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!


  1. My favorite entry so far! You are so observant and honest at the same time. To be able to reflect so earnestly about your own revulsion and frustration at the situation of the family in the landfill is an incredible start (at least?) to "truly understanding" lives that to so many are completely unaware of/sympathetic to. You certainly have done much in opening up my eyes.

    I look forward to hearing more!


  2. My favorite entry too! You captured some great shots. My question is..why did they scavenge again at night? This seems like a bad idea esp. when there are maggots everywhere!! Sounds like you are seeing lots of new things and are learning a lot. I'm also impressed with how much responsibility you have!! Meeting the mayor DOES sound intimidating..especially when he does not share your views. I'm thinking of you and can't wait to read more;) Keep the pictures coming!!