Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 10: Not Wanting to See the Elephants

10, 2008

There is little as disconcerting as 2 huge nostrils snaking through a crowd right towards you. Oh, maybe a palm covered with elephant snot.

I went to Chiang Mai to see the Elephant Training Center, but I heard from someone about the techniques used to subjugate the huge animals into submission. Starvation, lack of sleep, beating with sticks. I didn't want to see that. These proud forest giants are humbled by puny man and used to do his bidding. I'm sure there must be more to it than that. I know the elephant owners depend on their animals and treat them well, but, to see the giant stride down the highway covered with chains was enough for me. So, in Chiang Mai, I stayed at the Bible College (which I discovered I'd been to before when the Nelsons taught agricultural techniques there) and hired a car to take me to the Hill Tribe Museum, Darapirom Palace, and a few wats in the downtown area. Jin Da sent Ber Lai with me. It was probably a good idea. Left on my own in a guest house I undoubtedly would have overdone it. I'm still limping from the accident. I went to Chiang Mae by bus with Boo Poh who went for a meeting at the Thai Karen Baptist Church office. Instead of the night market, I watched the Thai view of the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing.

We came home in stages: a bus to Tak and a (crowded) van through the mountains to Mae Sot. New Ton met us and brought us down to KTK and, wouldn't you know it, as we drove past the village Buddhist monastery and village grounds, there were 3 elephants: Papa elephant, Mama Elephant and Baby elephant though even papa wasn't as huge as the one I saw on the highway. The traveling elephant show was in town.

I watched them set up and took pictures, sneaking in a few monks while I was at it. There was music blaring to advertise the evening show and the elephants were dancing. Just a gentle swaying chorus line since they were chained to the tree.

I took Eh Ku Lweh to the show. She's scared of them since the ones in her village would sometimes go rogue and kill their owners. When the elephants walked toward us and passed by at toe-stomping range, she hid behind me. If you hold out food – sugar cane or bananas – they take it with their trunk, and sniff down the row of spectators looking for more. Suddenly, a nose was in my face. If you put a coin on your palm, they sniff it up and nose it to their trainer. They also sat, crawled, kowtowed, danced, twirled hula hoops while standing on 1 foot on a barrel, walked on 2 feet and pooped. Sorry, but it's true and huge.

I admit my feelings were mixed. I was in awe of them at the same time that I didn't really want to see it.

By morning, they were gone with only a pile of dung to mark their passing. I wonder if it makes good fertilizer.

In Burma, there are still elephants in every village. To own one is to be wealthy and Karens become stingy according to Paw Thwe and save their jiats in bamboo sticks to buy an elephant. When the Burmese army comes, they bury the sticks or throw them in the bush – but the army knows and often finds them. In Thailand, elephants have been replaced by machinery, just as the water buffalo are being replaced by tractors. The elephants are reduced to begging on the streets and tourist shows. Though I'm sure the Chiang Mai show is more impressive and polished, it's also filled with Western tourists. I'm glad to have seen the elephants in the village, surrounded by delighted villagers, the elders with memories in their eyes perhaps more excited than the kids.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

August 5: Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Emergency Room

August 5, 2008

Yesterday, I had several important life learnings:

1. When you ride a motor bike, wear long pants and sneakers;

2. Making a right hand turn in traffic is difficult from the left lane;

3. If you're going to crash a motorbike, do it in front of the hospital;

4. don't argue when they want to put you in a wheelchair and take you to the emergency room;

5. Thai hospitals don't ask for insurance cards;

6. In Thai hospitals, it only costs $2.10 for emergency room care and medication;

7. When you walk out of the hospital and ride the bike home, thank God.



Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 4: My Last Day at Camp


August 4, Monday

Friday was my last day at camp. I've been taking pictures like crazy somehow feeling as though I can carry people home with me on a media card. It was finally time to go. I had farewell classes that didn't get much work done, and a "party" on Thursday night with my evening gathering. On Friday there was a farewell service – a Karen tradition. The set my chair in the middle of the stage and sang a goodbye song, presented gifts, and made speeches and prayers. After a special meal, I jumped into my western clothes and the truck and bumped my way out of camp. I'll really miss the teachers and students. The teachers – Gail Mou, William, Tee Tho, and Wado - are an incredible, dedicated group of men who are struggling to do what they can for their people. Education is very important for the Karen and teachers are held in high esteem. Tee Toh and Wado are working on long distance doctorates, William (who has only been back from seminary for a year – he's the baby of the group at 29) is trying to find a way to do one, and Gail Mou is moving to Australia where he hopes to pastor to Karens.

Doe Doh drove William and I to Klee Thee Klou (it was a very rare weekend out for William). We got there in time to drive on down to Poprah (another 45 minutes) to the local high school: Phopphrawitthayakhom School where they served us a delicious Thai meal –f attening the lambs for slaughter. English Camp was in session. 120 teenagers gathered in the gym shelter waiting for the foreigners to entertain them. Of course, no one told us was we were going to do; just that it was a high school thing and they wanted native English speakers. What they got was William (whose spoken grammar is very bad), an American, an Australian, and 2 Karen English speakers from Pastor Peacefully's IDP school. The others had been at it all day, so William and I were expected to take over. Try coming up with a group activity for 120 without preparation. We relied on William's youth group activities which did nothing to teach English. It didn't help that the Thai English teachers kept translating everything into Thai, and the kids weren't expected to talk to each other in English. The camp continued on Saturday morning. Very little real English learning happened, but I got a tee shirt and a wooden motorbike because teachers are like motorbikes, carrying the children from one level to another.

We returned to Klee Thee Klou and a quiet afternoon. In the evening, Shirley wanted to go to the English worship in Mae Sot so we invited Eh Kou Lwe. She's just returned from India with her masters and Newton has made her principal of his new school. She's in over her head. She and William knew each other in India, in fact they were an "item". Everyone was talking marriage for them. In Karen culture, you don't date. You have only one person – ever. If it doesn't work out, too bad. That was your chance. And it can't work out for them because William is stuck in Mae La and she can't leave Klee Thee Klou. He's unregistered because they registered people while he was in India and now they aren't doing it so he's unable to get a card that will let him move around. He is, essentially, illegal. She's from No Poh refugee camp and only has permission to be in Klee Thee Klou – or something like that. I think this is part of William's frustration and depression. So this was a rare night out for them. Even in India, they didn't leave the campus which apparently was far from any markets or night life.

We went to the service, but I admit I left when they decided to anoint everyone in the room with oil. I felt as tho that was an imposition and I didn't want to participate. I went down the street to the wat which was glowing in the ambient night light. At the base of the stupas there was a row of buddhas = reclining, sitting, standing, glowing gold. I wish I had had my camera.

Once the fellowship was done, we went to Dave's café for Western food which William doused in hot sauce.


On Saturday evening, I asked Newton if he was doing anything interesting in the morning. In his Karen way, he asked me to give the message at a memorial service. I didn't know much more than that the woman had been 97 years old. On Sunday, I climbed into the truck with the youth choir that usually accompanies him to sing. We drove to Mae Sot and turned into a small alley that opened into a complex of 3 wooden buildings. I'd been here before. Two weeks ago I came with Dr. Simon to pray with the elderly women who were living there. The memorial service was for Nget Sin, the woman I had seen in the hospital bed, the woman whose funeral was on Wednesday but I missed the truck in from the camp, the woman who was one of the original settlers of Mae Sot. When we came in, the family was gathered around her bed, eating, and folks were gathering in the large common room. I was given the chair of honor, and it was an honor for me to speak. The other woman who lived there was carried to the room and set down on the floor (where most were sitting). We prayed and I spoke and the children and others sang. Then the floor was cleared and food set out on it. We settled down to the feast, which was quite good. It included DESSERT! Sticky rice topped with ice cream, condensed milk and pieces of potato. That was a shock.

When we were through, Newton led us all to one of the other buildings, to the woman who had sat with such dignity while I prayed for her 2 weeks before. Yesterday, she was in the large common room, lying on a mat on the floor, propped up with pillows, a wet washcloth on her side in some pain. I sat down next to her. She reached out her hand and I took it, holding it while the children sang. I prayed, and then Newton prayed. We left her there.


This morning, I started working with the 8 students. It's going to be pretty basic. In the afternoon, I drove Pastor Peacefully's car to him in Poprah. That's actually more adventuresome than it sounds. I haven't driven a car in 2 months, a stick shift in 10 years, on the wrong side of the road in 30 years, or shifted with my lift hand since never. I'm teaching Shirley's Monday afternoon class to free her to work on her dissertation. I'll also go down on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons if they can use me. It's not so much that I want to teach in Poprah, but it's an excuse to ride the motorbike on a beautiful back road through villages and herds of water buffalo.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

July 30: An Early Morning Wedding


Wednesday, July 30

On Monday, I saw one of the students sewing and asked her about it.

"It's for the wedding tomorrow. Do you want to come? You can see how it's different from America."

I'm always up for a good wedding. "Sure! What time?"


"At night?" I think I squeaked that one.

"No, in the morning." Well, I already knew how weddings here were different. Reception is breakfast.

It was held in the shelter by the church which had been decorated with balloons and tinselly streamers. People were sitting on the pink and blue plastic chairs. Those without seats (everyone welcome) were standing around; the kids playing on the ground looking as grubby as always. Up on the platform there was a row of seated young men and women dwindling down on either side to small kids in flowered head dresses. Against the right wall, men were sitting at a table.

It took me a while to figure out who was whom and I used up my batteries on the couple in the middle of the stage. No. They weren't the bride and groom, but I have lots of nice pictures of them. If I had read the banner, I would have known that there were 2 couples being married; one sat on the left, the other on the right with the best men and bride's maid seated on either side. They wore everyday dress, though color coordinated, and the women were wearing the traditional head scarf/hat. They looked like tintypes from the 19th century, stiffly posed with flowers in hand or on lapel.

Though it was in Karen, the ceremony seemed vaguely familiar, except the part where they solemnly took turns signing documents at the table. There was a lot of singing by different groups in the congregation, and, of course, prayer and preaching. As soon as Thra Simon declared the benediction, the stiff poses broke and the smiling began. The young people came down from the stage for the reception line and it was off to wherever the day took us. It took me to the reception. One of the bride's maids was Thra Eh Doe Wah's sister and one of the "receptions" was being held at his in-laws' house, so he invited me along and showed me the way.

We followed the rivers of mud to ladder littered with muddy shoes. They were bringing out round, short tables and bowls of food. Just grab a piece of floor and dig in. Fortunately, William came along so I had someone to talk to and we had an interesting discussion on culture. Does eating your food with your hands make a culture more primitive? (He told me to go ahead and use a spoon. That food was hot!) There was pork (of course), soup, fried veggies – beans and morning glories – fish paste, and curried eggs. Oh, and rice. Most of it was too spicy for me to eat, but I had already eaten breakfast.

The couple was brought the house with much music and confetti and she went into a room never to be seen by me again. He came out after taking off his new Karen shirt (they often wear it over a "regular" shirt) and joined the guests. William and I left for the chapel service that starts the school day.

After classes, I wandered over to Williams to watch him mow his lawn with scissors. A crowd of students passed by for "home services." Once a week, rather than having evening chapel the worship groups split up and go to different homes. I hadn't gone with them, so I decided to tag along. We went to one of the many homes for children who had been sent from Burma for school. We sat on the floor along the walls of the common room of a typical, rambling bamboo house. The students follow a traditional format which of course includes singing, prayer and a message. The children sang a song in response, and they then gave us dinner. If I had known I'd be eating some of their precious food, I wouldn't have gone. It was noodles and I think small fish. There are a lot of these dormitories around the camp; I'll have to find out how many children there are here. We went back along the muddy river they call a road. I made it back without slipping (wrong shoes again) and without losing my sarong which is probably more important.

Today, I found John and invited him to walk with me. Have I told you about John? He's lived here for 5 years and still speaks fondly of his village in Burma. He's 18; his parents are still in Burma but he has aunts and uncles and a brother who have already moved to Minneapolis. He leaves on Aug. 14. The kid is tense with excitement. As we walked he told me what he had learned today at the preparation class: about the flight over, and how America was started. He's going with his 2 cousins who are about his age. That leaves his uncle, William, with the youngest who looks around 8. William will still be here, tending his lawn. We spent a few hours today talking about his future. Is he more useful here, teaching the students at the college, or going abroad to get more training? Right now, he's the only teacher unable to leave the camp, and that gets him down. I'm trying to find ways to send him resources once I get home.