Showing posts with label Village Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Village Life. Show all posts

A Busy June in the Rai...

Birthday, anniversary, driver’s license, vehicle registrations and insurance, 90 day report of residence, the wife enrolling at a local university and various projects around the house.  I have also had several blog posts floating around in my head but have been unable to focus on any one of them long enough to get anything published.  There is method to my madness, however, so allow me to elaborate.

As a child I always felt blessed to have Christmas and my birthday evenly space across the calendar, unlike my brother who had them both crammed into the same month.  By the time I got around to getting married, at 45 years of age, I was astute enough to see the advantages of having birthday and anniversary on the same day.  Birthdays are hard to forget, no matter how hard you try.  As perfect as that would have been, we didn’t have all the required paperwork prepared on that day and had to come back later in the month.  At least we managed to get our anniversary is in the same month as my birthday.

As a matter of practicality we have tended to make major purchases around our birthdays, which are only a month apart, and designate them as birthday gifts.  For me that included things like my mountain bike, motorcycle and truck.  My wife’s list is too long and unmanageable to cover here.  Okay not particularly romantic but it works for us.

So here is the rundown for the month of June.  I turn 58 this month and have long since ceased to recognize that person in the mirror.  Though we have been together for 15 years, we have been married for 13 as of this month.  Wonderful and happy years I might add.  My driver’s license needed renewal after 5 years and we have been thinking of replacing our 5 year old truck with something new but there is still a backlog of vehicle orders due to last year’s events in Japan and Bangkok.

My wife enjoyed her recent volunteer teaching, so has decided to go back to school herself, which I support as a good idea.  With the rainy season upon us it is a good time to plant trees in the front field we had filled in earlier this year, so that project is ongoing.  With the air again breathable I am trying to get out a bit more on the mountain bike and walking more with my wife and Cookie but I still find it a little too hot to start running again.  I will have to get back to that soon.

On a not so pleasant note, I had a couple of basal cell carcinomas removed last month with a note from the lab that they were fully excised.  With my family history there are sure to be more in my future.

Surely I am forgetting something but I will stop here and submit this as my excuse for not doing more on the blog this month.

Pha Dai on the Mekong River...

Having posted pictures of Pha Dai sometime before, I was reluctant to do so again.  I believe there is even a marker on my map.  It was a long time ago, however, and we had such a nice time there yesterday that I just could not resist.  It started off very overcast, plus it was late afternoon so I wasn’t confident that I would capture any decent images.  A zoom would have made things much easier but you make do with what you have.  In the end the weather was more cooperative than I had expected.

The 75 kilometer drive to Pha Dai is a little easier these days as most of the road has been repaired but it is still quite narrow as one continues on past Wiang Kaen, heading to the Eastern most point in Northern Thailand.  Arriving at Pha Dai there is a lovely little park and restaurant overlooking the Mekong River and Laos.  It is a bit of a long walk down to the waters edge this time of year.  The not so mighty Mekong was in a picturesque and docile mood with bold rock formations jutting from the gently swirling surface of the water, while the combination of boulders and fine powdery sandbanks made walking a struggle at times. 

With just a little effort you can make it down to the main channel and enjoy watching the fishermen in their tiny boats tending nets and navigating between the rocks.  While I was photographing nature my wife and her sister were photographing each other, jumping in the air, writing in the sand and generally have a good time doing whatever made them happy.  No doubt those shots will end up on my wife's Facebook page.

Being a bit off the beaten track one is unlikely to come across any western tourists at Pha Dai.  Those who take the river to Luang Prabang pass by Pha Dai without so much as a glance one might suspect.  There have always been a few Thai families whenever we have visited, though.  For us it is just one of many lovely places we have found on our explorations of this beautiful place we live.

I wasn't going to post this but it was just so cute and so Thai.

Problem Solving Village Style ...

With the wife off to Chiang Mai with her sister for a couple of days, I am left with time to review recent events.  By building our house far out into the fields we have no next door neighbors to speak of, yet others do own the land on either side of us and try as we may, it has still proven impossible to avoid all disputes.

Now in any dispute there are various views and opinions as well as different styles of engagement.  Without getting into the details of who said what to whom, clearly something I find distasteful, lets just say the parties on either side of us wanted different things from us.  There were also those in the peanut gallery who suggested it was our land and we could do whatever we darn well pleased, with no regard for others.  Searching for a fourth way, we struggled to find a middle ground that all could agree to.

There is always someone who will try on an aggressive or combative approach.  Glaring looks, loud and aggressive tone, dismissive gestures and threats of going to the police.  Fortunately there are usually calmer heads in the mix and I for one was not going to let things go down that rancorous path.

I had been uncertain about my wife’s decision to order a backhoe for the day, as we had yet to come to any real agreement on what was to be done.  Turned out her move was the right one.  It got everyone off the fence and face to face, though a little excited at the beginning.  The village headman, assistant, neighbors, relatives and interested spectators gathered to help sort things out.  I usually stay out of village affairs but this time I felt it was important to show support for my wife and to clearly voice my position in a diplomatic yet firm well reasoned manner.  This was one of those situations where it was good to be me and extremely beneficial to speak Thai well.

There was quite a bit of back and forth on the day but at least something got done and it was all done village style with enough witnesses to attest to what actually went down.  No doubt some will direct an unkind remark in our direction when mother nature deals them an unwelcome hand but all agreed on what could and could not be done and we did what was requested and more.

With that behind us, it seemed like a good idea for my wife and her sister to head off to Chiang Mai for a little time away.  I of course stayed home to hold down the fort and care for our pet menagerie.  My wife and her family don’t always see eye to eye but lately the sisters have been getting along better, so I am pleased they are having a chance to spend time together to reenforce their sibling bond.  As for me going along, well no one would find much joy in that scenario.  I would be bored and they would feel overwhelmed by my presence and demeanor.

I dearly love my wife and like nothing more than to spend time with her, as attested to by our having spent very little time apart in our fifteen years together, but I do understand that it is not healthy to keep her too dependent on me, or me on her.  With that in mind I am trying to be supportive of her doing more on her own, even if it means I am lonely and miss her for brief periods.  Cookie misses her mommy, as do I, and she will not let me out of her sight as I move around this big empty house.  So in a very real sense I am not alone.  One more night of solitude and the house will once again be a home, filled with love and the swarm of activity that always surrounds my lovely wife.

Fire and Rain ...

Trusty fire-stick in hand our neighbor, along with many others, was setting his field alight in anticipation of plowing the earth before the forecast rains.  Perhaps he noticed me taking pictures, though I somehow doubt it made any difference to him.  Whatever the reason he only burned part of the field, leaving the remainder to be finished off the next day while we were conveniently away in town.  I noticed the gardener had the presence of mind to turn on our sprinklers to keep our plants wet and singe free.  Though annoying, we have suffered no more than sore eyes and irritated breathing passages from the burning so I guess we are lucky in a way.

Heading into this last weekend it had been so hot and dry that one wondered if it would ever rain again.  On this occasion the forecasters were not wrong and the rain fell in abundance leaving the soil saturated with standing water in lower areas.  Today the clouds have begun to part and the sun is illuminating a new and wondrous view.  Another month or two and we will once again be floating in a sea of lush green vegetation from our doorstep to the mountains beyond.

Each day brings with it new challenges and adventures, rewarding us sometimes with views like this morning, in contrast to the burning of a few days earlier.

Paradise is Still Burning ...

Seems like everyone is venting their spleen over the burning in Northern Thailand so why not me.  What I have noticed is that everyone seems to have their own limited perspective on the problem.  Most rant on about the government and lack of enforcement, while few have any recommendations that don’t border on the ridiculous.

One guy suggested that all you need is a couple of helicopters flying around full-time to douse the fires before they get out of control.  Okay that takes care of his village, now what about the rest of the region and our neighbors.  In a search for simple solutions we focus on overly simplified explanations of the problem.

Some say all the smoke comes from Burma and Laos.  Others blame big agribusiness and the growing of corn in areas like Mae Chaem.  Some say it is the rice farmers who are the culprits or perhaps the slash and burn hill tribe people.  Yet others blame their neighbors for burning their trash.  Some seem to think it is all the government’s fault, due to greed and corruption, or the educational system is to blame.

A few foreigners have cobbled together a poorly thought out petition to demand the end of the burning.  I am sure it made them feel less impotent but I am equally sure it will have no effect.  I heard of one guy who got perhaps a little too vocal in his criticism of his Thai neighbors and their penchant for burning so his wife took him for a holiday down south to avoid the linch mob coming over in the middle of the night.  She seemed genuinely concerned.

Composting of all the waste has been suggested but we are not talking of kitchen scraps here.  There are literally mountains of vegetation leftover after the harvest.  The corn harvest leaves not only stalks on the steep mountain slopes but also mountains of discarded husks at the processing sites.  Some say plow the stubble back into the ground.  Unfortunately many of the hillsides are far too steep for heavy equipment.  Even the hiring of the larger tractors necessary to plow waist high rice stubble back into the earth is expensive and would make the growing of rice even less profitable for small farmers.  Many indeed argue that burning helps control pests and disease, leading to a better crop.

As it is, villagers in my area can’t make a living growing rice but do it based on a longstanding tradition that one must grow your own rice.  It is okay for city people to buy rice from the store but it is not the done thing in the village.  To make a living they must go to find work in the cities and scavenge what they can from what is left of the natural environment.  Each year they encroach a little more into the forest.  They strip the streams and reservoirs of fish.  They burn the undergrowth in hopes of stimulating an abundant crop of wild mushrooms that can be harvested and sold at roadside stands.

The locals are quite ingenious in searching out leaves, bugs, frogs, crabs, snakes, fish, mushrooms and countless other edible delectables to supplement their diet without adding to their financial burden.  The environment ends up paying a price though.  Villagers are not immune to the seduction of modern conveniences and want what we all want.  They want transportation, communication, entertainment, electronic conveniences, a better house and perhaps a leg up for their children by sending them to better schools.  Everything costs money and the rural populace have limited options compared to their big city brethren.

As bad as things are in our village they continue to burn daily.  People will complain about the smoke in a very general way and then go off and light another fire.  Around here fires are not started by faceless figures in some remote location but by friends and neighbors.  Pointing fingers at individuals is only done in extreme cases as one cannot afford to do anything that could lead to being ostracized from the community as a whole.  The extreme interdependency in the village is the adhesive that bonds them together and makes things work.  At the same time it is what often holds them back when it comes to making changes.  They are mired in tradition and superstition unable to step over the threshold into a truly modern world.

One villager for example lost seventy rubber trees, by his estimate, due to his neighbor’s burning which got out of control.  He asked for something like 70,000 baht but I heard they may have negotiated that down to around 30,000.  Chances are the firebug doesn’t have the money so will try to avoid payment or he will have to borrow the money and go even deeper into debt.  That will lead the culprit to further disregarding rules and regulations in an effort to scrape together a few more baht here and there.

As you can see I am not claiming to have the answers to this problem.  I suppose I am suggesting that foreigners who think they have the answer are a bit more daft than I am.  I’m sorry guys but we are guests here and what we think or want carries very little weight.  Punitive measures focused exclusively on the poorest members of society, especially when they are the backbone of that society, are in the very least counterproductive and potentially destructive and destabilizing. 

Until someone can come up with affordable alternatives that don’t further burden the poor and take into consideration the complexity of what leads to this yearly burning and the resulting pollution, we are destined to suffer with this problem for years to come.  In my estimation, the talk and histrionics will continue until the rain comes.  Hopefully that will be soon.

With the government’s focus being primarily on the floods there will be no money allocated to the burning in my estimation.  If we are lucky some flood related initiatives could help stem the encroachment into the mountains as there is an overlap there between the burning and the floods.  The wife and I suffer from the smoke just like everyone else but I dare say we are not so simple as to think there is a simple solution to this problem.  So there you have my take on the burning of paradise.  Nothing will happen.

Clear Sky In The Rai ...

I awoke yesterday to an unfamiliar view.  Having grown accustomed to seeing little more than haze and a few blurry images, I got my first clear look at the scorched hills in the distance.  When the bad weather started I felt anxious and unsettled being confined to an air conditioned room.  Having found things to do and having adjusted to the new norm, I found it strangely difficult yesterday to get myself into gear and out of doors.

As Cookie and I enjoyed the nontoxic air on our morning walk, I eventually won my battle with inertia choosing the Ninja over the Trek.  I could have used the exercise but the motorcycle had not been started for quite some time and it needed the exercise even more than I did.  My mileage hangs at just over 17,000 kilometers, 13,000 of which were done last year.  At this rate I won’t be ready for the 18,000 checkup until sometime after Songkran in mid April, as I will need another six trips to town before reaching that number.  I can’t help but feel that even with the big drop in mileage I had more fun this year because of the trips I took and the sights I saw.  Quality over quantity one might say.

With little traffic on the road and not much to look at, yesterday was more about the ride and getting out of the house.  I ended up at the Mall reading the paper at Starbucks.  My wife was more adventurous and as planned went to Laos yesterday with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  Chiang Khong is only fifty kilometers away but neither of us have been over the boarder before.  I didn’t have the time or the interest to find out what I would need to do about my visa to crossover, so I let the girls have some time together.  It is good to see them on speaking terms and laughing together again after a prolonged estrangement.

We had rain last evening for the third day in a row.  After a beautiful but hot day, the sky went dark in the late afternoon.  We were first assaulted by ferocious winds that broke branches and scattered debris everywhere.  As the winds subsided the much needed rain began.  Unlike the previous two days, this was a proper rain, heavy even torrential but short lived.  Still it brought much needed water to our area and may delay the onset of further burning. 

Unless they were able to gather their cassava before the rain hit I doubt the workers there were appreciative of the rain.  On the first day of storm warnings they had bagged everything and the fields were bare.  Yesterday on the way home I noticed they had once again spread the cassava over the drying beds, taking advantage of the clear sunny day.  If their crop was hit by both the wind and the rain, one wonders what the damage might have been.

Today is a cleanup day.  The plants will recover from their losses over time and we will enjoy breathable air for a bit longer.  Such is life, as it bathes us in its infinite variety and unpredictability.

As an afterthought I wanted to share these images of a couple of friends who joined Cookie and me on our morning walk.

Responsible Water Use ...

Finally got the sprinkler system finished.  It was more work than anyone anticipated but now we can soak the bulk of our garden in half and hour with water from our own pond.  Before we did most of the watering by hand, used the village supply and had by far the largest water bill each month.  It was cheaper than installing this system but we didn’t feel right about using what might turn out to be a limited resource sometime in the future.  There are still areas that must be hand watered but it is much more manageable now and we feel more responsible.

Our ground is hard as concrete during the dry season and digging a trench the length of the yard, all the way to the pond, was hard work with the first two young workers quitting after two days.  The guy who did the electrical, pipe and sprinkler work was amazing.  He didn’t stop for lunch and fabricated metal parts at home well into the night. 

With his background being primarily electrical all that work was impeccable.  He even tapped into our three phase system and added an exterior box near the kitchen that will make future connections much easier.  The electric pump and separate control box is located on the sala over the pond, is grounded and has a safety cutoff if the intake gets clogged.

With such a large area to cover and the ground being so hard we went for relatively straight lines and a minimalist approach with two different sized industrial strength sprinklers.  I’m now considering ways to beautify these protuberances though I don’t really mind the way they look.  You might notice that a light rain this morning helped to clear the air and dampen the ground, while Cookie assisted in producing these photos.

Something In The Air ...

On my last mountain bike ride I perchance stopped by to inspect the ever expanding cassava processing fields near where we live.  The whole scene was just so representative of this time of year.  Dusty dull and almost devoid of color, flat and featureless with a sickly sweet aroma reminiscent of the sugar mills of my youth in Hawaii.  There is this interesting Zen garden like thing going on in the raked fields I was attracted to but had difficulty capturing in image.

This year for some reason there has been an exponential expansion in both the size and number of these drying areas.  My understanding is that the bottom has dropped out of the cassava market so perhaps it is due to over production.  It is apparently a low maintenance crop so therein lies the attraction perhaps.  I am no expert on cassava so can’t really go into more detail nor would I care to.

Our immediate neighbors seem to prefer pumpkins.  Since our area only produces one rice crop per year, villagers are sacrificing a section of their rice fields to dig ponds as a water source to grow pumpkins during the dry season.  We took advantage of a rash of pond digging recently to fill in our front rice field with 600 dump trucks of reasonably priced dirt.  We have no immediate plans for the area but now we can do something other than plant rice, as it should no longer flood.

We are also working on a new pump and sprinkler system for our garden, utilizing water from our pond rather than the village water supply we are currently using.  Seemed like the right thing to do.  We started building the house nearly five years ago but the projects continue in a never ending stream.  Just when one is expecting a break in activity something else comes along.

Last year we were lucky with early unseasonable rains and a late cold spell in March.  The result being people were unable to burn as much as they would have liked.  People do love to burn around here.  We are currently suffering pollution levels even worse than the year we built the house.  With so much rain and so much growth last year there is just that much more to burn this year.  Mother Nature has conspired against us as well with unfavorable conditions for dispersing the smoke or quenching the fires.  The other night our nearby hills looked like a volcano with ribbons of fire dripping down the slopes.  Now the smoke is so bad you can barely make out where the mountains should be.

Even with particle counts and dangerously unhealthy levels our neighbors continue to burn daily.  I see it as one of those situations where you beat you head against a wall trying in vain to change an entire nation or you make adjustments to your own life.  For now I spend as much time as possible indoors with the air conditioning on.  I am hoping that soon the rains will come and usher in a more pleasant time of year.  Until then I am neglecting both the Trek and the Ninja while keeping my walks with Cookie short.

My Riding Season Comes To An End ...

My riding season seems to have tapered off to an uneventful end as I have completed all my favorite rides around the north of Thailand to date.  The last longish ride was a day trip to Doi Mae Salong with a connection to Doi Tung on the back roads.  I hadn’t been up there on a bike for a couple of years so thought it deserved another go.  Sadly the best views of the year have faded into the smoke that comes with the burning season.

The weather is still nicely cool in the mornings but is getting much warmer in the afternoons.  The oppressive heat of the hot season and the torrential downpours of the wet season take away from my joy of riding so no more long rides for a while I would guess.  There are still lots of easy day rides and I suppose I will have to get over to Chiang Mai for my 18,000 km service after a thousand or so more kilometers.  I will deal with that when the time comes.

Feeling like a ride today but with no real destination in mind, I ended up in town at a lovely little coffee house and day spa call Chivit Thamma Da.  It is a beautiful place right on the river.  Bumped into some friends having lunch there and was greeted by the owner who being a biker wanted to checkout my bike.

Other than great coffee and sweets they offer a limited menu that I have yet to explore.  The only thing I have tried is the Caesar salad and it is delicious.  This is such an unusual place for Chiang Rai that I wanted to share it with you through a selection of images I collected today.

On the way home I stopped by to say hello to my wife and her class of little monsters studying English at a local school.  Their English is not good enough to carry on a conversation with me so it is mostly Thai with a few English words thrown in to keep them on their toes.  They have a million questions on a diverse range of subjects.  Of course the bike gets its share of attention, at least from the little boys.  Here they are grilling the Farang as I prepare for my getaway. 

Chiang Rai living, On Such a Winter’s Day ...

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is blue not grey
I rode out on the trails
On this winter day.
I am safe and warm
Cause I’n not in L.A.
Chiang Rai livin’
On such a winter’s day

I stopped into a field
I passed along the way
You know, I grabbed my camera
And I began to click away
Oh, the farmers like a show
And they know that I won’t stay
Oh, Chiang Rai livin’
On such a winter’s day

My apologies to the Mamas and the Papas.  My brain went into loop mode on the trail the other day and came up with this little ditty that stuck with me most of my ride.
On the Pai trip.

Winter in Chiang Rai brings with it cooler temperatures, a different light and the occasional splash of color in an otherwise browning and hazy environment.  On my Pai trip there were a few areas where the forest was trying its best to impress.  But a recent outing on the Trek had me remembering past winters and wondering why things were so dull and lifeless, in our area this year.

Closer observation revealed that it was primarily the rubber trees that gave this impression.  Their dull brown leaves lying lifeless on the ground and skinny naked arms stretched desperately to the sky seemed to suck the joy right out of my ride.  Each year more of the native trees are displaced by the rubber scourge and this has me struggling to find a touch of color to brighten my outings.  The fruit orchards at least stay green.

The other morning I had thought to take the Ninja out but things got in the way and by the time I was free it was too late to go where I had planned.  Plan B was to get some exercise on the Trek.  As I headed east and out through the rice fields between us and the mountain range that fills my entire eastern view, I began to notice a difference.  High on the range there were patches of color.  I was drawn off course toward the mountains in search of a better perspective for a photograph.

The closer I got the more my view was blocked by trees, houses and power lines.  Passing through a village my attention was diverted by the most precarious of structures being assembled in the grounds on a local temple.  A few quick pictures to record what I had seen and then I remembered being told of a reservoir in the mountains behind another nearby temple.  Perhaps that would get me closer to the colors I had seen from a distance.

I was about to ask a question about the trail to the dam when I overheard a guy entering the temple grounds, teasing the others for not talking with the Farang.  After he finished chiding his fellow workers, I jokingly asked him why he didn’t just talk to the Farang himself instead of giving the others a hard time, which seemed to satisfy the others no end.  With the ice broken it was easy to get directions to the trailhead.

They weren’t convinced that my bike would make it up the trail but yes it would be okay coming down.  They estimated it was something like four kilometers to the dam.  I correctly interpreted, the trail was a bit too steep to ride up and indeed found myself walking much of it.  Fortunately the more you suffer on the way up a hill the more fun it is on the way down.

I didn’t know I was near until it suddenly appeared in front of me.  It was not too unlike our own reservoir but on a grander scale.  Nestled between bigger mountains that came right down to the waters edge and reached high into the sky from the far shoreline.  After quenching my thirst, taking a few photos and soaking up the atmosphere I was soon revitalized and ready for a quicker run down the mountain.

I suppose I could ramble on longer but I would rather share a few shots of flowering trees and touches of winter color here in the Rai.  These were taken just two days before the ride to the reservoir but seemed to fit the theme of winter days and winter colors.