From: Jessica Friedrichs [mailto:jxf243hotmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, March 22, 2000 10:10 PM
Subject: *where i've been
to all my friends, my family; stretched like roots of tree across the earth.
I wish to write you a bit of where I've been. I start with nearly
trembling pen because so much of what I have experienced here feels caught
deep inside my throat or languishing then flapping wildly like a fish in the
bottom of my belly. It's a slippery bugger, this past 8 months in Thailand,
but it glimmers silver when I hold it up to light or close to my thumping
heart. Now I want to hold it out to you a bit.
The first four months of my journey were a blur of stunning human beings,
heated discussions, and lots of coconut fruit shakes. I was a student with
an international program and 15 other lovely souls from all over the world
surrounded me daily. The idea of the program was to study development by
going out and looking it in the eye, talking with it, shaking it's hand, or
shaking it silly. Mostly we wanted to strangle it. In the rural northeast,
where the program is based, we visited villages where paper companies had
dumped toxic waste into their rivers. We slept in the slums, where they are
fighting for the rights to their shacks built of corrogated sheet metal. We
ate lunch with scavengers who live in a landfill so they can search it for
valuable trash. We met prostitutes who sit night after night behind a glass
window with numbers pinned to their chests for easy take out order. We went
to the south and saw a once tiny sustainable fishing island overrun with
backpacks, beer, and bathing beauties...soaking up natural resources, years
of wisdom, and a culture that used to sing out more than "wanna buy this,
lady?" in their quest to soak up sun.
Through it all, I wandered along by myself as well and just tried to
absorb. I saw a tangerine moon hanging fat in the sky holding all the
secrets of the universe in her back pocket. I saw temples wound into the
crooks of mountain and ones buried in barefoot forest (though I'm still not
sure if I've seen any buddhists). It was tiltawhirl - writing papers under
palm trees, reading article upon article, struggling to pick up Thai so I
could see the shape of people in their expression. So I could express
something (anything!) to give back to them.
But I do not feel I truly existed in this country at all until I went to a
village built in protest and named Maa Moon Mun Yeun (Moon River Forever).
It is built inches from the Pak Moon dam, the concrete beast which flooded
out their homes and land, swallowed the fish from their river, and sent them
off to pick trash in the cities under the name of 'development'. Most
striking for me that first visit, and all these times since, is how the
villagers look you in the eye when they speak their story. These golden
eyes pleading for you to help them, relate to them, share with them are sure
and firm; they pierce me and soothe me; they will never leave my sight.
I have spent the past four months, on and off, with these villagers, one
arm of the incredible giant called the Assembly of the Poor. I have learned
enough about fish ladders, electricity generation, turbines, and rapids to
turn the stomach. The village built of hay and bamboo is its own little
community with hundreds of huts, a guesthouse, a rally stage, meeting halls,
a temple, an herbal hospital, a museum to display their traditional fishing
equiptment, and most recently an alternative school for their children. It
is on government land but on March 23, the villagers have lived there for
one solid year with no visits or response from the Thai government. They
demand the dam be removed and their nature be restored. They vow not to
I'll be happy to jabber about dams and development with all of you when I
get back. Electricity. Air conditioning. Anti-wrinkle exfoliant creams.
Wallpaper. Whatnot. But for this exposition I just want to give you bits
of what I've seen and felt living among people who wake with the sun,
perfume the morning with the steam from sweet sticky rice, and greet you any
moment of the day with, "have you eaten yet?". The villagers say life was
better when they could farm and fish for themselves, surrounded by people
who knew each other, make their own baskets, fishing nets, and cloth for
skirts. They love to dance at night to mo-laam songs, a kind of freestyle
Lao blues (most everyone speaks Lao in the village, as do most people in
northeast Thailand). The dancing is slow shakes of the hip, careful flicks
of the wrist. The voices of the songs, made up as they go along, cry out
for their vanished fish, their torn existence, and are so haunting it rings
your ears with stars.
At night when they gather to rally, to give speeches, and dance, they start
with a prayer. Three of the lines end with the sound "om". I like to sit
with them then, my knees tucked under me, my palms pressed together like
them, surrounded by hundreds of wrinkles and muscles, wisdom and
nighttimeness, holding that note "om" out like a poem to the trembling sky.
Then the edges between me and them, Thai and foreigner, air and voice blur
together in the sure stillness we are all one.
For this I stayed in Thailand the past four months. Now I have walked and
protested with the villagers in Bangkok, I have watched other villagers
plant protest villages springing up stronger every time, and I have waited,
like them, for someone to respond. Perhaps the powers do not know quite
what motion to make yet. For the issue is much bigger than a piddly dam -
the villagers are questioning a whole way of acting in the world, one which
often prizes paper money above the thick earth of life. One which tries to
separate the spirit out into compartments as if violence, explotation,
streaming water, free air, destruction, and birth are not all just the same
glorious swirl of cosmic stardust. A month ago, a number of head honchos
from the World Bank visited the village (as with most 'development' projects
around the world where profitable loans are involved, they had a hand in
building Pak Moon dam). They realize the dam was a mistake; enough studies
have been done on it by now to satisfy even the most academic stickler for
'the facts'. The people have no fish (hell, they don't even the electricity
it was supposed to bring). Without fish, they have nothing. So what did
the World Bank offer? Millions of dollars under an investment program in
Thailand so they could start new professions (suggestion: making deserts to
sell on the sidewalk). The villagers rejected the money. They want the dam
Living with them, even if only in stints for a week at a time, has helped
me understand what wanting is. In the village we rise as the sun lazily
crawls up the sky. Some people still try to fish or they weave or they cook
up bugs and all sorts of critters or they pull vegetables from the forest.
When the heat creeps into our pores, we take showers or nap under shade (and
damn its hot right now. hot. my estimate is 300000 degrees Celcius.
everything on the human body has the capability to sweat (one profound
discovery I've made here). Women sit in groups making herb medicine or
chewing betelnut, which stains their lips red and their teeth black. My
favorite hour of the day is when the sun begins to sink and release some of
the tigerheat from its cage. The time of day more peach than violet, more
peace than violence. In these times I think village life before the dam
must have been something like this and when I stumble through Bangkok with
her zigzag dragon skytrain, charred air, and corners teeming with shopping
malls, I understand the village plea a bit more clearly. They want life
So the second half of my stay here has been much soaking and spitting.
Three other woman from my study abroad program stayed as well; they are my
banners and my shelters, we are arms and hands together lifting up, holding
tight, linking fingers through dark. Every week I sit with upturned face at
two older Thais - one a revolutionary whose every motion is poetry, who is
all the liquid I'll ever need and my own reflection at the same time. The
other is a firecracker village woman who speaks English like an army G.I.
Both impart advice that settles around me like presence. This is true
I feel, as I have for a long time now, that all is a gift. Unwrap it,
discard it, belly it, bully it, it still holds out the confusion, the peace,
and all the gasping beauty with open palm. Perhaps my mind takes everything
in sideways and swirlways sometimes and this is why I was not sure a home
existed in the physical world for me. It doesn't. My home is with all of
you, whose spirits bleed peach juice and sugarcombs into mine. You have all
given so much to me in a million tiny crawling ways, in all your poetry. My
poem out to you says little else than thank you.