Wanderlust: Expat Life & Style in Thailand The Relationships Issue - Page 53

Travel

I feel a bit miffed at this notion . But then I , too , start looking at these swampy-blue pots with compassion .
Here are all these women , gathered around the indigo . It ’ s a community , and indigo is at the center of it . She gives them work , a living , a reason to be and something to be proud of . No wonder she ’ s treated like royalty .
“ Every pot is special ,” Klin says . “ But this one ” — she nods her head toward one vat bearing gray , frayed threads around its belly — “ this one is like the parent . That ’ s why she gets to wear the cloth .”
To protect the special pot during thunderstorms , a piece of Klin ’ s grandmother ’ s skirt is tied around it . With the cloth , indigo won ’ t feel scared , she says . She ’ ll be safe .
HAPPY MINDS
At the next community , I meet a group of welcoming , wrinkled old women who also work with indigo . We enter at lunch time , and there ’ s an Isan feast laid for us on the floor — papaya salad , quail eggs , omelettes and sticky rice . I take photos ; they urge me to sit down and eat .
One of the eldest women in this community is Pon Kodprom . She ’ s almost 80 . Her teeth are stained red from chewing betel . Her hands are blue from indigo . And her body , from age , is hunched over so that she cannot stand upright at all anymore . I ask about her work . “ My body might seem tired ,” she says , “ but my mind is happy . … The most important thing is that my work makes me proud .”
After lunch , I learn how the women process their home-grown cotton . It starts with removing hard pieces from the center of each puff , using a hand-cranked device similar to a pasta machine . Next , I try to fluff the cotton by hitting a stick against a bowlike tool . The taut string ’ s vibrations gradually fluff the cotton fibers . It is perhaps the slowest process I have ever tried , even adjusting for the fact that I ’ m not very good at it .
“ Is there a machine you can use instead ?” I ask .
Wanna tells me that they could use machine energy for the work they do , “ but they prefer to use their own energy .”
This self-reliance means their products look handmade because they actually are . But it does something else for them : As we know from Pon , it gives them pride .
FRAYING AT THE EDGES
The dye workers ’ commitment to natural methods means they can retain their art . The unique quality and craftsmanship don ’ t get lost this way — not directly , anyway . Whether they ’ ll find ways to keep the tradition alive — amid our society high of speed , greed and mass production — is another question .
Finding smarter and faster methods and products is what humans do . Before horsepower , both animal and mechanical , we relied on our own muscle fibers . Long before maps , both on Google and parchment , we navigated with the starlit sky . And right inside our mouths is another tool : our tongues , the original litmus strips — just ask the women of indigo .
We invent because , as humans , we endeavor to make our time on Earth more textured , less difficult and more profitable . And with each breakthrough made , we pat ourselves on the back and we say that , as a society , we have advanced .
And we have . But when we outsource human abilities and sensibilities , we also incur losses . Traditions decay . Old knowledge falls away . We can make so much synthetic indigo , now , all at once and very cheaply . As a society , we don ’ t really need the traditional indigo of Sakon Nakhon anymore .
This type of anxiety is familiar to me .
When I was in high school , one of my primary concerns was not a typical teenage dilemma . What kept me awake and my pencils chewed was my concern that something dear to me — classical music — was disappearing .
I played second violin , and I was probably the worst musician in Massachusetts . But I stuck with music just because I liked to hear it . When I played , I felt a part of something . The majority of the pieces I loved were written in the 1700s or 1800s — pieces by Mozart , Tchaikovsky and Chopin . As a teenager of the 1990s , I looked around me and it was obvious : People were generally not interested in orchestras the way they were in Aerosmith or Ricky Martin .
I worried : Who would continue playing instruments like the violin , cello , flute — even the lonely , awkward viola ? Would we just stop making those instruments one day ? Who was going to bother conducting orchestras ? Would conductors be able to find jobs at all ?
At the end of the 20 th century , who would decide to dedicate a life to composing symphonies , when we had Britney Spears on MTV , in ripped-up , synthetic-blue jeans , hypnotizing us as she pranced around to her catchy , auto-tuned pop music ?
I was an anxious romantic back then . And here I am now , a 33-yearold writer concerned about the endangerment of another art I appreciate but don ’ t create . Some things never change .
THE NEW GENERATION
That people still work with indigo the old-fashioned way in 2017 is extraordinary . But indigo hasn ’ t been a necessity in Sakon Nakhon the way it used to be — especially not for the young people — for a long time . People here don ’ t need it to protect their skin or to make their livings . There are other ways to get by now .
Complicating matters , because of ingrained gender roles , indigo ’ s survival rests solely in the hands of women . And too few young women are interested . It ’ s hard to blame them . Indigo dyeing isn ’ t merely a job ; it ’ s an entire lifestyle that calls for manual labor , significant skill , tremendous patience , and a certain way of being . Not many young people are bound to find that appealing .
Most people in Sakon Nakhon , I learn from Wanna , want to become teachers , not indigo workers .
Ideally , there will be a way profit without resorting to mass-produced versions of original handicrafts . Because , at some point , with enough intervention , traditional arts become souvenirs ; along the way , meaning is stripped .
I ’ m grateful that certain businesses , including the small factories we visited on the tour , are doing what they can to keep indigo dyeing and weaving a traditional art . I hope they can stay true to their causes .
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