I am a farang
All my friends went back to Bangkok and then home – all the farangs (Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from) – except for me.
I stayed in the village of Nong Diang Noi Non Yai, the village where the wedding was celebrated. I stayed with the groom’s family. There were six of us; aunt and uncle, their two daughters, one still a schoolgirl, the second married, her husband, and I. Everybody only spoke to me in Thai, not realizing I do not speak it. I spoke to them in English, realizing they do not speak it.
Nong Diang Noi Non Yai village is near the town of Kantharalak, in Isaan province. It and all of Isaan is a breath of fresh air in all senses. It is Thailand’s poorest and most ignored province, which means no-one speaks English, and no-one offers you banana pancakes or tourist tat.
The family, after a long time persuading them that I do not want to drive around on a motorbike but by bicycle, brought me one morning an old one with no brakes, though they made me very, very happy. I could peddle across a vast landscape, between rice fields and stop anytime I wanted to photograph people going about their everyday business. Business as they have done for centuries: growing rice, fishing, weaving silk, catching ant larva, making brooms and charcoal and grazing cows and buffalos.
In May before the raining season farmers at the Rocket Festival launched rockets to implore the God of Rain to shower the earth with abundant rainfall for the planting season. The Rocket Festival is an integral part of pastoral life as without enough rainfall crops will not grow. The majority of Isaan people are farmers even though the Isaan soil is poor.
So, after all the rockets were fired into the sky and rain-making rites and other ceremonies to pray for fertility of the land were done, the rice-planting season started.
While flooding is not mandatory for cultivation of rice, all other method of irrigation require higher effort in weed and pest control during growth periods and a different approach for fertilizing the soil.
Unfortunately I could not find out what kind of chemicals these farmers use, or if it is fertilizer or weed killer. Whatever it is, it makes me always think when I ate rice (mostly 3 times a day) that chemicals are used helping rice grow. There is no distinction between the dishes eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Spicy stir fried vegetables with sticky rice are just eaten in the morning as in the evening.
To supplement their income women often make fishnets by hand and men do all fishing.
Not only fish are caught but also frogs, ant’s larva, snakes and many types of insects. These and fish can be sold in the market or consumed by the family – the catch is an important sort of protein.
Euro 2012 started, but no one was interested in “my” village. They watched on TV Muy Thai or Thai Kickboxing, Thailand’s ancient martial art. It is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” and is the national sport of Thailand. I went once to see it live, where all categories, from children to adults fought.
I also participating celebration of Visakha Bucha Day or the Buddha’s Birthday or Buddha Day. It isthe most holy time in the Buddhist calendar; it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama Buddha the founder of Buddhism. Students in Kantharalak visited Buddhist Vat on Friday, three days before the D-day. They brought food and sweets for monks and they prayed. After prayers they went around the temple three times.
For the D-Day I was in Bangkok because I had to go to the Indonesian Embassy to apply for a visa. I went to Suwan Buddhist Vat where people brought gifts to Monks, where they prayed, and where they were given gifts from monk as well.
You must already feel my Thailand trip is at the end. I got the Indonesian visa and on June 14th I am off to Banda Aceh, Indonesia through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I should still mention that I wanted to photograph buffalos, an animal that is very photogenic. But I was afraid to go closer to it, and not having a zoom but just 20mm and 28mm lenses, there is no closer shot of this magnificent animal. Most farmers use the plowing machine, which replaced buffalos. It acts as a tractor and pulls a trailer. The iron-spike wheels can be changed for tires.
What else should I say. Yeah, the Isaan kitchen is much hotter than Thai kitchen. So first Isaan dishes drove tears into my eyes. When I, by accident, ate chili pepper, the family died of laughter while I was screaming like a lion into the air.
I should still mention that mostly elderly woman chew “betel” – areca nut wrapped in betel leaves, called by local’s “mak”. It had driven me crazy when an auntie spat her betel juice out. Red colour saliva looked like splotches of dried blood on the ground.
The young people find betel chewing no longer socially acceptable. Also modern social taboos such as spitting, have contributed to the decline of betel chewing. Despite a decline in the custom, the betel chewing still remains in country-side areas, where it’s use for medical and cultural purposes, and where women chew betel for social affability, in a similar way to us farangs drinking coffee together.
I must say good-bye to Buddha and hello to Allah so I am off to Indonesia, the biggest Muslim population it the world.
The security situation has worsened in Afghanistan. It probably has to do with the upcoming elections. The Taliban are coming out, visiting rural areas and recruiting new members, especially young men and boys. I couldn’t get around freely on my last trip to Zare because rumour had it that the Taliban was present. It is the same situation in Kishindeh and in the other parts of Afghanistan. We worry that the situation will only get worse as the elections draw closer.
Five people have been killed by suicide bombers attacking the office of a US AID-funded organisation in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In Kishindeh, one Pakistani and two Afghan engineers were abducted, were released after a few days.
We keep our heads down and consider our every movement, but continue our work. In Zare, a new farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor with a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN). A big ceremony was held, speeches were delivered and the wheat thresher was use for the first time.
Everybody was happy. We were happy that the tractor, drop-side-truck and wheat thresher arrived safely at its destination and that members of this new farmer’s corporation were happy having their new machines. It took seven minutes to thresh one bag of grain, whereas normally it would take one full day of driving several donkeys or cows in a circle to thresh this amount of grain.
The weather continues to be unbearably hot. Our two dogs live during the day in our bathroom cooling themselves on tiles. In our office, an air conditioner works sporadically. It’s an endless struggle.
My feet are becoming like Afghan feet – heels dry and cracked from just wearing sandals in the hot weather and there is a constant thin film of dirt. I wear scarf, well, I am trying to wear a scarf. It always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled — not good in the rural areas. Ah! If I use safety pin, I look like Russian babushka.
I wear also a long dress with long sleeves because women must cover their arms fully. I borrow one dress from a friend, and the second one I had sewn here in Mazar-e-Sharif.
There are three genders in Afghanistan: women, men and foreign women. Foreign women have more privileges than Afghan women. They do not have to wear burqas, just a scarf. They do not have to hide their faces. They can eat together with the men, talk to them and even joke with them. And Afghan men have a great sense of humour.
In recent weeks, I documented the People in Need (PIN) mission, the Cash for Work (CFW), Food Facilities (FF), and the Water and Sanitation (Watsan) projects. Cash for Work gives payment to people who build roads. The Food Facilities program was building granaries and flood barriers. For Watson, I photographed pumps and the construction of water reservoirs.
I am trying to extend my visa, but it’s a long and difficult process. I need a diploma from my school, a work permit, an invitation…..and I need lots of patience. I decided to apply only for exit visa. Hopefully I will get ten days extra. My visa expires on July 15th so with these additional ten days, I will have to leave on July 25th.
I still have to photograph beneficiaries of the Income Stability in Afghanistan (ISNA). And I would like to go to Herat (city in western Afghanistan) to see Fraidoon, my Afghan friend. Still, many things to do in a short time, eh? Time is flying here; it seems to me I just arrived a week ago.
Salaam from Mazar-e-Sharif, salaam for the third time.
Weather is hot and hot and hot. The mercury in thermometer rises to the sky; today it stopped on 40 Celsius, tomorrow will climb to 42. Hot water is coming out of both taps. Potatoes are cooking under the ground and chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs. Ok, I am exaggerating, but it feels this way. And we sweat and sweat and sweat. OK. We shouldn’t comp-lain. Or I shouldn’t complain. What about Afghan women who wear the burqa over their normal clothing? The burqa is the blue, white or green huge piece of cloth where the air circulation is very poor and where women can barely see the pathway. They must be boiling under this synthetic cloth. And imagine, some burqas are even black.
I had to wear a burqa too. On my third trip to the field, we were passing a small town where a bazaar was in full swing. The street was busy with men on motorcycles, sitting in front of their shops, selling nans (nan is the national bread of Afgha-nistan. It is a flatbread and can be oval or rectangular), selling sheep or just wandering here and there. The streets were crowed full of men and we were only women there. Well, we were in a car, but still our drive driver gave the order: “Put burqas on!”
I was the last one who put it on. I was fighting with this unfamiliar piece of clothing – I couldn’t find front and couldn’t find the top. The ladies tried to help me; more hands were touching this blue monster and making it more difficult to put on. Finally (we already hit the street full of men) we managed it. I was under the blue burqa. There was just one mistake: I wore it inside out.
In Zare, I documented the cooperation training for farmers organized by the People in Need – Food Facilities. About ten respected bearded men attended this workshop. The workshop was for five days, and this new cooperation will get a tractor, a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN).
From Zare I went to Marghzar, where Marghzar High School was officially opening with a big ceremony where officials like Mullah, the minister of finance and others as well as the PIN engineer, the PIN program coordinator, and other PIN members were there. And of course there were students, pupils, and teachers there too. After all, this school is for them.
Pupils and students lined up in front of their new school where the ribbon was cut and speeches were delivered. The heat was so strong, one pupil threw up; my head was spinning and the students‘ too, I’m sure. After couple unbelievably long speeches they sat down. No water was offered to them.
Marghzar is a beautiful place surrounded by incredible mountains. People are very friendly and you can walk freely everywhere. So I continue with my portraits using this pictorial landscape as the background.
I was all week in Mazar working on my pictures. I also have a new web-show of the pictures. If you are interested, here is the link:
On Monday I am off again, I am going back to Kishindeh and to a new place: Chakana.
I am back in Afghanistan, a totally different Afghanistan than I have ever seen before: the dry and dusty land I remembered is surprisingly green. There has been enough rain this year so the hills are carpeted with grass and grain, farmers plow their lands, goats and sheep happily jig around. It looks idyllic.
Burkhas are still used. The rural areas have no electricity yet and security has worsened.There are more clinics, but few medicaments available for the sick or injured. Serious cases must be treated in the cities. And renting a car is expensive.
I am staying with the Czech NGO People in Need; their main office is in Mazar-e-Sharif but their projects take place in rural areas. They have funds for work and livelihood projects, agriculture workshops, and the construction of new schools and granaries in these rural areas.
The funds for work projects, for example helps farmers with cash until a new crop will be harvested. Livelihood projects provide workshops for men as well as for women in different skills.
I also continue with my own work. I continue with the portraits series, but I am not using my “portable studio”: the background is so pictorial it would be a shame not to use it.
I am off in couple minutes to the field so I will continue when I am back in Mazar-e-Sharif.