Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Highlights from the past few weeks

- I went to Chiang Mai for Songkran Festival, which was amazing.
- I rode on an elephant, and guided it around by siting on its head
- I went bamboo rafting
- I swam in a waterfall
- I got completely drenched for 4 days b/c of the festival
- My friends and I bought buckets, along with the rest of Chaing Mai, and positioned ourselves at the moat around the city so we could throw our buckets in, get water and then dump the buckets on everyone/everything passing by (ask me for pics of this later, words cannot describe it)
- I went on a homestay with a family who is fighting against the construction of a Potash (potassium) mine. My nong sao (little sister) was 5, and we got really close. But I got a cold from her since she was sick and was playing with me the entire time i was there
- We had a bunch of amazing exchanges during this unit, but my two higlights were with a group of Core Leaders in the community, and with a man named P'Suwit. The Core Leaders were so full of fire and passionate that I was laughing slash wanting to scream "Amen" for the entire meeting. They kept screaming "YOU KNOW WHAT THE WORLD'S BIGGEST ADDICTION IS??? CHEMICAL FERTILIZER!!" "WE WILL BE ANYWHERE WHERE THERE IS POTASH TO PROTEST!!" They were pretty amazing. P'Suwit is an NGO (NGO's can be one person, who knew?) who basically wrapped up all of the things we have been learning this semester, since this is our last unit. The exchange really made me think about my role as an American and as a young person. He is a really cool guy who was a Marxist when he was young, and then became a "gangster" (according to him) and shot someone - we don't know who - and then decided that being an NGO was the way to help people. So he tries to help inform and organize villagers about the problems that they face. I have a lot of cool quotes from him that I can share at a later poitn b/c they are written down in my room.

Alright, that is all for now. I am about to go work on my Thai Final, Core Course Final, Thai Video and all the other assignments that are due in three days.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Almost break time!!

We have finished unit 4 - looking at dams and the effects that they have had on different communities. It was really interesting to evaluate the use of dams and similar policies of economic development from a villager perspective. These villages are now being forced to move our of their place of residence, because the dams flood their crops and land, causing them to not be able to farm anymore. They had a lot to say, including a few really moving quotes:

"If they cover everything in cement, how will we be able to find our roots?"

"Policy makers only see trees and water on a map, not people."

The assignment for this unit was to reflect on what the past 4 units have meant to us, in any way possible. Some people drew paintings (which were amazing, and i would probably buy them for a lot of money in the states), some wrote poetry, some choreographed dances, some made products which will be used in this Human Rights Festival we will be attending and co-coordinating in May, some wrote letters to loved ones, and a lot of other things. Along with a small group of other students, I helped make a "Sustainable Pass-On," providing information for future semesters on how to live sustainably on the CIEE program and in Khon Kaen. It included restaurants which use organic/local food, useful phrases in Thai, such as "I do not want a plastic bag," compost instructions, etc. It will be something that other semesters can add on to as well. It was so cool to see everyone present their projects, because you could tell that everyone was in their element and put so much effort into their work. It made a bunch of us emotional, and really brought us even closer as a group. It is weird because I already feel so close to people that I have only known for a few months. I think it is partially b/c we are with eachother literally 24 hours a day, in addition to seeing both personal and academic sides of each other. It is like rooming with 29 friends and then attending all of your classes with those friends, eating with them, and going to all of the same extracurricular activities together. Obviously we have Thai friends as well, but we are super tight as a group.

I'm really excited b/c a few of my friends and I are leaving tomorrow night to take an overnight bus to Chiang Mai for Songkran Water Festival. We have our only BREAK!!!!!!! starting the day after tomorrow, lasting for four days. Songkran is the biggest festival of the year, celebrating the New Year, and basically everyone throws water (colored and non-colored) at eachother for the entire 4-day festival. So I expect to be drenched the entire time I'm away from Khon KAen, which I am fine with since it is SO HOT here, and is almost to the 100's on some days.

Alright, I'll write again soon!!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Interesting weekend

So a few things happened this weekend. First, my gold mine team discovered that this issue we are trying to depict in our human rights report is a lot bigger then we originally thought. There has only been one other report written about the negative impacts of mining practices in Thailand, and they were sued for a lot of money. And a lot of the information we were getting about the levels of water contamination were apparently stolen by a government worker, since the government was not giving the community information about their water. This means that we cannot directly cite these sources. All in all, we found out that the project is too big for us to finish in the time allotted, and we will probably have to continue working on the report until we leave Thailand. Kind of a bummer, since I like to complete things, but also a good thing, since this report will be a lot more thorough and therefore effective in making the government compensate for the water contamination.

This weekend was also our first real hang out with all of our Ajaans and Interns, including all of our Thai professors and the director of the program. The Ajaans paid for us to get Thai massages yesterday afternoon, and then we all went bowling as a huge group. We all ate a lot and drank a lot of beer at the bowling alley, and then most people left, but the Ajaans and a few of my friends stayed later to bowl more. At the end of the night I was on a team with my friend Tany, Ajaan Dave (the director of the program) and Ajaan John (Thai teacher). All of our Ajaans were pretty drunk, which was really funny.. and I got six strikes during the night!! All of us seemed to get better the more beer we drank, which doesn't really make sense. After leaving the bowling alley, we went to our usual bar, where I sang "I will survive" with Ajaan John and his band and played the tambourine for awhile. It was an amazing night!!!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

human rights

Who knew writing a human rights report would take so long?? We are now on our 5-6 draft, and still going. I finished my part of the project - profiles and case studies for each argument (violations of the right to water, right to food, right to work and right to health) two days ago, so I am now on layout. I feel really badly for the "report" team, because they are in charge of basically all of the writing in the Human Rights Report - Overview, Synopsis, Regional context, National context, International context, Chronology, ICESCR overview (International Covenant on Human Rights is divided into the ICCPR and ICESCR), and then writing all of the arguments, then the notes and appendix. Basically a ton of writing. They finished their final draft yesterday, and we were supposed to put it into the layout, but we found out extra information yesterday when some of the villagers came to do fact checks with us. SO, at 10:30 last night, our teacher told us that we had to re-format, and therefore re-write basically all of it. And the deadline is today. So basically they started at 11 and did shifts of 2 hours, all of them sleeping in our classrooms. Hopefully we will be finished today so we can put it into layout and send it off to the printer tonight. I have free days tomorrow and on Friday, but I don't think I am going to be able to take them if our project needs to be revised tonight. 

I have never felt this invested in school work before. Ever. As a group we have been writing literally form 7 am to midnight or later every day, with multiple people sleeping in the classroom to keep writing as long as their bodies can handle it. We really want to write it well, but we also really want to get all of the information in there, since this has the potential of affecting our homestay moms and dads a ton. 

A couple of the photographers on our team went back to the village to get a cover shot for the report, and some pictures for case studies and profiles, and came back with pretty funny stories. While we were there this one man had a camera and was taking pictures of all of us and these random village members. He would drag us to different people, take a picture and then move on. Apparently these pictures have been posted all around the village, with paper-sized versions all over the walls of people's homes. Hilarious. They also saw my homestay mom, who had a picture of Tany and I in her pocket, and on her walls. So cute!!

Alright...back to work!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ban Na Nong Bong

I just had the most amazing homestay experience ever. Our big group split in half to write two human rights reports, and my half went to this community which is basically falling apart because of a gold mine. The mine was built a couple of years ago, and since then not only have the ecosystems been destroyed, but they have completely changed a community. Ban Na Nong Bong used to be mostly a self-sustaining community, though growing rice and other crops, and collecting fish and vegetables from the forests and streams around the village. But the mine now uses chemicals which are seeping into the groundwater.


As soon as the mine was built, the fish in the community died and they now cannot eat the forest vegetables, partly because the water is completely contaminated and poisoning them, and partly because the mine is blasting the tops of mountains off and tearing down forests. Now the community members cannot drink or shower in the water safely, as shown by people with skin rashes and cyanide poisoning, among other health issues. In order to get clean water and food, they now are spending all of their savings. People are having multiple jobs just in order to live.

For my human rights report, I am on the profile team. This means that I conducted 7 interviews with different people in the community on their lives and how they have been affected by the mine. My profile team and I interviewed a woman whose baby is suffering from skin rashes from showering in the contaminated water, a man who was a farmer and is now working at the mine in order to act as a community informant or spy, a teenage girl who is actively writing letters to others about the conditions in the community, a man who lives next the mine and literally has to hide in his house at noon every day, for the boulders from the mine dynamite blasts shower on his fields, an elderly man who usually conducts ceremonial customs which require food and water, my homestay mom whose water has arsenics, among other chemicals in it (which I showered in daily! yummy!), a community organizer, and a woman suffering from cyanide poisoning. This woman's symptoms include regular fainting, migranes, eye sores, etc.

Our report is focusing on four human rights violations: the right to work, the right to food, the right to health, and the big one: the right to water. I cannot even express how connected I feel to the community and how much I am in awe of their strength.

The day that we got to the homestay we went straight into an exchange with the Mine officials. After a 3 hour discussion and a tour of the mine, we left feeling that there were no human rights violations. The mine's PR team is pretty amazing. They showed us around the facilities, and really made us confident in their work. We then got to the community, where the story was completely different. As one of the girls in my group said, we felt like we were on Scooby Doo. We were all detectives into the situation, since this community has absolutely NO information on what is going on. This is because the mine is so incredibly corrupt. 

The board in control over the mine is made up of government officials. The president of the board is the retired general of the Thai military, who was basically responsible for the 2005-2006 coup against Thaksin (old Prime Minister). Because of this really strong connection between the mine and the government, the community has little to no access to information about the condition of the water and their health. They have been asking for testing on their water for more than a year, and got their first water test just a month ago from the Ministry of Public Health. However, the test was taken during the middle of the day from one source, where cyanide can evaporate from the water. Therefore, the test only showed arsenics, cadmium, and other chemicals (which are also incredibly harmful to health). Also, the local public clinic is not providing village members with information on their health, only treating their symptoms, and not doing tests on their long term health conditions.


Basically things are effed up. The morning after we got to the community 6 of us went to a protest with the community members. We were told that we were going to the Governor to present a letter to him. So we all get dressed up and walk to the car, where we are given neon green T-shirts with "NO MINE!" and other Thai words on them (as shown in the above pics!). Then we realized that it was a real protest. We piled into the back of a pickup truck with other village members, and started this caravan through neighboring communities and picking up people on the way. It was pretty amazing - at one point we were on the highway with more than 20 pickup trucks all full of neon green t-shirts and signs. There were around 300 people at the protest. Pretty cool sight to see. 

When we got to the protest, we were told to stand back, so it wasn't a Farang protest. However, it was kind of easy to spot us, partly because we were white, and partly because we were a foot taller than everyone else. Anyway, we did interviews with different newspapers and TV news channels, and one of my friends was on the front page of the paper the next day. But yeah, we were at the protest for around 3-4 hours, during which a lot happened. At the beginning a security guard for the Governor came out onto the lawn where we were standing, and requested that a few people come inside and negotiate with the officials. People refused, and said that they would have to come outside. They said "We are all here together to fight the issues." Later on, when nothing was happening, we all moved closer to the Governor's building, and then moved all the way up to the steps. My homestay mom was awesome. She walked straight up to these government officials and demanded their attention. One good quote was, "Standing in the sun for a few hours won't kill us. But drinking our water will."  

Anyway, after a little we saw some of the representatives from the mine walk out of the building, who had obviously heard what the community was doing, and decided to get to the Governor first. We talked to them, and they were very cordial and fake, saying that all of these people made up the menial 5% of community members who didn't oppose them (false.). 

After awhile, the Assistant Governor and a representative from the Public Health office came out (The Governor was not there. coincidence?) and told all of us protesters that this was the first time he had heard of the health effects of the water. They said that they would provide more free water to villagers and that they would do more testing. We were happy that they finally dealt with the situation, but who knows when these changes will occur. 

Along with all of the things that I was learning about dealing with human rights, my actually homestay was amazing. I had such a great homestay mom, who I really connected with. She had the most intense eyes, and would just let you know exactly how she was feeling at the moment. She also didn't treat me as a foreigner, but as her own daughter. I slept in the same bed with her, and we all stayed up really late at night (her, me and my homestay partner, Tany) just giggling and talking about how tall we were, etc. It was my favorite homestay by far. 

 (my mom!)

When we left the community we were given this large ceremony and told that they really depended on our report, since they are deteriorating in health and their communities resources are diminishing. So basically, we all feel a huge responsibility to our moms and dads in the community to write this report in the best way possible, and maybe make a difference. It is also nice, because we are not just going in there as Farang and writing about what we think should change. The arguments are all thought up and supported by community members themselves. 

So. Now begins the writing process! We will write draft after draft, sending it in to different people for critiques, and then come out with our report (which kind of looks like a book - a cover and pictures and everything). I am so excited to get this out there, but really apprehensive because I want to do it right. I am writing about people I know, which makes it all the more meaningful to me. Let's do it!

P.S. one thing i learned this week: making one gold ring produces 10 tons of waste
           ...definitely makes you say "holy crap," right? 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

weekend getaway

This weekend was our FIRST two full days off. Around 10 of us decided to check in to the local hotel/resort in Khon Kaen. It is a pretty swanky place, that would probably be close to 1,000 dollars a night in the states, but here was only 70 bucks a night. We all shared rooms and enjoyed time at the pool, multiple pina coladas and mai thais, massages, breakfast and dinner buffets, and lounging around in our amazingly soft bathrobes. It was such an amazing weekend, but made us feel some guilt, especially after spending time in the slum and landfill communities. It is a completely different world. Otherwise, the food. was. incredible. It was really weird to be in a place that we could get burgers, pancakes, cereal, sushi, steak, etc. We are all hoping we don't get sick from all of the different tastes!

Weirdest part was coming back to the university after the hotel stay. I felt like i was going through culture shock, even though it was just a songtaew ride away. It was strange to go from all tourists to no tourists, hotel smells to Thai smells, all English speakers to no English speakers, etc. All in all, a great, and very much needed weekend break!!

Tomorrow we start Unit 3, where we are writing human rights reports. Our group is split into two reports - one on an illegal forest village, and one on a gold mine north of Khon Kaen. I am in the gold mining group, and Amnesty International has shown interest in using our report to further their research, which is pretty cool. I am leaving for a homestay in the gold mine on Thursday, which will be really interesting. Apparently the community has been trying to get CIEE students there for months to do this report, because they feel that their rights are being violated and ignored. They are hoping that this report will publicize their situation. Specificcally, I am writing profiles for the report. Some people are doing research, some are writing a feature, some are taking pictures, and I am in the group doing profiles. I will interview different people in the community and then write profiles depicting their lives and work with some sort of angle or focus. 

This is just one more example of the power of experiential education. It is so cool that we get to write these reports completely on our own, and are completely in charge over the direction we want to take with them. Basically, we learn what we choose to learn. We have been doing this for the past units as well, but this is sweet because we have a tangible report to show for it. It will look like a book kind of - a cover with a picture, and then different components inside. Anyways, I'm pretty excited!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


This unit has been focusing on urban issues, including urbanization and development. I am a unit facilitator, which means that with 3 other students, I lead all of the exchanges and sessions with the other students. Being a unit fac is hard because you are in meetings ALL of the time, since you have to plan everything that the other students will be doing. 

To help us learn about urban issues, we did two homestays - one in a slum community and one in a landfill (both located in Khon Kaen). The group divided into two groups, where half would go to one location and the other half would go to the other location. Then, after 3 days we switched. I was in the group heading to the slum first, and my community was named Theparak 1 (the group split up further into 4 different slum communities). The main issue facing T1 was the problem of renting. A lot of these communities are located on the railroad tracks, which are run by SRT - State Railway of Thailand. SRT rents land out to homes and private businesses, but they do not allow any development within the first 20 meters next to the tracks. Unfortunately half of the houses in T1 are located in this 20 meters, meaning that half of the community is able to rent and half isn't. The half that isn't has the fear that they will be evicted from their homes. We had an exchange with the leader of the village, who said that since half of the homes are not able to rent, the rest of the village isn't renting either. The community is in full support of every village member, so if one can't rent, none of them will rent. This fact shows the strength and unity of the community so much, because now they are all in danger of being evicted.

My host mom sold this soup thing in the morning for breakfast, so she would wake up at 4:30 to go to the market and get the ingredients. We also lived with my grandma and grandpa, and two younger brothers, who were 7 and 9. The thing that stood out to me the most in my slum community was the fact that I had so many negative outlooks on what a slum looked like. I was kind of expecting it to dangerous or really dirty, and it wasn't like this at all. T1 was extremely safe, friendly, and really receptive to having us there to learn about the different issues. They expressed that it is frustrating to be seen as the crappy part of the city, because a lot of city members blame their problems on slum communities. Also, as a group, we were able to see the immense push towards urbanization, and struggled with the question: are urban slums inevitable?

After the slum community, I headed to the landfill, which was a completely different experience. Here, I stayed with a family who scavenges for a living. The landfill was really huge, and then there were houses which were directly next to one side of the landfill. These houses formed the community where we all lived. My house consisted of my mom, dad, older sister, younger sister, and  brother. The older sister worked at some beauty shop in the city of Khon Kaen, so she wasn't there during the day when I was. However, she seemed pretty pissed that she was kicked out of her room in order for Kelsey (other CIEE student in homestay with me) and I to take her room. Her room was very teenage girl, it was kind of funny. There were pictures of all of these Thai male models and things. 
(picture taken by my friend Jenny) 

The first day that we were there, my host mom took Kelsey and I scavenging from 7-11. We also went with my aunt, who had two farang staying with her. The 4 of us had to learn about what to look for - plastic bottles, glass bottles, thick plastic bags, and bags of rice to give to the chickens. The families get money for recycling the bottles and bags, and then use that money as their income. It was really, really disgusting. We picked thru a lot of maggots and parts of animals, and basically everything that we put in the garbage. It really made me think about how much we consume. It also made me realize how many plastic bags we really use. I would say that about a third of the trash there was plastic bags.

While we were scavenging, our families found some pretty sweet stuff. I found a purse, which my mom kept. She also found 5 baht, and a garbage bag of nice clothes, which a bunch of the families split up and took home. After 4 hours I was completely drenched in sweat (we all were wearing long layers and boots) and smelly. In the afternoon we came back and took showers, and rested with the family. My host cousin was 8 months old, so we played with her a lot. That night we went to bed at 8pm, in order to wake up at 11pm and go scavenging at night. This was a completely different experience for a variety of reasons. First, it was a lot cooler. Second, there were no other people scavenging on the landfill, so it was a lot quieter. Third, we had to wear flashlights because it was completely dark. And fourth, there was lightning and thunder, which made it kind of eerie. We worked until about 1 am, when we took a break, and Kelsey's battery exploded. She was wearing one of the flashlights that they had given her, which included a headlamp portion and a battery pack on her waist. The battery pack started oozing, and burning her skin, so we had to go back to the house to have her change pants. As soon as we got back it started to rain (first rain during the dry season!), so we didn't end up going back up to the landfill. 

The next day was all resting and relaxing. Kelsey, my friend Katja (who was staying at my Aunt's house) and I all hung out the entire day, not leaving my house once. We did crossword puzzles that I brought, played with my 8 month old cousin, ate, slept, read, etc. Our families did the same. It was kind of interesting, because when people work in the States they are always busy and doing things during the meat of the day. But the families we stayed with worked really hard, and then rested when they needed rest. The negative result of them staying at home was not getting any money for the day. But they recognize when they need that rest to recharge. One big thing that my group struggled with after leaving both the slum community and the landfill community was: how can we fully understand their lives when we are only staying for a few days, and they have to live with these issues every single day. I especially felt this way after scavenging, when I would literally feel sick to my stomach while sorting through people's crap, and knowing that my host mom did this twice a day, every day. 

After returning back to Khon Kaen, we had three exchanges in one day. One of them included meeting with the Mayor of Khon Kaen, where I facilitated the exchange. I had to meet with him by myself a little before the exchange, which was really intimidating. During the exchange it was clear that he had completely different opinions about what was needed in the lives of the people in the slums/landfill. He disregarded their needs and concerns, saying "If they want to leave, they can leave." People were extremely frustrated after the exchange, which I think is good, because it shows how passionate we have become about these different issues.

In the next couple of days, I have to plan the last Unit workshop, where we conclude the unit and wrap up all of these different things that we have all been experiencing. After that, I have two free days (!!!), where my friends and I might go camping. Or, we might just hang out and sleep. Both sound great!