Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Righteous Protests or Religious Fanatics?

Part four in a series of stories from my road trip in Thailand, participating in a study tour hosted by Pun Pun farms, to visit local examples of sustainable living in the Northeast and in Chiengmai.

When I mentioned the Santi Asoke Buddhist group to my Aunty Ah Padt, she expelled air through her closed lips making a sound, which I interpreted to mean "what a joke that group". I would have expected a similar reaction from a Republican upon the mention of Al Gore, but not from my Ah Padt, a practicing Buddhist. Still she was a Bangkok businesswoman and held the decidedly non-sustainable, pro-growth values of business people the world over. The Santi Asoke group had apparently gone too far.

Newsweek too, in a recent article on Buddhist political activism, characterized the Santi Asoke sect as an "ultraconservative" fundamentalist religious group that had organized political protests against the Thaksin administration. The emphasis was not on Thaksin, where it should have been, but on the potential for these religious protests to lead to violent uprisings. My fears of a perceived communist threat were outdated. I had forgotten that George W. had redefined the new threat to world peace as one that would come from religious fanatics usually identified as Muslim terrorists. Now Newsweek was comparing Buddhist protests to Muslim fundamentalists. This blatant bias irked me.

Back on our two-bench truck, our tour group of 16 Westerners in search of examples of sustainable lifestyles, drove for several hours towards the Laotian border to visit one of the largest branches of the Santi Asoke network, in the province of Ratchatani. At least the road was good. That much the government had managed to do, the better to rush raw materials and food to Bangkok.

We arrived in a large park like compound where we could see, looming over us, extraordinary wooden buildings and what looked like a very tall tree with strangely twisting branches at the top forming a sphere. We hopped out, excited to explore such interesting examples of Thai architecture and were greeted by a woman with bobbed hair wearing a blue denim coat faded to a stonewashed blue.

A Santi Asoke Intentional Community

"Would you like to eat first or see the grounds first?" she asked us. Food could wait. We were eager to know the stories behind these buildings. One had the characteristic upturned roofline of Thai design, but was grafted onto a boat. This, our guide told us, was to put to use the retired rice barges that had once plied the rivers to Bangkok, but had now given way to a faster trucking system. Ah, we mused, so this was not a whimsical vision of a new spiritual order, but simply an example of creative reuse. To add to the mystical vision of airborne arc, the hybrid building was propped up into the air so high you could walk under it. This we learned later was a land that was flooded three to four months of the year.

Flooding was probably why the original plot of land had been donated to the sect. Twenty monks came to live on it, supported by food brought to them by the local farmers. Six women joined them and soon more people came seeking to live by the principles of voluntary simplicity and the communal work ethic that the group espoused. The network had also implemented some of E. F. Schumacher's ideas. Asoke sympathizers had translated the chapter on Buddhist economics from his book Small is Beautiful:Economics As If People Mattered.

Jo, acting as our translator, pointed out that the first to come were educated middle class Thais, especially teachers whose salaries were not going to cut it after the currency collapse. They were followed by farmers in debt. The economic collapse would swell their numbers to 300 members. Schools were created for the children and workshops given to the adults in self-sufficiency and organic farming.

We were served a vegetarian lunch in a large hall and shown a documentary film of the group on their giant flat screen TV. Though they did all wear the blue farmer's outfit that so reminded me of communist workers' cooperatives, they were not the extremist fundamentalists Newsweek would make them out to be. They still only followed the five precepts and ate two meals a day together, not the eight precepts as Newsweek described. And since when did abstaining from sex and eating only one meal a day constitute religious fanaticism especially in a Buddhist sect, I ask you?

While I was there, I did manage to break one of their rules by catching an afternoon nap while everyone shopped and if they had made note that I was a woman wearing shorts (but not too short) that would have been two, but these rules felt more like guidelines than fanatic beliefs. Nobody looked at me with disapproval. And when I forgot my jacket, one of the members retrieved it for me, while another asked if it was made in Thailand. Yes it was, because I am rather fond of the clever simplicity of those farmer's jackets and was wearing one that day with another short sleeve one underneath.

As we toured the center we were shown the organic vegetable garden and the recycle center where hand lettered signs in Thai and English described over twenty categories of materials including plastic bags which were washed and dried for reuse. The community made enough money from selling recyclables to fund their educational cable TV channel.

We also discovered that the intriguing three story high trees were actually sculptures, made by a local artist, from cement. The bark texture was impressively real. I asked the reason for these tree sculptures. The oddly simple answer was that they gave visitors something to see. Yes, Thai people liked to go to parks and see something manmade and the group often invited the townspeople to come to the community for special occasions such as the King's birthday. Lots of food and community made products were given away in an effort to spread their philosophy of self-sufficiency and meritism.

Protests and Engaged Buddhism

The real crime that the Santi Asoke group founder had committed, as I read later in the Christian Science Monitor, was to claim that the lax practices of the Thai monastery system had fostered materialism and corruption within. Unable to come to a resolution on this matter, the Santi Asoke leader had then formed his own sect. The military government of the day, fearing for their own relationship with the religious order most likely, had not allowed the new sect to register under the monastery system, thus reporters could later say that they were a rogue group of fundamentalist fanatics. That the group of Santi Asoke protesters chose the name the Dharma Army was an unfortunate PR choice that implied that they actually had arms and were not, as the word "dharma" would imply to a Buddhist, a group devoted to peaceful protests.

What the good liberal American reader brings to the mix is a healthy distrust of religious groups getting involved with politics. But much like the Baptist church in the American south, the Thai temple serves as a community center and is often the only place where a village can assemble and organize themselves against injustice, with the help of the most educated leaders of the community—the monks.

"But how are they related to the military," I asked Jo. After all, Thaksin had been ousted by a military coup, but I had never discovered how that came about. It had been one of my goals to find out during my trip.

"They are not related", he told me and explained to me that the Santi Asoke group had not staged a political protest. They were protesting on moral grounds, that's why it could be justified under the principles of Buddhism, which included practicing social justice. This I could understand, having discussed, among American Buddhists at home, whether anti-war protests could be considered a practice of Engaged Buddhism.

The military had stepped in fearing general unrest, he told me.

And what was their agenda? I asked.

Corruption, of course. Suddenly I saw how it worked. The military controlled government did not want the country in turmoil because that would cut into their nicely set up system of kick backs that was entrenched in an orderly, but corrupt government system. Nor would they want Thaksin privatizing everything, as prescribed by the prevailing forces of globalization, because that would take away the whole shooting match. That the Newsweek reporters could so glibly exploit the details of the Santi Asoke protest struck me as so unfair. Could it be that their issues of social justice did not fit into the story the United States was telling itself about the threat of armed revolt from People Who Hate Our Freedoms which then forces us into military intervention and everlasting war?

Everywhere in the world, grassroots movements were solidifying a response to the impact of globalization, but this trend was going unreported. Sustainability in itself was not worthy of discussion. And of course sustainable business practices, as modeled by groups like the Santi Asoke sect, was a threat to the prevailing mantra of ever more growth and profit.

We drove back into town and stopped at a store, one of the many that had been opened by the Santi Asoke group. It was about the size of a 7 Eleven and was stocked with the products made by the industrious members of the community. We filed in and perused the shampoos, herbal remedies and the implements needed to use them. I loaded up on bars of soap with exotic ingredients—radish, tamarind, tomato, garlic, ginger and citrus, plus a bottle of passion fruit juice which I downed on the spot.

The Final Analysis

When I showed my 89-year-old Aunty Lily my pictures of the tour, it transformed her opinion of me. I became someone with values that she and my grandmother, too, would have shared.

"You have done much good by going on this tour," she said, implying that I had accumulated good merit. I hadn't expected such a response just for being a witness to acts benefiting society. Aunty Lily had been a businesswoman too, in her day, but she had a sense of justice that I had come to count on. She asked me to show the pictures to her Wednesday lunch companions, a doctor and a teacher. Both knew all about the Santi Asoke group. The teacher told me she had a friend—a dentist who offered his services to the group as part of his merit making. I was relieved that they considered the Santi Asoke people to be worthwhile. After Ah Padt's reaction I was beginning to wonder if what I had seen was recognized by the general Thai population for the good they were doing or if the Thais, too, considered them inherently suspect.

The final analysis may not yet be in. Reactions to the return of Thaksin were also mixed. I was still in Thailand at the time and saw his smiling mug on the cover of magazines as he was joyfully welcomed by his supporters. Newsweek had described him as a populist leader, but his economic policies known as "Thaksinomics", which included a 3-year moratorium on farmers' debts, were not meant to encourage sustainability since he had also ordered state banks to aggressively extend more loans to the same poor farmers and villagers. His mega projects for Thailand's infrastructure would run up a bill of $50 billion, while his "populist" policies for healthcare and education were under funded. Now he would face trial for his crimes of abuse of power, tax evasion, cases of fraud, loans to Burma that indirectly benefited his telecom business and illegal bidding on a state contract involving 90 million rubber saplings (for expansion of rubber plantations to the North and Northeast—home of above farmers).

"What about democracy?" I had asked Jo. "It didn't look good to the world when the military coup took away democracy", I added. I had taken this failure of my home country to hang onto democracy as a personal slight that made Thais look backward. A military coup was just so old school.

"There is no democracy," Jo answered testily, "there is only money." I couldn't argue with that.

Also posted at energy bulletin

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Healing The Farmer, Healing The Land

Part three in a series of stories from my road trip in Thailand, participating in a study tour hosted by Pun Pun farms, to visit local examples of sustainable living in the Northeast and in Chiengmai.

The Search for a Ripe Watermelon

If you eat more than one chemically grown watermelon you will get diarrhea, we learned from the organic watermelon farmer. Fourteen such melons had killed an elephant, he added. Poor thing. With such stories I was surprised that more Thai people were not making the connection. True, not all fruit were so heavy on the chemicals; none at all in bananas and coconuts, some in pineapples and oranges, but watermelons were clearly the most afflicted.

Organic produce did not yet have the market clout and high prices that were being enjoyed in the States. In fact, sales were poor because the organic watermelon had to compete with the larger, more regularly shaped conventionally grown melon and it took 10 days more to ripen.

Watermelons were a secondary crop sown after the rice crop was harvested. It was so simple to grow, a child could do it, said the teacher at the Santi Asoke training center. The problem was pests for which they recommended three strategies. 1) Avoid mono cropping and use small plots with a variety of crops. 2) Chase away the pests. 3) If pests still persist then let them eat because, after all, humans can grow food and pests cannot. This last recommendation undid any notion I might have had that fighting pests was a battle to be fought to the death and won. How enlightened. They also recommended picking the worm-infested fruit, to ferment in molasses, to make a fertilizer called EM—effective microorganisms—a method learned from the Japanese.

As we picked our way along the dikes of the rice paddies, the watermelon farmer followed our progress with a digital movie camera to show his organic farmer's co-op. Thai organic farmers were not getting a lot of attention from anyone and the gaze of Westerners would elevate their cause. There were no ripe watermelons; he had just sent a truckload to market. Finally at the third field, he found some that would do and cut two open for us on the spot.

We happily ate this clean fruit without fearing for our stomachs. It was sweet and refreshing. In fact all the food we would eat on this trip felt pure and fresh. That it was grown on the spot gave me a deep sense of connection to the land. We were traveling locavores eating within a few yards of where our food was grown. There was no need to think beyond this tidy closed loop; I felt complete and secure. I ate more fruit than I did at home—oranges, papaya, bananas and star fruit, all with no ill effects.

Walking from farm to farm in Jo's village, I gazed at the strange dry land with its grey white soil and tried to decide if it could be described as beautiful. Not at first, because I didn't know what I was looking at. Unlike an Italian countryside with its vineyards or an English one with its rolling green hills, both instantly recognizable as the stuff of travel brochures, this surreal flat, brownness had to grow on me. Height helped. There. In the next paddy. Very tall thin trees in a grid pattern with topknots of foliage like a Dr. Seuss illustration. That pleased my eye.

Back on the road our daily expeditions were punctuated by pit stops at roadside 7 Elevens, along the highway. All 16 of us would peruse the shelves of the multinational franchise and come out loaded with packaged snacks, buying enough to share with each other, the exotic tastes of peppered beef flavored potato chips made by Lay's, sweet sesame cookies made locally or the horrible fish flavored cracker that tasted like, well, fish food. I satisfied my craving for processed sugar with chocolate covered Japanese Poco sticks.

Healing The Farmer

For most of the farmers we met, it was their health that had turned them towards organic farming. At first they didn't know why they had the symptoms they did. Then it was discovered that the rat pee was toxic; rats living in the field were expelling concentrated chemicals into the waters of the field, which in turn gave the farmers intense rashes on their legs. They were also plagued by headaches and fatigue. Those who had ditched chemicals were convinced that soon every farmer would realize the connection and return to organic farming methods.

"People cannot learn without suffering," Jo said. The economic collapse had helped to create more such suffering, increasing the number of people deciding to take the healing path of self-sufficiency and organic farming.

Standing in a lush plot of edible forest, we heard the story of one such man who had owned a successful trucking company. As the economy collapsed, he found himself in extreme debt, with the bank repossessing all but one of his trucks. He came back to the country and with his remaining cash bought a two-acre piece of barren land that nobody wanted. He too had taken the training with the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect, reduced his expenses to almost nothing, and in three months was able to produce enough food on his plot to feed his family.

We ate tart fruit from his trees and listened to how he had started his garden by covering the plot with straw waist high. He then dug a hole in the straw and made compost. Into this hole he planted a banana tree surrounded by vegetables. What they didn't eat, he sold at the market. He began to grow wild vegetables that nobody had bothered to cultivate before because they had been so easy to find in the forest. Soon he was making 100 baht a week.

"But that's only about three dollars," I commented. Yes, but it was enough to pay off his debts, Jo emphasized, because he had no expenses. I was beginning to feel as though I was in an alternative universe of tiny efforts that magically managed to turn people's lives around. Now he and his tiny wife were digging wells on the plot by hand. We looked down the fifteen feet or so and marveled. The water from the well would be used to produce limes in the dry season when the price was higher. Later we met the couple helping out at another site.

As we sat before them in a covered meeting space, the two beamed at us and the farmer told us about his current project digging a rice paddy there at the demonstration plot we were visiting, also created by the Santi Asoke group. Within view was the nearby University where ag students were being taught that chemical farming was the only way to grow anything in this arid land. The ag department was, incidentally, funded by chemical companies. At the Santi Asoke plot students learned first hand what organic farming could do. Some were even living in the earthen houses they had helped to build. They were beginning to ask questions.

It was not so long ago that chemical agriculture had been introduced to Thailand. Because of the government-induced deforestation during the '70s, farmers who had previously grown their vegetables in the forest had little idea of how to feed the barren soil once the trees were cleared. Enter the chemical company reps who dazzled farmers with the benefits of manmade fertilizers. The farmer's ego swelled with pride at the greenness of his rice crop. No one informed him of the downside. Nor did the farmers calculate their costs versus profit. They simply looked at the extra cash they were making with each harvest, not realizing that every year they had to buy and apply more chemicals than they had used the year before. By the time of the economic collapse they were 95% in debt. (Insert sex trade story here for this is the region where most of the women in the Bangkok sex trade come from.) Now with the cost of fertilizer following the price of oil, more were considering going organic.

Concern for the farmer's health had also opened the door to a revival of herbal medicines and the use of antioxidants to clean the blood of pesticide residue. Off we went to visit the herbal medicine co-op. Located within the grounds of a temple, the founders had persuaded local medicine men to reveal the ingredients of their secret remedies for the common cold, ulcers, hemorrhoids, back pain, and diabetes.

Each May the network would go into the forest to collect the medicinal herbs. Realizing that the forests were fast disappearing, the temple asked their worshippers to bring tree saplings instead of the usual cellophane wrapped offering plates (full of canned foods and hand towels folded into animal shapes). They also had help from non-government organizations and were able to open a health center. Now, they had a seed saving operation. 80% of their ingredients were grown locally.

We were shown the hand press used to harvest various oils and watched as two women wearing hair coverings and latex gloves, filled capsules with turmeric powder. Medicines used to be made by rolling the ingredients into a honey ball, but because the network was working with Western trained doctors at the local hospitals, they had complied to Western standards.

This impressive whole systems approach led the network to take on the source of all the trouble and set up a fair trade rice co-op with its own mill to provide support for farmers to grow and sell organic rice as well as those transitioning to organic.

Fair Trade Closes The Loop

It was a Sunday when we visited the mill and sat under the blazing sun in plastic chairs while we awaited the arrival of the leader of the cooperative.

"Why have you come?" asked the silver haired farmer once settled on the shaded bench. "Are you farmers?" Peggy, sitting next to him, translated his challenging tone.

Having been so eagerly welcomed, elsewhere, as the auspicious farangs come to witness their humble farms, our group did not have a ready answer. We had only one farmer among us. Yes, who indeed were we, this oddly clothed, band of Westerners, traveling in the back of a truck. What impact did we hope to have on our lives by coming here? No one was going to hazard an answer. We must answer I felt. It would be impolite not to answer this village elder.

"We are eaters," I offered, taking the perspective of the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma". Peggy translated my answer and the farmer chuckled. He told us, then, how it all worked. That there were 1,000 family farms in the 17 year-old network. They sold overseas through GreenNet, a Thai organic wholesaler. After costs of running the mill, the profit was redistributed to the farmers.

"We got back what we invested, plus we made friends", the farmer told us. Now they concentrated on getting the word out through seminars at monthly meetings. The farmers in the network were also required to grow back the forest on some part of their land. With the price for organic rice rising by 5% a year, overall chemical use was decreasing in Thailand. Yay!

"Westerners brought chemicals to Thailand," he commented watching for our reaction. "Not that I'm blaming you," he added, smiling. Did we have any questions?

"Was he paid a salary to run the coop?" "Yes, but really only enough to buy laundry detergent," he replied.

"In all of his years of farming had he noticed change in the climate?" Oh, yes, yes what about that? I silently thanked Alicia for asking the question. Our nights had been cold, way too cold for Thailand. I had only packed lightweight clothes. Even wearing three shirts, two pairs of pants and a blanket wrapped around my head, that second night, sitting in the open dining area, I had not been able to feel warm. I had felt angry and betrayed by my own country. Peggy and Jo sent out for more blankets. Luckily, I had a nylon sleeping sack with me that kept me warm through the night.

"Yes," said the farmer, "sometimes we have three seasons in one day. The hot season is hotter with less rain and when the rain does come, it comes all at once. There was lightning where there hadn't been before; trees had fallen and people had been killed by lightning because they didn't expect it." We were subdued by this report of such radical change. Nobody asked about the future prospects given this report. What could anyone do about that which was unexpected? I hadn't anymore thought for the future than what was for lunch.

We were soon invited to proceed to the lunch pavilion where we were served more variations of vegetarian fare and were delighted to see omelet's. I had two helpings, not knowing that we would be offered another lunch of noodles in the village. I could hardly walk after that. My status as an "eater" had been stretched to the limit.

Also posted at energy bulletin

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Last Economy Standing

Part two in a series of stories from my road trip in Thailand, participating in a study tour hosted by Pun Pun farms, to visit local examples of sustainable living in the Northeast and in Chiengmai.

"So how did you fall so far from the mainstream consumerist path?" I asked Irena on our long bus ride. She told me how she had, as a child, lived on a farm that her family had tried to start, but it was too hard to make a living farming organically.

"Oh so they were part of the back-to-the-land movement," I said. She agreed. We were talking second generation here. Her parents had already chosen an alternative to the consumerist lifestyle.

As I met others on the tour from the youngest college students, including Sasha who was doing her year abroad at Chiengmai University, to the gray haired man in the floral print pants, named Montaine, whom I quickly realized was gay, I would find that each had their own story of how they had veered from the consumerist lifestyle and now found themselves on a similar quest to heal the world through sustainable living practices. The tour was, after all, called simply the Sustainability Tour.

Since we had arrived so late, we got the last two sleeping spaces. I chose to settle on the back porch of one of the larger adobe houses where a pink mosquito net and futon mat awaited me. Martin who was sharing the space with me, reminded me that we had already chatted on the internet when I was searching for a traveling companion. I was comforted by this previous allegiance. He was from Belgium and was the only actual farmer among us. He invited me to share his roll of toilet paper.

At three in the morning I was woken by what sounded like an amplified band of street musicians singing a ballad. It was a mysterious sound that seemed to move as if on the back of a pickup truck, but never came any closer. Having changed time zones by 15 hours, I felt alert and awake and used the time to write. After an hour or so there was the sound of temple bells and then quiet. At dawn I looked through the twin arched windows of the adobe wall and saw the sun rising over a large lily covered pond.

The house, I was staying in, was built along the back edge of a dry rice paddy. I picked my way over the cut brown stalks to the road and walked to the dining pavilion. Just beyond the pavilion, in another rice paddy, we would assemble on mats for a yoga session. This was definitely not Thai—this yoga, on mats, facing another earthen house. This one was more hobbit like with an assortment of asymmetrical windows and a shaggy thatched roof of long dry leaves. The roof was Thai—coconut palms possibly.

At the back corner of the field were Thai people milling about doing chores under a large tin roof, preparing breakfast for us I realized later. I felt them being amused by the funny postures we were assuming. Peggy, the American wife of Jo who owned the farm, was leading a brisk session followed by a brief meditation. Breakfast wasn't exactly Thai either—these boiled yams eaten in a bowl of blue gray soy milk, but eat it I did.

Martin stood beside me making coffee from hot water dispensed from a large insulated thermos. I asked what kind of farming he did. He said picturesquely, "I have man chicken and woman chicken on the same floor and they fertilize the egg, then I sell egg to the hatchery." At every farm we visited he would kneel at the edge of the rice paddy, pick up a handful of soil and sniff it. So I did the same. The soil in this dry landscape was nearly white and did not smell of much in the way of organic matter.

"It's so sandy," I commented to Peggy.

"It's terrible soil," she said laughing.

This is the soil of land cleared of trees. In the 50s, the government had feared that communist insurgents from nearby Laos and Vietnam were hiding in the forest so they had offered the locals titles to the forest land if they promised to clear it and cultivate it. Cash crops ensued and more land was cleared. And, of course, the teak trees were also a cash crop.

The Joys of Subsistent Farming

The region was so dry it only produced one crop of rice a year instead of three, just enough to feed the family with a little left over to sell. This was what we, in the West, call subsistent farming. Jo didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with that. The way he told it this was the land of abundance. Heck, you only had to work for two months of the year to bring the rice in and the rest of the time was your own, he told us. Compare that to 8 hours a day, seven days a week in the congestion and pollution of Bangkok just to make room and board. The land gave you everything you needed. It had taken him seven years to realize this and return to his 9 acre family farm.

In one paddy he had a smorgasbord of vegetables and melons where the seeds had been simply broadcast and tilled into the earth as the cut rice plants were plowed under. This was his green manure crop. He didn't even have to water it because the water lay so close to the earth under that dry sandiness. Okay, if you say so, I thought. I looked at it skeptically, but I knew from my readings on permaculture that the soil was the best place to store water. All you had to do was dig a basin to catch it during the rainy season. These sunken paddies would flood then.

We walked along the dikes that separated one from another. Here and there would be tucked a pineapple plant or a skinny papaya tree. He did have, by the kitchen, what we would recognize as a vegetable garden with leafy greens, irrigated by blue plastic hoses and sprinkler heads. The water was pumped up from a small pond. This, he pointed out was not strictly adhering to the rules of permaculture as it was envisioned by the Australian who had first come up with the permaculture method.

Jo felt that these rules were too inflexible. It was much easier to catch water run-off if the pond was at the bottom of the land rather than at the top. It was true that he then couldn't use gravity to flow the water to where he needed it and had to use an electric pump, but his pond didn't need a liner which was expensive. And there were fish in his pond. They had arrived there during the rainy season as they jumped over the dikes of the rice paddy from other, bigger ponds. He fed the fish with a large mound of straw and cow dung at one side of the pond. As the fish pulled at the straw at the bottom, the mound would slowly slide further into the water. I marveled at this combination of natural phenomena and a little planning and was happy to eat the fried fish cooked up for us.

After hearing the story of Jo's return to the farm, we piled into the back of a large truck with parallel benches facing each other. A canvas roof covered the metal framework arching over the truck bed. This was typical transport for country folk. Middle class Thais in sedans would laugh when they saw all the farangs traveling country style. We hung on to the support posts and shouted our conversation over the noise of the wind and hum of the engine. After some hours we arrived in Ubon Ratchatani, near the Laotian border, where we picked up a couple of late comers. I liked them immediately. They had style and were from Vancouver. Xaaq with his rakish cap of his own design and Alicia who had on black Japanese fisherman's boots and was a hair stylist.

Waking Up From the Dream

We continued to our first stop at Suan Sang Fun an intentional community. The name translated meant "waking from dream". We were warmly greeted by Thais wearing blue farmer jackets and pants and were served a vegetarian lunch that I recognized as Thai plus some added unfamiliar dishes—a creamy corn and rice dish, a tofu paste with spring onions. After we ate we washed our own dishes in a line up of five wash basins; a system I would find everywhere we went.

Assembling on the linoleum in the school area, we listened to a leader of the community speak. His name, Mai Horm, meant aromatic wood. He told us how the community operated by sharing everything and working together. Buddhism was their common bond and each individual was required to follow the five precepts of lay people (as opposed to 8 for monks). These are to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, having sex outside of a committed relationship and to abstain from addictive substances including coffee. Decisions were made by a committee with guidance from monks if no decision could be reached. There was a fund to care for the sick, provide clothes and buy land. Appropriate technology was emphasized and education should add to the knowledge base and pertain to local needs, not be about the Grand Canyon say. We laughed.

"We are fleeing capitalism," he told us as Jo translated, "because capitalism makes slaves of the poor." I am gratified that nobody even flinches at this anti-capitalist statement. No trickle down theorists here. He talks about how they picked simple clothing because it cut down on the social competition and money spent on adornment.

"When you stop competing with society you have more enjoyment of life," he said wisely. Their outfits are all navy blue and look like a regimented uniform. This crossed a line for me. I felt compelled to ask a question.

"People will say that this is communism with a Buddhist twist," I comment. "What is the argument against that?" I ask.

"Maybe they don't need one," says the comely, East Indian, biracial, woman, Jenell, sitting directly across from me. An American, she is a teacher of natural building techniques and has spent much time helping with building projects in Thailand. I look at her, but stand my ground. I need an answer. I haven't suffered the Domino Theory all these years not to ask the communist question. This was, after all, the reason given for the Vietnam War, to protect the whole of Southeast Asia from falling to communism. Jo translates my question.

"This is a voluntary system," said Mai Horm, "communism is a government system that forces people to conform via laws." I mull this over and decide that, because of the Buddhist precepts, this communal entity would not be read as a Marxist threat. The group is, however, associated with a larger movement, the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect founded some 30 years ago by a former popular singer from Bangkok who ordained as a monk. He established some new ideas about an economy based on meritism that did not go down well within the Thai temple system so he formed his own sect.

Last Economy Standing

Meritism is the system of earning brownie points to improve one's spiritual life and, as I learned as a child, to improve ones circumstances in the next life as well. The Santi Asoke group had a set of rules for business that was more gift economy than trade. One's first duty was to feed oneself and family, then the needy in the community. Only then was any surplus sold at below market prices. If a profit was made, it should not be too much. What cash was collected went into improving the community.

They also taught self sufficiency and gave workshops on organic farming and natural health care as well as how to ferment EM (effective microorganisms) for fertilizer and make shampoo and other products that could be sold. A jar full of holes was used to demonstrate what happens when you are trying to pay off debts and are still spending money. You simply aren't able to fill the jar no matter how much water you put in it.

After the economic collapse of 1997-99, those living under the Santi Asoke system were the only group thriving. This got the attention of the Thai government who sent their people to study this economic phenomena. Not wishing any more defaults on loans to farmers from the government supported Farmer's bank, they made it a contingency of any future loans that the recipient train with the Santi Asoke group. Chances were, after they learned the principles of self sufficiency, the farmer would decide he didn't need a loan. And if he still wanted one, his new knowledge was a better guarantee that he would pay off the loan. Since then 100,000 people have taken the training and a quiet movement to self sufficiency was slowly infusing the land.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Cultural Whiplash In Bangkok

"What about a book about earthen houses," I tentatively suggested to Raja and his wife, Nor, the managing director of Blue Toffee, the publishing house that is producing my book "Diamonds in My Pocket." We are in Raja's car which was actually a great place for a meeting, since he had a driver and we could fully concentrate on our conversation within the confines of the leather upholstery and cool filtered air of the sealed Beemer, despite being in the middle of rush hour traffic.

"Lot's of books in the States are about natural buildings," I explain thinking of glossy coffee table books full of photographs of strawbale cottages shot at sunrise, "they are very beautiful and people like to buy these books. Though not the same people who buy diamonds," I add turning to Nor. "That all right," she says in her characteristic short cut English with flat Thai accent, "different niche." Nor is in the middle of producing her third book in a series of books on gems; this one is a guide to picking out diamonds.

Yes, different niche, indeed; that's why my diamonds are in my pocket. The title of my book made Nor gasp when she first heard it. "Why in your pocket?" she had asked. I had been at a loss to explain. I was pleased that she got it now. I had been quite apprehensive about the status of my relationship with my cousin, Nor, before coming to Bangkok and was relieved to find that my somewhat harsh characterization of her, depicting her as a materialist conscious of every nuance of status, in my memoir, had not given her reason to distance me. On the contrary, as soon as I arrived at the newly refurbished condo turned office of this publishing enterprise that Raja had created following his retirement, I immediately felt welcomed into the Blue Toffee family as one of its authors; the talent as they say in the performing arts.

The sight of my book on display in Raja's office next to the three others that were currently on the Blue Toffee play list, gave me a feeling of stardom that I was not quite ready to grasp. There it was, a real book with my mother and three year old me looking out from the cover. It actually did make me want to pick it up and flip through it. Who was this fahrang woman with the Thai child? This would be a different book from the usual English language books about Thai prostitutes and the Western men ensnared by them or alternatively the truly unlucky who find themselves in a Thai prison, Midnight Express style, following a drug bust. Not since the 60s, it seemed, had anyone penned a book in English of normal life in Thailand (if anything can be said to be normal in this country of extreme contrasts).

In fact women writers, even from the Western hemisphere, were hard to find in this land that had inspired Conrad and Maugham and a handful of other Westerners who were well known enough to have suites named after them at the historical world class Oriental Hotel. I did find them though, on the internet, four years ago under the name Bangkok Women's Writers Group, listed under events in the Sukhumvit area, the trendy, up scale, ex pat district that happened to be where my family had a house. It was to a meeting with this group that I was going and Nor and Raja had offered to drop me off.

The group had just come out with an anthology called Bangkok Blondes of their collected writing. It was well received so far and had won some award for South East Asia. I wanted to show them a copy of my book (a mockup, the actual book was still in the queue waiting at the printshop, in Singapore) and probe them for tips on promoting the book. Serendipitously, they were meeting during the five days I was in Bangkok, at seven that night at a coffee shop nearby. Traffic had come to a standstill. I was only a few blocks away.

"It's seven already. I can get there faster if I walk," I announced to Nor and Raja. We had been in traffic for fourty minutes and had traveled about two miles. They agreed, though only fahrung (Westerners) actually get out and walk. That was okay with me. I was a fahrung with a niche. Under the Blue Toffee "lifestyle" brand I would be the sustainability expert. I was all over this niche, envisioning a new wardrobe of outfits. I was already wearing the classic farmer's pants made from ikat textiles. I had hemmed them shorter to a stylish knee length. My tailored white shirt with French cuffs, closed with my father's cuff links and accessorized with silver jewelry, made me presentable to Nor's stylist eye.

I opened the car door, nearly nailing a motorcyclist, then hastily pulled it closed again and looked behind to see a whole stream of motorcyclists with passengers streaming up the column of stopped traffic. Then one was merciful, seeing I was still trying to exit; he stopped and waited as I hopped out. I nodded my thanks to him, waving good-bye to Nor and Raja.

Cultural Whiplash In The Country

This entire trip was one of cultural whiplash I had not quite breached before and if I thought about it too much my head would explode. I had just spent two weeks in the flat, dry landscape of Isaan, in north eastern Thailand on a tour of sustainable projects that I had not known existed before my foray into the world of natural building. Searching for a workshop in cob building on the internet, four years ago, I had found Pun Pun farms near Chiengmai in Northern Thailand, but had not been able to join any of their building events. Still, because this group was in Thailand, I was very interested in their efforts and had kept an eye on them until I was finally able to come on this tour—their first road trip. Even so, I knew that breaking away from my family's Bangkok mindset would not be easy especially if they knew I was traveling alone.

"Driving at night is a no no," warned my friend G-up regarding my trip to Yasathorn, the meet-up point for the tour. (I had wanted G-up to come with me because of her interest in the environment, but she was held up at work.) To hear a city person talk of the country you would think that there were bands of robbers waiting by the side of the road with machetes to ambush busloads of tourists and wealthy Thais in sedans. I remembered a cautionary tale that had been told to me by my family when I was twenty. It involved a girl who wanted to join her friends at the beach at Pattaya, but her parents had said no; she took a taxi alone and ended up raped and dead.

In 1990 I traveled to the outback of Brazil with three other women. City people living in San Paulo warned us that there was nothing out in the Sertao, but snakes and bandits; they themselves had never been to that region. How curious, this psychological barrier between the modernized, educated citizens of urban third world cities and their poor country counterparts. Turned out that the sweetest people lived out in the Brazilian scrubland, visited only rarely by priests, and in one village an American woman who had stayed for two years, learned Portuguese from scratch and painted murals all over the room they had offered to her. "She was like a daughter of the town," the villagers mused nostalgically as they showed us her room.

To cross this barrier between first world city and third world country and to appease my anxious relatives, I would need protective camouflage. I summoned an American of my own, via group e-mail to those going on the tour. She arrived at my family compound, after dark, having traveled by bus from an ashram, a couple hours outside of Bangkok. She had neglected to bring the address and directions I had given her, but was eventually able to reach me by phone having gotten lost on the Sky Train.

As soon as she laid down her large framed, back pack on the teak parquet floor of my father's house and adjusted her waist length brown pony tail, I recognized her for the intrepid footloose youth that span the globe, post-college or between years. Irena was her name. Yes, she would do nicely. Cash strapped backpackers were not generally a target of roadside hijackings.

Early in the morning, my aunt's driver drove us in the family minivan to the bus station and bid us farewell. Ten hours later by air conditioned bus that had stopped at every podunk town, we arrived after dark in Yasathorn, having missed the pickup time of our tour by a couple of hours. We called and were instructed to find a taxi and make our way out to the farm. I did not tell Irena that two women out in the country at night was a "no no," although I was beginning to worry. I would just have to hang with her fearless American reality. I was, after all, armed with a black belt.

A motorcycle driver for hire, seeing that we had just got off the bus approached us. Realizing how far we wanted to go, he summoned for us another driver who had a pickup truck. This chap's scraggly beard and homeboy hat did not comfort me, but we got in nevertheless and headed out to our destination fourty minutes away, with me jammed up against the stick shift. There was no address. The driver seemed as nervous as me. We would just have to ask our way there or rather he wanted me to ask, to give validity to his being there—a strange man with a truck. At the first house where people were still out in the yard, I got out and described to them, with my ten year old Thai, the farmer who had a fahrung wife whose farm we were seeking. Ah yes, said the man, the place of the "Baan Din"—the earthen houses. This was promising, but still we did not find it and stopped at a hardware store where the owner kindly jumped on his scooter and bid us follow him. He led us to another house high up on stilts with a small yard.

"This isn't how I pictured it at all," said Irena when we pulled up, but we were not there yet. A woman came out for a discussion with the driver. I was not following the conversation and thought we were lost. Could we call them? I asked the driver who repeated my request to the family. A pause as the woman took out her cell phone. This comforting device in the middle of what still looked like pre-industrial Thailand made me want to laugh. She dialed a number and handed it to me. I spoke into it in English. A man's voice with a slight Thai accent gently told me in English, that we need only follow this woman's son and he would lead us there on his scooter.

When I saw the first distinctly un-Thai earthen house and a group with a blond person in it, milling about under fluorescent lighting, I knew we were there, wherever there might be. I had done it. I had escaped the pod lifestyle of Bangkok as it was lived from air-conditioned car to indoor shopping mall to air-conditioned condo. And this, I could be sure, was no ordinary tourist expedition with pre-planned elephant trek ending at a photo-op waterfall. This was a field study into the lives of real people not making a living from the tourist trade, a land that had once been teak forests, and was home to so many women currently in the sex trade. This was the story of a land in recovery from the Western selling of the Green Revolution of chemical agribusiness fame, followed by the economic roller coaster of globalization. Now it would be my story to tell too.

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