The house where Iím staying is held up by pillars over the sea. Soft waves surge against them. A half moon glows through the open window and silhouettes the netting that drapes my bed. Ecstatic crickets celebrate in nearby ponds. The stories, laughter and foodófour types of fish cooked nine waysóof tonightís Ramadan fast-breaking feast merge into my dreams.
Iím staying (and fishing) with a Thai Muslim family on Koh Ya Noi, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The island has about seven villages and 5000 people, mostly fishing families. Warm people feed me fresh fish and fresh perspectives on what it takes to maintain paradise. Thailandís REST (Responsible Ecological Social Tours Project) helped me get here.
"Weíre harnessing the wanderlust of the human spirit and applying it to development," said RESTís Peter Richards. Happy to put my wanderlust to better use, I hitched on. REST partners with traditional communities who want to share their homes, food and culture with visitors. REST works out travel arrangements and translators for small groups visits.
After a half-hour ride from Krabi to the southeast, (Phuket is an hourís ride southwest) the local ferry deposits Peter and me on Koh Yao Noiís dock. Peterís along to do some REST work and translate. Met by our host dad, we pile into a truck to get our first look at the island. Seaward, the entwined roots and trees of mangrove obscure the view. Inland, small terraced farms and silvery shrimp ponds cut into the jungleís edge. Oddly, a boat sits on a hill, about a half mile from the shore. "The tsunami put it there," our host explains through Peter. "But, our mangroves protected us from the tsunami. We had little damage and no deaths." Mangroves, I learn, are natureís sea walls, breaking up the force of the big waves.
At my hostís settlement, a dock juts into the sea acting as a front walk for several simple houses. My hostís house has a covered porch full of flowers, a large living-sometimes-sleeping area, a kitchen and two bedrooms. My comfortable bed on the floor of my bedroom has a fan aimed straight on. My host shows me how to make a large overlap in the pink mosquito netting so I can slip into bed, leaving the little nasties behind.
Itís the third day of Ramadan, the Muslim month-long, sun-up to sundown fast, so only we infidels eat lunch. Afterwards, a hush falls over the house. Everyone, even the birds, goes down for the midday Ramadan snooze. Hours later, cheerful sounds wake me. Outside, at the end of the dock, people lean on their bicycles chatting and laughing as they go and return from town. Inside, knives, pots, and voices combine in a comfortable cooking hum.
I join the women and girls in the kitchen to see if I can help. My first job is peeling cucumbers. This, I discover, I do all wrong. The Thais, logically, peel veggies pushing the knife away from them. Awkwardly, I pull it towards me. Producing more laughs than peels, one of the girls takes over cuke peeling. My shrimp peeling is embarrassingly slow, so I resort to teaching the little ones a songóresulting in a pile of giggling kids. Thus, if entertainment is Ďhelpful,í I help with dinner.
Pulling out my camera to capture the gigglers, I discover its batteries are kaput. Andóto my savvy travelerís shameóI have no spares. My camera uses regular AAA batteries and as Peter is off on more serious business, I pantomime my problem to the host mom. After much discussion with her older daughter and a cell phone call, she works something out.
"Seven, one, one," she assures me.
"Whatever," I think.
While waiting, I shower. Kindly, my hosts rigged an overhead shower for their western guests, but I try out the energy-wise (no electricity for pumping) Asian bucket-bath arrangement, using a red plastic bowl to splash myself with water before and after the scrub.
Clean and green, the next thing I know, Iím flying behind a good looking guy on a motor scooter. We stop at an open shed where a glass tube with a small rubber hose, that looks like an elephant I.V., hangs over a counter. A young woman appears from the house across the street and sells us a cup and half of gas. We zoom off into the sunset. Literally.
By the time we reach town, the sun has officially set. Music blares as young and old folks snack, laugh and break the fast. Everyone waves as we pull up in front of the Seven-Eleven. Lit up like Christmas, itís a happening place and happens to have AAA batteries.
We race back for our own Ramadan feast. Dinner is spread over a low table on the porch and we all settle onto the floor around it.
"Donít you get hungry?" I ask as we wait for our host dad to dish the rice.
"Donít tell anyone, but I had a snack," our host mom confesses.
Sticking my hand into her face as if Iím holding a TV mike, I say, "Say that again."
Everyone cracks up. Then, another chortle, eerily like mine, kicks in. Egads, the family parrot has my rowdy American laugh down pat.
Our host dad hands each of us a bowl of rice and tells us to help ourselves. I go straight for the grilled shrimp. They are without a doubt the freshest, biggest, sweetest shrimp of my entire shrimpohile life. And they are not alone. Emerald-green broccoli rabe glistens with oyster sauce and whole white fish is pan-fried to soft-flake perfection. The piŤce de rťsistance is the momís fish curry. Sweet with coconut milk, eggplant and yams, it was crunchy with bamboo and spiced with garlic, chilies, ginger and the sour note of kaffir lime leaf. Perfecting the Thai sweet-sour-hot-salty culinary balance, is a special-to-this-region salty paste of cured innards.
Drag nets are not legal in Thailand, but the law was not being enforced. "We started a conservation group and went to the government, but the government supported the commercial fishing fleets," our host dad explained. It took a heroic effortótwo men were even killedóto stop the trawlers. "Itís an amazing thing about the sea, it came back so fast. Within three months we began to fish again."
Early the next morning, with two neighbor kids, we trooped out to the dock to our hostís long boat. As we motor to their fishing grounds, limestone karsts jolt out of the sea like multi-hued sculptures dripping with jungle. In the stern, the host dad fussed with the engine, steered and looks the steely-eyed skipper. In the bow, the mom, protected from the sun in a manís long-sleeved shirt with a floppy hat tied-tight under her chin, slowly lets out the net. About ten feet deep, 300 feet long, and held above the reef by small buoys.
Net left to drift a half mile or more, we head for a deserted island to swim, dig for thumbnail-sized clams and explore itís jungle-lush hidden lagoon. Returning to the net, our hosts go to work. Dad drags the net over the gunwale and Mom puts on thick gloves to avoid wayward fins and stings. Pulling them off the net, she flicks all manner of sea creature into the boat, flipping the juveniles and jellyfish back to the sea. Keepers go between the water-filled ribs of the hull. The boys keep the crabs from eating the shrimp and the squid from squirming away. Just ahead of the rain, we head back for a siesta.
That evening at community meeting, I learn more about the stop-the-trawlers story. Here it is, translated from many voices:
"What I like best about the homestays," one man said, "is sharing our culture with outsiders. It makes our kids more interested in it."
Peter adds, "Every time the kids hear a visitor say, "Wow, thatís amazing," itís a boost."
On the way back to sleep to the sound of the waves, the island breeze tossles my hair and a gazillion stars glitter over Koh Yao Noiís paradise. But, now I know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into keeping it this way.
And nit noi, just a little, I have helped.
Kate Crawford July 2007
LINKS WITH ATTITUDE
are two ways to visit the Koh Yao Noi Ecotourism Club.
The villagers do not speak English and I thought a translator made a world of difference in how well I got to know people--never mind the convenience of having everything arranged.
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