Since the Lao and Thai New Year is just a few days away, I thought I’d wrap up what’s been going on, or not going on. I’m taking the Lao mom to the dentist tomorrow to have a tooth extracted, and I thought that sounds like fun, so maybe I’d have one pulled, too. I’ve begun to resemble a chipmunk with its left cheek full of acorns. I should have had it looked at in Thailand, but it didn’t start swelling like this until I got back to Vientiane a few days ago. Having a tooth pulled in one of the least developed countries in the world is just one of those things you have to try. I put my chances of surviving at 60/40.
The end of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 ushered in “swift and relentless” devaluation of the yen, which is the currency I get paid in for my bread-and-butter work. Now that I’m earning a full 25% less in the local currency, physical progress is excruciatingly slow. There have been times in the past few months when I couldn’t even go to my farm because I couldn’t afford the diesel. So, I’m still living under the conditions described in Part 2. In fact, look what Dad caught for dinner last night! It was the first one of its kind that he was able to catch in 3 years, he said. Another case of rarity improving the taste, I suppose. I asked if it was poisonous, and I was told that its bite doesn’t even hurt. So I wondered out loud if its lack of poison made it any tastier. No, but it’s much easier to catch the non-poisonous snakes. This led to a discussion amongst the members of the small group of drinking buddies that gathers nightly about who had seen or caught the largest cobra.
If I was keen to get out of the family abode back then, you can imagine how I feel now. But December, 2012, was an exciting time, and that made my living circumstances a bit more bearable. The family had given me permission to use the entire lump of land behind my plot. I cleared away a lot of the brush so I could make an accurate assessment of what I had to work with. What I lacked in funds, I more than made up for in planning.
I’m going to summarize now, as detailing what went on in the months that followed would require a few posts, and I want to put this bit behind me, and as quickly as possible. The idea was to build one room, a temporary one, to get away from the family residence and enjoy the privacy, as well as for security considerations (I still wanted to catch duck thieves). This got me into research on building materials and methods that I could handle myself. I’ve already made it clear that I’m not the most skilled do-it-yourselfer. I stumbled across autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, which have high insulating properties, and figured I’d build one room with them. This way I thought I might convince the family to later have the whole house done in them. Then they could have their concrete which they seem to love so much and the building wouldn’t have to be an oven. I’d insulate the ceiling with rice husks. These blocks are 20cm high by 60cm wide, and sort of glued together, so no playing with sand, water, and cement.
Most of my energy, however, went into planning the farm. It was to be a trial, of sorts, for things I would later do on my farm on the Plateau. Ducks were a given, but a tasty 4-legged creature was needed. After considering and dismissing for various reasons goats, cattle, sheep and some lesser well-known critters, I settled on pigs. I call this my “learning to speak pig” phase. I read everything I could find about them, including Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin.
“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life, and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” —Temple Grandin
Besides the fact that they are as smart as my 3-year old daughter (I mean any 3-year old) and hence can be taught to turn off the lights in their barn before they go to sleep, they make excellent tractors. Why lock pigs in a pen, bring food and water to them, then remove the shit and haul it out to the fields as fertilizer when you can have the pigs harvest their own food, fertilize the fields while doing it, and even plow them when wanted? A pig’s snout is a purpose-built plow. It was their plowing ability that attracted me at first. Goats are good at clearing land, too, but they are picky eaters and get infected by worms easily. My hero when it comes to pigs on pasture is Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont. My often twisted questions about pigs on pasture (do the other pigs mind when you kill one of their brethren?) were answered by him either on his website or on some forum.
Modern electric fences make it possible to practice Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). My hero on that subject, and others, is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, the “farm of many faces.” who has written many books including my favorite title (I’ve only read excerpts), The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. He is every farmer’s champion when he says we should want smart, well-paid farmers. Do we really want something as important as our food to be produced by people who are as poor as dirt and half as smart? The idea behind MIRG is to use electric fences to rotate your animals after they have only partially eaten the pasture. Leaving leaves on the pasture material allows it to use photosynthesis to recover very quickly. When the animals are moved, chickens or ducks are brought in. They paw through the “fertilizer” left behind, distributing it, while devouring fly and other larva before they become airborne. It also disrupts the life cycle of parasites.
After weeks and weeks of study, I had it all put together. It was synthesized. Done. The grazing patterns for the 50 to 60 pigs I would have at any one time were decided. They would harvest sweet potatoes for a week on one plot that they had plowed themselves months before. They would slather around in a muddy rice field or two getting them ready to plant rice (SRI, of course). They would rotate through rich pastures of tropical forages such as Ubon stylo, a legume that was developed partially through the work of Dr. Michael Hare, at the Faculty of Agriculture, Ubon Ratchathani University. Not only did Michael answer all the questions I threw at him (I’ve known him for quite some time), he provided this humble, aspiring farmer nourishment in both the solid and liquid form when he passed through Vientiane last month. Ducks would happily follow the pigs on their meandering course through the property, removing pests and further fertilizing the land. And, most importantly, anybody who dared to penetrate this animal utopia would be zapped by 9,000 volts of intermittently pulsing electrical current which would set off an alarm that would scare the crap out of the scoundrel (I’d been in consultation with a Bangkok security firm that could supply me with a dual-purpose fencing system). It was all sorted. But I’d run out of money, and. . .
One afternoon I was sipping beer outside wondering what Mom and Uncle Across the Street were talking about. There was a surprisingly large group of people listening in, like me. Mom’s got another 4,800 square meter lump of land close enough to mine that I may be able to reach it with a 4-iron helped by a strong following wind. She’d been wanting to sell that land, so I assumed the talk was about that, but I couldn’t understand what Uncle Across the Street had to do with it. His wife (Mom’s sister) owns the strip of rice fields beside my land and my projected pig paradise (in fact, I bought my plot of land from her). “What are they talking about,” I finally asked Mom’s daughter, the actual owner of my land. “They want to sell the land,” she told me. “What land,” I asked, a bit flabbergasted. She might as well have replied, “Your land! Stupid!” It never occurred to me when I bought it that Mom might sell off the land that abuts one side of my property, and Uncle Across the Street might simultaneously sell of the land that abuts it on another side, leaving us with strangers on all four sides. “Aah,” I said, nodding diplomatically.
In cases such as these, it’s prudent to go and refill your glass with sparkling, cold beer, taking as much time as possible. It’s a lot more reliable than counting to ten. As I did so, it occurred to me that I’d been oblivious to the madness (or at least one aspect of the continual, profound madness) that had been going on around me since they mostly completed a new road dividing what I refer to as “the great expanse,” a wide plain of rice fields between the village where the family residence is and the village where my land (and Mom’s land) is. See the photo in the previous paragraph (new road not shown). People who had inside information (not unusual in a communist state) were buying up land left and right. There were rumors about moving the downtown government offices to our area. A complete transformation of the landscape was underway. It seemed like every third house in the area had a new pickup truck, including Uncle Beside Us (he’s married to another of Mom’s sisters). They didn’t have anyone in their family with a driver’s license, but they bought a $45,000 Toyota, anyway.
It seemed like it was a done deal. The prospective purchaser was assumed to be a Chinese company. Nobody knew what they wanted to do with the land. I figured they’d build a poorly maintained melamine factory so that they could add it to watered down milk products or infant formula to make them appear to have the right level of protein. That was getting harder and harder to get away with in China after sickening 300,000 people including 54,000 babies back in 2008. On the bright side, I was told that they probably wouldn’t be developing the land for a few years so I could still use it for a while, but the “oomph” had been almost surgically removed from me. Visions of my smiling piggies deflating like loosely knotted balloons appeared in the night. I’m used to setbacks. Most recently, I’d left my sandals on the front steps of the family residence overnight, and some drug addict with a sleeping problem swiped them. Shortly before that, at the Lao/Thai border, I’d left my truck’s engine running while I stepped out to show my papers to the police. My truck wouldn’t let me back in. It had locked itself with the engine still running. My phone was inside. I tried to smash through the corner of the passenger-side window, only to be impressed at how resilient it was (plastic, I think). This was at the border crossing at Chongmek, near Ubon. People kept asking me where my spare key was. In Vientiane, 700km away. Finally, a kind and talented Lao minivan driver taught me how to break into my own truck. I wanted to kiss him but figured he’d rather have money. I gave him some and told him to buy a case of beer. A couple of days ago I took my truck to Hyundai for servicing and asked how such a thing could have happened (I couldn’t recreate the phenomenon). Oh, it’s happened to a lot of people when they slam the door too hard, I was informed. Memories of being a kid and my dad reminding me sternly, “Don’t slam the door,” came back to me. Technicians at Hyundai suggested I always remove the key when I get out or open a window, just in case. People may have begun referring to me as “wrong way,” but “setback” or “setback king” would make a more fitting middle name for myself. This whole odyssey has been a succession of setbacks. But this was a biggie.
And then it didn’t happen. Which isn’t to say that it won’t happen. It just didn’t happen. One day somebody supposedly representing a Chinese company comes around and offers to buy your land for 2,000 baht ($69) a square meter, you say okay, and you expect the guy back any day to consummate the deal. And nothing happens. That’s the way they do business here. No contact information whatsoever. It could have been one great, big practical joke. But, before it didn’t happen, I had a great time thinking up practical if a bit self-serving ways for the family to spend some of the money. I needed to do this for comfort at the time. You see, I owed the owner of my land on the Plateau, Billy, the third and final payment for the 30-year lease. He’d begged me to make the second payment earlier than agreed, and I did, so I just assumed he’d let me be a bit late for the final payment. Nope. So I’d suddenly had to put my entire salary plus a bit extra into paying him promptly. While it felt good to be all paid up, there remained the annoying fact that I had no money to live on for an entire month. So I was living off my side business, translation, getting paid chapter by chapter, which I guess is a genuinely lucky thing to be able to do, but really sucks, nevertheless. To be so acutely poor while at any moment the Lao Beverly Hillbillies, as I’d started to think of them as, were about to be paid nearly half a million US dollars for a lump of land that wasn’t even very fertile was, well, hard to adjust to. So, perhaps like the intake of opiates or practice of adultery, neither of which I’m familiar with, by the way, I took comfort in mentally spending their money. I couldn’t help it. I mean, every family that sells off the family land buys a pickup truck. But they don’t even know how to drive one!
Eventually, it still didn’t happen, and it still didn’t happen for long enough that I stopped caring. When it happens, Mom will pay to have the house finished. She’s as eager to leave the family residence, it appears, as we are. So, that’s one weight off my shoulders.
I remain an American with unlimited if somewhat irrational optimism. This lateral drift, which a pessimist would dismiss as having been a huge and needless distraction from making progress on my Bolaven Plateau project, has been an opportunity to learn about things that I would otherwise not have. It’ll all come in handy when I put things together. The cracks are filling, the missing links are revealing themselves, and the loose ends will soon be tied.