyer's Organic Farm.  This farm is very large, about 100 rai, and grows all sorts things including papaya, rice, all kinds of fruits including hundreds of orange trees.  They also keep about 60-70 pigs, whose needs I spent much of my time at the farm tending to.  The people who own the farm are from a hilltribe called Lisu.  The majority of the workers and people who live on the farm are from Burma.  (The location of the farm was very close to the Burmese border).  We arrived at the farm to discover that the English speaking owner of the farm was in fact in Canada, and would be there until December, so we were left to figure everything out through charades and sign language.  We were the only WWOOFers staying at the farm during this time.  The first few days on Amee Doyer's Organic Farm we spent planting tens of thousands of beans.  We worked with the other farm laborers planting the soil of a large fruit orchard with beans.  Because no one spoke English we could not ascertain the reason we were doing this, but we figured it was to fix nitrogen in the soil to create healthier soil.  So, we spent hours digging small holes and then throwing three white beans in each hole.  We estimated that by the end of the two days we must have planted somewhere in the range of 50,000 beans.  After the days of bean planting we began to learn how to care for pigs.  After several days of caring for the pigs, I gained a new appreciation for the vileness of this animal.  Of course, I still enjoy pork, but I will never look at a piece of bacon the same way.  As I said, the farm kept about 60-70 pigs, some of which were the size of small horses!!  I worked in the pig pen quite alot.  At first the stench of the pigs is quite shocking.  When they urinate (which they do in copious amounts) the stench almost seems to burn the inside of your nostrils, as if you were inhaling an acidic chemical.  
I observed pigs doing four things only: eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing.  Pigs eat three times a day, just like us humans.  We spent about an hour in total mixing pig slop (times three for each meal).  The pig slop is made with large brownish grey pieces of stuff that looks like smashed cow dung.  I could not figure out what the stuff for quite a while and was not able to ask the farm hands what it was.  Later, I figured out what it was.  The farm has a large house used for producing oil for cooking.  Inside the house is a huge machine that is used to press small seeds which they told us were "niger" seeds.  After the seeds are pressed an aromatic oil is pressed out.  One day I watched this process and they made about seven large garbage buckets full of cooking oil.  The machine expels a waste product from the oil.  The waste product is the compressed seeds after the oil was been squeezed out.  The seed shells come out in cakes that look like smashed cow pies.  All the waste from the seeds is bagged.  Then, we would take the bagged seed cakes, put them in a two big cauldrons, add water, and the stuff would turn into pig slop!  Amazing!  We also added a few other things to the mix, one of which looked like sawdust but smelled like fish.  
There are about 20 baby pigs on the farm who get a special pig slop with fresh greens mixed in.  We made several missions into the forest to collect fresh greens for the babies.  On the first mission we cut down about 20 banana trees, sliced off the leaves, and then loaded them on a cart to take back to the pig sty.  On the second mission we collected a kind of green leaf which we just called "pig lettuce."  Pig lettuce is covered with tiny bristles (kind of like nettles) which sting you to the touch.  After the pig lettuce mission our arms were covered in welts and rashes.  We could only hope the pigs appreciated our efforts.  We chopped up the banana trees in to bite size pieces and saved them in trash buckets.  Whenever we mixed the baby pig feed, a few buckets of chopped banana tree were added in.  We also had to chop the pig lettuce into bite sized pieces.  This was a long and arduous process.  We were given two machetes and two planks of wood to use as cutting blocks.  I spent a good chunk of time over the next days chopping up the pig lettuce with the machete and the cutting block on the floor.  After hours of this, I felt that I would be a sufficient sous chef to any top chef in New York!  
An interesting moment came when we witnessed the slaughter of one of the large pigs.  Alea, one of the farm owners, came over to the pig pen and picked up a big machete.  We gravitated to him because we had never seen an animal as large as this  pig slaughtered before.  He thought our interest was hilarious.  Alea found it hard to believe that we had never seen a pig slaughtered before, or any animal for that matter!  He was even so kind as to offer us the machete, giving us the chance to kill the animal.  While I think this would be an interesting experiment for any carnivore, I think I'll just keep my hopes on killing a chicken.  We both declined this offer.  He said ok, and turned his attention to the pig.  With a swift stroke, Alea stabbed the foot long machete blade into the pigs side, between its ribs in the direction of its head.  I was surprised that the pig's throat wasn't cut, but apparently it is much easier to do it this way.  The pig convulsed for about a minute or two.  A small amount of blood flowed out of the machete wound.  After a minute some blood came out of the pig's nose and mouth, the pig urinated in its own pool of blood, and then it was dead.  I realized that my own heart of beating almost out of my chest as I watched this spectacle.  After the pig was completely dead we took it out of its pen and began the process of cleaning, gutting, and cutting it up.  The first step was to pour buckets of boiling water on the skin and scrape off the top layer of skin and hair with the blade of a machete.  This process reminded me of how humans shave their faces and/or legs.  The pig's skin looked grotesquely human after this "shaving" process.  After the majority of the hair had been removed we moved the pig near the gas tanks.  The farm also makes huge amount of gas from the pig waste.  A hose was hooked into the gas take and the skin of the pig was torched to get ride of any more left over hairs.  After this was done the gutting process began.  One of the farm hands began by cutting the pig from chin to tail (on the belly side), again with a machete (a very multi purpose tool!).  Then the head was cut off and placed to the side.  We watched in amazement as the organs were removed one by one.  We made guess as to what each thing was: gallbladder?  large intestines?  heart? liver? kidneys?  Half of this pig would be for our own consumption at the farm and half would be for selling at the market.  After all the "guts" were removed the butcher continued to cut the meat in smaller pieces.  
Later that night we found that our dinner was almost entirely made up of pig.  Pig soup, a bowl of pig liver mixed with intestines, and a few other dishes consisting of body parts I cannot name.  Some of the dishes were ok, but I could swear I could taste the pig slop in the meat.  All our meals for the next three or four days were also entirely made of pig.  
After about a week on Amee Doyer's Organic Farm we decided to depart.  The experience there was fantastic but for learning potential, it had its limits because of the lack of English speakers who could tell us the bigger picture of the farm. 
After the farm we headed to Chiang Mai where we spent the next 5 days re-re-enjoying the comforts of urban life in Thailand.  Chiang Mai has a great night market, which we wandered through on several nights.  We discovered the magic of mango sticky rice at one of the night markets.  There are many temples in Chiang Mai (none that we visited), but perhaps more interesting to us were the ubiquitous used book stores.  Yikes!  One around every corner, each one we just had to go in.  After a few nights in Chiang Mai, the number of books we possessed was laudable.  Our stack of books had reached more than two feet high! Chiang Mai is a dangerous place for the reader. 
Almost a week passed in Chiang Mai and we decided it was time to head back to a farm.  We decided we wanted to come back to Neil and Su's farm (the first farm we visited) in Bang Phra.  We have now been at Neil and Su's for about two weeks (every day of which we have worked!) We are working on several projects including: building bungalows, building a woodfire oven, digging septic tanks, weeding tomatoes, encouraging the chickens to lay more eggs, and constructing a dock over the catfish pond.  There are currently two other WWOOFers staying here: a couple from France and there are two guys from Switzerland coming soon.  Our time in Asia is coming to a close soon but we will spend the majority of our time here left in Thailand.  On September 14th we are flying from Bangkok to Singapore, where we will finish off our trip with three days worth of hawker food and delicious coffee.  

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Trekking in Phongsali

We have just returned to Thailand after a great couple of weeks in Laos. The trip had many high points as well as a few low points. We decided that we wanted to go trekking at some point on our trip and we decided to go to Phongsali in Northern Laos as our trekking base. The bus trip to Phongsali was an arduous journey to say the least. Ten hours crammed on a bus passing by the edges of frighteningly steep cliffs. Almost none of the road to Phongsali is paved, so we endured many bumps along the way. Because of the rains, there were many landslides blocking the road. We stopped intermittently to wait for backhoes to clear the rubble from the road, as well as for the driver to have regular cigarette breaks. We arrived in Phongsali at night, found a place to stay, went to bed and then woke up early in the morning to find that our room was directly above a chicken coop full of noisy roosters.
Phongsali was a delightful town. It is very isolated compared to most of the other towns we saw in Laos and there were almost no tourists there (probably because of the difficult road conditions.) The town is devoid of "city noise" like cars, motorbikes, and honking. Because of this you can hear other noises, which at times seem equally loud, for example: roosters, children playing, music, and chickens.
We were walking around the meandering cobblestone roads of the town when we by chance met Ms. Tui, a worker at the tourism office. We told her we were interested in trekking and she quickly arranged for us to leave the next day. We decided to do a four day, three night trek into the hills outside of Phongsali. Phongsali province has the most ethnic minority groups in all of Laos (a total of 28). During the trek, we would stay overnight at several Akha villages in the mountains.
We started off the trek Monday morning by boarding a bus to a nearby town called Hat Sa. From there we boarded a boat that took us up the Nam Ou river to the start point of our trek. I should note that we were not trekking alone but with a guide named Khounsey.
After we got off the boat the trek immediately was kicking our butt. The assent into the mountains was incredibly steep and the day was scorching so we instantly were drenched in sweat. We stopped after 3 hours for a lunch of sticky rice, pork, and hard boiled eggs. We continued on after that trudging through winding jungle "paths." Khounsey took the lead, hacking away the overhanging vines and tree branches with a machete.
Along the trek we passed through about 10 different Akha villages, all of which were spectacular. It was mind boggling to ponder how far removed these people are and just how much effort must be put in for something that we think is simple, going to the doctor for example. When an Akha person gets sick or needs something from the "modern" world they must trek hours and hours through impossibly rocky, steep, and muddy jungle to get to Phongsali.
We immediately noticed while passing through the villages that the men mostly sit around smoking tobacco bongs or hanging out in the house while the women do absolutely everything else. The women collect water from nearby streams for drinking, cook, clean, gather food from the surrounding jungle, carry the children, feed the children, make tea, feed the animals, etc... They do this while wearing these incredible traditional costumes. The Akha men wear Western clothes and the women all wear traditional garb. Their headdresses are massive and are dripping with silver and colorful beads.
During each of our three overnights we stayed at the house of the chief in the different villages. All the chiefs were very welcoming and hospitable to us. We at meals with the chiefs as well, sharing in meals of the local Akha food. The food was almost all the same at each village. We received steamed rice, boiled bamboo (a major staple for the Akha), sometimes beans and eggs, and pumpkin soup or cucumber. Before each meal the chief pours everyone a shot glass full of rice whiskey. Before and at different times during the meal you clink glasses with everyone and slowly sip the whiskey. I must say, the rice whiskey didn't sit very well with me. It was so potent, I felt that everytime I took a sip any sort of living organism in my mouth and/or stomach was effectively being killed by the alcoholic burn.
Unfortunately, a low point came after the first overnight when I discovered that someone had relieved me of the majority of my cash during the night. Our guide blamed it on the villagers, but I am almost entirely positive that it was in fact the guide himself who stole the money. Since it was a rather large sum, for the next four days I entertained fantasies in my head of sneaking away, looking through his pack and finding my money (my passport photos, and one Joker, which were also stolen). I finally decided against doing that because Khounsey was our only lifeline back to Phongsali. If I did steal my stolen money back, and he found out, there were a series of possibilities I thought could happen. 1) He could leave us in the jungle with no way out. 2) He could resort to some sort of violence (he did have a machete in his backpack after all!) 3) He could steal the stolen-stolen money back. Anyway, none of the possibilities seemed very good, so I decided not to look (probably the rational decision). But, it was rather torturous to be fairly certain that my money was within a few feet of me for the next three days. Oh well. Lesson learned.
Anyway, after that hitch, we continued on the trek. The first two days of the trek were amazingly beautiful and the next two days poured rain. The unfortunate thing about rain in the Lao jungle is that it brings out hordes of leeches vying for your blood. I have had some experience with leeches in Nepal, but the sheer number of leeches we pulled off our boots and skin was exponentially more that in Nepal. After a while, it was almost pointless to even check for leeches because the minute you pull one off, you have two more on you.
During the third day it was so rainy that the "paths" had turned into streams and as the rains continued, into rivers. After we set out on the third morning, we were completely soaking wet with in 20 minutes. We continued the six hours hike for the day in a sog. We had to forge a river on the third afternoon to get to another village. But before crossing the river we at a wet lunch of "hot dogs", fish in tomato sauce (canned) and wet rice from the previous village wrapped in a banana leaf. Since there were so many leeches we had to eat lunch sitting on rocks in the river. We were completely rain soaked anyway, so eating lunch in the river made no difference to us.

After four days of trekking 6 hours per day we were completely exhausted. I had gone through such a range of emotions during the past 4 days that I was emotionally and physically tired. I had been awestruck at the villages, humbled by the scenery, touched by the kindness of the local people, amazed at the isolated the Akha people live in, suspicious of the thief, angry at our guide, disgusted by leeches, amused (especially during shower time. This consisted of me, Eric, and Khounsey washing at the village taps or in a stream. Women in Laos bath wearing a sarong wrapped around them so as not to expose their bodies. I did this too and not have much respect who can effectively wash while wearing a sarong. Anyway, during shower time the majority of the boys in the village would gather around and watch us bath, probably laughing at our pale skin), angered at Khounsey for being a thief, satisfied by the meals we were served, ached after long ascents and slippery descents, and much more. Overall it was an amazing experience that I am glad I did. Since the majority of Laos is rural and isolated in this way, I feel like I understand the country to a much higher degree.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Hanging Out in Vientiane

We arrived in Vientiane on Friday (today is Monday) and have spent the last several days wandering around the streets, sampling different coffee stalls (all of which are beyond delicious), and taking in the general laziness of Lao's capital city. Our plan is to go back to Thailand soon for more farm work, so we had to wait until today for the Thai Consulate to be open. We will get our passports back tomorrow. In an attempt to save money on tuk-tuks (SE Asian version of the taxi) we decided to walk to the Thai consulate. Three sweltering, sweat soaked hours later, we finally made it to the consulate just before it closed! We waited for another hour before turning our passports in. "Come back at one o'clock" they told us. We proceeded to try to kill time by finding drinks and noodle soups. We went back to the Thai consulate later, waited in more lines, sweated more, finally reached to front of the line, at which point they told us actually they meant one o'clock tomorrow. Oh.
Now we are back in the central city area, contemplating what to do for the rest of the day. Our plan is to continue North in Laos after we get our passports back. A short stop in Luang Prabang and then further North to a town called Phongsali near the Chinese border. In Phongsali we are hoping to do a trek and explore the jungles before heading back down to Chiang Mai for another WWOOF farm.
We really can't complain about being "stuck" in Vientiane. The food here is excellent and there are a very wide range of options. Two nights ago we ate at a delicious and bustling Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in fresh spring rolls and hot pots. Last night we ate several small things from street vendors that accumulate on the sidewalk once the sun goes down.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Planting Rice in Phimai

We were lucky enough to be able to help Su's parents plant some rice in Phimai (NE Thailand). I think Su's father was amused by our enthusiasm to try planting rice and we has surprised that we actually enjoyed it. I had a good time planting rice and am now much more appreciated of every bowl of rice I eat. The process of rice planting and harvesting seems very long and tedious to me. The farms throw rice grains in the fields until they grow into the green rice grasses. Then the rice grasses are each hand picked from these fields and replanted by hand in another field so that the plants have more room to grow. In this picture, Eric and I are working on replanting the rice grasses of rice after they have been picked from another field. Unfortunately we are going to be gone for harvesting season, which is in November. Below is a picture of Su's father. Although he spoke no English, I found him to be one of the most friendly and kind people I have ever met. He is the sort of person who always looks like he is smiling, even when he is not. Here, Su's father is bringing us fresh bundles of rice bundles that need to be planted. I knew that working in the rice fields was hard work, as I have witnessed hundreds of women working in the fields in Nepal, but I have a new found respect for these people who likely work on the rice fields for the majority of their life. If I did rice planting for more than a week, I think I would need some serious chiropractic work and a 2 hour Thai massage. Props to rice workers.

New Market, Pakse

At the moment Eric and I do not have a Lonely Planet guidebook for Laos. Although some people complain about Lonely Planet ("doesn't it just take all the fun out of travel?", "there is no mystery left with Lonely Planet"), we have found that a Lonely Planet is truly convenient, but not necessarily necessary. I searched Pakse on Google and found that most people said there is nothing much to do here, that there is no "tourist infrastructure" (what does that even mean?), and that Pakse is a better transit stop than a long stop. But, we have found that Pakse has been quite delightful and it is fun that we get to discover it all on our own without a
guidebook. The best way to do this is to put comfy shoes on and walk around aimlessly as long as possible. We have stumbled on many interesting things like people living on the banks of the Mekong River, pigs trotting along the sidewalk, mysterious food stalls, and a few markets. One of my favorite parts about SE Asia are the markets. Luckily for me, one of the first places we found was a huge market. We roamed up and down the little stalls looking at the heaping mounds of chilis that make your brow break a sweat just looking at them, neon colored fruits, bags of fresh green vegetables, meats, three foot long cat fish, piles of frogs still alive tied together with red ribbons, eels, pink fish paste, sacks of loose tobacco, and much more. One of the most odd things we saw at the market were the iguanas (pictured above). They were all alive and like the frogs, tied together with bits of red ribbons. I assume that these iguanas are for eating.

Made It To Laos!

After 3 weeks or so of working on Neil's farm, Eric and I decided it was time to hit the road again. Before departing Thailand, we spent a wonderful weekend in Phimai in NE Thailand visiting Su's family. They own quite a bit of land in very rural parts of the country, so it was fun to see a farm from a different perspective. Su's parents have many gardens with vegetables and fruits, but the main thing they grow is rice. We noticed that almost every field we saw in NE Thailand was full of lush green rice grasses. We went up to Phimai with quite a crew. Neil had made contact with a bunch of English teachers in Bangkok who wanted to go along on the weekend trip, so we ended up going with about 15 people. We met up with all the English teachers in Bangkok before heading up north. Meeting all the English teachers was fun because they were all around our age. I learned quite a bit from them about what it is like to get the needed teaching qualifications and then move to Thailand to teach.

After a few days exploring Su's parents village, Eric and I were on our way. Leaving was bittersweet because we have made such great friends with Neil, Su and the rest of their family. But, of course we were excited to continue on our journey. We took a train from Phimai to Ubon Ratchathani, which took about 5 hours. After spending one night in Ubon Ratchathani we took a bus to Pakse in Laos, which is where we are now. We have spent the last few days wandering around the city, testing different Laotian foods and coffees, and becoming acquainted with the city. Today we rented bicycles from one of the guesthouses in town and went on a 60 kilometer ride into the countryside. The ride was beautiful and quiet, a major change from the constant bustle of Thailand. Yesterday we decided to take the plunge and get haircuts at one of the street side "salons." Eric went first and they buzzed off most of his hair. He says its shorter than it has ever been in his life, but it still looks good. After Eric, it was my turn. My hair was quite long and I decided that there was some room for error because of the length. Before the hairdresser even asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, she began chopping away. I ended up with about 6 inches off my hair, and I quite like it! The total cost for both of our haircuts was less than $2.00. Can't beat that.

Now, we are trying to figure out what is next on our agenda. There was one WWOOF farm in Laos when we checked the website in Thailand, but when we checked again last night to email the farm owner, we discovered that the farm has since been taken off the website. We both highly enjoyed the WWOOF experience in Thailand and are eager to work at another farm. There is an organic farm in Vang Vieng, Laos that we might go work at. If not, we will head back to Thailand in a few weeks and begin work again in Northern Thailand. We are going to make another stop at Neil and Su's farm on our way back down the country to check on the chickens and see how our tomato plants are growing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Our Day Off

Eric and I have been working hard at the farm almost everyday so the other day we took a day off to do some sightseeing around the area where we are living.  We decided to go to a small island called Ko Sichang for a day trip and had a great time!  Ko Sichang is about a 30 minute ferry ride from the town of Sriracha, the major town near the farm.  We hopped on a motorbike taxi to the ferry docks and arrived just in time to catch the morning ferry.  The ferry ride was quick, but still lots of fun.  Off the coast of Sriracha is where many large freighter boats anchor, so it was fun to move around these large boats and try to imagine the lifestyle of one of the men who work on the boats.  We arrived around 10:30 am to Ko Sichang and we were immediately hounded by touts trying to sell us tuk-tuk tours and motorbikes.  We decided to pass up the touts and take a short walk around the island.  We quickly found that Ko Sichang is a tiny island.  The buildings are all painted in vibrant blues, yellows, and greens.  We decided that we should rent a motorbike for the day, so we found a small tour agency and picked out a motorbike for 300 Baht.  We spent the rest of the day cruising our motorbike around the small island, looking for hidden beaches, eating Thai papaya salad, drinking young Thai coconuts, swimming in the ocean, and laying on the beach.  Ko Sichang is not really on the "farang" tourist circuit.  ("Farang" is the Thai word for Westerner or white person.)  Ko Sichang is the place where people from Bangkok go on the weekend to escape the urban sprawl and pollution.  
Pictures: Top: Eric relaxing on the beach. Bottom: Me, enjoying one of my favorite Thai foods, papaya salad, and a cold young Thai coconut.