Thursday, July 31, 2008

July 19: Papa's Birthday

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The day started at 5, as usual, but that was all that was usual. Instead of unsteady violins, I was awakened by the sound of giggling and chairs being moved outside me window, which was the wrong wall for the noise. I got dressed to see what was going on, and the common room was now all chairs, the hot water table had become a worship place, and the kids were all sitting on the veranda. Thra Simon was among them and I asked what was going on.

"For my birthday," he said with ill-concealed glee. "The senior students have been invited for worship."

Less than half of them came, so there were many empty chairs. I don't know their reason for not coming. Five o'clock is the usual time for getting up. But I think Thra Simon and Tablut Htoo were a little disappointed. The students led the worship in Karen, so I can't tell you what they said though singing "Happy Birthday" was part of it.

"Papa's" birthday is definitely a big deal. Yesterday, they killed the fatted pig, a sight I've been avoiding but inadvertently saw. Thra Simon's kitchen has been the busiest place in the camp as they prepare food for all of the guests and dignitaries. I got in the way and poked my nose in the kettles trying not to see the pig's head in the basin by the stove. The men who had slaughtered the pig kept bringing in pieces and laying them on the table. I hope the Board of Health never visits this place. There were basins of garlic and onion, what may be banana leaves in noodle sized strips, "sea flowers" which I think is a white seaweed, curly fungus that might be mushrooms, lemongrass, and pig parts. I'm such a hypocrite. I'll eat the meat, which I did for supper – small pieces of well cooked ribs. I must remember to become a vegetarian.

The "thanksgiving service" lasted for 2 ½ hours and was quite a big deal. Simon had invited the 15 member American team that had come by on Thursday to return at 11:00 on Saturday, so he obviously intended to invite them to his party, though that wasn't what they had in mind. They wanted to witness to refugees. They had no idea what they were in for. They sat uncomfortably on stage, I suspect as a show piece for Thra Simon. The Chairman of the KRC, Robert Htee spoke (He's also some officer in the KKBBSC) and Newton preached. Then various groups performed and Newton's mother, the eldest woman there, prayed for all who had July birthdays. There is a certain reverence given to elders, and especially the crones. Kind of nice, now that I seem to be on the receiving end of that.

The meal afterwards was grand: fish, chicken, all kinds of pork, soup, some greens, and birthday cake for dessert. I spent the rest of the day showing Americans around. First, the witnessing team, then 2 from Colonel Tim. He's an American who was here 2 weeks ago interviewing the WWII vets. His mind goes a mile a minute and doesn't seem to be particularly focused but he seems to get things done. His real goal is to find ways to support the pro-democracy movement in Burma (smells of CIA to me) and to do that he's created his own NGO that seeks to synchronize the work of all of the different groups, as well as doing some kind of energy thing in Burma. His efforts have been a little sidetracked by the Nargis debacle. This summer, he's gathered a group of his daughter's college friends to help him set up an office in Mae Sot and start fundraising. He's also doing a video (hence the videographer who came today. But it's difficult to get a good picture of what he's doing (which seems to be the problem his volunteers are having.

Another effort that reminds me of CIA undercover work to overturn governments is the Free Burma Rangers. I'm not thinking of the idealistic folks who are taking medical supplies into Burma, but the leader of the group, I'm told, is an ex- Navy SEAL or some such elite group. I wonder.

This week I've felt terrible homesickness. I've attributed it to this being the 6 week mark, which is when I usually go home, but I think there's another factor. If I were settled here and knew I were staying, I'd probably still be up for the adventure of it. But my life is definitely temporary. I'm in a dark room with no daylight and no air flow and a lot of dust from decaying bamboo walls. I have no control over my go-to-sleep time; I'm dependent on the whims of the folks in the common room on the other side of the wall. In the morning, I'm awakened before I want to be. I "put up with it" because I know it's only temporary. If I were staying longer, I'd beg a hammer and nails to put more places to hang clothes in the latrine. I'd move to a brighter room or clean the one I have in spite of the dust. I would settle in.

This camp is like that = a temporary, makeshift jungle of bamboo buildings that has settled in. It wasn't built to last. Any day they would return home. But, for the old timers on this side of the stream it's been 18 years. Houses spread out and accommodations are made. William has lined the walk to his house with stones and potted plants. He has a small plot of carefully planted grass inserted blade by blade into the clayey ground. I kid him that he'll need a lawn mower to replace the scissors he now uses to mow his lawn. I can see him as the suburban house holder, every weekend working on his small piece of the world, happy as a clam because that's what he's doing now in this temporary place that promises to last too long.

Soon, I'll be leaving. I have only two more weeks of classes here at Mai La. And like hundreds of other volunteers, I'll go home and leave them here. A few days ago, William sadly noted that so many have said they'd stay in touch or send a book or CD to help him with his studies, but they always forget. They get on with their very different lives and Mai La and its "temporary" residents seem a world away, which they are.


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