Friday, June 30, 2006

The Military Industrial Complex in My Town Stinks (When It Rains)

You can see the green hills ‘cross the rooftops
And the pressure wind blows past the end of our block.
In the evenings the mist comes rolling on down
Into a northern industrial town.
- Billy Bragg

I write to you today while sitting at home, staring out the window as the monsoon rains pour into the already ankle-deep puddles in the street. I sit here, carefully drinking the slightly delicious, yet viciously addictive Nescafe 3-in-1, which as some of you may remember, was responsible for the drowning of Toshi, my old friend and laptop. Usually, these rains bring a sense of relief and excitement, ensuring that in the next few hours, I won’t pass out from the heat. Lately though, they’ve brought with them a stench that vividly reminds me of the day that my mom and I went digging in the middle school dumpsters for my lost retainer on grilled-cheese and tomato soup day.

I ran into a new counterpart last week, who works at the office for environmental conservation and communicable diseases at the hospital. It took a year and 5 months for me to figure out this place existed, which actually isn’t unusual. Most of our contacts occur by accident. The health worker I refer to is named Oi, which means sugarcane, and I could tell right away this was a motivated person who had a lot of things going on. I’ve heard from various sources that the industry in my town is a double-edged sword, providing jobs and tax money, but ruining our river (which the town is named after), and causing that horrible stench when it rains.

Oi had organized an organization of interested parties, consisting of village leaders, health professionals, monks, teachers, rice farmers, soldiers, and factories. The organization’s goal was to identify community problems and utilize their collective resources to implement solutions. When I met Oi, she was preparing for an educational camp held at the local airfield, for children of various ages, and I was invited to tag along. My goals for my own participation was to develop a relationship with the environmental conservation office workers and learn about the industry in my town, but above all- to find out who was responsible for that smell.

Next to the military base where I had a previous training, we turned into a guarded forest entrance, and continued driving for a few miles until we reached the hangars of an airfield. On the way we passed trees with laden with monks’ robes, to prevent the locals from chopping them down. After we unloaded the truck, we set up for the opening of the training, which was evidently an important one, because there were seven couch-people present. To my right was a dilapidated billiards table, with ornate wooden legs and bits of torn thread in the pockets. On it laid all kinds of tools and machinery, collecting dust as it apparently has been for years.

This training was sponsored by the local military, both Army and Air Force, and the local factories. The first speaker of the opening was the commander of the airfield, who explained the history of the base, and the reason for the pool table. Apparently the War Corps has done capacity building work in my town before the Peace Corps, in building for Nam Phong an airfield in the middle of a forest during the Vietnam War. It consisted of a huge parking lot, an airstrip, and three large hangars. I think I’ve already written a little about my appreciation for the Thai military- the adornment of Navy ships with bright Xmas lights, and the admirable ability of Thai soldiers to sleep during the daytime. The Air Force impressed me even more. “Where are the planes?” I asked the commander. “Hahaha, we don’t have any planes,” they’re all in Udonthani. “This is just an emergency landing strip. As you see, the lot is empty and the hangars are filled with vans.” I remember hearing a story on NPR, and this is true, that the Thai Gov’t bought a couple fighter jets from Russia in exchange for millions of frozen chickens, which they froze during the bird-flu scare. To their credit, they spend most of their time hosting trainings like this. The commander pointed to the airstrip and said, “That airstrip is the Vietnam and Laos wars. We don’t do that anymore. This is what we do now.”

After the opening, the commander introduced the students and teachers to local villagers, who would lead us through the forest. There were seven older men, with dark leathery skin, worn clothing, and maybe five teeth between them. I caught the eye of one of them, who had spiked grey hair, fiery bloodshot eyes, and a white scar on his hand, extending through the vain on his right arm. He came over and started speaking English, and this is what he said…

“I’ve heard of this place, in Nam Phong, King Cobra Village, right?”
“You don’t have a snake with you now, do you?”
“I hate snakes, I am scared of snakes, and I can’t ride my bike there.” (This is the standard-issue excuse for PCVs)
“So why do you have a snake if it bites you?”
And then I broke into Thai, with the ultimate way to end a conversation/turn down a request/not break face- “Kit doo gon”, which means, “I’ll think about it before.”

As the local elderly led us through the forest, most of the kids and the teachers had trouble understanding them, which shows the speed at which the Isaan language is evolving. I don’t think I need to mention that I caught very little of what they said, except when he pointed at a plant, put his two fingers together, placed them at his mouth and said, “You can dry this and then smoke it.” I nodded, turned to the monk walking with me, and smiled.

I was walking through the forest with a monk who lives at a special temple that serves as a spiritual development center. This center is becoming involved in AIDS education, and home-based care, but has been providing spiritual services to drug addicts for years. Traveling with him were two kids about ten years old, taking pictures of the monk taking video of the forest. I had seen these two kids at the temple before, and gathered that the monks were their care-takers. One of the kids was half-Thai, half-Falang, and wore a shirt that read under a picture of a machine gun, “To err is human, to forgive divine. Neither of which is Marine Corps policy.”

The next part of the training, and for the next two days, was visits to various environment landmarks of the community. The future stops would be the landfill, the paper factory, the fisheries, and an organic farm. Today, however, was the best day for me to be present, because we would visit two factories, a water plant, and the military base. Hopefully I would find out who the hell was making the rain smell.

My town has many factories- making motorcyles, sugar, paper, Panasonic electronics, just to name a few. Today our first trip, fitting for a group of 130 middle school children, was the factory that made glorified moonshine from rice. I was able to speak with the factory representative for a few minutes, and this is what transpired, in Thai…

“So this factory makes only rice whiskey, right?”
“Right, we use sugar from the sugar factory, and market throughout Khon Kaen Province.”
“So is there anything special you’ve done regarding the environment lately?”
“Not really, we have been certified by the regulations of (some company I don’t remember). We’re very clean, when you make a product, you will have waste, but we are very clean.”
“Any idea where that smell comes from whenever it rains?”
“When it rains, it really smells. You live in my neighborhood, I’m sure you’ve noticed it.”
“Oh yeah, that smell. That comes from the pig farm. That’s pig feces you’re smelling.”
“How’s the presentation going so far?”
“These kids don’t seem very interested in hard alcohol,” she said as she shook her head in disbelief. “We usually don’t present to little kids, but this was about the environment, not the product.”

Our next stop was the water cleaning plant, which is enough to make you go off water for weeks. I wouldn’t drink the tap water here, and I don’t know anyone that does. This was a pretty useless venture, but I did squeeze in a minute with the foreman. He told me that the rain smell most definitely comes from the sugar and alcohol factories. “Not the pig farm?” I asked. “The pig farm? What’s that got to do with the rain?”

After the water treatment plant, our bus pulled into the army base, where I had previously had an AIDS training. That training went well, except for the lack of electricity in the middle of the hot season, which they neglected to tell us. The military, as I’ve indicated, are sponsors of this camp, and a trip to the army base was a necessary, yet had nothing to do with the environment. We walked through a museum dedicated to a former prime minister Dinsutlanon. As we entered the mini cinema, we enjoyed a fifteen minute tribute to him while the air conditioning blasted us. Each room consisted of a life-size statue of the man in different stages of his life, with audio commentary and synchronized lighting. This museum reminded very much of the Ronal Reagan library, which my Uncle took me to see in California. As you walk through the hall of communist leaders that Reagan brought down, you may notice that like his public addresses, there is a distinct denial of the emergence of AIDS during his tenure. I asked when this prime minister died, and was told that he’s still alive at 87 and will come to see the base next week. At least they waited until Reagan died to start the propaganda. The rain smell, a soldier told me, doesn’t make its way out to the army base, because it’s in the middle of a forest.

Tired, knees aching from standing all day, we made our way back to the Nam Phong Airport, which is, to my knowledge, the only airport in the world without airplanes. To summarize the activities, Oi asked the group of students to draw pictures of their ideal communities, their ideal environments. Despite living on a plateau, almost every one of the students drew the same picture of a mountain landscape, with a sun shining onto grassy fields and a blue river flowing down into the foreground. Bob Ross would have been proud- there were happy trees scattered about, a few houses here and there (there weren’t any Van Dyke brown crayons, I checked). There were no factories in any of their pictures, although to be fair, there were no people either.

Laying to rest any doubts that Thailand is a developed country, a hospital staff member ended the day with a presentation, projected for everyone to see, of the Nam Phong river. The presenter flew over mountains and valleys, trailing the river from its source to our town, passing factories and fisheries, in a neat little vehicle called Google Earth.

Fittingly, as he wrapped up his presentation, the raindrops started pounding against the tin roof of the hangar. Building up until eventually, we couldn’t hear each other talking, the sound of the rain made any training impossible. We just sat and listened to the downpour, looking out the window, waiting for it to stop so that the boys could leave the girls and go sleep in our own hangar. And sure enough, it smelled. But instead of smelling like a dumpster, it smelled like rain, which I can’t remember smelling for a while now.

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