10 leeches later, 3 hikes down, 5 villages visited and my first expedition is over! It’s hard to believe how much can be seen, experienced and learned in two and a half weeks, it’s even harder to put those experiences into words- but I’ll try anyways.
Word to the reader: this is a blog of thoughts and feelings (most of which are incomplete or being processed) based on an experience I have yet to fully digest. I, in no way intend on offering an analysis of my experience—just a couple of lingering thoughts.
What did I do?
My first Expedition- AgroEcology focused on the ecology of agriculture (shocking… right?). We focused on agricultural food systems and how various factors such as politics, society, economics and the environment can help or hinder its sustainability. It is a lot more interesting than it sounds- I promise! But anyways, we visited several rural Northern Thai villages and got to see first-hand what hindered or what aided the creation of sustainable agricultural systems. We also ate some insanely spicy but delicious food, slept in cool bamboo houses, and walked through dozens of agro-forests.
Coming from a developing country I have seen both urban and rural poverty, but one of the Dara-Ang (ethnic minority in Northern Thailand) villages we visited was very different. Dusty dirt roads, no running water or electricity the community was in an unfortunate state. The isolated and disconnected community was home to a couple hundred people who had been living in Thailand for decades but still were not considered Thai, had no citizenship, no land rights and were not recognized by the government. Without citizenship their movement within the country was restricted, they were not eligible for public health care and had no claims to land (regardless of the time settled).
The entire visit had me drawing comparisons between Thailand and the US in terms of the illegal-migrant situation and the related federal policies. It also got me thinking about national identity- what does it mean to be Thai? Being born in the country, speaking the language, looking Thai or was it all about citizenship?
Pig Slaughter…I mean Pig Harvest
So as we are studying sustainable food systems it seemed only right that we learned where our meat comes from and how it is processed. What better way to do that than to “process” a pig ourselves. For those of you who have never engaged in such an activity here is the step by step replay.
- Wake up early to feed the pig (the final supper)- a mixture of banana tree cuttings and molasses
- Prepare the harvesting materials (a club/baseball bat and a machete)
- Remove the pig from the pen and bring to an open field
- Find an individual willing enough to knock the pig unconscious
- Knock the pig unconscious, the quicker and harder it is done the better it is for the pig (and all involved)
- Cut the throat and let it bleed out
- Remove hair using boiling hot water
- Butcher as needed
Unfortunately the harvest did not go as planned as we encountered several mishaps along the way. Firstly, they were several vegetarians in the group, one of which was in tears (she was wailing) the entire process. Second, the pig was not knocked unconscious in one blow as we all anticipated- but was rather bludgeoned to the ground. Even though I am an avid-meat eater it was at times difficult to watch the pig slaughter but I do think it is an important part of my relationship with meat- knowing where it comes from and knowing how it is processed. For some in the group, it reaffirmed their beliefs as vegetarians and for others was the start or re-start of a healthy relationship with meat.
In a program of 27, I was one of three persons who had never been hiking before and no amount of classmate comforting could help prepare me for a 3 hour hike with an eighty pound backpack (ok- maybe I’m exaggerating a bit) over the rolling mountains of Northern Thailand from one Dara-Ang (ethnic minority group in Northern Thailand) village to the next. Based on my newly acquired experience, hiking is 40% physical and 60% mental. Walking up a steep muddy path through corn fields, edging my way around a 12 inch ledge with a 50ft drop beneath and crossing a river bed on a bridge made of 3 bamboo poles required more mental strength, courage and confidence than it did physical acuteness.
Anyone that knows me, knows that I am for the most part apathetic towards physical activity, despite this I cannot deny that hiking is perhaps one of the most rewarding activities I have ever done. After pushing your body beyond the point of discomfort and fatigue, and coaxing your mind to facilitate this, you will hopefully reach a point- a pinnacle of some sorts where you will realize it was all worth it. For me, reaching the top of the mountain (hill- as the more experienced hikers called it) gifted me with that “Ahaa” moment where my struggles led me to a place of such awesomeness and beauty that the only physical and mental feeling I was left with was accomplishment and awe.
On the final day of expedition we had a watershed hike that turned out to be my most difficult and my least enjoyed day. I am assuming that Jamaican blood is sweeter than American blood because I was feasted upon by more leeches than any other student. I am not usually afraid of things like that but just the sight of this snail like creature attached to your skin, expanding gradually with each sip of blood it takes from your body is just disturbing and repulsing. To add insult to injury while attempting to eat lunch near a river a leech decided to draw blood from my arm. In an overly dramatic style I flailed my arms to rid myself of this parasite, but instead spilled my lunch in the river. At the sight of my pitiful situation our local guides were kind enough to offer me some grapefruit (som-oh).
To be honest; aside from the leeches the hike was not that bad and was quite beautiful. However the leeches, my headache and hunger just ruined the experience for me.
Personal growth is one of those things that you would assume are inevitable based on study abroad adds or promos. The way brochures and websites describe it makes it seem as though you will grow as a person just by nature of being on the program, and that you don’t have to actively do anything to facilitate this growth. FALSE. What study abroad does is present you with countless opportunities to push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable.
When it comes to foreign languages I am usually very shy and hesitant to speak, so I made a special attempt to practice my Thai and initiate conversations with native speakers. In Ban Huay Pong, the penultimate village we visited, I avoided the awkward silence usually had between people who don’t speak the same language and used the little Thai I knew to start a conversation (of sorts) with my host family. In between laughs, looks of confusion and clarifying nods my host mother and host sister willingly joint us on the living room floor for a conversation about their occupation, family and style of dress. As excited as we were to learn about them, so too were they excited to learn about us.
While asking some very elementary questions about their traditional clothing my host sister randomly left the living room went to a back room and returned with an extra suite of their traditional dress. Within a couple of seconds we went from discussing what her belt was made from to dressing a fellow student from head to toe in Dara-Ang clothing. They then paraded her around the village as a “real” Dara-Ang woman. As is expected with a bunch of foreigners we got many stares but even more laughs and smiles of approval. Throughout all that excitement I kept on thinking how happy I was that I ignored my anxiety and used my Thai and was able to, at least on some level bond with my host family.
I now have a week long break before the next field course. Personally, I don’t think it’s enough time to fully recover, gather my thoughts and prepare for another 3 weeks in the bush. But then again when would I ever be ready? And how much can I actually prepare for a culture-shocking, incomparable new foreign experience? …….. Not much is my guess.
So until next time wish me luck for the wilderness!