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It was another incredibly pleasant day in Nan—even if I have little to report from it.  We woke up and went to the morning market (there are separate markets for the afternoon and evening), where we bought sticky rice in banana leaves for a whopping $.17.  How it is that we in the West are not eating sticky rice all the time is beyond me: who would have thought that a little coconut cream could turn rice from boring to delicious?

In her element.

I went with Jackie to her school in order to get a wider view of elementary school in Thailand than just sixth graders in skimpy outfits.  Jackie had decided to eschew lesson planning in favor of having her students pepper me with questions.  After an hour, I was left with new respect for elementary school teachers: given how slowly time seemed to move while I was standing in front of her kids, I cannot imagine how my teachers managed to keep us entertained for seven hours a day, five days a week.

No caption needed.

After school, we grabbed our bikes and visited a pair of Jackie’s friends along the river.  We closed the day with a feast at a local restaurant.  After just a little time in Nan, I can see the draw for ex-pats: the town is large enough to not feel completely backward, but still feels low-key and familiar.  I could certainly stay for a lot longer.

– – – – –

In the abstract, I am no fan of markets.  Among my radical and freegan friends, “markets” are a frequent object for derision and resentment: we complain about how “markets” are ruining the planet and compelling us to participate in an economic system we don’t support.  Somewhat more substantively, in my studies a dogmatic faith in free markets is connected to some of the worst excesses of development policies.  “Markets” are the reason that badly needed health and education services are cut in Africa, and “markets” provide the logic for forcing poor countries to drop trade barriers so they can be flooded with subsidized food from the west.  In short, any way you look at them, markets suck.

Note the pile of coconuts in the background. Definitely the central point of this photo.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the physical places, markets, sans quotation marks.  Actual, tangible markets I love.  In fact, there often the first place I seek out when I travel.  Sometimes, I wonder why: markets are, of course, a place where capitalism is at its finest, with small entrepreneurs selling and nearly everyone buying.  Not to mention that in the third world, visiting a market inevitably means walking by rows and rows of skinned, but still recognizable, animals.  Even when I avert my eyes, I can still smell it.

Apparently, these are compressed blood.

I suppose that I appreciate markets because, in contrast to strip malls or department stores, markets are very social places.  Jackie knows her “sticky rice ladies” and “tofu lady,” and a purchase from them is inevitably accompanied by some friendly banter.  She is loyal to them (apparently—somehow—she’s sick of sticky rice, but keeps supporting them nonetheless), and they clearly appreciate her (for more than just the 5 baht they get out of her).

While ultimately, the main reason to go to a market is to buy things, I certainly don’t feel the same overwhelming compulsion to purchase useless crap that I do when I am in a shopping mall, because there’s something else to being there.  I wouldn’t mind “capitalism” and “free markets” so much if there wasn’t such a strong sense that the business of economies is necessarily atomized and anti-social.  Market aren’t just places where we go to buy the material necessities of life, but also places where we connect with the community that makes life meaningful.  The act of walking among one’s fellow humans, I think, is half the point.

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As I run out of touristy activities to describe (at this point, I’m really just trying to slow down time so I don’t have to leave), I am turning to totally unsupported sociological pedantry.  One of the most wonderful elements of Nan—not to essentialize a diverse community which I’ve experienced only for three days too much—is the degree of trust people seem to have in one another.  Tired of borrowing from her roommates, Jackie and I went to a local shop to rent a bike.  Upon telling the shopkeeper (really, more motioning, given her limited English) that we wanted to rent a bike, she disappeared into the back.  She returned after 30 seconds, wheeling out a bike, and bid us adieu.  We didn’t fill out any paperwork or leave any collateral.  She didn’t say when she wanted us to return it, and didn’t say how much she wanted us to pay her when we did.

Of course, that situation was partly made possible by the fact that Jackie is a schoolteacher and, by merit of being white in a town that is 99% Thai, easy to track down.  Other things I’ve seen here, though, are less explicable.  When we went south, we left a pair of bikes—unlocked—out in the street in front of the bus station, for a week, and they were waiting for us on our return.  Jackie’s apartment is left open and unlocked all day, and her roommates leave their laptops out on the porch.  Apparently, this is not the crime season in Nan.

I suppose if I’m going to get really pedantic, I should add that this communal trust is what we as sociologists call “social capital.”  While this may very well be a textbook example, however, the label “capital” seems misleading.  “Capital” is something we uses to create something else: we spin our “human capital” into getting better jobs, and financial capital is only useful insofar as it helps you start a business.  Capital is not beneficial in and of itself.  This summer in Uganda, our project sought to try to connect social capital to economic benefits too, but often the links between those two are harder to find.

As tends to be the case, we are missing the point.  Being able to trust one’s neighbor may not be particularly helpful for increasing economic activity in an isolated poor community.  But it is a good in and of itself.  I am jealous that people in Nan can leave their doors unlocked and rest easy about their personal property.  While it may not make them wealthier, I am sure that they are left richer for it.

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