Before this course my only perception of the hilltribes of Northern Thailand was a quite negative one. I had heard that I would have to take part in strange rituals and spiritual ceremonies, eat weird foods, and live with long-necked people. All of these assumptions have proven to be false time and time again. The Karen people are some of the most kind and caring people I have ever met. They also have a lot of pride in who they are and where they come from. The largest aspect that has had an impact on me is the Karen's sense of place.
Growing up I never had a strong sense of place in Iowa City, Iowa. I always wished I was somewhere else besides the corn capital of the world. The Karen care about their community and the environment around them. Huay Hee (and other Karen villages) practices rotational cultivation in a way that allows the environment to thrive. Their cultivations incorporate long fallows to ensure a replenishment of nutrients in the soil and regrowth. As carer's of the environment, they understand the importance of preserving the forests and keeping them diverse and healthy. Throughout this entire semester-but more specifically this course- I have grown to admire how the Karen care and understand the area around them.
In addition, the Karen display a lot of passion for their community. This passion is seen in how the families work together in the fields, help take care of each other's children, eat together, pray together, etc. Their passion allows organization to be possible. It seems that Community Based Tourism (CBT) has thrived in Huay Hee because the villagers are willing to work together to help each other and their community prosper. On the hike to Doi Pui, the headman explained how the organization of the villagers enabled them to keep two building ideas from happening (a tunnel through the base of the mountain and 3 million baht tourism spot on the top of the mountain). Huay Hee is not the only Karen village that displays this kind of passion and sense of organization.
Every time I see this passion it makes me think about my own place. I constantly reflect on what aspects of my place make me feel happy and excited; what is happening that makes me sad and want to do something; what about my place am I passionate about? By thinking about these questions, I feel a greater sense of love and pride for my place. At this very moment, I love Iowa City, Iowa. I love how our soil is so rich in nutrients that I can have a garden full of big juicy tomatoes. I love that there are more pigs than people. I love that sweetgrass smell on a hot and humid summer day. And I especially love the deep red, purple, and orange sunsets that are smeared above a farmer's field. I now believe in the importance of understanding your place and having a sense of pride for that place. I have really thought about having pride in a place; especially now that I have one year left in college and then I have a whole world of opportunities. My roots and my foundation have a strong tie to Iowa. I know the culture, the language, and the norms that distinguish Iowa from any other place. Each village we have gone to I have spoken with at least one or two people who went off to college and then decided to come back and live in their village. They care about their community so much that they even turn away other offers and choose to go home and help the place they love. I have a strong urge to do the same and it almost seems foolish to not.
My reason for applying for this semester at ISDSI was not because of the environmental aspects of the program. However, now my views about the environment have become a lot clearer. I could not tell you very much about environmental issues in the United States; in fact, right now I could probably tell you more about Thailand's issues than America's. This will probably change when I return home. I am learning through the Karen a lot about the forests and understanding what they do and how they live in harmony with their surroundings. It amazes me that I can point to a tree and ask one of the guides what kind it is and they always know, or I can pick up a seed off the ground and they can identify it right away. Seeing this has struck a yearning in myself to better understand my own surroundings at home and learning about the issues that are negatively affecting the environment.
I want to hike through the forest in my backyard and figure out what trees and plants occupy the area. I want to learn about and explore the watershed. I want to become more informed and have a greater sense of pride for my place.
This past block was pretty challenging, not because of the backpacking part, but because there were a lot of other thoughts and ideas that I had to straighten out. I also didn't have a strong interest in the material for this course... or at least not as strong as I had for the last course. However, I learned a lot through my wonderful instructors, my hilarious Aajan (professor), and amazing discussions and conversations with other ISDSI students.
I have a 5 day block break and then I start back on Monday with Coastal course pre-field work and a week of Thai class. I hope that I will get to skype or chat with many of you before I leave for the next course. Thank you for all of your support.