Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chocolate, Yellow Shoes, Hairdryers, and Hospitals

About twenty minutes ago, I was exploring part of Chiang Mai with some of my friends and we stumbled upon one of the best places in all of the city. The Chocolate Fact. The tagline is "Live Life Chocolately" and who can disagree with that. As soon as we walk in, there is a huge sign that says "CHOCOLATE 100%." This may not seem like a very cool thing to you, but here in Thailand the consumption of chocolate is quite low in comparison to the states. I have been chocolate deprived on many different occasions and today was one of those occasions. Right next to this huge sign is twenty-five different chocolate desserts and then next to that was a huge menu of over 30 different chocolate drinks!! Definitely heaven. It took us about seven minutes to actually decide on what we wanted to order. So many options... I finally settled on a dark chocolate latte and let me tell you, it was incredible. To top off this great little place, they even have FREE wifi, which is always a bonus.

Every Sunday night Chiang Mai closes down two major streets that run through the Old City for "The Walking Street". It brings in both tourists and locals alike. The streets are lined with people's homemade clothing/paintings/souvenirs etc and food vendors. I have gone a few times before with Johnny's host family and it seems to be more of a social event then a shopping event. Well last Sunday, I was on a mission... my mission was to buy some gifts. The mission failed horribly and I got really frustrated. I ran into Rachel (another ISDSI student and one of my roommates) and we decided to stop in some clothing stores on our walk home. She is a fashion queen and has had a really successful semester in the shopping area of Thailand, which is not usually typical for most foreigners. Most stores have only two clothing sizes: extra small and extra huge. And they usually have only one size of shoes: 6.5 (sometimes 7 if your lucky). So my shopping experience in Thailand has been quite unexciting. While Rachel was trying on some clothes I found a sweet pair of florescent yellow pumas, I got really excited and tried to put them on... but of course they were too small by about 1/2 a size. Bummer. When we walked out of the store (with some new clothes for Rachel and me empty handed and frustrated) I said to Rachel, "You know, all i really want right now is a pair of bright yellow shoes that fit me. I am done trying to find clothes, all i want now are shoes." She laughed and said that she would try to help me find some. We came up to the corner of the street and on our right was a little shoe store of barely worn shoes. As soon as I walked in, I looked to my left and right there in a spotlight were a pair of bright yellow new balance shoes. It was as though they were calling out my name... I put them on and guess what!! They fit, perfectly. The best part was that they were about $5-10. It was a materialistic/impulsive buying moment, but it was definitely worth it. I wore them the next day with my uniform: black skirt, white collar shirt, and bright yellow shoes. I probably looked like an idiot haha, but I was happy. My Bright Yellow Shoes

I had a pretty scary morning last week. I almost lost all of my hair! I was late to school already and my hair was still a little wet, so I grabbed my blow dryer to quickly dry my bangs. Shortly after I turned it on I heard a click sound and then a loud explosion sound and then my blow dryer was blowing flames!!!!! AHHHH! I unplugged it as fast as I could and thankfully none of my hair was affected! It was a little terrifying and not the best way to start a morning :( Sorry Mom for ruining your blow dryer. At least I still have all of my hair :)

On Monday I started to notice a sort of rash on my knee. The next day it started to puss and pop and get really gross. Wednesday it started to spread a little and Thursday I finally decided it wasn't normal. I showed it to one of our instructors and she gave me a band-aid and said she had no idea what it was. Friday, I showed it to her again and it was decided that I should go to the hospital and get it checked out just in case it doesn't spread while we are backpacking through the jungle the following week. By then the wound looked really strange and not like a normal scratch or scab. The reason why I just told you that gruesome information is because it is important to understand the background of the wound to fully grasp the following event I am going to tell you about.

As soon as class was over on Friday (around noon), I decided to go to the hospital. I walked in and sat at the information desk. The receptionist asked me what was wrong and I said "I have this strange wound on my knee that I would like to get looked at." She asked to see it and as soon as I showed it to her, her eyes got really big and she said, "you need to go over to there (pointing to the surgery desk)." Of course I was a little confused and I said, "to surgery??" and she quickly replied, "yes, yes to surgery." Now I am sure you can imagine what was going through my head when this conversation ended. "SURGERY, WHAT THE HECK!?! I DON'T NEED TO GET SURGERY FOR THIS STUPID WOUND! THEY BETTER NOT PERFORM SURGERY ON MY KNEE, THEN I WON'T BE ABLE TO WALK FOR AWHILE, THEN I WON'T BE ABLE TO GO BACKPACKING NEXT WEEK!?!? AND I HAVEN'T EVEN TOLD MY MOTHER! AHHHHH" I looked at her and nodded and walked over to the surgery desk. As I approached the desk (which was surrounded by 5 Thai nurses) I heard one of the nurses say in Thai, "A farang (foreigner) is coming, who can speak English to her." Then a woman walks over and says in perfect English, "Sawatdee Ka, how can I help you?" I told her about my knee, showed it to her, then she took me into a room where I got my temp, blood pressure, height, and weight checked. She looked at my knee asked me in less perfect English what had happened. I then explained to her everything that I told you in the previous paragraph. She said, "ohhhhhh, please go wait in the waiting room." Still at this point, my thoughts are racing wondering if this is normal in Thailand and on top of all of that I am freaking out a little about how I am going to explain this to my mom. About twenty minutes later I am called into a room with what looks to be a surgeon. He looks at my knee, I explain the story again and then after about ten minutes of questions and inspecting my knee he says, "it looks like you may have an abscess of some sort, but you don't need to get surgery for this, so I will have one of my nurses take you up to the dermatology unit." HOLY COW, WHAT A RELIEF! No more surgery, YEAH! :) I saw the dermatologists, she put me on some anti-biotics and gave me some cream to put on my wound. This crazy two+ hour adventure in the hospital ended with a hospital bill of about $30. Not too bad, but definitely emotionally draining. haha. After, I paid my bill I went up to the tenth floor to visit another ISDSI student. She had an infection on her ankle and had to stay in the hospital for a few days and get hooked up to IV and take some anti-biotics. I think that maybe there was a little paranoia with my knee, thinking that maybe it could be something worse... but hey it is better safe than sorry. Later that night, I went back to the hospital with 4 other students to visit Anna. We brought popcorn, m&ms, and a dancing movie. This hospital didn't have any visiting rules, so we had a little movie party for 5 hours in Anna's hospital room. It was awesome.

Tomorrow I leave for the province of Mae Hong Son where I will be backpacking from village to village learning about political ecology, conservation, and human rights. It is going to be pretty intense, but I am really excited. I won't have internet access until May 14th, I believe so until then please pray for our group and for the villagers that we will be living with. Thank you for all of your prayers and support and I pray that you have a wonderful next few weeks!

ally j

Saturday, April 18, 2009

PART 1 of 2: Earth Rights Abuses and the Village of Nong Bo

Spring break is almost over and the third block is soon to begin. Songkran festival was wet and fun; Sukhothai was beautiful and hot; and now I have a lot of reading to prepare for the next course, which is focused on political ecology of forests, but I am not going to discuss it in this blog J. Many people have asked me about my experience with the past course (Rivers: Human Rights and the Environment) and I apologize for not responding sooner with a blog post, but it took me a long time (and still taking me a long time) to process everything and regurgitate it all to you. So I hope this blog will give you a better understanding of what I experienced and how it all made me feel.

The course was structured as follows:

week one- in Chiang Mai to learn and understand the rivers in Thailand

week two- in Nong Bo (Fishing village) living in a village directly affected by the building of the Pak Mun Dam on the Mae Nam Mun River.

mid-block break- two days of seminar and discussion on what we learned and tools for processing everything

week three/four- Canoeing down the Yom River with 10 Don Chai activists learning about what the river means to them

The conflict that we continually learned about is the link between access to river resources and human rights are linked. The government looks at the rivers as a source of money and power whereas the villagers view it differently. The Mun river is referred to as the Mae Nam Mun, which uses the Thai word for mother. The Mekong is directly translated as “our mother.” This creates a significant distinction in how the rivers are viewed; the villagers see the rivers as a source of life and they depend on it for survival and understand it in ways other people do not. They would never intentionally do anything to harm the river because of how much they rely on it. The other view comes from the people who see the rivers as a source of convenience. Commonly, these people build “development” projects like dams because it will conveniently supply them with more electricity access and ultimately more money. The level of respect for the rivers is different between these two views.

The dams have created great issues concerning human rights and the access to river resources. Construction of dams violates this idea of earth rights: “earth rights are those rights that demonstrate the connection between human well-being and a sound environment, and include the right to a healthy environment, the right to speak out and act to protect the environment, and the right to participate in development decisions” (Earth Rights 20.) Each aspect has been violated with the creation of the dams. The right to a healthy environment is abused when a person is forced to move out of their home because of dynamiting a channel. When a river is unable to provide a healthy environment (as a result of outside influences) it directly impacts the livelihood of the people that use the river everyday. Fishermen can not survive on a river that has become environmentally unsound because if you take away fish then there is no life for people.

While in Nong Bo we spoke with Mae Jarun, a woman who was the first in her village to oppose the building of the Pak Mun Dam and she has been a leading protester since before the dam was built. Mae Jarun and the alliance of fishermen (along the Mae Nam Mun River) are prime examples of the violations of the right to speak out and act to protect the environment. Mae Jarun was condoned by the headman of her village and pressured by the governor to change her mind about the dam. She was allowed to speak out, but consequences would follow. Many people who decide to protest to protect their environment are physically abused, threatened, or killed. Before the dam was built, some villagers were talked to by the dam building committee about the projected idea for the dam and its construction. The problem arises when people are only told the “benefits” of building the dam. If both the pros and the cons are not given then it violates the people’s right to know.

Right to participation is the link between human rights and the environment. This right can be violated if there is not genuine involvement, if power is forced, and if people are not allowed to take part in decision making. The stakeholders involved wih the building of the Pak Mun Dam and many other dams alike (including projected dams) are not given equal participation. The villagers downstream of the dam were notified but their say had little influence in the dam construction. When stakeholders are lied to and not given a fair say then their human rights are abused.

The people that have been affected by human rights abuses along the Mae Nam Mun and the Mekong have been disempowered. Many have lost hope and dignity because of corruption and a desire for money. Why does there seem to be a constant link between abusing the rivers and human rights abuses?

We were given the opportunity to tour the Pak Mun Dam and learn about how it works from the engineers who control it. They walked us all around the dam and then took us down into the control room where everything happens. We learned that the dam only opens its gates for a few months during the rainy season and the rest of the year the only water flow is through the electrical turbines that run during peak electricity hours (starting at 5pm). The villagers said that every year they have to turn in a petition to open the gates in June (they would prefer the gates to be open all year round), which is time consuming and extremely stressful trying to fight against government decisions. It blows my mind how much power the government has over these people; at any time, day or night, the government can call up the engineers and ask them to open the gates (even if it is harmful), yet the villagers have to petition and protest for days on end to open the gates in June. A few days before we heard from Mae Jarun a tragedy happened. The government wanted to stock up water for Songkran Festival and they decided that the best way to do this was get it from the reservoir above the Pak Mun Dam. They sent word to the engineers that they wanted some of the gates to be opened that night, and of course, they got their wish. When the engineers open the gates they told us that they first blow a few blasts on a horn to let the villagers know and then they open the gates very slowly to both allow the flow to seem more natural and to avoid sediment contamination. However, this was not the case on that night. No one remembers the blasts and gates were not opened slowly to allow for a natural flow. Mae Jarun’s two sons went fishing late into the night a few kilometers downstream from the dam; both of them fell asleep in their boats, but one son got up to get closer to shore. On his way over to shore he heard an earsplitting, train whistle, roaring sound and then a few seconds later a huge tidal wave of water came bellowing down the river. The son near the shore was unable to yell to his brother to wake him up in time. One of Mae Jarun’s sons was killed and her other son barely survived the scariest moment of his life. Of all people, Mae Jarun, the woman who was the first to stand up against the Pak Mun Dam, the woman who has lost everything because of this dam, it just sickens me that the government doesn’t even care.

Why am I here? That is a question I have been thinking about constantly the past few weeks. These thoughts started after the community meeting and was heightened at the mid-block seminar. I definitely did not know what I was getting into when I applied fro this semester. I didn’t know that I would be in a village that has been directly affected by the building of the dams, or even see and experience human rights/earth rights abused first hand. I didn’t know that each community that I will be staying with will take a piece of my heart. I didn’t think that I would be struggling over issues that villagers have been experiencing for many years. I didn’t know it would be this difficult!

I definitely felt a huge sense of guilt. I felt like I needed to do something, but didn’t quite know just what it was. The seminar definitely helped channel my thoughts and understand that I have already done a lot. Just by sitting there and listening to the stories of the villagers and participating in their culture was a way to empower the community. Hopefully, I have showed them that someone cares about their village and what has happened to them. Maybe I even gave them a sense of hope and dignity. I struggle with this. Is it just a cop out to say that I did all I could by listening to their stories? They even said themselves that they are tired and can’t think of anything else to do. I think the only way that I can truly grasp this idea is by figuring it out myself with the right of participation.

ally j

PART 2 of 2: The villagers of Don Chai and their fight against the dam

For more than two weeks, I had the opportunity to spend time getting to know the people who are directly affected by the governments pressure for the building of dams. First, we stayed with villagers of Nong Bo, which is a community of people directly affected by the building of the Pak Mun Dam. Then the second half of the expedition was spent with activists who have been fighting for twenty years against building a dam on the Yom River that would end up wiping out their entire village.

There is a lot of controversy over building the dam on the Yom River. The government claims that it is for electricity and irrigation (possibly the case), but the villagers think differently. The golden teak located in the forests along the river is worth over 67 million dollars. The activists assume (and are probably accurate in thinking so) that the government and dam builders truly want the golden teak and building a dam will give them this opportunity to log it. Preserving the forest is many villagers and activists concern. Other impacts on the environment have been linked to the desire for wealth. The wetlands near the Yom River are one of the largest in all of Thailand. However, “most of the wetlands areas are becoming steadily degraded through encroachment by roads, resorts and changing cropping patterns” (Rajesh, “Local participation and the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam Controversy” Watershed, 1997: 21.) If the dam is built these impacts will increase on a drastic level. The dam would provide better access of logging and “there will be rapid deforestation of forest areas around the reservoir, an increase in sedimentation loads and more severe flooding in the future” (Rajesh 24.)

The numbers of living things that will be destroyed if the dam is built is mind blowing. “The dam will destroy the habitat of 135 bird species, the habitat of 37 mammal species, 42 amphibian and reptile species, and 60 fish species, as well as 430 plant species, about 165 of these are on the international protected species list” (Rajesh 21.) While we were canoeing with the Don Chai activists we learned all about the fish, birds, trees, and plants that are around the Yom River. The numbers previously mentioned are difficult to comprehend and leaves me wondering what will be left if the dam is built.

We performed five stream assessments—two on the Mae Nam Mun and three on the Yom River— and we learned about the importance of flow and the huge role it plays in the ecosystem of a river. A river that has been dammed does not allow for free-flowing water, which significantly affects the velocity of the water. In the Yom River there is constant and natural flow, and the velocity varies due to natural environmental impacts, typically. The Mae Nam Mu, in contrast, has a controlled flow that is managed by gates and turbines; therefore, the river ecosystems upstream and downstream of the dam are very different and this was obvious when just looking at the area.

The human impact influencing the environmental degradation is demonstrated through the deforestation of golden teak and the destruction of the wetlands. “The wetlands drainage patters are being altered, affecting their ability to act as a naturally occurring drainage for excess rainwater” (Rajesh 21.) We also witnessed the direct effects of the irrigation weir that the government put in over 40 years ago. The fish that we caught on the fishing days on the Yom River with the Paws (respectful name used for older men meaning father) from Don Chai were all non-migratory fish. The Paws said that the fish are smaller in size and the numbers have decreased since the irrigation weir was constructed. The irrigation weir has had more negative effects than positive on the Yom River. The construction of the weir was too high and not run properly. It is a prime example of the government not understanding what affects their greed for money would have on people and the environment.

The rivers have been negatively transformed as a result of poor thinking. The dams on the Mekong and the Mae Nam Mun have displayed significant problems for the ecological aspects and the ecosystem of the river. Even on the Yom River there have been negative impacts from humans. However, there are good things that are happening to the Yom River because of people’s use and interaction. The villagers of Don Chai and other fishermen demonstrated this by building a fish conservation area on the river. They do not allow any fishing here and all of their planning and action has proven positive.

The activists of Don Chai are working so hard to keep the dam from being built. It is inspirational how much hard work they put into this fight. Their community is a strong testimony to how well working together as a large group and fighting for a cause can work. For twenty years they have been fighting and they have been successful!! In the middle of fighting, they even create a fish conservation area that solves some of the problems and corruption. This community has been incredibly motivating for my own life and my passions.

This course was not extremely difficult in material content, but the emotional impact of this course was and still is difficult to fully comprehend. Each place I went I feel like I left with a new connection. The family in Nong Bo said that I am always welcome, and the Paws and other activists on the Yom River were amazing to get to know and have actually become our friends. My life has been affected by these people, and I don’t think they will ever know to what degree. Pi Kan (Don Chai activist) said at the end of our trip that we have experienced a learning experience that goes both ways. I just hope that the people we were with got as umch out of spending time with us as we got out of spending a month with them. My hope is that we were able to empower them, give them hope, and support for their struggle.

It is difficult to fully fathom what the villagers of Nong Bo and Yom River area have gone through and are currently going through. I have only spent about two weeks and gotten a glimpse of what they go through everyday. My life seems so easy and simple because in comparison I feel like I have never had to worry about possibly losing my home and my community. I have never had to fight for something in the way that these villages have, I would definitely be terrified that the government would start the dam building in the middle of the night and have no way of stopping them. It is difficult to give you a clear understanding of what I experienced, but I hope that I have given you at least an idea and I hope that these two blogs will provide you with a greater understanding of the struggles these two villages are experiencing. However, these are not the only places that are dealing with human rights abuses, so please, I urge you to learn about problems in your own community, step forward, and do something about them. If you have any questions or comments please email me or facebook me. Lastly, thank you for all of your prayers and support; the semester is more than halfway done and I am excited to see all of you again!

ally j

Monday, April 13, 2009

Songkran Festival... aka BIGGEST WATER FIGHT EVER!

I am sure you have all seen the news and know that the United States has put a travel warning on Thailand. You may also have seen the red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok or heard about the closing of the ASEAN conference on TV. But do not worry because I am in Chiang Mai and it’s a party here! Songkran Festival officially started yesterday; it is the celebration of the New Year here in Thailand. A few things that are important to know about this festival:

-Thailand is celebrating the new year of 2552, not 2009 like the rest of the world.

-The festival officially starts on 4/13/09 and ends on 4/15/09


I am not joking about this. It seems that everyone and their mother come to Chiang Mai for Songkran, so the streets are packed with cars and people. The city of Chiang Mai is set up as the “old city” and the “new city.” The old city is a huge square that is surrounded by a moat and then the new city is all around that. The festival takes place primarily around the moat and inside the old city. People line the moat with buckets and Super Soaker water guns in hand, spraying and throwing water at everyone that passes by. It is impossible to walk a block without getting completely soaked. At first when I heard about this huge event, I could not even fathom what exactly was going to happen. On Sunday, Johnny and I rode around in the back of a pick up truck—containing a huge cooler full of water and four large ice chunks—we rode through a bunch of towns outside of Chiang Mai throwing water at people. There are no limits to whom can get drenched with water: bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, children, grandparents, cars, etc. People that you do not even know will pour ice-cold water down your back and all you can do is squeal and laugh and spray them back. Just imagine 28th Street (in Grand Rapids, MI) or the Coralville Strip (in Coralville, IA) packed with people and cars and water flying through the air and everyone is smiling and laughing. Some of the roads here are flooded because of the amount of water being used; seriously, every store and restaurants has a huge trashcan bucket with a hose constantly flowing into it. It’s pretty crazy and everyone has a lot of fun, especially the farang (foreigner) tourists.

I am currently on spring break to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Songkran Festival; however, the two have very little connection here in Thailand. The most heavily practiced and recognized religion in Thailand is Buddhism, even though the government does not recognize itself as a Buddhist nation, everything is still intertwined with Buddhism. Yesterday, Anna Perks and I hung out at a restaurant all day long with her host family. The day was very Sabai Sabai (phrase used when you are completely relaxed and enjoying yourself). We had a table right next to the road, so we could “bye lynn nam” (go play in water) or “gin cow” (eat food) whenever we felt like it. Around 2:30 pm the parade passed by, it was full of floats and Buddhist sculptures and a lot of music and dancing. The parade ended around 5:45pm, a little ridiculous, but people were really enjoying themselves. The two days of “bye lynn nam” were a lot of fun, but also really exhausting. Even though the festival does not end for a few more days, I think I am pooped of water events, so I am going to Sukhothai (5 hours away from Chiang Mai) with some friends and biking around. We are leaving in the next hours J

I have another blog that I will update soon explaining the last expedition on Thailand’s rivers. I pray that you are all doing well. Thank you for your continued support and prayers.

ally j