Category Archives: Thailand

Ban Kumuang School located in rural Isaan, Thailand

Why are you trying to make me FAT?
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My belly is getting bigger. Not that it’s news worthy that an American is getting fatter, but never thought I’d gain weight as a result of eating rice, eggs, fruit and vegetables.

I always figured it was fast food and processed food that made people fat. I thought people got fat from slurping down soda, licking sugary ketchup off their fingers, wiping the fat from burgers off their lips, and pretending white bread with some injected vitamins has nutritional value. When these people couldn’t get enough fast food, they would then super size meals, call Domino’s Pizza, buy a Twinkie at the convenience store, or lose themselves in the isles of processed food found at the supermarket.

All my life people told me to eat healthy by saying no to processed food and yes to fresh and local. While volunteering Ban Kumuang School in rural Isaan for a month, I ate breakfast and lunch with the teachers, and dinner was at the home of the director and his wife. With no processed food in sight, I didn’t think twice about watching my waistline.

Within a couple of days of starting my job, the Thai teachers noticed the chicken feet and spoon-sized frogs left uneaten on my plate. I’m vegetarian, I explained. Then next day, and for the rest of the month, eggs became the substitute for meat. The omelets became like the endless soda machine at Taco Bell. I never felt a minute of hunger while staying in one of Thailand’s poorest provinces.

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Getting fat off eggs, vegetables, fruit and rice came as surprise. I told the Thai teacher, “In the U.S., food corporations and fast food restaurants treat me the same way you indulge me. They try to get me to stuff myself with product. You put omelets in front of me and say, ‘eat, eat, eat.’ Then when I’m full, you put more omelets in front of me and say, ‘eat some more.’ Food businesses are always trying to get me to eat more than my stomach can handle. The food and drink marketers use coupons, two for one specials, happy hours, super size, buffets, and sexy women to sell large quantities of merchandise to make a profit. You, on the other hand, push food and drink on me with the same intensity as the corporations, but you don’t make me pay. Why are you trying to make me fat?”

The teacher replies, “Thai hosts are happy when you get fatter. It means they are taking good care of you.”

Luckily, my weight gain was not the cause of someone trying to make a buck off my consumer-dulled mind. My weight gain is a testament to our Thai hosts’ generous hospitality.

Omelet Review located near Warinchamrap, Thailand

The Westerner Suffering from Mental and Sanitation Travel Sickness

Basically, if you’re a Westerner visiting Thailand and can’t laugh and smile while your vegetables are cut on a fly-infested cutting board, then you’re mentally going to have a hard time.

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Sure, we would like to drive 30 minutes to the nearest city and dine at a clean outdoor patio with misters or large fans. We would like to be waited on by an attractive server who keeps the soda water, ice cubes, and Johnny Walker flowing, while we eat an omelet with proper utensils and have the option to wash our hands with running water and soap instead of wiping them on our trousers and pretending their clean. Right now, time and money are working against us. We rely on Aidan and Robert to play the role of the attractive server.

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Despite our time and money limitations, we can afford some cheap beer, a cheap omelet and good conversation somewhere in the countryside near Warinchamrap. We get two out of three at this rural Thai restaurant, and to our surprise, we get more than good conversation and cheap beer.

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We got a four star omelet. I now know how dirty Cinderella felt when she put her warty, corned, fungus-filled peasant foot into the clean slipper. The omelet was my slipper. My dirty hands were like Cinderella’s feet. The moment when my fingers brought the omelet up to my lips and my tongue reached out and tasted the bursting flavor of peppers and egg, I felt like a princess.

The other day, I was reading Ancient Wisdom, Modern World by the Dalai Lama. Here I summarize the Dalai Lama’s words about health:

Sickness is a product of the environment. If you come from the West, the sickness tends to be mental and stress related. If you come from the East, the sickness tends to be water-borne and sanitation related.

I imagine a journal entry from a Westerner suffering from mental and sanitation sickness:

Dear Journal,
After eating the disease-riddled omelet, I got diarrhea. I attribute my discomfort to poor sanitation practices used at the restaurant. Squatting over a hole in the ground has made my thighs sore. I have come to agree that Western toilets are for out of shape, lazy people. Now I wish I was in better shape and hadn’t spent so much time at the beginning of the vacation sitting by the pool looking at the ocean.
Signed,
Suffering Sam

Dear Journal,
I’m still sick; I get depressed looking at my dirty self in the mirror. I came to Ubon to volunteer at a school. I teach kids about Christ through English Camps. When I look at myself, I no longer see Jesus in my face. I resemble the heathens he was trying to save. In all the pictures of Jesus I’ve never seen him dirty. (Maybe bloody, but that can’t be attributed to his personal hygiene). The only thing whiter than Jesus’s face is his robe. I’m no longer Christ-like. I’m dirty like the devil……..Save me, Jesus!!!!
Suffering Sam, the dirty sinner

The journal ends, but Sam’s story is only beginning. Like the diners who must drive to the café instead of taking a ten-minute Saturday morning walk, Sam is in too big of a hurry. Like the omelet eaters who cannot wait for their tomatoes to ripen in season, Sam can’t wait for Jesus to impress upon him that everything will be all right.

His fast-paced heart lets the anxiety of dirtiness grow big and tall in his life.  The grim reaper waltzes Sam’s depressed thoughts over to a gun. His dirty fingers smudge the white ivory grip. He can’t put the barrel in his mouth because he’s afraid of catching a cold from the last person who might have blown his or her head off. His Western mental sickness of being afraid of objects that don’t smell lemon fresh saved his life.

The gun fires but only takes off his ear.  Friends find him passed out from shock, lying on the ground, with one hole still suffering from sanitation sickness and a new hole suffering from mental sickness.

Ban Jaidee Guest House located in Trat, Thailand

I Took Production and Efficiency out to Breakfast
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At the Ban Jaidee Guest House, the rooms are simple and clean. The two women who run the guest house are pleasant and helpful, and the menu caters to foreign tastes. I’m checked into room #1 with a fan, a window, and spotless white sheets and towels. The bathroom is clean enough that I shower barefoot. The main foyer doubles as a living area and restaurant with comfortable seating, tables, a hammock, television and small tree.

The cheese omelet arrived with a cleverly disguised processed cheese design. Entertained by the fancy lattice, I overlooked the flaw. Sometimes I’m like a fish attracted to shiny lures.

About halfway through the omelet, my head starts to pound with my former boss’s voice. In her unmistakably raspy baritone of vocal gruffness, I hear, “Look at those ladies relaxing in the hammock, reading books, laughing at the television, and making the cats purr!!! Pure laziness!!!!!!!!!”

I put the fork down, don’t even take the time to finish chewing, swallow and start to analyze. My observations at a quick glance: There are two keys on the front desk. This represents two vacant rooms. Why isn’t one the women at the bus station harassing road weary travelers? Second, dining tables are not filled to capacity, why doesn’t one of the them go to the stationery store next to the guest house, purchase some construction paper and make a large sign to display in the window that reads, “Every omelet comes with pretty processed cheese design.”

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I used to be able to relax and enjoy a clean, friendly environment with delicious food, but the voices in my head started after I became the Revenue Audit Supervisor at UPS. I was trained to recognize ways to increase production and efficiency. With the incentives of bonuses, yearly pay raises, and job insecurity so ingrained into my being, I took production and efficiency home with me, and now I unsuspectingly take it to breakfast.

I suppose it’s like the Iraqi soldier on leave who comes back to Boise, Idaho, USA and has grown nervous around trash from his experience with IED’s in Baghdad. After kissing his or her family hello, the first thing the soldier wants to do is spend that fat war check on an omelet at Goldie’s Breakfast Bistro. Driving through the neighborhood, the soldier notices a pile of trash strewn along the sidewalk. The soldier’s heartbeat grows faster. Logically, the soldier knows on Monday mornings the trash is put out in front of the house for the garbage person. Logically, the soldier knows a dog probably went through the trash looking for scraps of food. Logically, the soldier knows in the USA statistically you are more likely to be struck by lighting than killed by a terrorist. The soldier’s heart beat grows faster faster faster faster faster faster faster faster faster.

When it comes to work, many people believe the means justify the end. This omelet has confirmed my suspicion that work that causes a dulling of the mind, disregard for people or creates physical pain is not worth the paycheck and the brainwashing. Maybe a person can walk away from a job, but it might be harder to outrun the years of training. My advice is to pick your job wisely, because it might affect your omelet experiences for the rest of your life.

Fishing for Breakfast Ko Chang, Thailand (short film)


Filmed on the island of Ko Chang in eastern Thailand. One side of the island is full of white sandy beaches and resorts for tourists. The other side is more of what the island used to be like—mangrove trees and fishing villages. We opted for a quiet, peaceful bungalow among coconut trees on the fisherman side of the island. Local fisherman, Visarn, let us tag along while he worked.

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Bicycle = Hope

A person visiting the USA and only going to Disneyland and Disney World by airplane is one way to describe the typical foreigner’s travel through Thailand. Now consider taking a bike from Disneyland to Disney World. The adventure will stimulate your imagination more than meeting a talking mouse or puking in a teacup. However, the typical foreign traveler I’ve met in Thailand would rather spend their days waking up, getting a bite to eat at a foreigner’s Thai cafe, riding in a tuk tuk to the bus station, suffering through the four hours of motion sickness to get dropped off at another bus station, riding in a tuk tuk to a guest house, then eating watered-down Thai food for dinner while watching a Walt Disney movie.

Meeting fellow travelers and hearing their tales can either make me squirm with disgust or lighten with hope. Hope is what happened when I met Nicolai from Copenhagen, Denmark and Sandy from Ottawa, Canada, both traveling SE Asia by bicycle.

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Nicolai Bangsgaard began his journey in Denmark in April 2006. I met him in Luang Prabang, Laos a few weeks ago, where he’d just arrived from cycling through Vietnam. Planning to circle the world, he shares photos and writing along the way at www.worldtravellers.dk

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At the age of 65, Sandy Mackay cycled across Canada with his daughter. Now he is 69 years old and had just ridden 182 mountainous kilometers from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand. Sandy’s two day bicycle ride of meeting friendly people is the real Thailand that many travelers dream of experiencing. However, for many people, bicycle travel is not considered convenient because it might not involve a comfy guest house or foreigner’s cafe at the end of the day. I suppose it is a daunting thought being half way between here and there with no consumer familiarity in sight. The only western comfort is what it’s in your heart. Hopefully you brought lots of respect, trust, and kindness from home. And in return, you can expect lots of love and generosity. When there is no western tourist economy, you can’t rely on your pocketbook. All you have to rely on is your humanity and charming personality.

The Bicycle

The bicycle is the only salvation
For a planet choking to death
On its own convenience

from A Promise for Siam by Tom Radzienda

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Simba’s located in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Omelets Shouldn’t have Breasts
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From the street, Simba’s kitschy décor is what initially attracts me to try an omelet. Inside, I head straight for a comfy seat on the couch. A Thai woman hands me a menu while an American-looking man switches off the TV. I feel suspiciously like I’ve just walked into their living room, especially when I notice the furry cat running around.

The beautiful, Thai woman in her strappy sundress and heels is the server, and she’s also the cook. The older, American man laments that he can’t help out for fear of being deported. He grumbles that he has no work permit but seems perfectly content to leave his wife/girlfriend to tend to our omelet needs.

The surprise omelet bonus at Simba’s is the really friendly cat. Recently, I have been trying to pet more cats and dogs while eating omelets. This is in preparation for my upcoming trip to Laos. I figure if I can be comfortable with a pet beside my omelet, then the next step of a pet inside my omelet will be easy to swallow. Today my omelet experience is going smoothly, and I feel really comfortable about going to Laos to try my first dog or cat omelet.

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Everything is going well until I notice the art on the wall. In Thailand, where it is rare to see women bare their shoulders, posters of bare-breasted women seem out of place. Like a TV blaring a football game can distract a person from their buffalo wings, the art on the wall detracts from the omelet experience.

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The art is a strange mix of children and topless women, which starts me wondering about spatial relationships in the definition of child pornography. Some people might consider a photograph of a nude woman standing beside two children kissing to be pornographic. What about a photograph of a nude woman next to a photograph of two children kissing–is that pushing the envelope? What happens when you add an omelet to the picture?

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Additional note: As a society, we despise child pornography. Why do we uphold a standard of beauty for women to appear pre-pubescent by shaving their legs and armpits?

 

Riverside Bamboo Restaurant located in Chieng Khong, Thailand

This Omelet sings the Blues
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Eating Mexican food in Thailand is like eating a tomato during an Idaho winter— out of season, out of place, lacking color and flavor. That’s what I think until I order a burrito at the Riverside Bamboo Restaurant in Chieng Khong, Thailand. I ask the barefoot owner/waiter how he developed such a talent for creating a dish out of beans, cheese, and tortillas that one bite can send a gringo back to the taco stand on 42nd Street.

Instead of talking about refried beans and lard, the owner starts to sing the Blues. As I sway a little to the rhythm, he stops singing to inform me that he can also play the guitar like B.B. King. I ask, “Did you visit Mississippi through a study abroad program and sell your soul to the devil?”

Changing subjects, the owner starts talking about food again. With a twinkle of love in his eye, he says the chef, his wife, doesn’t use recipes or measuring cups. She has never been to Mexico, never kissed a Latino, nor used peyote to inspire her fine Mexican cuisine. He explains the secret in one word –SOUL. He then eyes the Lonely Planet in my hand, asks if I’ve got travel in my soul, chuckles and walks away.

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After dinner, I thumb through my trusty guidebook. Tired from a long bus ride, I just want to find a guest house that fits my two basic travel needs – inexpensive and with a hot shower. The Lonely Planet reads like highway signs. When the sign says food, restroom, and gas in 2 miles off exit 69, I can trust that life’s little creature comforts will be taken care of.

The next morning at the Namkhong Guest House, I order a dish of Pad Thai and an omelet. The noodles swam in oil, and the omelet looked like a yellow piece of dog shit.

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Until I ate in the city of Chieng Khong, I was a racial food profiler. Several times I passed up Mexican, Italian, and Indian food in Thailand because the cooks didn’t have the right skin color. At the Riverside Bamboo Restaurant, I learned the hands that make a delicious quesadilla do not have to be Mexican. From the quality of this morning’s breakfast, I learned that not all Thai people make edible Pad Thai and omelets.

At one time in my life, I believed that omelets shouldn’t look like shit, and shit shouldn’t look yellow. Now I believe as long as it’s made with soul, then everything’s good.

Thai Sticks (short film in 3 parts)

It’s not uncommon to see four people on a motorbike in Thailand, so we thought we’d give it a try while filming a commercial for bundled bamboo drumsticks. Along with two other volunteer WWOOFers, we filmed “Thai Sticks” during our recent stay at Farm Ken outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Click on the photos to watch.
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Special thanks to Tine Maenhout, Christine Ferriter and Ken Albertsen for their photography, filming, editing, acting and good humor. To read the complete story about the making of the film, go to Thai Style at Farm Ken.

For more drumstick info: http://www.wonderfull.com/stix.htm

photo album of the filming of Thai Sticks

Thai Style at Farm Ken

photo album of our stay at Farm Ken

All Thai people have nicknames, so I’ve felt a bit out of place for the past three months traveling in Thailand without one.  My new Thai nickname is Gina, thanks to Ken and his middle-aged memory.  I met Ken a week ago when Brandon and I arrived at his farm in Chiang Rai, Thailand as volunteer WWOOFers (willing to work a few hours a day in exchange for room and board).

From the e-mails exchanged, I knew to expect an orchard, a small garden, and some construction projects at Farm Ken.  In the eight years that he has lived on the farm, besides planting countless avocado trees, Ken has constructed two and a half houses.   Along with two other WWOOFers, Brandon and I arrived in time to help out with the painting, sanding, and lacquering of Bunker Hill, a house being built into a hillside on the property.

Prior to our stay at Farm Ken, we had learned some practicalities of organic farming while working at MaryJanesFarm, but our only construction experience was a weekend cob-building workshop. Growing up, I had watched my dad paint our house, and Brandon built a birdhouse once when he was a kid. At Farm Ken, we experienced another version of MaryJane’s make-do attitude.

The jobsite at Bunker Hill was created around Ken’s no-frills, make-do attitude.  Besides learning some new skills, we’re hoping that we’ve picked up some good work habits along the way.

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front row: Amy from Boise, Idaho and Christine from Chicago, Illinois
back row: Ken from Farm Ken, Chiang Rai, Thailand; Tine from Gent, Belgium; and Brandon from Boise, Idaho

Ken is one of the few people in Thailand who doesn’t own a rice cooker.  He has improvised a toaster that works great if you don’t mind the smell of burning breadcrumbs.  This homemade toaster symbolizes Ken’s general approach on the farm: function is more important than fancy, and make-do with what you have.

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Volunteering on a WWOOF farm isn’t all about work; there’s plenty of time for socializing, too.  Brandon and I shared some of our omelet ideas as well as a few of our travel documentaries.  Ken shared his novel inspired by a long-lost Burmese lover and the ideas of other literary projects in various stages of completion.  Brandon brought out his travel-sized Martin guitar, and we found out that Ken is also a musician.  He can play guitar and sing any Elvis or Beatle tune you name, as well as a few originals.

In addition to his building, gardening, writing and music, Ken has many other interesting projects in the works.  The bicycle that goes on water is still in the design stage, but his special bamboo drumsticks have made it through production and onto the world market.

Ken believes strongly in the superiority of his bundled bamboo drumsticks over other drumsticks, given that bamboo is stronger than wood.  His claim is that they won’t break on a rimshot like wooden sticks do.  In Thailand, bamboo and labor are easy to come by, but the distributing of the drumsticks has been more of a challenge, so as volunteers on Farm Ken, we agreed to help market the “Thai-Sticks.”

With our camera and passion for filming, combined with Ken’s faith in his product and scientifically-designed experiments, we turned our attention from painting Bunker Hill to filming our first advertisement.  A few minutes into filming, gravity shifted, and the direction of our film shifted, too.  Similar to how American Movie is a documentary about a man desperately motivated to make a horror movie, our short film became a commercial about making a commercial.  It’s about a good-natured guy doing his best to prove the superiority of his product while one enlisted helper expresses serious doubt along the way.

After three drumstick experiments, two days of filming, and endless discussion, we ended up with a 10-minute film about the making of a drumstick commercial.  Whether or not we were able to prove that Thai-Sticks are stronger than wooden drumsticks remains up to each individual viewer. Click here to check out the short film “Thai Sticks.”

Here is the 30-second lowdown in Thai-Sticks, the bundled bamboo drumsticks.  For more info: http://www.wonderfull.com/stix.htm

By author Ken Albertsen, Lali’s Passage is the story of a Burmese beauty who escapes from a brothel to Native American hills of California.  For more info:  http://adventure1.com/showlali.htm

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Here’s an excerpt:

In another section of the import store, there were pieces of intricately carved wooden furniture that, according to Lali, would be more accurately called Burmese rather than Siamese, as labeled.

Tim already knew his gal was special, but every day new facets were unfolding that entranced him further. “Did you learn these things from reading books in Thailand?” he asked. She must have misunderstood the question because she responded that Burmese people love to read books, whereas Thai people usually only read if they have to.

Another endearing trait was the way she would make little flower garlands – sometimes using a thread to string them up – other times using just their braided flower stems. If it was a short strand she would place it on the crown of her head. A long strand would drape over her shoulders, falling onto her chest. Adding an aromatic floral garland to an already beautiful lady like Lali was like adding rainbows to a bird of paradise.

Seeing the Burmese artifacts had reminded her of home. They tried using Tim’s calling card to reach her mother’s village in Burma, but to no avail. The junta there was not allowing incoming calls from the outside world. Perhaps they thought that keeping foreigners at arm’s length would lessen scrutiny of their regime. Interestingly to Tim, Lali seemed to accept the military dictatorship in her native country in a sort of devil-may-care sort of way. Rather than risk arguments, he had decided early on, not to get heavy-handed or to talk politics with his new sweetie.

I’m still Poor, Eating like a Yuppie who shops at the Boise Co-op

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I went to a food drive at a ski resort.
The big poster at the entrance read,
“Only canned goods, Please.”
I donated a can of Spam.
It’s odd that poor people
all seem to enjoy
canned food,
boxed food,
water, and butter.

Another time
I went to a food drive at a bar.
Once again the big poster read,
“Only canned goods, Please.”
This time I donated an ear of corn.
Corn tastes good
with butter and water.
The social worker at the door
said, “Poor people only eat
canned food,
boxed food,
water, and butter.”

I’m in Thailand
now broke.
Spent all my money
on restaurants and guest houses,
I’m looking forward
to being a poor and hungry person.
It’s been months since I’ve eaten
processed food.

At the market,
I ask where to find a food bank
or how to get free food.
A farmer and I start talking.
He doesn’t know where to get free food
but he too is poor.
He said, “We can eat poor together.”
I agree to free room and board
in exchange
for several hours of farming and an hour English lesson
per day.

I sit down for my first poor persons meal.
Oh, I can’t wait to dig into a big
plate of Kraft boxed macaroni and
a hot bowl of canned peas.
Yum! Yum!

Instead, the farmer wrecks
my appetite with organic:
duck eggs,
rice, tomatoes, catfish, coconut,
and bananas.

Day after day
to my disdain
I eat yuppie co-op food.
One day I tell the farmer,
“Man, you talk about how much you like America.
You’ve got a cell phone with a Britney Spears ring tone,
a computer with the latest pirated Microsoft software,
and a TV that shows Sponge Bob dubbed in Thai.
Don’t you want to eat poor like an American?
Don’t you want to eat food that’s bright orange?”

The farmer replies,
“I hear what you’re saying.
I too am getting tired of the same old fresh food.
Good news!
The lettuce should be ready in about a week,
the mangos are almost in season,
and this year an avocado might appear.”

I start to become passive aggressive through farm suggestions.
I mention, “Let’s give the farm a make over:
chop down the fruit trees,
till under the vegetable garden,
fill in the fish pond,
burn down the duck house,
eat the water buffalo parents and babies.
Then buy a new shiny tractor
and a 5th of Johnny Walker black label
on credit.
We’ll take turns trying to drive straight.
We’ll tear up the ground till we run out of gas
or run out of Johnny Walker.
Then we’ll plant row after row
of corn.”
The farmer asks, “Why?”

“So we can eat boxed macaroni!
The great farm state of Iowa
has to import 80% of their food.
Stop diversifying.
Put all your time, money, labor,
and belly into a single cash crop.
With the money you make,
think of all the processed food you can buy.”

The farmer didn’t let me burn the duck house,
chop down the fruit trees
or eat all his water buffalo.
I’m still poor, eating like a yuppie who shops at the Boise Co-op.