by Tam Mengine
ca·ma·ra·de·rie/ˌkäm(ə)ˈrädərē/ Noun: Mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together. Synonyms: comradeship – fellowship – companionship – friendship)
The more I learn about Timebanking and alternate economies, the more I am reminded of the month I was blessed to spend at a tiny wildlife refuge near the Bang Phra reservoir in Thailand. Back in 2002, when I first conceived of the trip, it was not intended to be a life-altering immersion in a gift culture. As a vegetarian who hated farm calls, the trip was simply a devious means to meet the “Herd Health” requirement of my veterinary education. As far as my faculty mentor was concerned, I was to spend my 6 weeks at the Bangphra Waterbird Research and Breeding Center providing physical exams, parasite checks, and blood counts on several dozen endangered cranes and storks, and use my findings to offer husbandry recommendations and perhaps even generate a publication – the consummate goal of every good academic. While I did spend a fair amount of my time working with birds, and subsequently writing up my findings, the veterinary work was not the source of the education I received in Bang Phra.
At the Center, as well as at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo, where I went to access laboratory equipment, the employees lived where they worked – literally. Apparently this arrangement, while foreign to me, was common in this part of Thailand. Onsite housing was part of an employee’s compensation. I found the concept immediately offensive – how frustrating it would be to live at work, to be at the beck and call of one’s employer night and day, to not be able to escape to the privacy of one’s home at the end of the day. As in many things, my knee-jerk reaction was wrong. It turned out that the small group living together at the Center was not made up of slaves or indentured servants. Quite to the contrary, they taught me what it means to live as a community in the most basic sense, and showed me how much easier life can be when daily tasks – be they animal care, child raising, gardening, cooking, or even idling – are shared and distributed amongst many. It is a truth largely forgotten in our own culture, but still very much alive in theirs.
It goes something like this…In the morning, someone (the specific person would vary day to day) would take a bicycle or motor scooter into town and buy breakfast for many – usually plastic bags full of steaming hot shrimp and rice in broth. We would sit outside together and eat, listening to the sounds of the rainforest, and planning the day’s agenda. After breakfast, those of us planning to work with the birds would head toward the aviaries. Older children would head off to school, while younger children would run around the facility in a flock, with supervision from a dozen or so women spanning several generations. This group of women would work together all day – washing and mending clothes (by hand), growing food (by hand), preparing the rest of the days’ meals (by hand), and cleaning the dishes (by hand). I couldn’t understand a word that was said by the domestic group, but laughter was frequent, and everyone seemed at ease, unhurried, unstressed. Their spouses were scattered throughout the Center, helping me restrain the birds for exams, cleaning enclosures, and doing whatever maintenance work was needed around the facility. All would reconvene midday for lunch, maybe a beer, and if the day was hot enough, a nap.
In the afternoons a few of us would pack up the samples I had collected in the morning (carefully arranged glass slides that I had dyed in an egg carton and dried in an empty box that once housed the Thai equivalent of pop tarts) and take the motor scooter over to the Zoo. The veterinary staff at the Zoo had an office that housed a microscope, a refractometer, a centrifuge, and, transiently, two rambunctious black leopard cubs who roamed freely about the office (dashing the conventional wisdom I had acquired on externship at U.S. zoos, where a healthy predator would never be allowed contact with humans unless sedated). The cubs were fond of scaling my legs and knocking me over while I worked, and the Zoo vets were happy to let me wrestle around with them. They were also happy to share their equipment, without request for compensation, or even an authorship on the paper that might be forthcoming. On some nights they would follow us back to the Center, to partake in the evening festivities (detailed below). One night I stayed at the Zoo for the evening instead, and the routine was similar to that at the Center, though on a larger scale.
At the end of a long day, working in the rainforest without air conditioning and taking care of domestic duties without the aid of “time saving” devices, the entire clan who lived on the property would retire to a large outdoor pavilion for dinner. One evening I was fortunate enough to help with the cooking – we prepared Pad Thai and Tom Yung Keung on an ancient gas range that sat outside on the manager’s back porch. There was minimal refrigeration, so all of our ingredients were either picked that day from the garden, or purchased that afternoon from the open market in town. Dinner included beer, and beer inevitably led to someone setting up the karaoke machine. TV was a luxury unavailable to all but the manager of the Center (he and his family had a tiny set in his living room, which I never once saw turned on during my 6 weeks stay). But karaoke was a source of entertainment that everyone, young and old, could share with minimal expense. The singing would often lead to philosophical talk (challenging across the language barrier, but possible nonetheless), and then everyone would drift off to their respective domicile. The next day, we would do it all again.
In the 10 years since my time in Bang Phra, I have spent many hours struggling to articulate my experience to my friends back and home, and wondering how to recapture the spirit of shared joys and burdens that made day to day life at the Center such a pleasure. It was not until this year, reading the work of Charles Eisenstein, that I even learned there was a name – gift culture – for what I had experienced. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the same experiences here that I did in the Bang Phra gift culture. I simply have to pay someone for it, and I can usually afford to do so. I have paid someone to make me breakfast, paid someone to clean my house and mend my clothes, paid someone to watch my kids, and paid someone for the use of laboratory equipment. But something is lost in these monetary-based exchanges. In the gift culture, when people share and trade and help each other through the daily demands of life, without a second thought, something greater occurs than the sum of completed chores. Something wonderful arises, something that to me now feels scarce and precious – camaraderie.