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UHDP | Ruth Tshin

Story-telling as a way of “reporting”

Last Wednesday, I sat down with visiting farmers from the delta region of Burma to encourage them to consider story-telling as a way of reporting while troubleshooting issues in the field.   Pressured in the past by well-meaning foreign development workers or rigid project criteria, some farmers think that numbers are the only type of information acceptable.  I’ve watched UHDP staff freeze up during monthly meetings and refuse to talk about on-going research projects because they’re convinced their observations and gut-feelings weren’t valuable.  In my first year working with Kitichai, he repeatedly told me his Zanthoxylum rhesta nursery research was worthless because it wasn’t producing any numerical data.

Stories are natural ways that farmers communicate their observations and well-honed intuition.  Farmer wisdom is actually years of research stored in their minds and orally transmitted, and uses words relating to taste, texture, temperature – words that don’t fit “research language” but are pearls to those smart enough to know the value.   It was fun to see lightbulbs going on with the Burmese farmers when I was telling them to use mundane observations, unexpected results and simple vocabulary to weave a story about a problem they were trying to solve.  And three years later, I was able to produce a report (Zanthoxylum – A Low-Profile Asian Crop with Great Potential) on the challenges of propagating Zanthoxylum tree seedlings in nurseries based on Kitichai’s “worthless” observations that they didn’t like receiving rainfall or standing in puddles of water.

Good eats

Reunions are great, visit especially when you can make a meal together and enjoy in the company of others.

Brandon lived with me at UHDP in 2008/2009 and we had memorable times making chili paste, viagra morning glory and salsa (on separate occasions!) in my little kitchen that always got so hot and smokey.

He’s been an intern at ECHO for 9 months.  Today, view we cooked for the interns a menu inspired by the good eats at UHDP – curried pumpkin and egg, Burmese-style eggplant, Massaman curried beef and potatoes and spicy pork skin chili paste.  The meal was washed down with tasty starfruit from ECHO’s trees.

Morning commute in Mae Ai

The NYT article “10 days in a Carry-on” from NYT had photos of rolled up clothing flashed me back to the days when I lived out of a backpack and …

Food, human, food! We want our food and we want it NOW!

Yawn, stretch, rub my eyes. I can hear Apat on the phone with someone from his village.  Throw on work clothes. Oy, the cats are meowing. So loud. Open the bedroom door, shuffle outside and into my kitchen/dining room. Get the water boiling. Aaah…The smell of fresh coffee grounds.  Into the French press. Rummage in the fridge. Hmmm…better feed the cats first. They are giving me death glare through the screen door. Dump fishy-smelling food into cat’s plates. There are four of them now. Sigh. When did cats start breeding like rabbits? Darnell, Mimi and now Sally and Sammy. Beep. Milk for coffee is nuked. Pour hot water into French press. Tap my fingers for several minutes and ponder what I will have for lunch today. Pour hot coffee into hot milk. Yum. I love my caffeine beige coloured. Grab my notebooks and laptop bag. Two steps out of the house and Apat hollers “Good morning” from the tree nursery. Twenty steps later and I pass the UHDP office. Wah’s flip flops are outside. She’s probably working on her never-ending accounting and expense reports. Forty more steps and I walk by Pi Singkham’s house and the pig pens. Nothing like the smell of fresh pig manure in the morning.  Forty more steps and I pass by the fish pond and earthen demo house. Seed bank office door is open. “Hey Leu, what’s up?” I call out.

Spaghetti communications

The hot season is going to kill me.  The smoke hangs in the air all day and night, pilule and makes my skin itch, purchase my nose black and my throat itch.  Driving my motorcycle to and from the office coats my face with pollution and makes my eyes puffy.  At night, my stomach hurts from all the filth I’ve ingested during the day.  It’s bad like this all through Southeast Asia as the farmers are burning their fields and compounded by the shift in seasons from cool to hot.  I don’t usually jump for joy at the rainy season,

The evaluation was going well but everyone in the seed advisory group was glancing at their watches. It was 12:45 and Rick had already asked me three times if lunch was ready. I called Chai again, dosage
wondering what the heck happened to my well-laid plan for someone to pick up lunch for our group.

“Hey Chai,” I said, “where are you? Are you back at the centre yet?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“So is the food with you at the office?”

“Uh…what food?”

Oh no. I had a handful of hungry men to placate. I ran from the seed production plot and arrived panting at the office. Wah looked at me curiously. “What’s going on?”

“No! I’m trying to figure out what happened to the food? The lady at the restaurant said that someone already came by and took the food. I tried calling you a couple of times to see what’s going on but got no answer.”

“Huh? I already told Alap to put the food in the seed bank office. Didn’t you see it?”

I shook my head. We marched down to Alap’s house, where the guys were hanging out after eating their lunch.

“Alap? Where’s the food? Ruth and her group haven’t eaten anything yet?” Wah said sharply.

“I put it in the seed bank office, like you told me!” Alap said, looking confused. We walked over to the seed bank office, where everyone was still talking about our 3 year goals.

“Over here,” Alap said, pointing to the boxes of food sitting on top of the germination chamber. Hidden behind the taller seed drying machine. Which we had all overlooked going in and out of the office an hour ago.

Ooooooh, thanks, Alap,” I said as sweetly as possible, trying to ignore Wah laughing behind her hand.

Last day at UHDP…for now

Saying goodbye, discount rx even if only for four months, can be a whirlwind experience.  But not this time (and I’m glad).  Last Sunday night, all us ladies went for dinner (yum, fish) and karaoke at a restaurant in Fang, which was so nice that it felt like I was in Chiang Mai.  This week I had my last meeting with Chai and Ajan Tui and organized my paperwork so I can write my finals reports while travelling.  I made pizza yesterday with Na and gave everyone a few pieces, and had a good time getting to know her who recently got married to my friend Prachaya.  I’ve eaten what I’m sure are my last meals of Northern Thai food for the next few months.  I stayed up late chatting “life” with Kim.  It’s been nice to spend time with people in “normal” ways without any ceremony – chatting with Wah while driving, watching the Palaung kids giddy at their school dance presentation, making nam prik gung heng (dried shrimp chili mix) to take home with Meh Nong Ket and Pi Da, sitting on the floor as usual sharing a meal with Pi Meao’s family.

Emotional undercurrents are there too.  Feelings of aloneness and loneliness (yes, I’ve discovered they can be equally separate and the same); knowing how attached I am to everyone here despite how difficult it’s been to live up here; nervousness about re-entering Western culture; needing to recharge my batteries in all manner of speaking.

Today is my last day.  I have much to do: cleaning up, last details for packing, storing stuff.  Too bad there aren’t any cleaning up fairies to help you say goodbye to your home-away-from home.

Another snake

I admit I’ve gotten a little ho-hum over the critters here at UHDP: scorpions, order cockroaches, visit big hairy spiders, hygiene even poisonous snakes (we’ve had a cobra in Jan among other baddies).  Not ho-hum to the point of being bitten, but in that I see them regularly and don’t react much any more.  But this one…it’s LONG.  1.5 metres!!  From far away, it looks like Lek Lek (my director’s daughter) is holding a skipping rope or something.

The cold season cometh

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Ugh…I’ve been sick with a cold now for two days.  It started early Monday morning – the temperature must have fallen to 17 to 20 degrees Celsius during the night – when I woke up absolutely freezing in my bed.  The morning was foggy, cheapest and I had to wear socks, nurse pants, a sweater and scarf.  Fortunately, during cold season, the days warm up around 9:30 to 10am.  But I’ve been sleeping and lying down since Monday afternoon – now I can’t smell anything and am sounding like Kermit the Frog.  It’s supposed to get colder from now on…which is nice because I won’t be as sweaty as during rainy season BUT I now have to wear socks regularly and I sleep in a sleeping bag too.