#4: How we communicate with the weavers

We're often asked if we can recommend our driver and interpreter that we use to visit the weaving groups in Thailand and Laos from whom we buy the naturally dyed silk and cotton textiles we sell in North America. We laugh and sometimes wish it were so easy (although not usually so, as it's much more fun the way we do it).

As we begin our 5th buying trip -- which we always describe also as a networking trip -- I am reflecting on the many ways we communicate with the weaving groups. Rarely have we ever hired someone to interpret who is not also integral to the group with whom we're working. Here's a sampling of ways we communicate with the weaving groups:
  1. We rely heavily on Alleson's Thai. Since she lived in Thailand almost 8 years, she can get around quite well, although she feels her vocabulary is slipping each year that she spends 8 months at home in Canada. Still, with some effort, she has added to words to her weaving lexicon: loom, warp, weft, heddle (and other terms she has had to learn first in English!), to name a few. In fact, if she hadn't been able to carry on a conversation in Thai the first time we visited Prae Pan Group in Khon Kaen, where TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles was born, I seriously question if we'd have embarked on this fair trade enterprise in the first place.
  2. We also rely on board members of the 2 largest weaving co-ops we work with who speak English, although at times we look at each other and shrug in confusion, because sentence construction in Thai and English is vastly different. Mai pen rai, we end up saying, in Thai -- never mind, it's OK, not to worry! 
  3. Staff at a few of the weaving groups (or executive directors of NGOs that work with village groups who do the natural dyeing, weaving and sewing of the products we buy) are, at times, an invaluable resource. We've spent time working with field staff exchanging words and finally coming to common understandings. In Laos, we've more heavily relied on staff of weaving centres (or the daughter of 1 group's founder, who lives in Australia) to help us with orders and provide information.
  4. We also bring photographs of products we've bought in the past, draw pictures of products we'd like to design together, occasionally borrow the services of a friend to translate, especially when we need to use the phone -- and we laugh a lot.
One way or another, we manage to choose textiles from stock already woven and make orders for new pieces. Often, as you'll read in future blog entries, we're invited to share a meal, take home a bag of bananas or visit the person we've been working with, with a gracious invitation to stay in their home.

A final note: I have been studying Thai at home in Canada via the internet, podcasts and my notebooks from lessons I took 2 trips ago in Chiang Mai. I could not do this work with the language skills I presently have, but being able to compliment -- in Thai -- the women who do this highly skilled work, tell brief stories about life in Canada (especially as it relates to our experiences here) or comment on the food we're sharing goes a long way to building relationships that are a key element of fair trade.

All for now,

Ellen (Nok Noi)

#3: Train impressions

On Dec. 1st, Ellen and I landed in Bangkok, where we spent 2nights at our usual guesthouse, that still charges USD$10 for a double fan room with shared bath down the hall. During the next 2 days, we met to discuss probable orders with 4women from as many groups, before heading to Chiang Mai 600 kilometres to the north.

At 9 pm on Dec. 3rd, we climbed aboard Train 51 from a small neighborhood station and quickly settled into our berths. Like the guesthouses we frequent, the walls were dirty but the sheets and floors were clean. Despite the mouldering carriages and increasingly frought safety record of the State Railways of Thailand, I still enjoy the 2nd class sleeping cars (called "bogeys), if I can secure a ticket for a lower berth! Fortunately, we have Thai friends who purchased our tickets in advance and mailed them to us, so we had tickets for our preferred date, time and seats.

The next morning I awoke to a few puffy clouds in a rich blue sky as the sun rose golden over recently harvested rice fields. I popped a straw into the box of soymilk purchased on the platform the night before and laid back down with "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini.  The berth's thick curtains shielded me from the other passengers and prompted a child-like sense of cocooning. Fields, pages and minutes passed. Eventually I popped open the can of "Birdy"  I'd also brought along and enjoyed the sweet, milky coffee it contained, as well as the lovely laziness of train travel.

By 8:30 the whole car was stirring so I decided it was time to dress and join them.  When the porter came by to flip the berths to daytime seating, I made an effort to breathe calmly through the same surly silence he had shown us the night before. Eventually, my rusty Thai elicited a few polite responses before our brief exchange ended. Score one for me!

Uncharacteristically, Ellen slept several hours later than I did. When she arose, happy but hungry, our previous resolve to decline the railway's factory food  breakfasts in favour of food hawked from the platforms began to waiver when no such vendors appeared.  Eventually, we were rewarded with various yummy traditional foods: khao lam (sticky rice steamed with cocnut milk inside bamboo tubes), phat thai (rice noodles stir-fried with tofu, dried shrimps, scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and garlic chives in roasted chili paste), and a palate cleansing portion of pomelo fruit (peeled and cleaned segments laid out on a wee tray): all of this for 60 baht ($2.00).

After eating we sat quietly across from one another, rubbing each other's feet while we looked out on the fields that stretched to the foothills on the horizon. In between the shorn fields drying under the sun's glare, green profusion blocked out the sky as bamboo, teak trees and others strewn with prolific creepers delighted my gaze more than any Christmas tree would have had I stayed in Nova Scotia for this holiday season.

And besides...train travel has a tiny carbon footprint! Win win: it's easy to be green when choices like these are available.