Friday, November 28, 2014

October and Islam

Following a year break, the y chromosome bearing author of this blog is back with another entry on events since we moved to Isan and started our lives at the College of Local Administration.

We have been at the University for about 7 months now.

Last month, I made a trip down south to visit our friend JM's 3rd year site, a Muslim school in Nakhon Si Thammarat (NST) province, and to accompany him on a journey across the isthmus to meet some of his student's parents at their homes. A legendary third 3rd year volunteer, who will be the subject of an entire post or perhaps short book someday, also joined us for the journey. We will call him Danchai.

The Muslim School
JM lives somewhat isolated on the madrasa campus about 30 minutes out of the capital city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. A boarding school, typically the place would be overrun with veiled and capped students, but we arrived during closed session because of the goal of our trip. For geographical and political background, the NST province is at the north end of the deep south of Thailand. PC volunteers are not allowed to travel to the four provinces below because of military and terrorist activity. In NST, residents are predominantly Muslim but generally speak Thai, however Thai rapidly gives way to Malay languages as you travel south toward the provinces below. A large portion of the curriculum at JM's school is dedicated to Islamic study, and the rules of the schools operation are very much defined by Islamic doctrine. For example, boys and girls study in separate classrooms after about 6th grade. During free periods, strict rules are in place for how students of the opposite sex can interact and student consumption of various forms of media are strictly controlled. We did not get the full experience at the school, because of the absence of students, but we did have some wonderful southern food, and good conversations with members school founding family about Thai affairs, and the historic political positions of the Muslim south. JM had just finished showing Raiders of the Lost Arc to his students, which he has to break up into parts to coordinate with the prayer schedule, and also for a boys and then a girls showing.

The following day, Danchai and I set off to pay a vist to my friend Dr. Nipon in the Thung Song district where he is a professor of agriculture at Rajamangala University and has specialized in the Sago palm tree for many years. This variety of palm grows between very specific latitudes in the tropics and has the unique feature of its wood yielding a starch product edible by humans. Danchai and I stayed with Dr. Nipon and his wife Awe (an elementary school teacher, and fellow Sago expert) at their country home, a unique, multi-structure, elevated building in the hills of NST. Their 15 acres of land there look like your garden loving grandma's would if she lived in the tropics, surrounded by plants that only a professor of agriculture can talk about so compellingly and full of flowers most of us Americans think only exist in Alice in Wonderland films. Awe prepared a southern Thai dinner including the best Massaman I have ever had, Chinese style short ribs, an indigenous brown rice variety, and of course Sago gelatin for desert.

The following day Danchai and I accompanied Dr. Nipon to the University where we met with several students from his AgriBusiness degree program, as well as his assistant, the capable (and I would be remiss in not saying one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen) professor Ja. Here we discussed the Peace Corps with students from the first graduating class of the program and talked to them about their post-graduation plans, Dan's and my present work in Thailand, and connecting the massive agriculture industry in Southern Thailand to the international market, which as I understand it is the reason Dr. Nipon designed the AgriBusiness program.

Dr. Nipon, Ja, Danchai and students

One of the students mentioned he was working on a protein/PowerBar type product made from local Thai crops, specifically aimed at weight lifters. If he had been testing them on himself, they were clearly effective as this kid was pretty stacked up. Dan and I left our emails on the white board telling the students if there is ever anything we can assist them with from scholarships to research, to please be in touch.

Anda's House
That afternoon we met up with JM again and had lunch with Dr. Nipon and Ja, then proceeded to the province of Phang Nga, where we were picked up by a 8th grade student Anda and his grandfather in the capital. Within a few minutes of being in the truck with the two of them, Anda's level of English comprehension and speech was surprising everybody, including JM. We found out that neither of Anda's parents would be in the village when we arrived, and  that both of them work in tourism and as such have learned a bit of English. Anda seemed to have picked up everything his parents had in the English department and probably set himself up for a new semester with a lot more questions from JM. When we arrived in the village around 9, prayer was coming out over the loud speakers. If you have not experienced this sound before, it is quite moving. We entered the sparsely furnished home, passed a couch and LCD TV, two prayer mats in front of windows aimed at Mecca, and were introduced to Anda's grandmother and a few other relatives who lived in the dusty, cob webbed home. Grandma and grandpa both had zero English, and their southern Thai dialect had me understanding less than about 50% of what they said.

They showed us to a small room where the three of us would sleep, and then to a table topped with a heap of fresh crab and a few fish curries. Despite our pleading with the family to eat with us, they did not. JM and Dan spent the next 45 minutes teaching me how to eat crabs in false New Jersey accents. Following dinner we recruited Anda for a night time tour of the village where we ran into more of JM's students as we walked past dozens of wooden long-tail fishing boats in various levels of repair parked in the tidal inlets. The boats were all abandoned at that hour, but those that were still serviceable had lights of different colors on them, each blinking at different intervals. I assumed this was so the owners could find their boat among the others. Standing at the end of this dock in the dark, stepped over by dozens of tourists daily on their transfer from one island to a new boat going to another, was like standing on the other side of a mirror reflection. I could see what the old concrete dock looked like to the people that work (sleep) there every day.

Anda shows us the way

The following morning we toured the village some more, talked to some locals about how they were making rubber sheets from rubber "water", and spent a long while chatting with the men in a tea shop. I drank the Red Cup instant coffee I had bought a pack of at the market from the same tiny glasses they took their hot tea in, and interviewed Anda about the pros and cons of studying with JM, at his Islam school, and separately from the girls. He mentioned that since the girls have been gone, the boys do pay more attention in class, though it is louder in the classroom than it was before.

Ko Panyi
Little footballer and the floating field
Is the island made famous by a viral youtube video showing a floating soccer field they built there 20 years ago. They now have 2. The whole island is built on stilts over the ocean where depending on the tide the water is between 0 inches and ten feet below the floor of everyone's house. It is all Muslim, and no alcohol is permitted on the island. Electricity comes from a generator, and their water supply is piped seven kilometers underwater from the mainland.

Here we were greeted by 3 students when we stepped off the boat, one of them wearing a bandage around his foot, blood having soaked through and dried on part of it. We were taken to a house to drop off our bags, and then to eat a bunch of delicious fried foods at one student's mother's doughnut shop.
Half stuffed with delicious greasy treats, we were directed to a restaurant. Here the kids told us that our original sleeping location had been changed to our current room, because the kid with the bandage of his foot, had fell through the floor (and into the water) of the room we were to sleep in earlier that day. The owner of that house explained that when the tide is up, sometimes larger boats will pass by and send a wake right into his living room. He explained this by saying "right now, house on water. boat pass, water on house!" and then laughing hysterically. I started laughing too.
House on water

We had a huge lunch of fried shrimp, and other tasty favorites that started with our waiter spraying bad English at us at high speed, as sometimes Thais in the touristed areas do. When the students informed the man that JM worked where he does, we recognized for the first time the weight this carries with Thai Muslims in the South. The man's attitude relaxed, and when we finished eating we were told that 600 baht lunch was free and the son of the owner, a 16 year old student of JM's school (though not a student of JM's) came out to tell us that I should stop arguing about paying the bill, and that he would be taking care of it personally.

We talked with student's families that evening over dinner and later at another house for tea about the history of Ko Panyi. The story goes that the landless Isle was settled about two hundred years ago by only 2 families of fishermen from Java. As the story was told by different people to JM, Danchai, and myself, it seemed to deviate slightly, but had generally the same facts. Fast forward to the 20th century and it turns out that in many cases three generations of the families on Ko Panyi have studied at the Muslim school in Nakhon Si Thammarat where JM is now teaching. When locals found out that our buddy was teaching their kids, at a Muslim school to which many of them and their relatives had gone themselves, our popularity on Ko Panyi went through the roof! The next day our golden ticket JM had us on a free tour of the Ao Nang National park islands before we set off to the next stop, my boy Se's place on Ko Yhao.

Ko Yhao
Shellfish Assassin
I saw my first live rock or mantis shrimp which is a terrifying creature of which some species can break right through shell fish.
Me and the boys heard a tremendous rendition of the Job to Do classic: Du Ter Tam at the Para Bar, started making a Peace Corps infomercial for Thai government offices interested in getting a volunteer and I went on a 6 mile run through the rubber groves stopping to talk to locals about the rubber situation in Thailand.

Notes on Thai Muslim country: The call to prayer put chills on my neck when it echoed over the village at dusk. I made a fool of myself just a couple of times by asking if they had ground pork available at a restaurant. Thai Muslims are a soft people with Thai generosity and and a Muslim reservedness. Every place gets old, noted by the 12 year old boy who told me the Andaman was not pretty to him, and nor was James Bond Island which he had been to 1000 times.

More pics can be found here: South with the boys

For the experience. Red