Monday, January 16, 2012


I thanked the Goeres family for the excellent food and opportunity to finally do some scythe-wielding and made plans to head on over to the nearby town of Saschiz. I had learned of the Fundatia Adept organization and wanted to find out more about the scope of their work, but their website actually does a very good job of explaining what they're about. But first I should give a little background info about the region in which they work and which I had been traveling in for the past couple of weeks.

Transylvania, which is basically the entire hilly central part of the country ringed by the Carpathian mountains, has a very complex history that has been complicated even more by the recent fall of communism and migration patterns resulting from that. Starting around the 1200s, a mix of Saxon (Germanic), Hungarian, and Romanian peoples lived here and it changed hands several times between different empires, though it was probably part of Hungary for the longest time. After World War I the current Romanian border lines were drawn and many of the Hungarians and Saxons who stayed felt disenfranchised by the new power structures. As communism set in after World War II, there was a steady migration of Saxons back to Germany which greatly increased after the fall of the eastern bloc in 1989. Now they are a very small minority, and the distinctive houses and villages they left behind have now been inhabited by Romanians and Moldovians seeking to establish independent property ownership and farmsteads in the wake of decades of communal ownership. The Hungarians are still around in much greater numbers but many of them refuse to speak Romanian!

Fundatia Adept was founded to preserve the very eco-friendly forms of agriculture that had developed in these rolling hills over centuries, and which is now in danger because of European Union policies that favor large-scale farming over the small-scale "peasant" approach. Romania is home to some of the most traditional (i.e. straight from the Middle Ages) forms of farming that can still be found in Europe, but practices like local butcher shops, village-level milk distribution, and even horse-drawn carts are in danger because of the EU's drive to sanitize and modernize the Romanian countryside. Personally I think the traditional ways are much better and deeply rooted in culture, and I strongly wish that we had preserved more of this in my homeland of Eastern Kentucky. Fundatia Adept has established various ways to make small-scale farming both legal and economically viable by setting up centers for milking, value-added production (jams, pickles, etc), and marketing assistance so that peasant farmers can meet EU codes and survive financially in the 21st century. All in all it seemed to be a good model for something similar I'd like to set up back home.

Back on the bus to the next locale, this time crossing through to the other side of the Carpathians to a monastery in Suceava county. I didn't expect to be farming with friars but the description of this place on the WWOOF site made it seem pretty interesting as it was sort of a nursing home that grew a lot of its own food on site. The bus journey was yet again breathtaking, and I really enjoyed seeing the local architecture style of the houses and churches change so dramatically from one region to the next. Eventually I made it to Targu Neamt and was given a ride to the monastery some 45 minutes away by a veterinarian who is friends with the friars. One thing that I didn't expect or realize is that monastic friars in Romania both make homemade liquor and drink it. A LOT. In fact my first experience upon arriving at the monastery was to be led down into a brick dungeon and be given glass after glass of very potent ţuică (lovely moonshine made from plums), and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to serve dinner right afterward!

Myself and a random WWOOFer from Seattle (Aaron) spent the next several days working with a team of local dudes harvesting hay that had already been cut. It was a bit of a weird experience as the locals seemed a bit resentful toward us since we were working for free whereas they were doing this for income; they also seemed a bit impatient with our lack of knowledge of how to be Romanian farmers, and the intense language barrier didn't help. Aaron and I left before too long as there didn't seem to be very much to learn here and to my aggravation it turned out that they didn't even use scythes to cut grass and instead had a big ol' tractor.

Suceava county is famed for its very old painted monasteries, so we spent a couple of days hanging out and checking out the medieval murals. Definitely amazing in that sylistically creepy sort of way. I decided to head west for Maramures where I had learned of some interesting farming country and Aaron split off for Bulgaria or somewhere. I made a brief stopover in Sighetu Marmație to check out the "Merry Cemetery" in Săpânţa, one of the weirdest and most endearing places I visited in Europe. This place is filled with sweetly decorated wooden epitaphs that depict people either doing something normal in their lives or sometimes actually getting killed, and apparently the inscription below is funny and poetic. Some of the illustrations were truly bizarre, with everything from somebody getting their head chopped off to drunken angels partying with moonshine-making musicians. The same small town on the Ukrainian border is also home to a church that I was told is the tallest wooden structure in Europe.

Before heading back into farming country, I spent some time at a very sobering museum about the secret police (Securitate) during Romania's communist era, housed in a former prison for political dissidents. The period of communist rule from 1947-1989 and especially the rule of Ceaușescu from 1965-1989 left a very deep mark on this country, especially the last 10 or so years of the regime which saw ordinary Romanians struggling for survival in a terribly mismanaged communal agriculture system. The Securitate had a reputation for being very brutal and routinely killing any and all dissidents, and throughout my time in this country I could still feel the sense of suspicion and paranoia present in the minds of most people over 30.

My last real stop on the entire year long trip would be the sleepy little town of Groşii Ţibleşului deep in the Maramures hinterlands. I had randomly made contact with Ryan, a Peace Corps fellow teaching English in this village, and he had assured me that I could once again get my scything fix if I came. I certainly got that and much more. I knew I was in the right place when my hitchhiking driver and I had to dodge through a herd of water buffalo as we were coming into the town, and I was very enthused by the beautiful hilly farm country and handbuilt traditional houses. My biggest regret about this place is that I didn't know about it sooner, because I probably would've spent the vast majority of my time in Romania here. Unfortunately I had less than a week til my flight back to the US.

The week was filled with copious amounts of ţuică (the villagers would make me drink it before breakfast and right in the middle of hard field work!), a couple of full days of scything and other hay work, lots of visits to extremely generous and friendly villagers' homes, and a foray out to a goat and sheep milking and cheese-making operation deep in the forested hills. This last bit was especially wild as it was a pretty treacherous road to get out there, the Romanian sheep dogs were very intimidating, and only one person could speak limited English, but it was a great time nonetheless. These folks milked the animals by hand and boiled the milk over an open fire in a cauldron, and used hand-harvested stomach enzymes to get the cheese to separate. The first piece they gave me to try was shaped just like Kentucky and tasted great! One of the Gypsy youth working as a shepherd completely whooped me in arm wrestling, and my sort of English speaking guide later took me to see her father's homemade ţuică (moonshine) still and let me hear the very awesome traditional Romanian folk music group she sings with. Despite the really bad Eastern European techno that everyone there listens to, I had a really, really good time hanging out in this village for almost a week and wished I could've stayed a bit longer.

Other than a brief stopover in yet another pretty old Romanian city (Cluj Napoca) on my way back to the Bucharest airport, my time in Romania and the rest of the wide world was done. There's really no way to sum it up concisely or effectively; there was just too much variety and intensity across the spectrum of places and people I spent time with. From the former colliery towns of South Wales to the very active strip mines of Jharkhand, India, from the highly efficient bioenergy villages of rural Germany to the somewhat less efficient bioenergy plants in rural Karnataka, from the peaks of Poland's highest mountains to the foothills of the tallest mountains in the world, I have been extremely blessed with an incredible diversity of experience over this year. There were many ups and downs as I haphazardly blundered my way through 12 countries, 3 continents, and hundreds of people, organizations, hostels, couches, and tent spots, and while I'll always wish I had done some things differently I can only be deeply thankful to everyone and every place that shared some time and knowledge with me.

As I write this from a cabin in Knott County, Kentucky, I'm still struggling with how to translate these experiences into something meaningful for my homeland. We live with an economy and environment dominated by a dying industry desperately clinging to what profits remain in its last days, and it has successfully brainwashed the people into thinking that without it they will die and that any destruction is justified based on the few temporary jobs it provides. This, combined with a general suspicion of most things "green," "progressive," or generated from some outside influence creates a challenging environment for starting projects that could create a healthier and more sustainable Appalachia. But this is the place that my family has called home for the past 200+ years and it is thoroughly a part of my psyche and being; I feel a strong sense of responsibility to try to do something that improves or at least preserves this place.

The truth is that I don't know how or if this journey will be of benefit to me in any obvious way. In fact part of me wonders if I've seen too much, if I've been spoiled by experiences and understandings that make it more difficult to return to a fairly mundane life in East KY. There's no way to relay any of this in a way that comes close to capturing the true experience to anyone who has never been to the places in question, which is the vast majority of Eastern Kentuckians (and Americans for that matter). This doesn't make me feel superior to anyone else, just somewhat alien and in possession of an unexplainable and uniquely personal load. But at the same time, I treasure the vast majority of the moments that make up that load and wouldn't trade them for anything in the world. Thanks for reading,

Nathan D. Hall

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Romania Part 1

If I trace back through the thought process that led me to choose Romania as my final destination country, I find that I was chock full of presumptions and expectations that remind me now of what people who have heard about but never been to Appalachia must think. I was fairly convinced that I would be going to the medieval slums of Eastern Europe where everyone still uses a horse and buggy and the houses all look like the opening scene in Borat, and then there's the whole notion of being the haven of Gypsies and all the stereotypes that go along with that. Of course what I found was quite a bit different, as generally is the case whenever you expect something to be a certain way.

Although I'd mainly come because of my interests in traditional agriculture and coal mining regions, I spent a couple of days in the capitol city of Bucharest just to see what it's like. To anyone planning to travel to Romania, I would say spend as little time as possible here. Not that it was bad or dangerous or anything of the sort, just that there wasn't anything very standout about it compared to the rest of the country. I did enjoy the "village museum" where original examples of "peasant architecture" from all over the country had been brought here and reconstructed. It was beautiful, ingenious, and very diverse as far as the difference in styles between different regions. I especially liked seeing the old-timey ways to use wood for pretty serious machinery; the standout was an oilseed press that had a big wooden screw built into a post.

I was probably the least prepared for this country of any that I had been to, and all I really knew was that I would try to work on a few farms through the WWOOF system (I was kind of obsessed with learning to use a scythe to cut hay) and that I should hang out for a bit in the coal mining region of the Jiu Valley. Geographically it made the most sense to head to the coalfields first, and with very little in the way of contacts I got on a bus headed toward Targu Jiu. No sooner had I sat down than a girl with coal black hair and not-so-good English started talking to me. Turned out she was half Gypsy and her dad was a former coal miner. According to her the town I was planning to go to was boring and I wouldn't find much of interest there, so I should just come to her hometown of Petrosani in the mountains instead. To make a long story short I ended up taking that advice, and in fact when we passed through Targu Jiu it looked very bland and the ride to Petrosani was very beautiful. She convinced me to stay at the hotel where her boyfriend worked (that was a bit of a surprise), and then vanished to never be seen again. Ah, Gypsies.

The hotel was fine, I guess it cost me $30 which isn't bad by US standards but of course I was still in India mode and anything over $5 still seemed ridiculous. Anyway I took off the next day toward what I learned was the biggest nearby actively producing coal mine in the town of Lupine and it was again very gorgeous mountainous country. I walked all over the place there, taking pictures of the huge Soviet-era mine complex itself (including a shift of miners about to go underground wearing caps that looked like they were from the 1920s), got a tour of a tiny holler village by a very nice woman who spoke no English, took a dip in the public pool (conveniently right next to the mine complex!), and made my way back over to a little restaurant pub place. I was beginning to think that no one in this town spoke any English at all, and then I met Christian. He was a former underground mine electrician who now did electrical work on the surface, and I was able to have a very good conversation with him about the realities of mining and coal in modern day Romania.

According to him, the industry has been in gradual decline since the collapse of communism (prior to that all coal burned in Romania was mined in Romania) and most miners had already been laid off. As I heard from other countries when I was in Europe almost a year ago, they just couldn't compete on the free market with cheaper imported coal, though he wasn't sure exactly where it was coming from. His description of working conditions sounded pretty archaic, with quite a bit of extraction still done by hand with big pneumatic hammers and hand shoveling. A continuous miner was apparently a rarity and only existed in a few mines. This area was also somewhat touristy because of the beautiful mountains and a couple of nearby ski resorts, but this could only provide part time seasonal employment at best and could never reemploy even a fraction of the miners who were constantly being laid off. He guessed that all of the mines in this area (and maybe all of Romania) would be shut down within 10 years. Some people had attempted to return to old family land to take up small farming, but many were unable because of the myriad of issues around the communist appropriation of private land into "communal ownership" and the corruption involved with trying to lay claim to ancestral ownership. Apparently these and other reasons are why Romanians can be found throughout Europe doing the low-pay manual labor jobs that other people don't want to do; they've had no choice but to migrate.

I bought him a beer for taking the time to explain things so clearly to me, and I marveled at how just the right people have so often popped up at just the right time throughout this trip. I spent some more time taking pictures of weird stuff in this oddly charming little town that was half ugly communist apartments and half sweet old farm houses, and then ended up back in Petrosani for another night. From there I went to Sibiu, a completely gorgeous small city with a center that looks like it hasn't changed in 400 years. It was kind of a weird day to end up there as a big fashion show with fullsize runway and huge projector screens was happening right in the main square. I had been noticing that Romanians seemed more preoccupied with fashion and looks in general than a lot of other places I'd been in Europe, but it was overall a pretty tacky and cheap version of it. More than once I would see a woman walking down the street and think she might be a prostitute, only to realize that in fact she was simply a trendy Romanian lady.

And then from Sibiu to Brasov, yet another beautiful old touristy city, except this one was a bit more obnoxiously geared toward catering to foreigners. I guess it's the launching point for most visitors who come for the one thing that Romania is actually famous for: Dracula. I have to admit that a small part of me was into the idea of being right in the area where the Dracula legend came from, but talking to locals quickly dispelled that interest. Apparently there had never been any local legends about vampires, and Bram Stoker just completely made up the entire story from his head. In fact he had never even been to Romania and based everything on second-hand accounts. The real "Dracula" (Vlad Tepes) was a local baron/prince/overlord sort of fellow who had a particularly brutal method of intimidating his enemies. The Turks were trying to invade this part of Romania (Transylvania or Wallachia) back in the late 1400s and he would always try to capture as many of them alive as possible and impale them on stakes so that any incoming armies would see their fellow soldiers dying a slow and painful death as a form of psychological warfare.

Brasov was mainly just a brief stopover on my way to Moeciu, a nearby town in the mountains where I would be starting my first WWOOF engagement. Willing Workers On Organic Farms is a worldwide network of farms and volunteers whereby farms get "free" labor and travelers or people who want to learn about farming get free room and board in exchange for doing whatever the farm owner wants them to do. It's definitely not perfect and I've heard a few horror stories of sketchy "farmers" and freaked out volunteers, but I've probably heard of more good experiences overall. My stay with Joseph Duicu and his mother up on the little mountaintop village of Magura was nice but a bit briefer than expected due to really bad weather (it was constantly drizzling and almost freezing in June!). I had to walk a good 3 miles straight up a mountain with my heavy backpack just to get to his place, but the amazing food was definitely worth it. Although I didn't get to cut huge fields of hay with a scythe like I'd wanted, I did get to hang out with an awesome local old dude for a day and learn the basic technique.

It is actually really difficult to cut grass with a scythe properly. There's much more technique to it than I realized, and you can wear yourself out and barely cut anything if you're not careful. This old feller was a master at it and also very good at sharpening the blade with a hammer, an art unto itself. We talked for a little while with Joseph as a translator and I learned that he used to wake up and cut grass for 2-3 hours in the morning, walk 3-4 miles in all weather to his job at a nearby factory, work 8-10 hours, then walk home and feed animals and such. People can be really tough when they have to be, and I was glad to have met this relic of a bygone age.

Since the taciturn Carpathian weather wouldn't be clearing up for another week or so, I decided to take off for the next WWOOF farm that I had made contact with out in the central part of Transylvania. I tried to pay the Duicus something since I had basically just eaten their food and not been able to do any real work, but they were too gracious to let me. I spent a day in the town of Sighisoara before going to the farm, and even though I had seen quite a few pretty old European cities by this point, I think this one was the best. More of a big town than a city, it looks more medieval than anywhere else I've ever been and it seems to be the best maintained. Oh, and it's the birthplace of the real Dracula!

I decided to hitchhike out to the remote village of Roandola, and luckily I was able to get a ride without too much effort. I soon found the home of the family I'd be staying with in this very strange but awesome-looking old Saxon-style village. They were actually German but had moved here to go "back to the land" and were doing a very good job of it, raising several acres of vegetables, hay, and keeping a small herd of cattle and goats. I was thankfully finally able to get my scything fix here; I spent an entire 8+ hour day cutting alfalfa my second day there and thought I was going to die the next morning! But I got up anyway and we all raked the hay onto their horse-drawn wagon and put it up in the barn behind their house. All in all that week or so of hard farm work was very gratifying, especially at the end of a long day when we would eat the food that was entirely produced there on their own farm (homemade bread from their wheat, milk and yogurt from their cows, meat from their goats, jams from their berries, etc etc).

I had asked them when I first got there if they knew of any good musicians around since I had been hoping to find awesome traditional Romanian fiddlers and such. They did know a fellow named Florin, a Gypsy that lived on the rundown outskirts. They said that if I referred to them that no one would mess with me, so I made plans to try to track this fellow down and hear some Gypsy fiddling. First I went on a walk over the mountain to the nearby village of Valchid where they had told me I had to see a huge old fortified church with a belltower that you can still walk up into and see all of the surrounding countryside from. Absolutely no one in this village spoke English and it was an entertaining exchange getting them to understand what I wanted to do! It was quite breathtaking though. I ended up being befriended by a family in the town who fed me some awesome homemade liquor, took me on a horse-drawn buggy ride to meet (and drink beer with) their relatives in the next village, and then dropped me back off at the trail to go back over the mountain, all without speaking a word of English.

It was almost dark and I was more than a bit tipsy when I finally made it to the Gypsy part of town where Florin lived. In contrast to the brightly painted and well-maintained Saxon-style houses in the rest of the village, most of the houses here were in various states of cobbled together and/or disrepair. I saw a young fellow and asked "Viora? Florin?" and made a fiddle-playing gesture, and he enthusiastically brought me into the next house over. Florin and his family were watching TV when I walked in, and despite almost no language in common we were somehow able to communicate that we both play music and it would be fun if we could play together. The next couple of hours were some of the most surreal of my life, and I probably wouldn't think it actually happened if Florin's wife hadn't taken this video with my camera. I ended up playing a bunch of old time Appalachian ballad songs for them, and Florin played some amazing music on accordion that he sang to as well as some truly bizarre duets featuring him on a homemade electric fiddle and his son playing a Casio keyboard through a PA system. I thought he might ask me for money but such was not the case; he did however want a DVD of the videos I took, and I promised to figure out how to do that and send it to him somehow. I actually still need to do that...

So, stay tuned for the rest of Romania and the LAST BLOG POST OF THE TRIP

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


As previously mentioned, I was definitely not ready to leave India and no other place had clearly called out to me as a next destination, so it was with a fairly glum spirit that I flew from Kolkatta on the very last day of my visa to Bangkok, the capitol of Thailand. I mainly came here because A.) it was a very cheap flight, B.) I had some contacts in the northeast of the country who were working on community rights for mining-affected areas, and C.) I had read that there was at least some amount of work happening around small-scale gasification plants in rural areas.

I somewhat purposely didn't read up on Thailand or try to find out very much about what it was like before going. I thought that it would be better to just immerse myself in the place and learn as I went rather than have preconceived notions, although I later realized that subconsciously I had assumed that it was a "developing" country in a somewhat similar condition as India. Not at all. If entering Delhi had overwhelmed me with the chaos and insanity of a megacity that thought it was a ramshackle village, Bangkok underwhelmed me with a sea of bland new modern construction and efficient, comfortable transportation systems. I didn't realize how much I loved the total craziness of India (including the ultra-competitive rush to get on the general class trains) til I had to sit through an hour of air conditioned bus rides with the same obnoxious Thai commercials playing on nice new TVs over and over and over and over.

I spent a couple of days in the city to give it a chance, but Bangkok found no place in my heart. Yes there were some big Buddhist monuments that were nice to look at and maybe I missed the more interesting parts (supposedly there's a floating market that's pretty sweet), but I just couldn't get over the huge fancy shopping malls, blandness of the residential areas (I Couchsurfed with a local Thai person), and the caliber of Western tourists the place attracts. Certainly it's no good to judge people you haven't met, but I had zero desire to interact with 99% of the Westerners I saw walking around in this place. Let's just say the city's reputation as the world capitol of prostitution and partying brings a certain element of grossness that I hadn't encountered so far on the trip; my 30 minutes or so on Khao San road were probably the most obnoxious minutes of the past year.

Luckily I was able to escape before too long, but I consistently got sticker shock from the price of bus tickets after the super cheap rides in the last country. Of course India didn't have double-decker AC buses with video games built into the seat and robot-looking bus attendants (yes, just like flight attendants), but I didn't actually need any of that. As I came into Khon Kaen, the small city where my contacts were based, I came to realize that this is in fact a quite "developed" country with more similarities to Europe than India. This was another very bland modern city, though without the intensity of slutty consumerism I'd experienced in Bangkok. Unfortunately the nasty cold that Deepa's mother had cured me of was coming back with a vengeance, and I was also realizing that I was not a huge fan of on-the-ground Thai food. I love Thai restaurants in the US, but it seemed like almost everything here was some combination of oily/slimy, containing lots of pork, over-fried, and generally not too appetizing. I already missed those huge mounds of steamed rice and lentil soup I'd gotten so used to.

However this was largely made up for by the generosity and helpfulness of my contacts at CIEE/Engage, a student-based effort to connect study abroad stints with real-world insights into globalization and community empowerment. These folks had actually come to my neck of the woods in Floyd County, Kentucky and written up a human rights assessment dealing with the abuses of extractive industry there which was directly compared with similar communities near the Thai border with Laos in the Loei region. I would be going to these places along with an American guy (Sam) who helped coordinate the student program and a Thai fellow (P'Kovit) who mainly worked as a community organizer.

We spent about a week hanging out in Na Nong Baan, Naan Jon, and a few other locales in the area. These were fairly remote rural villages, but for the most part they had much more modern construction and the residents were a lot more likely to own cars or trucks than in the villages I'd been to in India. The exception was Naan Jon which was in one of the most "undeveloped" parts of Thailand; it was no coincidence that the people were the friendliest here as well. There was quite a bit of mining for precious metals (copper, gold, silver, etc) in these otherworldly looking mountains. In general the place seemed like something out of Avatar, complete with huge weird insects, highly poisonous critters, and other rainforesty weirdness. We spent time with a family that had been fighting to expose the intense poisoning of their village's water supply due to cyanide runoff from a nearby gold mine that looked like a mountaintop removal operation, and were taken by some other villagers to a site that they were fighting to save from strip mining for copper.

These were definitely serious issues that were being faced by communities here, especially the amount of human damage already caused by cyanide poisoning in Na Nong Baan. The scale of destruction was quite a bit smaller than what we face back home since it takes much longer to mine a much smaller area for gold or copper, but the effect on the local population was at least as direct. Of course nothing can compare to the outright warfare happening in Jharkhand and other parts of India over communities affected by mining, but that makes the suffering in these and other areas no less real. It was a pretty surreal moment when I went to a community organizing meeting and saw a Thai woman in a KFTC "Save the Mountains" shirt; I guess somebody had brought it back from Floyd county and it ended up in a random Thai village!

The highlight of this foray for me was the time spent in Naan Jon, one of the few remaining villages that doesn't have grid power or running water and still uses mostly traditional natural building techniques. There were quite a few organic farmers here as well using biodynamic fermented concoctions as fertilizers and pesticides, ingredients including waste sugar, cow dung, rotten food scraps, and other yummy things. We went into a truly amazing natural cave complex with bizarre stalactite formations that resembled ice palaces and to the top of the highest mountain around. P'Kovit had taken off at this point but Sam's excellent Thai language skills and preexisting relationship with the community made it all possible, and for this I'm still very grateful (not to mention putting up with me in my head cold-influenced sour mood). The food was a bit different in this part of the country, especially with the very gross fermented fish sauce (apparently a whole fish is ground up, allowed to ferment, and then used to pickle cabbage or whatever. gag) and the less gross but still weird sticky rice. I should also mention my other main observation, that for some reason people really like to sit on very hard tile surfaces. All the time. No cushions whatsoever.

I had been carrying an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about Deepa during our Loei village foray where I didn't have internet access or phone reception, and when we finally reached back to Khon Kaen and I could call her phone with Skype this feeling was substantiated. It really wouldn't be appropriate to give the details to the WWW via this blog, but basically she had been in the hospital for a very surprising reason and I received a great shock to the system. I can explain in person if I know you and you're interested; I only mention it because my time with her and her family in Sikkim had been a significant part of my trip and this experience largely affected my mood for the rest of the trip (and after).

Without much direction or interest in what would happen next, I visited a small gasification plant in another region in Thailand on my way to Chiang Mai, the main city in the mountainous western region near Burma/Myanmar. The plant was not too different from what I had witnessed in India, and I was a bit frustrated by the fact that I had assumed I would find quite a few installations like this in Thailand but basically all of the places I had emailed (except this one) had never gotten back to me. After some confusion and miscommunication I was given a nice tour by a fellow who spoke pretty good English. This was another Thai surprise; despite being much better off economically than India, barely anyone spoke any language other than Thai and I actually had much more difficulty navigating around in rural areas here. Add to this the fact that Thai is a tonal language, in that the same word can mean something totally different depending on how you say it. I was a much more frustrated traveler here though obviously it would be asinine to think that they should know English just because it would be easier for pouty tourists.

And then on to Chiang Mai. It was pretty, I spent a few days riding around in the mountains on a rented motorbike, went to the Highest Spot in Thailand, almost got in a fight with a cab driver (you're supposed to haggle over the price in India; this guy was about to start a public Muay Thai match!), visited a kind of hippy-dippy organic gardening/natural building/intentional community kind of place (thought it was more of an indigenous seed saving and farmer empowerment project, oh well), met some nice Americans, ate gross food, checked out a big old temple, and was generally a typical tourist. I had prided myself for the vast majority of the trip on how atypical I had been, and that I was a traveler, not a tourist. Not so in Thailand, where the country is tailor-made to suck you into the tourism industry whether you like it or not.

I did manage to get ahold of and visit a pretty awesome organization in the far northwest near the border with Myanmar (Burma) called Upland Holistic Development Project. They primarily work with Burmese refugees who flee to Thailand to escape ethnic persecution in SE Asia's longest running military dictatorship (though apparently as of last year the situation in Burma is starting to get better). These refugees are scarcely tolerated by the Thai government and end up eking by in ramshackle rural slums with little to no support. UHDP, a Christian-based initiative, mainly works with them to establish organic family subsistence gardens and agroforestry approaches to restoring denuded hillsides while also generating cash crops such as coffee, mango, etc. A very nice Thai fellow showed me around the UHDP organic training center and seed saving site, as well as to a nearby "hilltribe" village where they're implementing several of their project aims. We also visited his home which was nicely done up with permaculture gardening all around it, complete with a mix of different kinds of birds to pick off any bugs that might crop up.
And that pretty much wraps it up for Thailand. Once again I had a hard time deciding where to go next, and in this case it would be my last stop since I had just over a month to go before being due back home in the USA. After pondering over which places I had really wanted to go but hadn't been able, would be fairly easy to travel around in and get something out of in a month's time, and would be fairly cheap to fly in and out of on my way back home, I settled on Romania.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Meghalaya and Sikkim Revisited

I promised to keep in touch with Deepa and the fam while 640km away in the Meghalayan coalfields, and then I was off for a part beautiful/part dusty-as-hell motorcycle ride to Siliguri to embark on the train and jeep rides that would eventually land me in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The cramped, bouncy jeep ride from Guwahati was informative in a few ways. First, I kept noticing the Jhue form of slash-and-burn hillside agriculture that I had briefly read about on the internet. While it has been officially outlawed, as with most things in India enforcement is virtually nonexistent. This traditional tribal practice made sense when population pressures were much lower and before modernization brought things like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the method of cutting and burning all the vegetation on a steep hillside and then planting in rows that run down the slope is wreaking havoc on soil and water quality throughout the region. Second, I almost couldn't believe the intensely congested traffic, and the fact that it seemed to be almost solely due to the number of ridiculously painted coal trucks trying to squeeze past each other on the pathetically underbuilt roads.

After taking 4 hours to drive about 60 miles, I finally reached Shillong and met up with Bijoyeta (check out her work at and spent the night with her awesome friend David and his family. Bijoyeta is originally from Guwahati and makes a living by creating photographic stories on everything from Bangladeshi sweatshop workers to the mines we were about to go to, and David is a Khasi who teaches at a nearby college. The Khasi people are the natives of this part of Meghalaya and look very distinct from other peoples; somewhere between Burmese and Indian with something else thrown in. They're also a matrilineal group that has historically given females much greater power and responsibility than many other traditional societies. We started off toward the coal-producing Jhantia Hills the next morning to meet with the contact who would be putting us up.

Bijoyeta's father, a lawyer, had a client who apparently owed him some favors so this coal trader fellow from Bihar agreed to put us up and take us to one of the mines that he buys coal from. I can't remember his name, but I came to know him simply as "The Loudest Man in the World" due to the extreme volumes at which he normally talked. He wasn't shouting or angry, he was just really, really loud. The hovel of an apartment he shared with us was surrounded by a very weird little outpost of a town that consisted of a state-of-the-art petrol station, a constant stream of wildly painted coal trucks passing by, piles of coal everywhere, and a handful of liquor stores, knick knack shops, and brothels. Lots of people could be seen loading the piles of coal into trucks by hand throughout most parts of the day, many of them women in the local traditional dress which (no offense) looked oddly similar to a checkerboard table cloth.

We went straight to the coal mine the next morning, and I'll be damned if it wasn't the craziest looking mine I'd ever seen. A 300ish foot deep vertical shaft with a makeshift bamboo ladder led down to the coal seam, and a very simple diesel engine-operated crane lowered a giant metal bucket down into the mine which the workers filled by hand. It was then lifted out, dumped on the ground, and hand-loaded into the waiting trucks by the three or four dozen workers standing around. Why they didn't just dump the coal directly into the trucks, I'll never know. This was all surrounded by something of a ramshackle rusty tin slum that served as worker housing.

Bijoyeta and I climbed into the bucket and were lowered down into the pit; it was pretty amusing to see how scared she got while I attempted to play it cool (the rust holes in the bottom did freak me out a bit though). We must have hung out down there for 4-5 hours. She took a lot of pictures, and I ended up feeling bad for the workers as I knew they were getting paid by the bucketload and our intrusion was basically lowering their wages for the day. I tried to allay my guilt by grabbing an unused shovel and working as hard as I could to help load the coal. The one manager-type guy did his best to convince me not to do it as they were convinced that a white European fellow would get injured trying to do this kind of work, but I assured them I'd done this before and that I'd be fine. It had actually been about 5 years since I'd worked in the mines, and I could definitely feel it the next day! I could tell that the other shovelers appreciated it, and I wished that we didn't have a language barrier between us.

As Bijoyeta and I talked to the workers, owners, and locals to investigate the issues around this recent boom in mining, it turned out to not be a very black-and-white story. The Indian constitution guarantees that tribal lands in the Northeast territories can only be transferred to other tribals, so outsider interests are basically unable to come in and snatch up the land the way they have in Appalachia and Jharkhand. The Jhantia (closely related to Khasi) families who have leased their land to be mined have benefited greatly economically, and most of them have built newer, nicer homes near Shillong and let managers from Bihar and other plains parts of India come in to manage the actual mining. All of the underground workers are Bangladeshi or Nepali migrants (probably illegal), but according to them their daily wages (about $17) were way higher than what manual laborers make in almost any other part of India (around $3/day). No locals worked underground, but quite a few Khasi and Jhantias worked aboveground loading the trucks alongside the Bangladeshis; weirdly, all of the local laborers I saw were women. Of course according to the managers there's no environmental damage from this mining whatsoever, but I'm sure the water quality is being wrecked at the least. With Bijoyeta as translator I asked one of the loader girls if she thought this whole coal boom was good or bad for the area; after some uncomfortable hesitation and looking out past a panorama of coal piles atop orange-stained earth, she said that overall it's not good.

We spent the rest of the day hanging out with and taking pictures of the coal loaders back near the apartment, and they were awesome. Super friendly, funny, and obviously getting a kick out of being rock stars for a day. Back in Shillong by the next morning, I had to figure out what to do with myself for the next few days while Bijoyeta went off on an unrelated shoot. I went to a nearby museum focused on the tribal history of the region, but it quickly became apparent that this was a very missionary-centric establishment. Nevertheless it was interesting despite some fairly condescending moments and a very annoying endorsement of chemical-based agriculture as an improvement. I'd heard about a "sacred forest" in the nearby area which was supposed to be very eerie; I once again lucked out by getting hooked up with a friend of a friend who would take me on his motorbike for the cost of gas and a meal. This place was definitely weird; it's hard to describe the haunted feeling I got from the bizarrely twisted roots, ancient stone monoliths, and a charred, gnarled, blackened tree where no other evidence of fire was present.

I should point out that my geeky video game-saturated childhood caused me to constantly think of myself in the middle of a Legend of Zelda world as I navigated through all of these random places in rural India. The next day only augmented that experience as I caught a couple of jeeps into the south to see a living root bridge in "Asia's cleanest village" (not sure how that rating system worked out). Somehow people realized hundreds of years ago that they could train the roots of living trees to traverse the span across a river, and the result is otherworldly to behold. I traveled from this to a treetop viewpoint platform made only of bamboo that looked over into Bangladesh, and from here into a random village that had a weird little hut that sold homemade rice liquor through a window with metal bars. A friend of mine did a painting of something very similar that we used to have in Appalachia for selling moonshine, called a Blind Tiger. I finished the day off with an Indiana Jones style foray to find a mysterious waterfall I'd been hearing about; apparently there was no marked trail and you had to know just the right place to veer off the main road and then trudge through some leach infested jungle. Somehow I found it and managed to not even get a single leach on me and met a really nice local dude who surprisingly spoke fairly decent English.

The very last stop on the Meghalaya tour was the Rural Resources Training Center, a very inspiring project that was another example of the unexpected indigenous missionary work that was much more about community benefit than indoctrination. A priest from Jharkhand who was closely affiliated with the Kurux school I visited near Dumri had started this project several years ago, and they've evolved into teaching innovative organic farming and social entrepreneurship skills to young people throughout the Northeast. They had a very impressive campus with several different growing and processing centers for everything from trees, vegetables, livestock, and fish. All of the teachers and staff that I saw were locals, and it seemed to be mostly people from nearby Nagaland that were staying in the dorms at the time. Father Cyril gave me an excellent tour of the place and I only regret not spending more time here. I'm still hoping I can make some connections between this place and Berea College, maybe even for some study abroad internships.

A few more random notes about Meghalaya and the Northeast before I finish with it...One of the weirdest trends I saw here was the tendency to put reflective tinting on your car's front windshield to the point that you only had a tiny Robocop-style slit to see through. I cannot understand why this is cool or legal. Like Jharkhand, this was also a highly missionized "tribal" area, meaning that there was a major Christian influence in the area. It certainly played out differently though, largely because the indigenous people had never been Hindu and never had such a rigid social structure, especially regarding coupling and marriage. Similarly to Darjeeling, there seemed to be a lot of Western-style hipstery folks here too, and I'd been told this was common to other Northeast states such as Nagaland and Aranuchal Pradesh. Unfortunately I wouldn't get to find out as my visa ended in a week.

Yet another harrowing train adventure delivered me to my waiting Bullet motorbike in Siliguri, though this time I got to share the tiny wooden luggage rack with another fellow as a sleeping surface. Moral of the story: you can't travel seat-of-the-pants in India and not expect to have somebody's feet in your face while you sleep (i.e. general class SUCKS, book ahead at least 2 weeks on I made my final voyage on the lovingly titled Shit Rocket (the motorbike) to spend my last week with my adopted family at Banjakhri Falls. Besides giving some final renewable energy museum tours and hanging out a bit with the saintly but slightly mentally handicapped family gardener Gophli, I went with Deepa to meet her parents in a small mountainside village about 20 miles down the road. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place to grow up. Her family's house overlooked a deep Himalayan gorge with snowcapped mountains rising in the distance, and her father's side of the family had organically farmed this terraced hillside for many generations. All of the nearby extended family was extremely warm and generous, and somehow her mother completely cured me of a nasty cold I was developing with a homemade tincture.

Nothing I can say at this point would do the experience justice or seem uncliched. Basically I was strongly invited to come back there once my wait period was over (India makes you wait 2 months before reapplying for a visa) and live there permanently. I can't describe how tempting this was, and is. Sikkim is probably the most beautiful place I've ever been, with equally beautiful people. The entire state uses almost only organic farming and almost all of their power comes from renewable sources. I could have joined the family tradition of being a mountainside farmer, or even kept working on and improving the renewable energy aspects of Banjakhri Falls. And yeah, Deepa had a bit to do with it.

Regardless, I sold my motorbike, got a jeep to Siliguri then a train to Kolkatta, and spent an unfulfilling touristy day looking at the remains of the pompous British legacy in their former colonial capitol. I didn't know where else to go and had found a cheap ticket to Thailand a week or so ago; I had some contacts there from a human rights project in my home of Floyd County, Kentucky, so I figured I'd go see what's up with the mineral mining in north Thailand. With a heavy heart I boarded the plane on the very last day of my 6 month visa.