I eat every meal in a different restaurant, trying to remember where the best ones are. Memorable meals so far have included Tea-leaf salad, banana-leaf salad, spicy pork salad, (was warm and included squid, shrimp, glass noodles and lots of lemon-grass and other very aromatic herbs), Bamboo curry and roti ( more like Indian puri, done in oil). Almost all the food is spicy hot, just the way I like it, but there’s a delicate sweetness too. The cost is very reasonable from a 66 cent Pad Thai to a $2 Burmese curry in a place catering to Westerners. The market street is of course a source of great sensual stimulation. Walking through the crowded alley, one can’t fail to notice the buckets of eels, the live frogs tied together with an elastic band, fresh water turtles and the caged sparrows, all due to end up on somebody’s plate before the day is out.
There are quite few Westerners here, mainly working for NGOs. Apparently, the foreign community is divided by salary level and mode of transportation. Some big aid organizations are well dug in, sending back shocking reports about the plight of the Burmese refugees and getting large donations, much of which goes to pay for their tinted-window SUV, their servants in the big house and junkets to conferences where yet more reports are generated. The rest of us, who volunteer our time for free, ride about earnestly on funky Chinese bicycles and have to buy our own mosquito nets!
The plight of the Karen refugees in the camps is indeed heart-breaking. They are displaced and stateless. The Thai government lets them stay in the camps, but won’t let them leave or give them Thai papers or provide any assistance. That’s where the NGOs come in. But I have had it explained to me that the camp situation is about a lot of money and personnel concentrated on a relatively small population, maybe 150,00, yet not achieving great things. However, just across the border inside Burma, the need is huge and almost unaddressed. I have decided to concentrate on cross-border work. On March 17th we will do a training at a new clinic, serving around 400 internally displaced people. We will install a very small PV system, but even 2 fluorescent lights, a plug to charge a laptop and batteries for flashlights and the crucial malaria microscope is a huge step forward.
In BGET, the Border Green Energy Team, I work with Salinee, the Director, Muang, the office manager, who are both Thai, and Thai, Sunti and Em, who are all solar technicians and are Thai Karen, born in the camps or nearby. (I realize there are a lot of Thais in that sentence, but one of our techs really is called Thai). Plus there’s Jennifer, who is from the US. They are all in their twenties and have much fun together. Muang likes to listen to Thai and American bubblegum pop songs all day, and sing along with them. I’ve only been in the office a week and now I can just about sing along with them too! Tomorrow I will start 1 hr a day Thai language with Muang. To keep it serious, she’s charging me $3 an hour. You can see photos of everybody by going to www.bget.org and clicking on About Us, then Staff. Right now my work centers around preparations for the two trainings I will do – customizing the training manuals, deciding who will teach what, checking that all the equipment works and communicating with the leaders of the groups we are training. I am also training our technicians, giving them a more in depth understanding of PV and batteries. They are very receptive and appreciative. An old, experienced codger like me gets a lot of respect in Thailand!
I feel very healthy. The weather is great. Since Mae Sot is in the hills it is cooler than Chiang Mai was. The mornings and evenings are perfect for cycling, though it gets a wee bit clammy in the late afternoon. I’m eating so much, it’s just as well I have to cycle everywhere! Right now it’s the end of the cool season and soon the hot season will begin. We’ll see if I’m still loving the weather in April, when it really gets toasty!
But Mae Sot is a deceptive little town. After the daylight hours of tranquility and harmony, there lies an underbelly of crime, exploitation and political intrigue. I know this from reading “Restless Souls” by Phil Thornton and having his information confirmed by long-time residents.
Yesterday, Feb 29th, was a special day. The BGET team revisited the refugee camp at Mae La. It’s about an hour north of Mae Sot and is the largest of the several camps up and down the border, with a population of 60-70,000. It was established in 1990 and is mainly populated by Karen. The Karen are a unique people. They had a creation myth that said that their younger white brother would come back some day, returning to them their long lost book. Well, when the American Baptist missionaries arrived here in the late 1800s, many of the Karen converted to Christianity. Now 40% are Christian, the remainder being Buddhist and Animist. The whole 6 hours we were in the camp, I could hear Christian songs being sung to guitar accompaniment. The conditions in the camp are crowded, the buildings are often makeshift and the level of poverty is palpable. Most people will not be resettled to 3rd countries, and will remain there till the Thai government’s policy changes. But what is striking is that the Karen have maintained their dignity and their cultural cohesion and do not exhibit the hopeless and desperation one might expect. On the contrary, they are focused on the future and education plays a large part in the camp. I wandered into High School #2 and spoke to the headmaster. There are over 30,000 children in 16 Primary, 8 Middle and 10 High Schools established in Mae La in 1996. Classes include Bible, Karen, Thai, English and Burmese languages, History, Geography, Math and Science. There is vocational training too and I visited a rudimentary metal-working shop. There is a computer learning center that BGET installed the electrical power for. The system is a 1Kw PV array with diesel generator back-up. They have internet connection and mobile phones work there too. We were there this time to do a presentation to the students in the Engineering Studies Program on a Micro Hydro system that BGET had installed at another location, with the assistance of 7 of the ESP students. It’s difficult to get permission for camp residents to leave, but in this case it was obtained. So, the BGET team and the 7 participating students did a PowerPoint presentation in English and Karen, to about 20 other students and the Director of the ESP. English language skills are pretty strong in the camp. We were treated to an elaborate lunch of fish soup, cabbage salad, chicken and sweet and sour soup. It was humbling to be so feted by people who have so little. The ESP students are about 17-25 years old and seem a cohesive group with great camaraderie and constant joking and laughter. The Karen are obviously an extremely resourceful and enduring people. I just hope they can get back to their homeland, Karen State, just over the border, called Kawthoolei, in Karen language.
And then there is Oscar. He walked into BGET office looking like the Kung Fu master of ‘Little Grasshopper’ fame, who had been given the clothes that were left after Woodstock went home. He is 65, born Karen in Burma, but resettled in the US in 1968, by his father’s employer, a Scot. His education was old school British and he can recite long passages from Walter Scott’s ‘Lochinvar’ and Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’. After 40 years in the US, trained as structural engineer, he has returned to help his people and rediscover his roots. He’s a gas, and I’m sure he will appear in future epistles from the border.