Rocket Trail
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The Rocket Society

A traveller’s journal by Lucas Muñoz

October 2017
When a designer interested in the social and cultural context from where objects emerge, and belong, discovers the existence of an exceptional one, the attraction that is awaken has an unbearable magnetism.

The object of the rocket is today, one way or another, embedded into almost every culture around the world. At many places the carrier of a festive quality but we all know the evil it can host: ballistics. Since gunpowder discovery, rockets were launched for good or bad intentions but along the last century new chemical and mechanical technological developments incorporated to their craft made them also bear potential for the dreamlike: space exploration.

Three contexts are the ones we mainly conceive those flying cylinders in: secular festivities, military strategies and the space race. Nevertheless, in Isan, a poor rural area in Northeast Thailand, rockets are launched from the soul. Swampy rice paddies and water buffalos are daily context of these buddhist communities. Life in the paddies is painstaking hard work routine, requires a special strength of the soul to survive. Buddhism provides relieve through monthly merit traditions, the one that is know to bring so much joy to the soul that suffering is forgotten is the Bun Bang Fai, the tradition of the sixth month. Bang Fai (flying cylinders) are 3m tall, 15 cm diameter cylinders filled sometimes with up to 120 kg of explosive black powder. Ignition material hand cooked in temples and tightly packed in those pipes make them fly for several minutes, reaching altitudes of above 7000 m from the ground. Hundreds are launched in Isaan along the month of June. Air traffic has to be diverted. People gathers in the making but most specially in the launching. Eyes turn upwards, sun is strong and blinds, thrust sound is deafening, smoke makes you tipsy, the soul elevates and the community gathers within a special warmth that only the spiritual can provide. Religiously is a call for the rain’s return which is hold back kidnaped by Pra Ya Than spirit, socially is a bonding tradition to relieve the communal tensions. In general lines, a breathtaking spectacle for them and for the small number of foreigners like us that traveled there. But we are also the kind of designers that this text introduced before, and the fascination for us is not only sensorial but also intellectual as this case is an exemption for what we know rockets can be.

Under this curiosity allure, three designers and one engineer joined in a trip to try to understand the foundations that withholds this festivity. With no previous rocket experience or specific enthusiasm for it, we were attracted first by its visual power, once there by its pureness. The mesmerising of anything fire related, thrust, smoke, sound, rocket launching, tamed power, produces a dreamlike feeling that we all remember from childhood. But after joining the rocket making locals, sharing their routine for a month, learning about their rituals, beliefs, dead heroes and alive sages we didn’t need that language we were scared was lacking, because we found other shared languages: play, craft and creativity. We are makers and so they are. Our hands have the potential to express and the skill to modify matter and so do theirs. Our eyes, as theirs, are trained in understanding processes and material properties so communication is generously provided.

Nanu Youttananukorn (Thailand), Lucas Muñoz Muñoz (Spain), Sami Sabik (France) and Tauras Stalnionis (Lithuania) were us, the child-hearted creatives that explored Isan region during May-June 2017. Our quest for some depth took us from the more popular festivals in the big cities of Yasothon an Roi Et to finally join a small village rocket making camp where monks are still guardians for this tradition. From rice whiskey, betting, parades and sweat covered sensual bodies we finally dwelled into the spiritual and the praises. From surface witnesses to somehow become part of its inner mechanism. An organic deepening process that required drastical changes in our initial intentions, the project of making a rocket, so to participate of the experience full hearted. The rush and pressure of our goal-driven western upbringing, disappeared in the understanding that it is not about making rockets fly or reaching higher altitudes (though this satisfaction is always enjoyed, why not?). But about the process, the love deployed in the making details and the sharing dynamic that that craft requires. Launching is an expected event, making is eventful and leaves room for the unexpected.

At least this was the way we understood it. And is for that, that on the run we decided to make the process ours in a creative way. We joined the community’s commitment spirit without trying to replace them in their own tasks. We helped when an extra hand was needed. We learned the secrets of gunpowder making and we tried our shots with small test rockets. None of us reached any big accomplishment but some of our inventions flew. We also took the knowledge in our hands and let our own creative souls find expression. Flying banana trees, bazookas for rocket launching, rockets that cook a dish on the fly or even humble approaches to just make it fly good, where our ways to make our kidlike creativity communicate with theirs. The prove of communication success was in the laughs and excitement received and shared. What for them seemed like a joke ended up being an unbeatable door opening social tool. Each of our crazy inventions was directly talking from the children we have inside to theirs. The rocket making temple became our playground. And as kids, there, we soon became friends beyond language.

I believe the learning curve was parallel. We didn’t learn anything specific, there would be no test questionnaire I could resolve after this experience. I’m not sure I would even be able to make gunpowder and a rocket myself the right way again. I’ll probably get seriously damaged, since thousands of experience hours are not on my side. But I know it changed my life and the same we heard from our local friends there. We made objects for them to keep: a stool and some praying artefacts that now belong to the temple and to the temple people. We disastrously tried for a fortnight to extract saltpeter from guano (batshit). We shared food, redbulls, beers and rice whiskey. They slaughtered two ducks and a pig for us. We shared motorbikes, cigarettes, mimic jokes, onomatopes and trust. We were bitten by the same mosquitoes and we shoot the rockets together. But I got punched on the face, Sami got food poisoning, Tauras had to leave early against his will and Nanu got throat sick. Still no bad event has the power to bring down the intensity of the experience we lived through. More likely they all made it more real, unbelievably real, like the flight of a rocket. We wanted to know about the cultural context and we found ourselves wrong in that crave. We found that, despite the amount of cultural we might lay upon a context, the foundation that holds it remains purely human and that we unavoidably shared.