Groupings, Personal Space, Garden Art, and Color forum: Nap's Travels in Thailand
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|This thread is a journal for our friend Nap who is traveling for the second time to Thailand.
She'll use this thread as a journal and as a way to share with us. Feel free to post if you want to, I know she would love to hear from you and I know you will enjoy traveling right along with her and her friend Lay.
|Thanks, Sharon! I'm pleased to have a place of my own here in your Blue Gardens cubit!
To begin, I think I should share my notes from the first trip to Thailand. That was in September of 2015 and it was for four weeks. I should tell you that the reason for the trip to Thailand was so my friend and neighbor could visit the refugee camp he grew up in, and the family and friends he had not seen since relocating to the United States 6 years earlier. They are Burmese citizens of the Karen sect, who fled Burma for their safety. The Burmese army was trying to eliminate them, as well as many other sects. So the majority of the four weeks was spent at the refugee camp, living in a house made of bamboo, sitting, eating and sleeping on the bamboo floor, with no electricity, no running water and no flush toilets. The refugee camps are guarded by armed Thai soldiers They control who enters and leaves the camp. Refugees in Thailand are not treated like Thai citizens. I felt like I was living in a documentary. I kept many notes of this journey and want to share them with you.
Read about Noh Poe on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noh_Poe
There are a lot of them, so don't fall asleep on me now, okay? Here goes....
"It was raining the day we arrived and the rental car umbrella was needed, but not since then. It hasn't been windy at all. A couple of times it rained while we were sleeping, but by morning the kids were outside playing. The hardened mud is like clay, and the rain just rolls off or forms puddles in the low spots. The umbrellas and ponchos I packed are still unopened, and there's plenty of sunshine. I understand August is their wettest month. At Tee Lor Su Waterfall (or sometimes spelled Thi Lo Su) you can visit by land during the months of December to May, but the rest of the time it is accessible only by boat, due to the rainy season.
I have an issue with the spelling of proper names here. I've seen the waterfall spelled a couple of ways, and also the refugee camp where Lay is from. I've seen that spelled Nu Poe, No Poe Noh Po, Nu Po etc. So excuse me if I seem to not know what I'm talking about sometimes.
We decided before we came that Lay would be the sole driver, though we both have International Licenses. They drive here on the left side of the road, and steering wheels are on the right. I saw on the internet that driving in Thailand is frustrating because people don't follow road rules. That's very true, but Lay was always cautious and it was not a problem. Sometimes though it is not easy to determine which lane to be in. There are 1-way and 2-way streets and it's not always clear to us right-side drivers which one we are on. When turning or crossing the street, you have to remember that traffic is coming at you from the right instead of the left. And passing should be done on the right instead of on the left. Lay is doing very well at this, except for only a couple minor mistakes. I don't think I would do as well. His biggest problem has been remembering to get in on the right side of the car, where the steering wheel is. When he chose the wrong side at the hotel in Mae Sot, even the bellboy laughed at him!
People don't obey the speed limit, and they swerve in and out of traffic with little regard to other drivers. But they all seem to do this, so they are more aware of the probability that other drivers do it too. Also, passengers pile onto the backs and tops of trucks which are already overflowing with produce, or merchandise or other people. I saw some cabbages fly off a top-heavy truck on the S-curves in the mountains, and I kept wondering how long it would be before I saw people fly off too. It's not only trucks which allow passengers to ride on the top, but also the taxis and buses. No one seems to be concerned about falling off. I guess there aren't a lot of personal injury attorneys here. By the way, when I say taxis and buses, don't imagine anything like what we have at home. Too hard to describe. See the photos.
We spent our first night in Thailand at the top-of-the-line Centara Hotel in Mae Sot, for $24/night. A luxurious and beautiful place with a huge swimming pool and a tennis court. The price of the big, modern 2 bed room included breakfast, which was a gourmet buffet. There was everything from toast, to cereal, to fresh fruit, to eggs and meats, to salads, to rice and vegetables and soups. It was a high class place and a lot of money for the average Thai, but not at all for us. Their breakfasts were maybe the best food I ate in Thailand.
It was about a 7 hour drive from Bangkok to the city of Mae Sot where we needed to pick up our rental car, and Nu Poe was still another 5 or so hours farther. So Ko Gyi took a bus from the camp and met us at the hotel, then we went out to eat with him . We got a room at the hotel for Ko Gyi too.
The place we ate was a wide open, huge patio with no walls. Most restaurants here seem to have no enclosures. It was in a garden like setting and we were on a hill so the city lights were stunning. A couple of cats wandered the premises and no one minded. Dinner was pretty good, but I didn't know what to order. I let them do the ordering. Rice is the main staple, of course. Then they ordered some plates of various meat and vegetable combinations. It's not like we each ordered our own meal. Instead, everyone scooped up some of each dish and mixed it with their rice. I wasn't really comfortable with that. I felt like I was taking food that they might want, so I only took a little bit of 1 or 2 things. We drank beer. It came from a bottle, but tasted like draft. Weak. It's called Chang.
The next morning the driver guy took us to get our rental car, a compact vehicle. I was charged only $650 for 4 weeks rental. Then we went to the market area to buy phones for Lay and me. If we were going to be in different places sometimes, I wanted to be able to reach him, and he reach me. The market area of Mae Sot is crazy. Narrow two way streets with parking on both sides. People, motorbikes, vendor carts all vie for space. Add the factor of driving on the other side of the street and it was a dangerous situation. I did step in front of a motorbike once. The lady riding it saw me in time and zipped around me. Probably thought, â€œcrazy tourist!â€ Anyway we each got an inexpensive smart phone. I think they were about $50 each (just under 2000 Thai Bahts.) We paid extra for a SIM card, and extra for minutes. I don't know how much, but cheap. Then we drove to the camp. The original plan was to get a room at a guest house in the town of Umphang, about 2-3 hours from Mae Sot on the way to Noh Poe refugee camp, but Lay was anxious to get home to his family. He talked me into spending the first night at the camp.
We ended up staying there most of the time we were in Thailand. On Monday, our 4th day, we drove back to Mae Sot to exchange our compact car for an SUV. The mountains and holes in the roads and mud were too much for the smaller car. We spent the night at the Centara hotel again, and Ko Gyi too. In fact, he was with us every time we left the camp. So anytime we stayed outside the camp, I got two rooms instead of one. It wasn't a problem. The â€œexpensiveâ€ hotels were well within my budget.
I couldn't stay at the refugee camp every night because I needed a real toilet and shower once in awhile. So we drove about an hour to Umphang where we found a nice place called Umphang Buri Resort. Its rooms are like a motel, but the one I stayed in was a separate little bungalow set apart from the others. It is a big room with two big beds, and a big bathroom. I love it. I stayed there three times. Once for one night, once for a week, and once for 2 nights. The same room each time. Lay went back to the camp on those occasions. He only stayed with me there one night. The cost for that room was about $19 a night, and included a big breakfast delivered to the table outside my room on the patio, every morning. I declined lunches because the breakfasts were way too much food for me, but usually ate supper there for an extra $2.
The lady who manages the place, her name is An, was very friendly toward me. She even took me to town and showed me around on the back of her motorbike. I was nervous about it at first, but curiosity got the better of me. It was an easy ride, even on the curvy dirt road leading to the main road. There's a handle on the back of the seat to hold onto. I was comfortable enough riding it to even take video. Unfortunately, as she was driving over a pebbly road on our way back home, the bike tipped on its side. She got a brush burn on her knee and arm, but I was not the least bit hurt. She was so embarrassed. So much so that she never offered to take me again. She could not stop apologizing no matter how insistent I was that I was fine and not upset at all.
Her little dog Mango was my personal protector and constant companion. He stayed with me while I ate each meal (and helped me finish my meat), then laid by my door much of the day. There are dogs everywhere in Thailand. They aren't threatening or anything. I don't honestly know if people own them or if they are wild. They lie in the road sometimes and wander freely. That was also the case at the resort. But if another dog came close, which happened often, Mango barked and chased it away, proudly returning to me for a pat on the head. When I returned for my third and final stay at the resort, he came running up to me, jumping up and whining with joy to see me again. He missed me. An was surprised to see that.
I can't stay too many nights in a row at the refugee camp for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is the bathroom. The â€œsquat toiletsâ€ are okay for urinating, but I can't do the other thing. I think that since I need my leg muscles to squat (because I can't bend all the way down on my knees) I can't use my stomach muscles properly. So I became constipated. There's also the matter of a shower. They don't have one. Just a barrel of water. Cold water. And little privacy. Ko Gyi's wife let me use hers 2 times because it offers a little more privacy, and she heated some water to mix with the cold. It was better, but I didn't try to wash my hair there. And I didn't want to impose too many times, although she insisted it was not a problem.
Here's another thing about the bathroom. It's a room about 7x7, made with bamboo walls and a cement floor. It's dark in there, except a little light comes in between the bamboo during the daytime. There's the squat toilet, which looks a lot like a regular toilet because it's porcelain, but it's set into the floor so only about 2 inches high. The sides are about 6 inches wide and ridged, so you put your feet on them and squat and go. No toilet paper. There's a big barrel of water next to you, with a plastic bowl floating in it. You rinse yourself with it, then â€œflushâ€ the toilet with a bowl of water. The bathroom has the only door in the house, but it's not really a door. It's made of bamboo, attached to the bathroom by ropes. You pull it open and closed, but it is not secured. In fact, once an older fellow opened the door while I was in there. Fortunately I was finished and pulling up my pants, plus it was rather dark so he didn't get to see much.
A lesser reason to stay outside the camp once in awhile is that I sometimes (not often) felt alone in the crowd. Lay couldn't pay attention to me all the time, and I wouldn't want him to. And sometimes he went off without me. People want to be nice and talk to me, but it's awkward when I can't respond. Lay's mom will sometimes come to me and say something in Karen, then look at me as if waiting for an answer. Then there are a few people who know a little English, but not enough to converse with. They try. But people who can't speak any English at all would come up to me and say, â€œNancy? You OK?â€ I always wondered what they would do if I said no. It was sweet of them to ask, and I always just nodded and smiled. But I spent a lot of time sitting in a corner by myself. I knew that would happen so I don't mean to complain. But I just wanted to be truly by myself once in awhile. At least I used my â€œsitting in a cornerâ€ time writing my experiences and thoughts and observations into a notebook. I'm glad I thought to take paper and pen because there was no place there to buy anything like that.
At night, Lay's parents hut was the hot spot. Every night people would come to watch a movie on the CD player, which was hooked up to a battery or generator or something like that. Our sleeping spots were in the corner of the main room, which was about 15x15 feet. The CD player was kitty-corner on the other side of the room. So there were always 10 or so people in the room while we were trying to fall asleep. Talking, laughing, watching a video or listening to music. Lay had no problem with that, but I would have preferred to have it quiet.
Sleeping on the floor was not a problem. I was surprised at how natural it seemed. There was a foam mat underneath me, but it was soft and flattened right down to nothing. Like having no mat at all. The small pillows we were given were old and hard and worn, but it didn't matter. Once I fell asleep, I slept well. Oh, I sometimes woke up to use the toilet. I preferred to go while everyone else was sleeping just for the privacy. But the toilet was through the kitchen and outside the back door. It was pitch dark and the walk to the toilet involved awkward footing and a huge step down (and back up), so a flashlight was mandatory. Once I stepped wrong I guess on the bamboo floor, and my foot broke through it. Not all the way, just flattened it out sort of. But you could hear the crunch of it. Then I heard, â€œNancy? You OK?â€
Ko Gyi and his wife are wonderful. Not only because they let me shower there whenever I want, and not only because Ko Gyi accompanies us every time we leave the camp, but they also charge our camera batteries and my tablet battery just about every night on their electricity. He speaks Thai, which Lay does not, and he knows how to get around the cities. His wife, Athida, has taken me for a walk through the camp and beyond, and bought me drinks and made me tea. She has let me â€œrestâ€ in a chair (no one else has chairs) in her private quarters. And she has given me gifts. A backpack, a purse, a sweater and a small hand held fan. She calls me Sister, and she speaks quite good English. She's very sweet and kind, and I cried when I had to say goodbye to her.
They operate an â€œoffice.â€ They have electricity, and chairs and benches, and telephones and computers. It's the place where people in section 6 (Lay's section) of the camp can go to phone loved ones in other camps or other countries. I don't know how much they charge for the service, but I know it's not much. They are the wealthy members of the camp. There are other people who have â€œshops,â€ or stores, or places to eat, but they are still only bamboo huts with wide open fronts. His place is also bamboo, but much better than anyone's. Better construction and bigger. He has made himself our protector and escort. Ko Gyi knows the guards well and they allow him privileges.
In fact, once when the camp was in lock-down because there was a cholera scare, and I was waiting at the resort for him to come for me, Ko Gyi convinced the guards to let Lay and him sneak out to visit me. They had to return the same day, without me, and they could not bring the car back inside the camp. The guards wanted no one to see them come and go. And I was not allowed in because I am â€œthe American.â€ If I got sick it would not be a good thing. I was okay with that. I just got to stay at the resort a few extra days, that's all. (I was pretty bored by the end of it though, because I was alone a whole week.)
Lay cooks for me while we're at the refugee camp. Mostly he fries me rice or noodles, with egg and/or chicken and some greens, and some sliced cucumbers on the side. Usually he brings me my plate in the main room where we sleep, rather than have me eat with the others in the kitchen area. He asks me often if I'm hungry, but I rarely am. I haven't been eating much at all so far, but Lay is a good provider and an excellent companion on this trip.
The fruit here is not like home. The grapefruit are huge, and very sweet. Delicious. Their coconuts are green, not brown and hairy like ours, but taste the same. Lots of guava (not something I like) and many other fruits that I never ate, or even saw before. Lots of sweet pineapple, of course. They have apples, but I didn't like the one I tried. There are little yellow/orange things that look like tomatoes and taste a little like papaya. I don't know what those are called. Lots of mangoes. Bananas look different. They are fatter and shorter and not as yellow, sometimes even brown or red. I've seen globe grapes, good but expensive here. And not seedless. I expected the oranges to be better than ours, but they're really not as good. They are small, less juicy and less sweet. The papaya are good. I tried passion fruit for the first time. Didn't like it. They are small round fruit, seedy inside, and sour.
I've eaten some waffles. Very crisp and crunchy. I have eaten whole, cooked potatoes, in their skins. They are usually long and thin and a little sweet tasting. I've eaten some that are not white, more like yellowish, and I've eaten purple ones. Dark purple. They all taste pretty much the same, so color doesn't seem to make a difference. We've eaten soup at a few different open-air stands. The hot broth is always simmering, and they add individual ingredients before serving. Ingredients like pork or chicken, green leafy things, rice, cilantro, tofu balls, noodles, sprouts, peanuts, garlic, onions, whatever you want. And spices. Or you can request â€œdryâ€ which means just the ingredients on a plate. Once I ordered ice cream. It It looked like blackberry, but it had little pieces of something in it. It was corn. I avoided vanilla because I could see corn in it, but I didn't see it in the purple one. It surprised me, but it was good.
Most people here just drink bottled water. They drink coffee, but I have only had it at the hotel or resort. What they call orange juice is nothing more than Tang or Sunny D. I have never seen actual fresh juice here of any kind. I have bought bottled drinks, either pop or flavored water drinks. But they all taste too sweet for me. I have diluted them with water and enjoyed them better.
About eating places, they are all wide open. No walls, just roofed. Animals wander in and out. Cats, dogs, chickens. Not many bugs to bother you while you eat, for some reason. Tipping is not a practice in Thailand, apparently. I saw Dairy Queen and KFC at a shopping mall in Mae Sot. I saw a McDonald's, with Ronald McDonald's hands together in a Thai greeting gesture. I saw many 7-11s. They're everywhere. I asked Lay if the Thais call them â€œseven eleven,â€ or if they use the Thai words for 7 and 11. The answer is, they call them seven-eleven.
I never saw any bugs at the camp, but Lay said he saw a big cockroach once in his mother's rice. I saw few if any flies. And a few times there was mosquito annoying me when I tried to fall asleep, but it was not a problem at all. Lay hooked up a mosquito net for me one night, but I didn't like it. It smelled bad, like it was dusty, and it made my nose stuffed up. I took it down.
Lay's wife's aunt lives in another camp, called Mae La, about an hour drive north of Mae Sot. She took a bus to Mae Sot one day and met us at a hotel. We took her back to Noh Poe with us so she could spend time with Lay's parents. They had never met each other. She stayed about a week, then we drove her back. Mae La is quite different from Noh Poe. It is totally surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire, and there are armed guards at every gate. (There are guards at Nu Poe too, but they are friendly and gracious to everyone.) No cameras are allowed inside the camp, and they are very strict with visitors. When we arrived at her gate, the guard questioned her in depth and wanted 500 Bahts ($14) to let us in. (Lay, Ko Gyi and me) She said she only had 100 Bahts ($2.80) and he wouldn't take it, so Lay told her he would pay it. That's when he took a good look at us all. He hadn't really noticed me before, and when his eyes met mine he stared intently at me for probably 7 or 8 seconds, until we all began to laugh. Even the guard had to smile then. He said something in Thai, Lay paid him and we entered the gate. We stayed only about an hour because he said we had to leave by 5:00. He wasn't there when we left. It was then, on the drive back to Mae Sot, that Lay finally told me what happened. When the guard saw me, he upped the price of entry to 1000 Bahts ($28) - â€œbecause of the white lady.â€ I was shocked that he could get away with that. Lay said he probably went out and bought a bottle of whiskey with his full pockets.
Lay said that no Westerners ever visit the camps unless they are humanitarian workers or something. He said that's why I got the strange look from the guard. He must have been wondering why I was there, and if he should let me in or not. He probably didn't trust any of us.
Another story happened on that day. As we drove away from Mae La, we saw three little boys walking on the side of the road. I'd guess they were 10-12 years old. They had shaved heads, were dressed in Buddhist robes and were barefoot. Lay stopped the car and asked where they were going. They said they live at the Buddhist school in Mae La and are going home to their parents in another camp down the road. Lay told them we would drive them, and they piled into the back seat with me. I had some sweet fried bananas that the aunt had given me because she knew I love them, and some potato chips. They gladly took all of it. I couldn't believe they were walking with no shoes, and they told Lay that their parents couldn't afford shoes. They couldn't afford to keep the boys at all, so they gave them to the Buddhist School Master. They were allowed to walk home for visits occasionally. However, we drove and drove and drove before we got to their parents camp. It had to be close to 5 miles. And they were barefoot. And it would have been dark long before they arrived. After they got out of the car, Ko Gyi told Lay something in their language and they both laughed. Lay then told me what was funny. The Buddhist School Master allows the boys to eat only twice a day, at 7 am and noon. No food or water after 12:00. It's supposed to be conducive to a proper mindset for prayer. The laughing was because the boys eagerly ate those bananas, when they should have refused them! By the way, Lay gave the boys plenty of money to give to their parents.
There are many, many languages spoken by the Burmese people. Lay's mom speaks only Karen. His dad speaks Karen and Poe Karen. Lay speaks Karen, Poe Karen, Burmese and English. Ko Gyi speaks Burmese, Karen and Thai. His wife speaks Karen, Burmese and English. Me? I only speak English. So these refugees have had little or no formal schooling, and many of them cannot read or write, yet they are able to speak multiple languages. I have said that although I had two years of college, raised two sons to adulthood, worked for 30 years in microbiology and thought I knew everything I needed to know, when I met them I found out that I still had a lot to learn.
Lay is in charge of handing out money. My money. It's my money and I am in control of it, but I give it to him and he does whatever he chooses with it. I don't ask questions because I trust him completely. Whether it's $500 to the school for a computer and printer, or $28 for his friend whose grandfather (the family breadwinner) just died. Or $200 to a different school for a new speaker. Or $10 to a neighbor so he will make a new bathroom door at his mother's house to replace the one that's falling off. Or just passing out $2 or $3 to the kids who come to visit with their parents (who he also gives $15 or $20 to). Or buying a couple of pigs and/or goats to have a party and feed as many people as possible. Or treating his friends to a few beers. I have never objected to any of his decisions. We make a good team. I have money and want to do some good with it, and he knows who needs it the most and how much to give. Like I said once before, the hard part is not knowing how much to give, it's knowing when to stop giving. Lay loves giving as much as I do, but he has nothing to give. (Except the clothes off his back, which he did do.) This trip cost him nothing because I paid for everything. Including his suitcase and some new clothes. Lay is like family to Bill and me. We love him, and I'm grateful to God for bringing him into my life."
That's a good place to take a break. I'll continue in a new post. (I told you this would be long.)
|Here's page 2
"Lay has gone off to play soccer with his friends. When he lived here, they used to play on dirt. There is no grass. But now there is a cemented area somewhere in the camp and they play there. He says it's hard to play soccer (which they call football) on cement. Before he went to play soccer, he was playing a game in front of the house on the dirt. I don't know how to spell the name of the game because their alphabet is not like ours at all, but it sounds sort of like it would be spelled â€œmaw-KAY.â€ Smooth stones are lined up in two rows opposite each other and about 10 feet apart. There are two people on each team. They take turns trying to knock the other team's stones out of line. To do this, they take another stone in their hand and pull back the middle finger, and when they've lined up their shot they snap the finger and the stone is released. The men are incredibly accurate, considering the stones are not round. They are a cross between oval and rectangular. (I can't think if there is a word for that shape.) Lay seems to have lost his touch, having missed more stones than he hit, and they all enjoyed laughing at him. Laughing with him actually, as he thought it was funny too.
The kids (boys mostly) play the stone game as well as the adults. The girls play a jump rope game. They count how many times they can jump without touching the rope. Two of them hold the ends of the rope while the others take turns jumping. The trick is, it's not just jumping. They do fancy footwork and lift their legs high, with their feet often twisting in the air and coming down on the opposite side of the rope. They liked that I took video of their game, and I'm so glad I did. They are very agile and very coordinated, and fun to watch.
The people here hand wash their clothes at a common cemented area where there is a pipeline of water and a faucet. After they're washed, the clothes are taken back to each house and hung on hangers outside to dry. Most of my photos of the camp show clothes drying at one house or another. Lay has paid his sister to do our laundry. I see our pants and shirts hanging, but I don't see any underwear. I guess they are discreet and hang them out of the public eye.
The laundry plan works well, except for one time. We had a party at Lay's parents house. We bought goats and pigs, which were killed, cleaned, butchered and cooked by some of the men in the camp. The cooking was done all night long, outside, in the empty lot across from Lay's house. The smoke from the charcoal and wood fires wafted upwards into the house, because the walls only go halfway up then there's about 3 feet of nothing until the roof. It's totally open. That also happens to be where they hang the clothes to dry. The day after the party, I went to Umphang to stay for a couple of days and I had to rewash all my clothes, by hand in the sink. I couldn't wear them smelling like smoke. I hung some on hangers in my room, and I laid a few on the railing of the patio outside my room. It was hot out so the clothes dried very quickly. (I was the only guest, so there was no one to see them.)
The â€œstreetsâ€ here at the camp are very narrow because there are no cars at all here. Only a handful of bikes and motorbikes. So people walk in them and kids play on them. The houses are very close to one another. No one has any kind of yard. There is no grass, only hardened, clay-like mud. The streets are slightly crowned so when it rains, puddles form in the low areas or along the edges. I saw two trucks during my stay here. One was a large pick up truck which they use for garbage pick up. (The families put their garbage in large, empty rice bags and place them in front of the house.) The other was a pick up truck used by an organization which is stationed at the camp called ARC (American Refugee Committee. I'm not entirely sure what this organization does.) So you can imagine how fascinated the people were by our car. We drew a crowd whenever the car was out. When we didn't need it, it stayed semi-hidden on the grounds of the Buddhist School. The kids knew it was there and they enjoyed being around it. We were not concerned about vandalism or theft. The kids and even the grownups would never think about doing anything harmful to it. But we needed to keep it out of everyone's way, and the school had a nice big area available. They were happy to oblige. Before we left, Lay took some of the older boys to the car and let them get inside. They wanted their picture taken sitting in it. They have no cameras. Lay used his camera, but the boys never saw the pictures.
Chickens and roosters roam freely at the camp, as do the many dogs and a few cats. Roosters crow all day long, but something strikes me as odd. I keep expecting to hear, â€œCock-a-doodle-doo.â€ Instead, the roosters only go â€œCock-a-doodle.â€ Am I wrong? Is it only in kids books that the roosters make that extra â€œdooâ€ sound? I really don't know.
As for the dogs, they are quiet and sleep a lot during the day, but they run around all night and sometimes it sounds like they fight. Last night I was awake a lot because the dogs were so loud. I heard fighting several times, close by. Once it sounded like several of them ran under Lay's mom's house and were fighting there, directly below me. Growling and yelping. Lay slept next to me but didn't wake up. I said "under Lay's mom's house" so I should explain that the houses are built up on posts, about 3-4 feet high. Don't ask me why because I don't know. Even in the rainy season there's no flooding.
Today we went with some of Lay's family to visit a couple of other camps, one of which is right on the Burmese border. After a bite to eat and a cold drink, Lay, his brother and his uncle took a walk toward the border but told me to stay back with his Mom, his brother's wife and the visiting aunt. He didn't want me getting too close. I'm not sure what he thought might happen if I did, but I didn't ask him. It didn't matter. I didn't feel a need to get closer. I guess I can say I was 50 yards from Burma. On the way back we stopped at the river to freshen up in the cool water because it was quite hot and humid, and to take some pictures. I just looked at some of those photos. Wow, I look awful. Old, tired and wrinkled. I think what I need is to take a real shower with nice warm water and the bar of Zest I brought from home and wash my hair. The only makeup I wear is mascara, but it's non-existent on my eyelashes right now. Tomorrow I will look better. The A/C in the car feels better than I can ever remember. Actually, I may look old, but I don't feel old at all. I think I am handling the hard life at the refugee camp like any person half my age. God is so good to me. I have no aches, no pains, no limitations. I'm keeping up with Lay, step for step.
On our way back to Nu Poe, Lay pointed out a section of the jungle on the side of the road and told me that was where they crossed the border into Thailand. He said the refugee camp had not been established yet, so they slept there, out in the open, in the jungle. He was about 10 or 12, the oldest child in the family. They were not alone. A number of other refugee families were with them. I asked him how long they had to stay there. He asked his Mom, who was with us. She said it was about two and a half months. They had no protection from the weather or bugs, so the little ones were full of mosquito bites and many got sick. I wonder if it was malaria. They came with only what they could carry on their backs. They ate whatever they could find that was edible. It was hard, but at least they were out of Burma where they feared for their lives. Some humanitarian organization arranged for the camp at Nu Poe to be established, in exchange for a hefty â€œdonationâ€ to the Thai government. I think that was in 1997. In time, the refugees were finally allowed to take up residence. They built their own homes out of bamboo. Lay remembers helping his Dad build their house.
More about Mae Lah camp, where Lay's wife's family came from and where her relatives still live. When we took her aunt home (remember the guard who was so greedy) we went inside with her because she wanted us to eat and meet her family. It was a long walk to her house, which was difficult for all of us except her! It was near the top of a very, very steep hill. At times I thought I would fall backward, it was such a severe incline. (It didn't slow the aunt down at all.) I would have liked to take some pictures but Lay told me the rule is, no outsiders may bring cameras into Mae Lah. I was afraid to hide it in my purse just in case they decided to search us and maybe confiscate my brand new $500 Sony. The aunt had a small camera so she took pictures of all of us posing with each member of her family. Once again, I was the only American those people ever saw in person, so I was looked at, stared at and smiled at by everyone who passed me.
I'm 6-8 inches taller than they are, with what they refer to as 'white skin' and 'white hair' and blue eyes, unslanted. I always attract stares from people outside the major cities.
A big problem. I'm at Umphang and I was expecting Lay to come get me and take me back to Noh Poe. But he called me to say that the camp is in lockdown and he can't leave. Some people have diarrhea and no one is allowed into or out of the camp. They told him the quarantine is until October 2nd. He said no way! They said maybe they will let him leave sooner, but not for several days. I told him to make sure he leaves no later than September 30th because the car must be returned by October 1st. Someone else has it reserved on October 2nd. I really miss Lay and wish he could come here. He is worried about me and wishes the same. But, I will be fine. Bored, but fine. I just hope he will be okay.
While on the phone, we talked about money. I have it all and he has spent or given away all that he had. He took enough with him to last only a couple of days, thinking he would see me on Tuesday, then it turned into Wednesday, and now who knows how long it will be? But I've called my son, who is in charge of my finances while I'm gone, and left him a message on voicemail. I asked him to take some cash from my account and give it to Lay's wife. She knows how to wire money to Thailand, and Ko Gyi will pick it up and give it to Lay. My son is still sleeping because we are 11 hours ahead of New York, so we'll have to wait until he wakes up, goes to work, and then to the bank. I would have emailed him as well but wi-fi is still out. (That has been a problem every day here in Umphang. It pops in now and then for an hour or so, then disappears. I once wrote a long email then lost it when I clicked Send, because internet went out while I was typing.)
Now it's Thursday the 24th and I am so happy because I finally got to be with Lay! Around noon there was a knock on my door and I heard his familiar voice. He and Ko Gyi and another friend came to see me. They drove almost an hour just to see me. He was as happy to see me as I was to see him. Everyone was all smiles. He said the guards didn't really want to let him come, but they understood his concern to check up on me. They said it's a good thing I'm in Umphang and not Noh Poe because someone actually died from the sickness. Lay said it's people who crossed the border from Burma to get medical help at the â€œhospitalâ€ in Noh Poe. They are the ones who caused the outbreak. Now, the gates are closed to everyone, even those who want to come to the hospital. The guards let Lay and the other two out, but told them they have to return today and they can't bring me or the car back into the camp. Ko Gyi has a friend who will watch the car, then they must sneak back into camp and not through the gate. The guards don't want anyone to see them coming in. Well, that's fine, but Lay is such a visible attraction that everyone always knows his whereabouts. They have to know he left and returned. But whatever. Thank you, Lord.
So we spent about two hours together. We drove to a little open air restaurant for some good food, then to 7-eleven to buy me some more bottled water, then they left. I'll be alone for a few more days until Sunday or Monday. The new plan is when he leaves the camp then, he won't go back. We will stay here, with Ko Gyi, for a couple days then head to Mae Sot to return the car. Then a few days in Mae Sot until we go to Bangkok to fly home. But for today, I am in a good mood. It was so good to see Lay again!
Some random thoughts or comments:
---There are a few schools in the camp. One is the Buddhist School. It's not strictly for Buddhists, but it is run by them. I find one practice of theirs to be rather annoying, Every Sunday they blast their chants from a loud speaker. It lasts from dawn until well into the day, and it is inescapable. It reminds me of Hitler's Germany.
---We did a little shopping in the market district of Mae Sot. I bought myself a blouse for $5.00 because I was running out of clean clothes, and I bought a purse for the aunt for $5.00. I also bought myself a pair of seamless rubber boots to take back to camp. The boots I brought with me to wear in the mud are not really appropriate. The new boots were 100 Bahts. $2.80. I told everyone at home before I left not to expect any souvenirs. I said I'd rather spend my money on the people of the camp who are much needier than my friends and relatives in New York. They all agreed.
---The kids in the camp love having their picture taken. With our cameras, of course, because they don't have any. They pose and grin, showing off their happiness. They really are content and happy, not selfish and easily pleased. They play games outside regardless of the weather. They don't have toys. They make up simple games, like jumping, counting and hand clapping. They love each other and they play together without forming cliques or even best friends.
---Babies are loved by everyone. If someone is holding a baby, everyone walking by wants to hold it and hug it for a few minutes. Even young children and teenagers do this, boys and girls alike. These people are so loving.
---Umbrellas are not only for rainy days. They use them to shield the sun as well.
---Spitting, burping and farting are not considered ill-mannered, as they are in the US. Men, women, children of all ages do not seem to be embarrassed by bodily noises. No one says â€œexcuse me.â€ Inside the huts, the floors are made of flattened bamboo laid side by side, often leaving gaps between them where they do not fit evenly. If someone is sitting on the floor and needs to spit (most often it's a result of the betel nut they chew here), they simply lean towards the floor and aim for the opening. They never miss. The huts are all built on bamboo stilts, about 4 feet high, so their spit lands on the dirt below. Another interesting thing about the gaps in the bamboo floors is that when the family eats, if some rice drops on the floor, they just sweep it into the gaps. I've seen the dogs wander around under the houses looking for fallen scraps of food to eat. The system works well.
---They collect rainwater to shower with and to flush the toilet with. Once I saw the collection bucket was full and it was still raining, so I emptied it into the storage barrel for them.
---Did I discuss the bathrooms at the camp in detail? The toilets are porcelain and the bowl is set into the ground. The sides of the bowl are wide and grooved, and you're supposed to place your feet on them and squat. There's no toilet tank, so flushing is done by filling a bowl of water from the barrel next to the toilet, and pouring it into the bowl. Everything flushes quickly, easily and silently with one bowl of water. I have no idea where the waste goes, but it is all underground. The bowl used for flushing is left floating in the barrel for the next person to use. There's no paper, and no sink, and no towels. Presumably, one rinses off with water from the barrel. Before I left for Thailand, I did some reading and thankfully someone suggested that travelers take toilet paper with them wherever they go because it is rarely provided. I found that to be true in public rest rooms. And many public facilities do not have sinks to wash hands, either. But at least I found a few public rest rooms that had real sit-down, flush toilets. Only a few with toilet paper though.
---With no electricity in the camp, anyone moving about after dark has to take a flashlight with them. Even if only to the toilet. Most families have one of those miner's headlamps so they can keep both hands free. I woke up to use the toilet quite often at night and was glad I had packed my own personal little flashlight.
---Some families do have lights available though. Lay's family has something like a car battery and one long fluorescent lightbulb that they use in the main room, but could be transported to another room, like the kitchen, if necessary. They can also hook up the laptop we had sent them a year before our visit and watch movies on CDs. No internet though. I know there's a place somewhere in the camp where they obtain CDs, or maybe trade them among themselves, or maybe watch the same few movies over again. I didn't pay attention. And I don't know what powers the battery/generator.
OK, on to page 3.
|Wow! What a story, Nancy. I am glad you shared it with us. And we will be looking for more in the days ahead. God Bless!
|Here's the rest of it. Page 3.
The flowers of Thailand are very pretty and plentiful in urban and rural properties, but I saw none at all in the camp. There are plenty of tropical trees and plants however. Coconut trees grow everywhere. But brown bamboo and brown mud seem to be the only colors in the camp. Perhaps that's why the material they weave for their traditional clothing is so very colorful. I saw no butterflies at the camp, no doubt because there are no flowers, but in the urban areas and deeper in the jungle, they are beautiful. I've seen butterflies of almost all colors, blue, black and blue, white, white and orange, yellow.... Sadly, I have no photos to remember them by, only in my mind. I saw no birds at the camp either. I heard them occasionally, but did not see them. At night I heard frogs, loudly croaking some strange clicking and thumping sounds.
There are many crops grown in the mountains. Harvesting is done by hand, so the fields are steeply sloped. The crops which seem the most plentiful are corn and cabbage, at least at this time of the year, but also bananas, sugar cane, pineapple, coffee and peanuts. There are many rice fields as well, but they need flat land so are not grown in the mountains. I don't recall seeing cucumbers growing, but they must grow a lot of them because they are a major staple in every market and roadside stand. And they are big, much bigger than we have back home. There are also a lot of vegetables and fruit which we don't have at home.
On our last evening at the camp, we were invited to Mu Thaw's house to eat. He was Lay's right hand man during our entire stay in Noh Poe. He came by just about every morning to see what Lay was going to do, then accompanied him, helped him, carried his camera, etc. Mu Thaw lives with his sister and her two young boys. She has a husband and two other children who are living in the United States. I did not ask why the whole family did not relocate together, or if she would be following someday. I wanted to know, but I felt embarrassed to ask. As for Mu Thaw, he is probably about 30 and single. He is a strong, well built man with one physical limitation. His right eye is deformed and he can not see out of it. That last night, at his house, he explained to Lay what happened to him.
He said when he was 16 years old and still living in Burma, he wanted to do something to help protect his people from the Burmese soldiers. The Burmese army wanted to eradicate the Karen population so they roamed the jungle with rifles drawn and killed without provocation. Lay himself remembers that as a child, he and his family sometimes had to hide in the jungle, sleeping in trees so as not to be seen when they heard the soldiers were near. They could not cook or the smoke would give away their location, and they had to remain perfectly silent until the danger passed. So Mu Thaw joined the Karen army. As he was laying land mines, one exploded and wounded him. His career in the Karen army was over and he had to flee to Thailand. He told Lay he thanks Jesus for letting him live. He is a courageous man with a gentle spirit and I will always remember him with a smile.
In fact, when he came looking for me on our last morning he had a broad smile on his face as he approached me. He gave me a ring, a plain band, as a going away gift. He had taken a 10 Baht coin, which is about 28 cents, to someone at the camp who makes jewelry, and had it crafted into a ring for me. I was so honored and happy. We hugged and cried together for a moment. He had the ring inscribed. â€œTo 'Rose' from M.T.â€œ The Karen word for rose sounds like my name, NAY-see, and MT are his initials. Now, I wear no jewelry, ever. Nothing, not even a wedding band. But this ring I will wear everyday because it is a truly special gift, given from the heart of a very special person. He does not speak English, so he asked Lay to tell me that he hopes he will see me again someday, but if not he will see me in Heaven. It makes my eyes tear up just to remember those words.
One day I saw a young woman weaving material and it was fascinating to watch. I grabbed the camera and videoed her doing it. The light in the house was poor so it did not turn out well, but I was grateful to have it. Over time, I lost it. It must have gotten deleted somehow. I was disappointed and hoped I would get another chance to see it done again. Well, Lay mentioned that to Mu Thaw's sister, so while we were at their house that last evening, she gave me the opportunity to video her as she weaved. The new video turned out 100% better than the first one. It's one of my favorite videos from my trip. Her fingers worked very deftly as she pulled the different colored threads through the black threads, which make up the base layer. It's a zig-zag pattern of green and pink and red and white. She sits on the floor facing a dowel attached to the wall, and pulls the work which is attached to another dowel towards her. The second dowel has a back brace attached to it as well. That goes around her waist and allows the dowel to become taut.
Afterward, she brought out an outfit which she had made and wanted me to put it on for a photo. I protested that it would be too small for my large American frame, but she insisted it would fit so I had to try it. She was right. It was snug, but it fit. And I thought it looked pretty good on me, surprisingly. We took many pictures of me with her, me with her brother and her, and me with Lay and her. I wish I had asked her if I could buy the outfit from her, but sadly I did not think of it until after I got back to the States. At least I have the photos.
I do have some samples of the Karen material. Lay's Mom gave me a green bag, someone else gave me a red bag and I have a purple purse, all in the Karen style of weaving. I'm proud of them. They bring comments and compliments whenever I wear them.
Sometimes the refugees travel outside the camp. They may need to go to Mae Sot or Umphang or to another camp. The best option for transportation is a small blue open-sided bus, with tarps which can be pulled down if protection is needed from rain. There are benches lining the sides, to sit on. Bags or luggage can be carried on the top of the vehicle, but more often there are people sitting up there. In the open. With no protection. It makes me nervous to see them up there when the roads are so curvy and steep, but it doesn't bother them in the least.
Another form of transportation is a tractor pulled wagon. We needed one of those one day when we took some of Lay's family to visit someone in another camp about an hour away. The dirt roads through the jungle are full of deep ruts and holes and mud. We didn't dare take our car there, so Lay found a guy at the camp with a tractor and a cart and he paid him about $20 to spend the day with us. The tractor looks nothing like we have in the states. I can't describe it, but I have pictures and videos of it. The wagon was just big enough for the 7 of us to squeeze into. It was a very bumpy ride, and the wagon had no seats. We had to sit on the hard floor. Each and every bump sent us bouncing. I tried to brace myself with my arms in order to elevate myself slightly, but that only caused me to come home with bruises and brush burns from the hard wooden sides of the wagon. Maybe I'll go back to Thailand someday, and maybe I'll have to ride in one of those wagons again, but if I do you can be sure I will take a thick pillow with me.
It's such a beautiful sunny morning here at Umphang. I took my camera outside to capture the flavor of it, but my picture looks just like every other picture I've taken of this place. I guess the camera can only produce what I see, and not what I'm feeling when I see it. A canoe just floated downstream, and the young Thai man paddling it looked at me and smiled. I nodded to him and he said â€œGood Morning.â€ Now how did he know I speak English?? My blond hair and white skin maybe??
I have seen 3 non-Asian people at the camp. There was a tall bearded man who said he is from Texas. He said he teaches at a school outside the camp and just came to Noh Poe to visit. The two Western women are teachers at one of the school here. I never spoke with one of them, but the other became our friend. Her name is Christa and she is from Denmark. Her English is perfect. Her school has a sponsor who lives in the US and has some kind of a shop. She sends proceeds from her sales to the school. I asked Christa how that works because I am thinking of sponsoring one of the other schools myself. I also promised to send a small contribution to her school as well, but I think they are less needy than the high school. I will send her $500 when I get home.
The school I have in mind to sponsor is the high school. One of the teachers was at Lay's house one day and surprised me by speaking to me in English. He asked me if I would please come to his school to speak with the students. I said I would be happy to do that. A week later, Lay and I did go visit the school. We sat in a bamboo building, much like the houses at the camp, with open walls and dirt floors. But they did have a table and a few plastic lawn chairs to sit on. The principal was there, as well as a few teachers. They spoke in Karen with Lay, who translated for me. They poured their hearts out. The principal said they have only one computer for the school, and it is broken. They also have only one printer, and it too is broken. He said they have many needs and little or no funds. He said the teachers use their own money at times to purchase necessities. He told Lay how very grateful he would be if we could make a donation to his school.
Then we walked to a large open-air, bamboo building comparable to an assembly hall. It was filled with teenage students sitting on benches. The teacher who was the first to speak to me that day at Lay's house walked with me to the front of the room and introduced me to the students. They all just looked at me, waiting for me to say something. It was uncomfortable for me, but I knew I had to do it, so I just started talking about how happy I was to be there and to see their school. I invited them to talk to me if they wanted. I told them about Lay and how he came to America and how much he loves his life there. Lay had been hiding in the back of the room, but I made him come forward and let the kids look at him. He was so embarrassed, but I wasn't going to let him off the hook. If I had to speak, then he was going to speak too. He muttered a few words then looked at me to rescue him. I did. After a few more comments about how much I love the Karen people, I let the teacher have the students back. He dismissed them and they went back to their classes.
Next, the teachers took me around to see some classes while Lay stayed back and spoke some more with the principal. The first class we went to was the English class. The teacher again wanted me to talk to the students, a smaller group this time, maybe 45. I told them a little bit about life in America and invited questions. No one spoke. Then their teacher spoke with them in English, encouraging them to ask me anything else they wanted to know about America. Finally a hand went up. The question was, â€œAre there Indians in America?â€ I told them yes, there are, but not like the ones they may have seen in the movies. I explained as best I could that they live like any other American and you can't even tell them apart from the rest of us. A second question was asked. â€œHow old are you?â€ I think I said I am 60 years old (I'm in my 60s) and you could hear them react to that audibly. I had the impression that they thought I am much younger. That is no doubt because in their culture, 60 is considered to be very old and many people do not live that long. If they do, they look like an 80 year old American. It made me feel good to hear their surprise!
One young man in the back of the room stood up and spoke to me in quite good English. He told me he hopes to come to America one day, and if he does he would like to visit me. If he does not get to come to America, he would like to be a teacher and help educate his people. He said he wants to be able to help people however he can. I was so impressed. I asked him if he would come to the front of the room and have his picture taken with me. He didn't hesitate at all. He took off his Karen shirt, exposing a white button-down shirt underneath. There were giggles from the other students as he strutted proudly to the front of the room and stood next to me while his teacher took our picture with my camera. I love that picture. It makes me smile when I remember how proud he was that I singled him out. I hope I will see him again.
Lay's Mom and Dad, his 2 sisters and his brother (the last of his immediate family to come to America) had applied for emigration a long time ago. I think it was about 2 years. In the meantime, the kids were getting older and the brother fell in love. He married a young woman about one year ago, and she became pregnant. He made the tough decision to stay in Thailand with her. She had never applied to come here, and even if she did now, the paperwork, the interviews and the health checks would all take a very long time. So he thought it best to stay there. But Lay wouldn't hear of that. He got angry. He said if the brother doesn't come now, he may not have the chance in the future. And if the brother doesn't come, the parents will not want to come either. They wouldn't want to leave him behind. So the brother said alright, he will come to America and leave his bride behind. It was an emotionally tough decision, but it was the right one. New applications are currently not being accepted, but because of the specifics of this situation, she will be allowed to emigrate. The fact that she is a wife, not a parent or sibling, and the fact that there is a newborn baby are vital to the request. It may take a year, but his wife and baby will be able to join the rest of the family in America.
On one of our trips to Umphang, Lay made a good suggestion. He said, let's get a big bag of candy and pass it out to the kids at the camp. I agreed, but we had some trouble finding large quantities of candy in any of the small shops. So the next time we went to Mae Sot, which is a bigger city, we found a place which is comparable to Kmart. There we were able to find just what we wanted, big bags of individually wrapped hard candy. It became an expensive trip because we took advantage of the abundance of goods and bought a lot of other necessities for Lay's family. Items like soap and shampoo and chocolate (a necessity for sure!) and knives and pots and pans. We spent $104, but the amount would have been 2 or 3 times higher in the States.
When we returned to Lay's house, he found a large bucket somewhere and we opened all the bags of candy and dumped them in. A dozen or more children and quite a few adults were sitting all around us, patiently waiting to see what would happen. I grabbed my camera and began videotaping. They were polite and quiet, and it occurred to me that American kids would probably be holding out their hands and pushing forward to get their share. These kids, however, kids who never eat candy, were reticent and shy about taking it from Lay. I could tell they wanted it, but they held back and didn't smile. Each child waited his turn. The adults were reluctant to take any too, but Lay insisted. Their smiles showed their happiness. Once he was finished passing it out to everyone in the house, he went outside and asked me to follow him. Outside, people saw him coming and knew he was up to something. They had gotten used to our American generosity. So we walked all over town, while he handed candy out to everyone we saw, young and old, until it was gone. It was so much fun. Lay was like the Pied Piper. He couldn't stop smiling because it was such a joyful experience. Everyone was happy that day. Even the grown-ups took some candy from Lay. Candy is a rare treat for the refugees. It was one of my most memorable times of the entire trip.
A day or 2 later, the bread man came down the street. He carries a stick across his shoulder with a bucket hanging from either end, each holding a load of bread sticks. I don't know how much he charges, but Lay went outside and paid him for his entire load. Then he stood in the street and handed them out to everyone around. Free. And when Lay is around, there's always a crowd. I am so fond of Lay, and watching him try to please his people in every way small way he can was very endearing.
As our trip wound down to its last couple of days, I reminded Lay that although I knew from the start that this trip was all about him and his home and his family, I had only two requests for myself. I wanted to go to the famous waterfall, Thi Lor Su, which he had told me was the most beautiful waterfall in Thailand, and I wanted to ride an elephant. I said I had only 2 requests, and I didn't get to do either one. Yet I don't feel like I missed out on anything. Somehow, those things just didn't seem as important once I got there.
Our last full day in Thailand was eventful. Lay and Ko Gyi left me at the hotel while they went to Mae Lah for one last visit with his wife's aunt. I did not want to go with them because of our experience with the guard when we took her home before. So I spent half the day alone. I tried to use my debit card to pay the hotel bill in advance, since we would be leaving for Bangkok early the next morning. It was the same card I had used on our previous visits to this hotel, but this time it would not go through. They said there was a problem with it, so I would have to find an ATM and pay with cash.
About the debit card, a few weeks before I left the US I went to the bank and opened a new account, one which was not linked to my other accounts. That way if I lost the card or it was stolen, I would not have to worry about someone gaining access to all my money. I opened the new account with $5000, and used it to charge the rental car and my first 2 hotel stays. I had also taken money from the ATM once or twice. So the balance should have been about $3000.
When Lay and Ko Gyi got back, they took a short nap then we went to the ATM at Siam bank in the Mae Sot mall. Once again my card would not work. We entered the bank to see if they could help figure out the problem. They said apparently there's no money in the account and I have to call my bank. What? There's $3000 in there. Okay, I'll call the bank. Well, the time difference is 11 hours, with Thailand being ahead of New York in time. So I had to wait until the 800 customer service line opened up at 7am, which was 6pm for me. We were expected at the car rental place at 5pm to pay for our last 2 days. The rental guy had always been very helpful and pleasant, and said he would wait for us.
Finally it was time to call. I borrowed Ko Gyi's phone. I got someone at customer service and was telling him my problem when I heard a beep and realized Ko Gyi's phone had a call coming in. That caused my call to be terminated. I gave Ko Gyi back his phone, he took his call and gave me the phone again. I called back. This time, as I was telling a different agent my problem, another beep knocked me off the phone again. Only this time it was because Ko Gyi was out of minutes. Calls to the US, even 800 calls, eat up a lot of minutes. So we had to find a place in the mall where he could replenish his minutes. Once he had done that, I again placed a call to customer service. And again I started telling my problem to a new customer service agent. She was sympathetic and I felt good about this third try, when to my horror, another call came in to Ko Gyi's phone and again we were disconnected! What a frustration this had become! All I could think of was that tomorrow we had to leave first thing in the morning for Bangkok in order to catch our flight out of Thailand. But if we couldn't pay for the rental car or the hotel, we could not leave Mae Sot. We would be homeless in Thailand.
Ko Gyi's friend who lives in Mae Sot and would be driving us to Bangkok was waiting for us at the car rental place. I had no choice but to call the 800 number again as Lay drove us there. Thankfully, on this my 4th call, I got the same agent I had just been disconnected from. So I didn't have to start at the beginning. She quickly plugged my bank account number into the computer and confirmed my suspicion. The bank knew I was opening the account specifically for my trip to Thailand, but they failed to put a travel alert on it. So when the computer saw nothing but Thai transactions, it assumed my card had been stolen and they put a hold on it. In order to remove the hold, the agent had to ask me many questions to prove that I am who I say I am. Not only numerous personal questions, but questions about my Thai purchases. She asked things like, â€œOn the 20th, you charged $67. Where was that purchase made?â€ Now, first of all, I did not look at a calendar for 4 weeks. I did not know where I was on any given day. And secondly, any purchase I made was in Thai Bahts, not US dollars. So I had to try to convert the amount in my head, then figure out where I was when I spent that amount of money. Fortunately, I was pretty sure my only charges were the hotel in Mae Sot and for car rental. So I guessed the hotel. I was right. We went through this routine for each and every purchase and I was afraid we were going to get cut off again because the call was taking so long. So I said to her, â€œLook, you know everything about me except how much I weigh. Do you want to know that too??â€ She calmly said, â€œNo Ma'm. That won't be necessary.â€ Then I had to apologize for my rudeness, but explained that I was afraid of being homeless in Thailand. She sympathized and cut the rest of the questions. In another few seconds she told me my card was now active, and she would make sure it did not happen again before I got home. I made her stay on the phone with me as we drove back to the ATM and tried my card. It worked. I thanked her, she wished me well, and I felt 10 pounds lighter.
After that fiasco, Lay and I needed a drink! Our driver took us to a wonderful outdoor restaurant on a peaceful lake. It was a pleasant way to calm down. We ate (no drinks), then went to another place to further relax and celebrate the end of a fantastic journey. This place had live music, and when the Thai singers and musicians saw me, they began to play some English songs. I could tell that the lead singer didn't really speak English. He apparently learned the words as they sounded to his ears, not as they were written, so at times the songs didn't make much sense. That didn't matter. It sounded good to me anyway. Then a different singer appeared and when he saw me (the only blonde in the room) he also started singing English songs but in much better English. We sent them each a drink. The next break, he came to our table to thank us. He introduced himself as â€œDove, like the bird.â€ We bought him some food and pictures were taken on everyone's cell phones, then he went back to sing some more. It was a really sweet night. We all mellowed out and sang along and didn't want to leave. Lay had a beer too many and began to sing loudly. I knew it was time to go.
Lay told everyone in Thailand that we will be back â€œin 2 years.â€ Then when we got back home, he told everyone that we will go back â€œnext year.â€ I told Lay he should not make promises that he may not be able to keep. But in my heart, I truly believe that we will indeed return to Thailand next year. Both of us. Together. We'll see.
Well, these notes were written nearly 6 months ago and I had forgotten a few things. Including that very last paragraph. Hmmm. Here I am in Thailand again. Much sooner than I would have imagined. Now I am going to say that I expect this to be my last trip to Thailand because I am getting too old. But, I guess we'll see...
|Here's a slideshow that Lay and I put together after the trip. That's his voice you hear singing.
|There are some photos I'll post here in this spot when I get back to the US.|
|Oh Nancy ... I'm so glad I had a chance to check in today!!! I'll be watching for your next update! Thanks so much for allowing us to take this trip with you! Stay safe, and have a wonderful time!
|Thank you, Oma. And thank you, Susan. I appreciate the thoughts and blessings.
|Notes from week 1 of my second trip.
Delta airlines wasn't a bad flight because I paid extra for the "comfort seats" with more leg room. But I didn't care for any of the meals at all. What a disappointment after the excellent food on our first trip, on Singapore Airlines. If I ever fly to Thailand again, it will be on Singapore. Didn't sleep much either. The leg room was nice, but when I tried to "cat nap" my head kept falling off my neck, waking me up. Lay sleeps more on the plane than I do. Maybe his neck is shorter.
The trip was long, but we were not surprised. We left Buffalo late because the plane coming from Detroit was late, which severely cut into our JFK transfer time. We were the last passengers to get on the plane. A close call. The plane to Tokyo left a few minutes late and I wondered if it was because they had to transfer our luggage.
The plane flew north across Canada and Alaska, then Russia to Tokyo. The windows on the plane remain closed during the flight so I saw nothing. We spent an hour or so in Tokyo, then a direct flight over China, Viet Nam and Laos to Bangkok.
So we were met at Bangkok airport by one of the Thai army guards at the camp who had been hired to meet us on his day off. He drove the 7 or so hours north to the city of Mae Sot, where we picked up our rental car. Then we bought 2 phones so we could communicate when not together. Once that was finished we drove the 5 or so hours southwest to the camp. As the crow flies, it's not so far from Bangkok to the camp, but there's a mountain range between them which has no road over it because there are no cities on the other side of it. So we had to go around the mountains instead of over them. It's a continuously wind-y (not windy) drive up and down the mountains, with very sharp and treacherous S curves one after another, but the view is pretty darn nice!
When we arrived at camp, there were smiles all around! Everyone was happy that day. People just kept coming. Happy to see Lay first, then happy to greet me. The young people who are so open with their feelings were the happiest and friendliest toward me. The older people were more reserved and left me soon after greeting, whereas the kids wanted to hang with me all day. And they pretty much did. I brought with me all the movies I had taken on our first trip along with some pics and movies of home. Lay's family, Layku Htoo's brother's birthday party, etc. My laptop was in almost constant use.
Right now I am staying at the same resort I stayed at last time on occasion. Just for a couple of days while Lay goes to Burma. He won't let me go. He says as an obvious American, there could be "issues." He is going there with some men from the camp and will blend right in. He doesn't want to call attention to himself though so he borrowed some clothes from the men. He dresses too Western now. The purpose of his trip is to see his brothers; their homes and families. The one brother came to the camp to meet him the first day, but the other stayed home.
I slept at camp the first night, sharing the bamboo floor with 5 or 6 other people.
Days are hot and nights are relatively cool.
There is often a little breeze, so it's not too uncomfortable. With the openness of the houses, breezes manage to find their way inside. So sleeping (on the floor) isn't bad. Got up several times, stepping over people to make the trip to the toilet. Dr said, "Stay hydrated," and I did, but paid the price. (The only problem I have with sleeping at the camp is the noise outside. I'd forgotten how loud nighttime is at the refugee camp. Dogs barking - never during the day - and frogs croaking, roosters crowing - they don't care what time it is - and some other weird sounds. There's either a bug or a little lizard that makes a loud clicking sound.)
Things at the camp are the same, but the 'houses' are more run-down. Now that Lay's parents and siblings are in the US, there are only 2 girl cousins and a sister in law with a baby living there. They are all like 16-20 years old. They cook and clean for themselves, but they don't fix the bamboo when it starts to deteriorate. Lay says that happens all the time and pieces are constantly having to be replaced. I told him we need to pay someone to take care of that for them. I noticed as I walked to the toilet area, the round bamboo was loose under my feet and actually not connected in some places. I nearly slipped as it rolled around under my feet.
Yes, tropical weather is here - loud and clear. It's 90 degrees right now (real feel 102) and expected to get 6 degrees higher today. I am a little surprised that I don't feel as uncomfortable in this heat as I thought I would. I know it's because it's been so dry. It's hot, but bearable. So for now I'm keeping cool. Happy to be here! Little lizardy-looking things share this room with me. It has to be those little lizards that make the clicking sound because I heard it in my room a couple of times over night. I don't mind. They are not interested in me, and they're kind of cute. They just stay on the walls or on the floor next to the wall. They don't venture out into the room.
Here at this 'resort' where I'm staying (it's called a resort, and it's very nice, but it's not what we think of as a resort) I run the A/C all night and keep the bathroom light on for a night light. Last night at 12:30 I woke up to total darkness and no sound at all in the room. But a lot of dogs barking in the distance. The power was off over a huge area, not just this place. It was a little spooky, hearing jungle sounds and dogs barking and not being able to see. But I wasn't afraid. I had a little flashlight with me and used it to walk to the window, but then just went back to bed and fell asleep. I woke up at 2am because the light came back on. Normally I wouldn't have been aware of it, but I guess your senses become keener when you are unfamiliar with your surroundings. This morning at breakfast I mentioned it to An (the lady who runs the place) and she confirmed it was across the whole town. Umphang District has a population of about 25,000, but this town of Umphang is much less than half of that. Anyway, it's bright and sunny today and I have internet. Yay!
I'm about to wash some things out in the sink. We both brought plenty to wear, but I have a few favorites. Lay's problem with clothing is he keeps giving away pants and shirts to his cousins who want to wear something of his. He did that last year too. I'd be happy to buy them some clothes, but they want to wear Lay's. Like he's a rock star or something. I may have to buy Lay some new clothes.
I think I'll talk about food.. See, I'm not crazy about Thai food. When we eat at camp, Lay cooks for me. Bland stuff, like rice or noodles, eggs, chicken. Their cooking consists of throwing everything together and frying it or boiling it. Their cooking space and equipment are severely limited. No 4 burner stoves, in fact no stove at all. Just a charcoal fire. And when we eat in a restaurant in this town I'm in today, they order 2 or 3 menu items and 1 or 2 soups. The waitress brings a tureen of rice, a large bowl of each soup and a large plate of each menu item and sets it all down in the middle of the table. She brings an empty plate and small soup bowl for each person, and they eat buffet style. At first I wasn't fond of that system because I didn't want to take too much of one thing in case someone else wanted it. All the spoons were digging in at once and I was embarrassed. Plus, they don't mind dipping a spoon that's just put food into their mouths, into the big plate that serves everyone. That's just the way they do it at home and no one minds. I have even seen food preparers taste the concoction while cooking, then use the same utensil to stir with. This may sound like heresy, but I have come to realize that we place way, way too much importance on certain things.
Anytime you eat in a restaurant here, you can order what you want. You aren't confined to the menu. Lay knows what I like and don't like so he tells them no cilantro and not spicy. The other night this is what I ate. It's cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and beef, stir fried with some yummy, undefinable flavored sauce. With rice on the side, I could eat this every day! But I told Lay that next time, don't bother with the beef. It's hard to chew.
My meal, and theirs....
I don't even know what was in the other dishes that the Burmese people ate, except that it was chicken, and it was spicy. They ordered a couple of soups but I didn't want any. They love to put cilantro in their soup, which I absolutely hate, and of course heating it just makes it smell stronger. If you don't like cilantro, you know the smell of it is disgusting. (I can't even pick it up in the market because then my hand smells like it.)
One more thing. At this restaurant, the waitress doesn't ask you what you'd like to drink. They probably have drinks in a cooler somewhere, but they have a water tank and a big bucket of ice cubes and the customers take a glass and serve themselves. Not all restaurants do that, but many do. Napkins are in a plastic container like a square kleenex pop-up box and you take your own. And at this place, the waitress brought over a plastic, rectangular box with eating utensils all jumbled together inside. Again, you help yourself. In the US, everything has to be individually wrapped and sterilized so (God forbid) no one has touched it before you. I do believe in sanitization, but I think we carry it unnecessarily far.
Here's what happened when I went to breakfast this morning. My morning, your evening. The lady who runs this place, named An, remembers me well from my last trip to Thailand. Whenever I stayed here she made fantastic meals for me. She knows what I like and don't like. This year her younger sister who looks about 16 is doing kitchen duties. I showed up for breakfast and she brought me soup and toast and coffee. The soup looked good. It was chicken broth with veggies and meat-filled dumplings. But those green things were cilantro. I didn't want to hurt her feelings so I tried to eat it but I couldn't. I tried a dumpling but the taste was there. I waited till she was out of the room then got up and left, with my bowl still full.
After a short walk I came back to my room. Almost instantly there was a knock on the door. It was An, with a tray. She brought me a "salad" and said she was sorry about the soup. She said she went into town and when she returned her sister showed her the uneaten breakfast and she realized right away that it was the cilantro so she immediately made up the salad for me. It's shredded cabbage and carrots, tomato and cucumber slices and a sort of almost sweet dressing drizzled over the top. She remembers that I loved it before. The little square things on the other plate are interesting. It's a thick bottom layer of a soft, sweet, corn tasting confection with actual corn pieces in it. The thinner top layer has no taste and is more gelatinous. It's quite good. The interesting thing is the pocket that it's in. It's made from a banana leaf, folded into a square and stapled shut. I've seen them in Thailand before. I think I'll wash them out well and take them home for a souvenir. (Update: When I washed it out and left it on the sink to dry, then looked at it later, it had shrunk and separated, so there was a hole in the bottom. I threw it away.)
I eat only twice a day. If I'm here at this place my breakfasts are either 2 eggs, toast, ham, fruit, cole slaw, coffee and Tang (not real OJ), or if I'm less hungry it's just a bowl of soup and bread.. If I eat breakfast anywhere else, it's rice and the same fare as the dinner menu. It's all good. Especially the fruit! Oh my gosh, the fruit!! Grapefruits so sweet I can't stand it! Mangoes much tastier than what our supermarkets sell. Cantaloupe. A few fruits I don't know the name of. Delicious!
We did go see the famous waterfall that I didn't get to see last year, but being the dry season it was not as 'spectacular' as I have seen in pictures. If we had gone there on our first trip to Thailand it would have been awesome to see, but the road to get there was closed then due to it being the end of the rainy season, and you had to go about 2 hours by boat. Actually a rubber raft. Lay was afraid, so we didn't go. (What a baby!) But at this time of year you drive about 45 minutes over sharp, curvy mountainous roads which are nothing more than extremely dry, loose, dusty dirt, and deep ruts the entire length. We could only go maybe 5-10 mph over most of it. Then you park your car and walk through about 2 miles of jungle to get to the waterfall. The path is cemented, thank goodness, like walking on a sidewalk right through the thick vegetation. Lots of up and down steps along the way. Beautiful scenery. Then the waterfall. Lay and his 3 cousins who were with us went swimming. It was very hot and that water was calling my name, but I had only the clothes on my back. I couldn't take them off the way they did. So while they refreshed in the water, I took pictures and swatted hoards of bugs off my arms and legs and out of my hair. I had little butterflies land on me too, but I let them stay there. They were so cute. They clung to my hand, even when I moved it around. I guess they like American sweat. (ha-ha)
I'll stay at the camp a couple of nights, then at this resort/motel/guesthouse/bungalow place for a night or two, then begin the cycle again. Last time I got into trouble with not having a real bathroom so this time Lay says we should spend more nights away from camp. Ultimately, a little more than half of my nights will be spent at the camp.
This first week is the exception though. I spent one night driving in a truck, one night at camp, one night at this resort with Lay and 4 other Burmese, one night at this resort by myself, and the next couple of nights I'll be here by myself. The 'by myself' nights are because Lay and a few others are going to Burma to see his brothers. That would be too many nights at camp for me so I'm waiting for him here.
Lay's phone couldn't call me from Burma, but he finally got hold of a phone that could. He's been gone 2 days. He told me he will see me either today or tomorrow. I thought I would get bored or lonely or just tired of waiting for him, but I'm none of those things. I like the room, the surroundings, the food, the lady who works here and her dogs. I like being lazy, and I like being alone. Still, when he comes here and we go back to the camp, I will like that too. I like it all.
Before he went to Burma, he told me he is really angry at his sister-in-law who lives in the parents house now. She wasn't able to come to the States with her new husband (Lay's brother) last Fall, so has to wait until he can move mountains and bring her over. In the meantime, she has had her baby. The little angel is about 5 months old now. Shortly after he was born, Lay heard about someone at the camp who was selling a motorbike. He thought it would be helpful and a nice thing to do for her and the 2 young lady cousins who are living with her, to buy that bike for them. So he and I sent her about $250 to buy it. They were grateful, of course. Lay feels a huge responsibility toward them. Three young women and a baby living without a man and an income seem so vulnerable.
Anyway, that morning he was at camp without me so he told me about it later. He said to his sister-in-law, "I want to learn how to ride the motorbike. Where is it?" She said she lent it to her uncle to go to Burma. He asked her when. She said yesterday. Now, he knew that wasn't true because he was there and would have known about it. So he pressed her for more info and she admitted that she sold it. He was really angry, and I don't blame him. He doesn't know what she did with the money, but he suspects she gave it to her father. Lay had given him a decent amount of money on our first trip, and he already asked Lay for more already on this trip. I feel sad about the whole thing. Lay's brother and Lay and I have been sending some money to them regularly because they have no income, so we don't think the money was for her. But she should have told us, and not lied to Lay.
Today at breakfast, I saw a man and woman walk in who were definitely not Asian. In a bit, I approached them and asked where they were from. We had a nice chat. They are a retired couple from England, who have moved to Thailand. They live in Mae Sot and volunteer their teaching services at a boarding school. He teaches science and she teaches English. The students speak various languages from the area, but all are learning English. The teachers speak only English. They have been living here for 9 months. I asked if they have A/C. Only in the bedrooms. I asked if they have a car. No, they ride bikes. Motorbikes? No, regular bikes. Do they like the hot weather? Yes, but it's getting tiresome. Have they been to Burma? Yes, no problem crossing the border, but you need a visa. (That settles it. I can't go. I have no visa. Neither does Lay, but he crossed the border the same way the other refugees do - he sneaked in.) These folks said they know most refugees do sneak across. In fact, he said he knows that lots of pregnant women sneak across the river (border) to the camp clinic to have their babies born here so they can be Thai citizens.
|Good reading. I am mentally traveling with you without sleeping on floors or trying to crouch over a toilet.
The fruits sound delicious. Cilantro is something people seem to either love of hate. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. I love it!
|I am really craving a grapefruit right now!|
|Ha-ha Arlene! Me too! I haven't been able to get to a market for several days now. Here at the resort, An is keeping me well stocked with watermelon though. I had a lot left over after last night's meal so stuck it in the little refrigerator in my room. Took it out this morning and it is half frozen, but omg is it ever good! Lay will be here later today so I'll have him take me to the market.
About the toilets, Brenda, most refugees never sat on a toilet in their lives. I know of some, both kids and adults, who come to the US and put their feet on the seat and squat. Not sure if they don't know the right way to do it, or if, like me, they just can't do it the opposite way.
This is the squat toilet. I also took a picture to show how the walls are peek-a-boo bamboo, and the swinging door does not latch or lock.
One of Layku Htoo's cousins, a first grader who was born in Thailand but has lived here for 5 years, was at my house playing a few weeks ago and said he had to use the bathroom. Our toilet paper is not in plain sight so he called me to ask for it. When I opened the door, there he was, feet up on the toilet seat and he was squatting. It made me crazy. This little boy has spent most of his life here and will be growing up to manhood here, as an American, not as a refugee. I don't want him to be laughed at by his peers. Kids need to "fit in."
Here's something Bill emailed to me the other day. "It amazes me as to how much more Layku Htoo is advanced as compared to anyone else in his family (including his cousins). He does things & understands things on a daily basis that other family members have no clue about. He also shows a little frustration when he tells them things & gets nothing but blank stares in response. Oh well - I guess that's the life of being a genius."
Layku Htoo knows much more English than he does Karen. He prefers to speak English, even to his family. He has no accent because he learned it from me. Lay speaks half the time to him in English, half the time in Karen. He and his cousins mostly speak English when they play, and if they speak to him in Karen, he answers them in English. His little 4 year old brother understands most everything I say and knows enough to talk to me in English, though he's the opposite of LK2. His English is way less recognizable, and he speaks English like his mom does, with a very heavy accent. He prefers to speak Karen, but most often I hear the two of them speaking English to each other. It's so cute.
Well, I don't know why I went off on that tangent. It has nothing to do with my trip to Thailand, but it has everything to do with missing him.
|(Just letting you know I went back and added a few pictures to some previous posts.}|
|I know that squat toilets are used in other areas. There were factory workers in Los Angeles who squatted over the toilets. They were Mexicans and Filipinos from rural areas. Workers from urban areas found it to be "unsanitary" and constantly complained. The squatters argued that they did not want to "sit on that tall, unclean, toilet".|
|Having read through this entire thread with some considerable interest the thing that struck me most of all was just how much I can identify with your experiences. From the isolation of not being able to communicate right down to the squat toilets any many things in between, I have traveled to India, Sri Lanka, Brazil and now live in Japan, your notes are shades of all my experiences in those places.
Brenda, thank you for sharing all this with us.
Fortune favors the brave.
Tickling is no laughing matter.
|See what I mean Nancy?|
|By the way, when I visited Tokyo, I ran across the squat toilets too. Not everywhere, but it was more of a trough with running water.|
|Jon, you are always welcome, but it is Nancy who is sharing her experience with us. I am just traveling along with her here on the net|
|Nancy thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. It was like reading a really good book, one that makes you feel like you are there, seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling it all.|
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