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Big Bike Week 2009

Alexander Barrasso; Champion chess playing diplomat

Bird Watching for Pleasure

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Big Bike Week 2009

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Alexander Barrasso; Champion chess playing diplomat

Political and Economic Chief at the U.S. Consulate

By Shana Kongmun
In a city teeming with creative locals and foreigners, and expats who have led a full and interesting life before ending up in Chiang Mai, Alexander Barrasso, the U.S. Consulate General’s political and economic chief has to be quite high on the list of residents to know. The first thing you notice about him is his warm and welcoming smile, followed by his quiet companion sitting nearby, his seeing eye dog. With determination, ambition, intelligence and heart he has made his way in a profession that even the sighted find difficult.

Alexander Barrasso, Political and Economic Chief at the U.S. Consulate General with Shana Kongmun, managing editor of the Chiang Mai Mail.
He was inspired to join the Foreign Service while on a high school trip to Washington D.C. for the Seminar on Government in Action. There he met with State Department recruiters and realized his dream career. “I thought, I get to travel, learn new languages, represent the U.S. and get paid to do it.” He went on to study history in university and then, as a recipient of the Thomas Pickering Fellowship for his graduate degree, was committed to a minimum of a two year stint in the State Department. From there, he never looked back. Although prior blind applicants have reported having difficulty, Alexander said that by the time he took the exams the State Department was quite accommodating in ensuring they could be taken in Braille. Fluent in Spanish, his first assignment was Colombia. With its reputation of kidnapping and bonus ‘danger pay’, he found, instead of danger, the woman who became his wife.. Considered one of the more difficult assignments in theForeign Service, he found a home and learned to love the country in the two years that he was assigned there.
His focus has always been political with economic interests secondary, but as a member of the State Department’s Foreign Service, it is more often that he takes the job he is given. He has also done consular work, as well as public diplomacy. Often the job depends on the location and needs specific to that position in that location. After postings back in the U.S. and Singapore, he was assigned to Chiang Mai and has made the city his home since 2007.
The latest issue of importance to attract his attention is the newest buzzword for Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai, the creative economy. Defined as a focus on intellectual properties and knowledge driven economic growth, the U.S. Consulate plans to host a seminar on this in Chiang Mai next year. Mr. Barrasso added, “This concept has backers, its not an outside creation. The tourism and agriculture that have sustained this region are, as we have seen, very susceptible to shocks, more so than other industries and that can make things difficult in difficult times like this. It’s in Northern Thailand’s interest to explore other options in order to diversify its economy.”
One of his duties in Chiang Mai has been public outreach programs, like speaking to student groups, supporting cultural preservation, and organizing film screenings at the American Corner. Located in the Chiang Mai University Library, the American Corner is a partnership between the Consulate and the University, offering satellite programs, digital video conferences, hi-speed Internet access, book and multimedia collections, as well as organizing talks in a bid to foster cooperation and stimulate dialogue between citizens, institutions and groups from both countries. Other efforts to this end include providing opportunities for Thai business and community leaders to travel to the U.S. to meet and discuss ideas and issues with their counterparts. He has worked with The Academy for Education-USA to organize an inter-faith service day where books and supplies were donated to local Muslim, Buddhist and Christian schools.
One of his concerns, as political chief, has been to keep an eye on political developments in Thailand. “The United States wants to see a stable, prosperous, peaceful and democratic Thailand that can be the same excellent partner that is has been for the past 176 years.
This unique diplomat has been the U.S. National Blind Chess Champion (1993, 1996-98, and 2003) and continues to play chess. He said that his interest in chess was a matter of happenstance, he had gone to a friend’s birthday party when he was around 10 years old and, after playing some basketball, the kids all went in to play chess. His friend was on the school’s chess team and the friend’s father taught him how to play. It piqued his interest enough that he devoted his free time to chess instead of basketball or playing the trumpet on the school band. He started playing competitively at the national level in the 9th grade, when he was about 15. Although he hasn’t competed in the National championships since 2008, he continues to play chess here in Chiang Mai with the Chess Club which holds meetings every Wednesday night at 7pm at The Pub on Huay Kaew road.
His next assignment will be in Naples, Italy next year and while he is looking forward to returning to his roots, his family emigrated from Italy, he has enjoyed his time in Chiang Mai greatly and found the people to be warm, hospitable and friendly. He said when he first arrived in Chiang Mai Thai members of the Consulate staff greeted him at the airport with small welcome gifts. “That’s never happened to me before, and, I suspect, will never happen again. We have a great team here at the Consulate, both Thai and American”.


Bird Watching for Pleasure

Majestic Eagles and Graceful Hornbills

Hoopoe on a tree at a little fishing village.

By Mike Gilman
 A recent birding foray took us south along narrow lanes to the village of Pak Nam Pran. Here the Gulf lazily caresses the bay and rocky shore line. During our early morning beach stroll we were graced by Green Bee Eaters alighting from open branches, hawking unsuspecting insects for their breakfast. The sun’s rays illuminated the copper / green plumage as though portrayed on a Van Gogh canvas.
Perhaps it was in anticipation that the blue / purple flash before our eyes, realised a species not yet seen by us in Chiang Mai. Coming to rest on a nearby coconut tree, the Black Capped Kingfisher was indeed a delight to observe, such striking features and threatening awesome red bill.
 After breakfast we decided to continue along the beach road, a decision not regretted. The road twisted and turned, eventually leading to a small fishing port. Fishermen were busy repairing nets as we pulled into a shady glade. Bird song was everywhere, and worthy of Beethoven’s ‘ Pastoral ‘. Making ourselves inconspicuous behind bracken we gaped in awe as Coppersmith Barbets, Olive Backed Sunbirds, Scarlet Backed Flowerpeckers, White Throated Kingfishers, Common Sandpipers and a solitary Hoopoe searched for their prey. Such a dream start to the day.
 Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park and it’s wetlands were en-route to our next destination where he freshwater areas were a haven for Black Winged Stilts, Indian Shags, Grey Herons and an array of Egrets. The manicured sea view golf course at Chumphon had a multitude of birds, Pipits, Drongos and Indian Rollers revelled in the surroundings. The latter were numerous, their rolling flight pattern was characteristic, and aptly described their name.
 South East of Chumphon lies the Gulf isle of Koh Tao. We jumped on the catamaran to further whet our birding appetites. One of the island’s common species was the Dollarbird. Sitting atop poles and posts, the sun’s rays highlighted the plumage sheen of purple and green. To our gaze the orange flatish bill was prominent, and in flight the silver dollar like patch on the wings derived it’s name. Off the beaten track and among rocky outlets the Pacific Reef Egrets plied their trade. A Great Billed Heron was also seen. Tall (115cm) and prominent, this mainly grey bird stood motionless as it’s eyes fixed on unsuspecting aquatic delicacies.
 A noisy, fume belching, long tailed boat took us to the adjacent island of Naang Yuan. The boat battled into the headwind and heavy surf. With our stomachs in our mouths we were pleased to finally alight, albeit showered in sea spray. As we walked towards rocky cover, one or two pied birds flew towards the isle’s wooded hillside. With the sun on our backs we scoured the heavily foliaged greenery, then, there they were, way up above us, and nestled close together. Ten Pied Imperial Pigeons enjoyed the comfort of their shady lookout. Bigger than more common pigeons at 42cm long, this bird prefers this type of idyllic habitat.
 Thailand’s south western seaboard has a profusion of coastal areas and we wound our way to a typical off track retreat, alongside the Andaman sea. Out at sea and all alone was hazy Bat Island (Koh kangkow), just a dot in the mighty ocean. When the locals told us it was uninhabited, it became a ‘ must visit ‘ place, where the more rare or unexpected species might be found. Weather permitting, tomorrow’s diary was full.
 A motorised rowing / fishing boat waltzed through the choppy warm swells, and dropped us on the solitary white sand beach. The steep, heavily wooded isle was difficult to ascend in our non-climbing attire, so we succumbed to making the shore line rocks our lookout position. Brahminy Kites, white headed with brown / red shoulder plumage could be seen in the distance looking for tasty fish snacks. But, it has to be said that the characteristics of the White Bellied Sea Eagles were a joy to observe. This 72cm long master tactician is easily identified in flight as it soars on high thermals with lifted wings in a ‘ V ‘ shape. Majestic in appearance and kings of the ocean, the seas surface is it’s supermarket. A gifted species with powerful telescopic vision, we watched and watched until the prey was spotted. Circling lower and lower, and making adjustments for the prevailing wind, it finally swooped, with talons open at the ready, and with consummate efficiency, it plucked the wriggling aquatic lunch from the water without seemingly getting wet. Absolute perfection.
 Our retreat location boasted broad mud flats and mangroves. Just after dawn, and with an ebbing tide, the crouching stance of the Little Heron was clearly seen. However, the morning’s highlight was watching a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills as they flew from tree to tree with the grace of a ballerina In flight their black wings were tinged with white trailing edges. At 72cm long, and of unusual profile, this is one of the smallest Hornbills, which extols such beauty. Enjoy the gifts of nature.


New resort showcases new environmentally friendly building techniques