The Thai Village Where The Sea Can Breathe

Posted on

Just over a decade after enduring one of the most devastating natural disasters in history, this tiny fishing village is still recovering from the loss of one of its most important food sources – its coral reef. With global warming added into the mix, the village’s two hundred inhabitants decided it was time to take action in order to allow its strip of ocean to breathe once again.

It was mid-February when I travelled south to this tiny village named Bang Saphan Noi in Prachuap Kiri Khan. The three-hour long train ride from Hua Hin struck us with some of the most breath-taking landscapes arraying lush hill-lined skies with turquoise sea waters as a backdrop.

Upon arrival at the train station, no one spoke English and we didn’t know what was going on. We had notified that we were arriving but we was unsure if that pickup van awaiting was the one that was supposed to be here for us (after spending time in Southeast Asia, you quickly learn that airports, bus and train stations are a place where you must be wary of people trying to scam you). But it was the only car there and even more so, we were the only foreigners in sight, so we decided to hop on and off we were, destination: unknown.

We were taken to the community center, where we were greeted with friendly smiles. After a refreshing drink, we were lent a scooter. I hopped on the back of a pickup truck. Once past the river, everything began looking wilder and greener. We arrived at our pastel pink coloured “jungle” house, surrounded by coconut trees facing the forested hills that stand far into the landscape.

The next day, we headed back to the community center. It was hot and humid, but the motorcycle ride through the trafficless dirt roads would kick up a refreshing breeze. The road took us past huts on stilts, where we’d get glimpses of locals napping on hammocks, men refurbishing their boats and women lined up hanging clothes in their front yards. The community center is the main point where the villagers enjoy hanging out during the late afternoons – they bring their children to play while the women cook in hot pots and the men smoke cigarettes. It amazed me how much unity there is among them and imagine what it must be like to grow up in such a closed niche.

After being fed a scrumptious homemade coconut ice cream, we got an insightful lesson on their work. For the past five years, this village’s inhabitants have come together to restore the coral life around them. Destroyed by the 2004’s tsunami and rising temperatures of the water caused by global warming, the marine life has begun to blossom once again in this hidden strip of ocean.

“We have tried many things since the start of everything,” explained one of the chiefs, “but many have failed, so we had to think of a new plan and re-start everything.”

“We began by taking dead coral and placing it inside plastic tubes,” he disclosed, “Once ready, we would dive to the bottom of the ocean and plant a system of tubes on the ocean ground and wait for the coral to grow.” He pointed out to us how their first attempt was successful at first, but was later proven short-lived when the monsoon season arrived and the merciless tides struck the tubes from of the seabed.

“We had to come up with another solution, so we decided we would create heavy concrete blocks that the monsoons cannot destroy”, he said proudly as he demonstrated how the plastic tube adheres to the sturdy concrete.

“We head once a month to the bottom of the ocean and place one hundred new blocks”.

But it’s a slow process. It takes approximately one year for the coral to regenerate. “It has taken a long time, but after five years, we can already see a coral reef and fish using it as a nursery,” he exclaimed excitedly as he showed us videos and photographs from the previous month’s dive. “The fish have begun to come back to live in our corals. We close the bay every year on February 15th for three months so people can’t fish them and they can reproduce”.

We were really impressed by their efforts and achievements to bring their ocean back to life after having their lives as fishermen turned around. The willingness to strive against such odds and keep going were very heartening to me.

It’s a charming place. As we idly drove through the village, we were greeted by every single passer-by. There are no tourists here except for us and the whole scenario made me feel as though time had been standing still for this unique corner of the world. This place resembles what I imagine Thailand must have looked and felt like several decades ago.

We ate our lunch next to a mangrove plantation and were later taken to their home, where the family quickly brought out their bamboo ladder and climbed up a tamarind tree to pull down its fruits for us to try.

Before leaving, we got introduced to their pet crocodile – a two-meter beast that stared at us with disdain. We were gifted raw tamarinds and juicy coconuts as farewell trinkets. I have always said that, for better of for worse, nothing beats the hospitality given by people in the rural areas in developing countries.

After dinner, we were driven in a pickup truck to the train station, with us sitting on the back bed alongside four villagers that asked for a ride along the way. We said our farewells with the promise to return one day.

Despite the fleeting time we spent there, we managed to gather so much. I, for one, had never experienced such a strong sense of community as I did during my stay. Moreover, their efforts to restore the marine life after enduring so many hardships were very eye-opening to me. Through trial-and-error, a few handful of people managed to reshape their otherwise gone lives as fishermen and bring back life into their ocean. The people in this village are a truly inspiring example of how teamwork and perseverance can make a difference – a lesson I will carry with me forever.

Till next time, Bang Saphan Noi.

The Digo Encounter

Posted on

If you walk opposite from the seashore at Diani Beach, you will stumble across sets of tiny villages that are home to this rather unheard of a tribe – the Digo people.

I’m a sucker for the road less traveled by, and the amazing thing about Africa is how easy it is to get there if you open up to new experiences and meeting the locals, despite what many guidebooks advise against.

Even at Diani Beach, a huge resort town, it was no different.

I became friends with Matokeo, a Digo man who now runs a beach-side restaurant in the outskirts of Diani. After sensing my curiosity to learn about the Digo lifestyle, he offered to take me to his village and we set a place and time to meet the following day.

11 a.m. It’s a rainy day – a huge relief since we are about to walk 40 minutes into what seemed like pure savannah. We meet his sister on the way, a lovely lady who sells seafood in Ukunda, the nearest town to her village.

We walk and walk and Matokeo tells me stories from his childhood and how he got to learn to use the world around him from the medicine woman living in the village. The Digos don’t need much money to survive because everything they need is there. Nature doesn’t need money and all it asks is to be nourished in return.

Matokeo stops to grab a few leaves from a bush and mixes it in with water utilizing his bare hands. In less than three minutes, the leaves create a soapy-looking foam the Digos use to wash their hair and bathe themselves.

 We continue on walking through the narrow pathway amidst the tall grass – a path created by the thousands of Digos who have walked this land before me. Matokeo proudly explains the use for every single tree and leaf we pass by and I felt ashamed for not knowing enough about the world and the nature around me.

We walk past Matokeo’s old primary school. He tells me how he would walk every day from his village, rain or shine, as he so desperately wanted to be able to receive an education. “I walked barefoot every day through the bush in order to come to school”, he said proudly.

It is a Friday morning and the weekly market is going on. Digos gather to sell and purchase anything and everything: from gorgeously patterned Kitenge dresses to all kinds of scrumptious food and fake football Jerseys. We walk through the hustle and bustle before returning to the peace and quiet that is the last village before the town of Ukunda begins – this is where Matokeo grew up, parentless.

He introduces me to a woman he refers to as his mother. She doesn’t speak any English, an uncommon encounter in Kenya. While she cooks hundreds of tiny fish while sitting on a rock under a shed, he explains to me how she takes care of the orphaned children from the village and how he himself was one of her protegés when he was a toddler. Four children are waiting excitedly next to the open-air kitchen for their meals to be ready, meals they would probably not have if it weren’t for the work this woman does so selflessly.

 

We continue on to find an elderly woman sleeping on a wooden bench in front of her mud house. She awakes, startled by the sight of a “mzungu”. Matokeo introduces me in their native language, and, while we can’t speak to each other in words, we often exchange smiles.

This woman, Matokeo explains to me, is the root of the whole village. Every single inhabitant here has stemmed out from her in one way or the other. She is 102 years old and is considered the boss and decision-maker of the whole compound, despite what some websites state that Digo women have no “political” power.

I ask her for a picture, and she politely agrees. She is covered in a gorgeous handwoven purple-hued throw which she also utilizes as a blanket. She doesn’t hide her body much, and at times, her breasts pop out a bit – an unusual thing to see in a Muslim-majority tribe. When I asked Matokeo about this, he told me that they don’t really follow the law of covering their bodies fully, as they are not completely Muslim, and it is often only done when a women gets married and wishes to cover herself up to let others know she is not available anymore in a way to show her husband respect.

While Islam is widely accepted among the Digo people and related tribes, they still do practice animism (the belief that objects have spirits) and ancestor worship (the practice of seeking help and guidance from their deceased relatives). These beliefs and customs remain a big influence in their communal ties and lifestyle. Witch doctors are also a part of their lives, but they are often referred to as “medicine men/women”. Many would describe their religious and spiritual beliefs as “Islam folk”.

The children gather around me with curiosity in the eyes as if I am some kind of superstar. A young girl touches my arm as if it was magic as we continue on our stroll onto a new village complex. For them, seeing a Caucasian person is out of the ordinary and I have been told by Kenyan friends before that they will often touch you to confirm you are actually real.

Isee the children at the village all having fun with the simplest of things – be it recycled toys D.I.Yed from tinfoil, climbing trees, or enjoying the taste of fresh coconut juice that Matokeo gets by climbing a 10-meter tall palm tree and kicking the fruit down.

We walk into a small hut filled with four women and four men, all drinking a white substance from a glass bottle. This is the “village” bar – there is no music but the sound of laughter and chit-chats exchanged by the villagers fill in the air. I get invited to sit on a wooden stool before I get offered a taste of their staple drink – coconut wine (and it tastes exactly like it sounds).

Throughout the years I am traveling, I found the importance of these small moments that are off the so-called mandatory road designed for tourists. While I do love indulging in them once in a while, I find these authentic moments to be the ones that have given me a deeper understanding of the world around me and the world in me, as well. I love being able to tell unique stories about people who seem so ordinary but carry stories worthy of novels within them. This experience amongst the Digo was one of them, and I cannot wait for the next.