Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Kind of Wish We Had a Village

Day 44
Nam Hoo in Mae Hong Song

      We have been traveling in Mae Hong Song for almost a week now. We have hiked to three different villages so far: Pa Ko Lo for one night, Hua Nam for two nights, and I just woke up for my first of two nights in Nam Hoo. We walked a 5k on the roads from the city to Pa Ko Lo, hiked eight hours with about about thirty river crossings to Hua Nam, and another ten hours here to Nam Hoo.
      Yesterday's route was challenging and exhaustedly amazing. For a city girl, hiking through the jungles of a tropical nation has only sounded like the setting for a reality tv show until now. The mountains never fail to humble me. It's easy to feel like a big deal in a small town or a small college, until you find yourself surrounded by the natural wonders you have only heard about. Tree growth here is from a whole other dimension. The roots curl, knot around themselves and then sometimes make their way back up to the sky. My favorite are the trees that look like spilled paint over rocks' edges. Those trees are motivated, which I know is a but animist of me, but how can you look at them and not think they are reaching for something?

      It's amazing what nature has done for my self trust. I have more faith in muscles to contract, tendons to hang on and joints to keep it together. My brain becomes only a part of my body rather than the leader of my body. My quadriceps have as much power as my head on the uphills, creating their own message sensory system and not letting my judgment taint my body's ability to keep moving. Finishing the hike is something my whole body can be proud of, not just my head, not just my heart.
      I wonder if when this is the only available type of travel, like it is for the majority of the the Karen hill tribe, if you become immune to such a whole body connection or if you become that much more in tune with the natural world. The Karen I have met so far posses an immeasurable amount of knowledge about the way nature works. The clothes they wear, the houses they build, the food they eat, the water they drink, all comes from the ground to their hands. Nature is on them, keeping them warm and dry. Nature is over them providing shelter. Nature is in them providing energy and nutrients. Nature is their context, their breath, their heritage. It is so far from what I am.

      The couple who I stayed with in Hua Nam were like characters out of book. My Kuhnmae was 66 years old and suffering from liver disease. Just a few days before my stay with her she was carried to the hospital (down the slippery route we climbed up for eight hours) because she was feeling dizzy and had low blood pressure. However, when I was with her, she moved like a 20 year old as we hiked an hour out to her field. The trek was difficult for me, an avid runner, but she was hopping slick and muddy fences, skipping down rough terrain, slicing anything in her way with a machete, all with a basket of vegetables hanging from her head. The only thing I saw her do for herself while I was there was shower. She was always cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, feeding animals, taking care of her ill husband and tending to me and my needs before I could even ask how to do it myself. She just kept going, even when it was the most excusable for her to stop.
      My Kuhnpau was 80 years old, had bad eyesight and liver disease as well. Everyone in the village knew he wasn't doing well and seemed to have prepared for him to die soon. He wasn't able to do a whole lot, but he mustered up enough energy to stay up and talk to me one night. He couldn't read or write, but spoke Thai fluently, despite never going to school. He reminded me a lot of my own dad: quiet, smiling, giving, and someone who just makes you feel good to be around. He was born in Hua Nam 80 years ago and has lived there ever since. They have seven kids, three of which live in Hua Nam as well. The last night we were in Hua Nam I would guess the they were all over at the house with their spouses and children helping out with whatever needed to be done. Kuhnmae said they all get together like that every few days. My family only gathers on major holidays.
      On our last night we had a meeting with various community members. We asked them why they continue to live in Hua Nam, why not move to the city where schools are closer and living is easier? They answered, "This village is our heritage. It was passed on to us by our parents and we will pass it on to our children as well. It's not something you can buy, it is all I have to give."
      For me, this message carries a special weight knowing how fragile the situation is back at home with my family. Much like my Kuhnpau, my Grandpa's health has slowly declined over the years, prompting heart surgery among other things. My own family is preparing for and facing similar events as my host family in Hua Nam, but we don't have a village. We have a three hour drive keeping us apart most days of the year. I kind of wish we had a village.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Finding Buddha in the Clouds

Day 37
at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

After my first month here, I am full. I do not think I could absorb anything more. I barely got through the foundations course which consisted of 6 weeks, 5 days a week, four hours of Thai language in the morning and three to four hours of Thai culture in the afternoon. However, the education never stops there. My homestay feels like a class, too. I am always learning whether it is a new comfortable way to sit without pointing my feet at a family member or at one of the million pictures of the King or the details behind the recent coup d'etat. And the lack of confrontation, the smoothing over of conflicts without ever addressing the issue at hand, is making me crazy. I don't know how to operate like that. There are parts of this place I just can't take.

Yet, there are parts of this place that do unspeakable things for me. Like Doi Suthep, where I am right now as I write this. It is a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, approximately 3,520 feet above sea level. You can see the gold chedi from the highway Kuhnpau takes when he drives me to school. This place gently lifts me from sticky waters and lets me walk on air. It brings my heart closer to mind and widens all that narrows. I don't think that any of my evils could survive here. I am refreshed from the inside out leaving only pureness between my skull and toes. It doesn't pull me back into what I should know, nor does it push me into a new perspective, it unlatches the chains I have bound to myself and then I float. I am me through each step of the process, high and low.

I leave for the Mae Hong Song expedition in two days. At the beginning of this week surrounded in clouds of frustration I could barely see more than two inches in front of me and even that was distorted. I didn't have enough hands to juggle all that I have been opened up to this past month. After a few days of shameless, self-allowed depression, I am ready.

Today while offering my gifts of incense and flowers to Buddha I asked of myself strength, both mental and physical, openness for both my group and the Karen, and for continuance of the self-confidence and self image I have been working to improve. I want to dive into curious waters without question and trust myself down to the core. I am at the last step before the first big jump and look at what spreads out before me with a smile on my face.

I am on the right track.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A night at the market

Day 3
Chiang Mai

Sawatdee Kah!

Today, Makee, Ming and I rode bikes to Kuhnpau's shop. Traffic in Thailand is just organized chaos, and I am not just saying that becuase they drive on the opposite side of the road. I have yet to find what looks like a speed limit sign. Lane markers and stop signs act only as suggestions. With Thailand being a very nonconfrontational culture, drivers show little consideration for the cars around them and continue to inch forward in traffic jams glaring forward with their blinders on. Yet, somehow, it works.

We ate dinner in the back after Kuhnmae and Kuhnpau closed down. We bought our food on the street market and I fell in love. To Makee and Ming it was just another Sunday night at Mom and Dad's shop, but the atmosphere captured me whole. People, motorbikes and skinny stray dogs filled the streets below with strings of Christmas lights twinkling overhead. Vendors bordered the crowded path with tables of silks, scarves, wood carvings, lanterns, jewelry, and other various souveniors and knick knacks. Traditional Thai music played in the background, but I never did figure out where it was coming from. Makee and Ming love taking me to the food stands to point at all of the fruits and vegetables I have never seen before. Once the vendors notice that I am an American learning my Thai food vocabulary, they cut up a piece of one or two of the fruits for me to try. Of course, the fruit we have in America is the same over here, but bigger and juicier. Yet, some of it I just can't get over, like the dragonfruit, lychee, jackfruit and mangosteen.
They all look like something Dr. Seuss would create in one of his rhymes with bright fuschias and greens and flowering outside layers. Additionally, as is the proper way of everything Thai, there is a hierarchical structure to fruit, with durain as the King and mangosteen as the Queen. I'm not sure why the durain, which is also known as "smelly fruit," has been deemed the King of all fruit (it really does smell horrid, like hot swiss cheese). Of course, Kuhnpau bought one just for me. I feel like he is constantly handing me random, unidentified foods saying, "You eat." He always waits until after I swallow to tell me what I just sent through my digestive system which, in most cases, is for the better. So far, I have eaten fried pork skin, pig intestines and something that looked oddly similar to a maggot, though he assured me it was not. You got to try everything at least once, right?

Like a good Thai student, I have my uniform and backpack set out and ready to go for my first day of class tomorrow. At first, I wasn't sure about being 20 years old and wearing a school uniform since, for me, they are typically associated with private Catholic schools. Yet, here, they create a sense of pride. Each school's uniform is a little bit different and are decorated with different pins and scarves to represent an accomplishment of some kind.

I am a little nervous for my Thai language class. Normally, I pick up on languages quickly, but a Thai classroom operates differently than an American classroom. With such an emphasis on hierarchical structures, the relationship a student develops with a teacher is based on respect for the teacher from an inferior standpoint. While I have a lot of respect for my professors in the states, I also interact with them on a very casual level. Class is based on discussion rather than lecture. I might struggle with keeping my mouth shut.

"You are fat, just like your picture!"

Day 2
Chiang Mai

I just finished spending my first night in Thailand with my host family. They were the last family to show up by about an hour and one of the first things they told me on the car ride home was that I was fat, just like my picture. With months out of commission due to a stress fracture I'm not in as good of shape as I would like, and am not too thrilled about that being the first thing they notice about me. Not an ideal beginning, but I suppose it can only go up from here.

I have a nong (younger) sister, Ming, who is fifteen years old and a nong chai (younger brother), Makee, who is eleven. Ming seems to know a lot of English, as well as my Kuhnpau (father). My Kuhnmae (mother) hasn't spoken any English to me at all. So far, what I have gathered about my family is that Kuhnpau works at a shop where they sell phones, fridges and televisions. Speaking of televisions, I have counted a total of four in our house, including a rather large one at the end of the kitchen table that we watched during my first Thai dinner last night. I haven't figured out if Kuhnmae works or not, but what I have noticed is that she sleeps in her own room downstairs, separate from the other three located upstairs.

Last night after dinner, Ming, Makee, Kuhnpau and I went for a walk around their neighborhood. We ran into quite a few stray dogs, three of which followed us all around the block. I asked if any of them were their's and Ming just laughed and shook her head. Later, when showing them a picture of my pet cat, Al, they asked me why would I ever want a cat in my house.
      They live in what seems to be a Thai version of a subdivision. Their house is the only one in the neighborhood without the standard green and white gated fence--their's is bright orange. They seem to be very proud of that.
Towards the end of our walk I pointed at a yellow flag hanging next to a Thai flag on their neighbor's gate. Ming told me that it is the King's flag and that every Monday is King's Day. Photos of the King are all over the city on billboards, on walls, in Songtows (a Thai taxi), banners, or any other suitable flat surface. In my family's house there are more pictures of him and the royal family than there are of their own family. According to Ming, and every other Thai person I have talked to so far, he is the best King. I couldn't help but giggle a bit when she told me they all wear yellow shirts on Mondays in honor of him--it reminded me of spirit days in high school when classes would be divided by color and we would dress accordingly to show our junior class pride, or love for being a sophomore. A nation wide spirt day? How do you get everyone on the same page?

My family has a very interesting home. I don't think I could compare it to anything in the States. There are lots of shelves and wooden cases filled with framed pictures, toys, vases, pots, stuffed animals and other various knick knacks. There's no method to it really, It's just all kind of there to be looked at. It's cluttered but not messy. No theme, or rhythm, just a display with a little of who they are, but mostly of what they have.

My first dinner went pretty well. Kuhnpau kept throwing lots of new vocab words at me, since there were so many resources on the table for him to use. They kept on insisting that I eat more than I wanted to, which of course I did in order to avoid offending them on my first night spent in their home. Although, I don't understand why they want me to eat so much if they think I am fat. To keep me fat so they can keep saying that I am? To show hospitality? Maybe fat doesn't mean the same thing it means to Americans.

I still have to figure out the bathroom situation. The toilet has a cord to pull when you want to flush, but Ming told me not to use it. The shower is a just a shower head mounted in the corner with nothing surrounding it, so when you turn it on the entire bathroom gets soaked. There are two bowls next to the toilet and I am not sure which one is used for what. Oh, the mystery of the unknown.

Today I did dishes after dinner because, according to Kuhnpau, I am a woman. Tomorrow I will do laundry, also because I am a woman. It's not my culture and I am here to learn, it's not my culture and I am here to learn, it's not my culture and I am here to learn.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Suay Maak Gwah

Day 94
@ Huay Hee, a small Karen hill tribe village in Mae Hong Song

      Today I joined my host father, Patee Chachai*, at church for 11:30 mass. The church charmed me with its simple corrugated tin roof and handmade wooden podium and crosses. There were no walls to its structure allowing a constant breeze to slip across the arms and faces of the attendees as small triangles of sunlight turned on the edges of the pews. All of the villagers wore their best traditional dress, some of the men even sported thin, pastel dress shirts beneath their traditional Karen tops. Their bright threads of reds, blues and yellows complemented the simple wooden benches and bamboo stage. When I sat on one of those benches and took a look to my left, my eyes fell upon a clump of sun soaked mountains and a stretch of young, fallow fields, still bright green from the previous year’s harvest.
      Children played in the back as the adults made up most of the congregation. No one glanced over their shoulders when the children’s screams flooded over what the Pastor, Patee Tahpoh, had to say that Sunday. Every now and then, the adults engaged in their own side chatter or even let out a belch or two, and still, not one dirty look shot in the direction of the noise, not even a small fit of stifled laughter. Church was meant to be like the Karen home: comfortable and communal. Even the sermon itself was more like a conversation, villagers inserting their own small jokes or comments into what Patee Tahpoh had to say.
      Once Patee Tahpoh was finished, a woman named Ella took his place behind the podium. Moogah** Ella spoke with such animation that even I, who knows very little Pgagyong, was nodding along with her ideas. She engaged her audience with puppeteer like motions, polishing the edges of an already golden air. At the end of the service, the village leader, Patee Sajue, explained in English that Moogah Ella was a guest speaker from a nearby village who was leading Huay Hee in “Family Day”. To celebrate this, willing members of the village were invited to hike to Doi Pui, the highest point in Mae Hong Song, reaching 1,772 meters above sea level. I, the only white person in the village, was invited to come along.
      I started my hike with the children and ended it with the adults, my host family included. Being the only farang*** among a variety of Karen people is something I never expected from my study abroad experience. Hugs, arm squeezes, smiles and laughter were in constant exchange. I fell in to their circle with ease. It was as if I had always been a factor in this human equation. All of the women became my mothers and sisters as the men became my fathers and brothers, ensuring I see their land from every possible angle. They asked me, “Mee ti America, mai?”**** I shook my head and answered, “Chai, daywah pookow low ni suay maak gwah.”***** They smiled, a warm hand wrapped around my shoulder and we continued on to the top.
      Once we reached the top we took a lot of pictures, the children doing what they pleased with my digital camera. I was directed to stand in several different places holding flowers my host sister, Manilat, had picked for me. She unknowingly covered the lens with the tip of her index finger and told me to smile. Ella called us to the center of the mountain top to start the last portion of the service. Moogah Ella motioned for me to sit beside her in the circle that began to form. Prayers were spoken, songs were sung, and a guitar was played, all somehow louder than the volume of the crisp wind that wrapped around us. The mountains rippled into the horizon below us, as the sun warming the scene below cast shadows of profiles and shoulders side by side in the middle of our circle. Moogah Ella’s hand squeezed my knee and I knew it was time to go.
      On the hike back I barely said a word as my ears were over-stimulated by natural sounds. Our feet crunched the grass beneath our shoes, a slight breeze whispered past my ear lobes, the children giggled as they floated down the steep slopes, the women joined in harmonious song despite the people that marched the trail between each of them. They all weaved into one chord that I never heard before, but somehow knew.
      We finished the last portion of the hike guided only by the moonlight that poured onto the trail through the cracks in the tree canopy. We all lost our footing at least once to be picked up again by laughter and helping hands that snaked through the darkness. When we reached the village road the women danced in celebration, their hands in the air, the bright beaded necklaces applauding their finish as they bounced against their chests.
      Later that night, I think I saw more stars than sky as I sat around the fire with my host family. Patee Chachai held an exhausted daughter in his lap and asked me, “Mee ti America, mai?” pointing to the star sprinkled sky above us. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Chai, daywah low ni dow suay maak gwah.”******

*Patee- a Pgagyong term which translated into English literally means “uncle”. This term is used mostly by the young or by someone who wants to show respect or honor to the elder male they are addressing. The male does not necessarily have to be one’s uncle or even related for this term to be used.
**Moogah- a Pgagyong term which translated into English literally means “aunt”. This term is used in the same style as Patee but used when addressing an older female.
***Farang- a thai term borrowed from the French used when referring to Westerners or anything Western.
****Translated from Thai to English this reads, “Do you have this in America?”
*****Translated from Thai to English this reads, “Yes, but these mountains are much more beautiful.”
******Translated from Thai to English this reads, “Yes, but these stars are much more beautiful.”