Monday, December 22, 2008

Thailand to Burma with an NGO

It's Been a While

Howdy Everyone!
 
It has been quite a while since I have written all my loved ones back home. As always, I'm hoping this finds everyone healthy and happy.
 
The following will take you through the last two weeks of my trip with the college students, and through the time I spent alone on Koh Samui. A description of traveling Vietnam with Julia and Juno will be sent before the new year.
 
After spending a week in Bangkok (excrutiating....the city is incredibly polluted and hectic), the group endeavored upon an overnight bus ride to Ranong, a mid sized city  in Central Thailand, on the border of Burma. Once there, we rendevouzed with the folks at Mirror Art Group, a nonprofit whose focus is helping displaced peoples build new communities. Within the span of an hour, we were being whisked away to our next journey: spending 6 days volunteering with Burmese Sea Gypsies. These refugees from Burma's oppressive military regime find themselves in a difficult situation. For centuries, these clans have freely traveled the Andaman Sea, between Thailand and India. They have made their living by catching and selling fish, as well as acquiring sea cucumbers, which sell for a fairly high price. This practice has taken countless lives, as the fishermen dive to depths of 15 meters and greater to harvest the sea cucumbers. They do this without any sort of advanced dive equipment. They swim to these depths with only a small breathing tube: one end in their mouth, the other being held by a someone in the boat! Oftentimes this has fatal results: the carbon dioxide that is purged during exhalation does not make it to the surface; it stays in the tube. After awhile, the diver is no longer breathing oxygen, only carbon dioxide. The diver eventually faints, and in so doing, drowns.
 
These people now find themselves unable to freely coast the Andaman Sea due to military intervention from Burma (geographically between India and Thailand). The Burmese government is so paranoid in it's totalitarian mindset that they perceive the Sea Gypsies presence in the Andaman Sea as dangerous, in that it is difficult to monitor their activities and their cargo. Thus, they have been forced from their "homes" i.e. boats and basically forced to become laborers on the Burmese mainland. However, some have chosen to escape and make their way (really just a few kilometers) to some remote islands in the southwest of Thailand. Here they can still fish and gather sea cucumbers, though for how long is unclear. The Thai government has allowed them to establish very basic communities (bamboo and thatch homes). However, these people cannot get the necessary paperwork to become eligible for work, and thus are in a state of limbo. The men continue to fish; the women care for children; the children are growing up without the opportunity for education or work. Furthermore, the island that we volunteered on (Payam Island) is set to become a national park in the next two years, making the Burmese peoples' future uncertain at best.
 
Village life here was fascinating to watch. First off, the vibe is set by the fact that the money and resources (timber, concrete, diesel generator, farm implements) by which the villages are sustaining themselves and expanding are coming from Christian missionaries. The largest single project occurring right now is the construction of a small church. The older generation shows absolutely zero interest in the project, or the new religion that is being taught. However, in true imperialistic fashion, the missionaries really aren't focusing on the elders: they are focusing on the kids. As in most cases where poverty abounds, the people (especially children) equate wealth with happiness and cessation of suffering. So, the children see the "wealth" of the missionaries, see that their standard of living is being improved by this wealth, and are thus very eager to learn more about Christianity. I have nothing against Christianity: I think that Jesus was one of the greatest teachers this earth has ever seen. However, the problem is this: this small group of Burmese children, who in all likelihood will accept Christianity as their faith, will be doing so because they equate this religion and it's representatives with WEALTH. Grumble, grumble...I'll move on.
 
The group undertook a number of projects over a 6 day period. We helped built a concrete "closet" for the new diesel generator (which provided power for 3 hours in the evening). We dug out a huge hole for what will eventually become a fish farm. We also spent a day mixing, scooping, and pouring concrete in order to finish the foundation for the church. The work was simple, laborous, and provided a great way to "communicate" with a population who spoke, quite literally, no English. The group could not help but to notice that the women of the village did very little in the way of work. They spent the majority of the day smoking cigarettes, gambling, and gossiping underneath the shade of their homes (which are built on stilts). Granted, they are caring for the children. However, there are many women in the village, and a few could be taking care of the children, while others could help in what we perceived as the primary need: gardening and growing food. The land is fertile here, and the climate condusive to lush and abundant gardens. However, as our guide explained, because of the history of these clans, the women are not knowledgable in the area of growing food. Traditionally, the sea farers spent much of their lives at sea, and traded fish for fruits, vegetables, and other goods. Because the men did the fishing and the diving, the women established a habit of congregating on shorelines or boat decks, and just socializing. My esteemed co leader, Dawn, was appalled at how little the women in the village did; how idle they were. Dawn represented the female gender well, tearing into every project with gusto and energy....I think she was trying to show her fellow women that, "Hey, look...we can do whatever the men can do, just as well....get off your butts!". Her example was met with little enthusiasm by the village women.
 
Another aspect of this lethargy is this: these people do not have much cause to be positive or hopeful in their outlook on life. They were raised within a rapidly fading tradition, and have no nationality (unless they want to return to Burma...shudder), and no way of integrating into the Thai social structure. They are living on borrowed land that could be taken from them at any moment. So addiction (mostly cigarettes and alcohol) and depression abound here. While the people were friendly enough, a sense of hopelessness permeated our experience here.
 
Our sixth day was spent across a small channel at a very simple resort with bungalows. This was a "relax and recuperate" day, which we all did with zeal. Fruit shakes, green curry with fresh seafood, hot showers....mmmmmmmm. The next morning, we embarked upon the 4 hour boat ride back to the mainland. I must say that the Andaman Sea and surrounding islands are a beautiful area, and are a well kept secret in terms of tourism (until now).
 
From Ranong, we took a minibus to Chumphon, stayed the night, and hopped on a large Catamaran (motorized) to make the 2 hours trek to the island of Koh Tao. The seas were rough this day, and the crew was passing out barf bags aplenty. It is truely awesome to be thrown about by the ocean the way we were that day. Even though this was a relatively large vessel, it seemed to me that we were a bunch of ants on a toy boat. Each wave felt like it could overturn the boat at any moment. A solid 90% of the passengers were heaving their breakfasts into the plastic bags, and yes, I was one of them. I was so seasick that I was altered for the rest of the day. I do have to say that I upchucked fewer times than most. Alright, alright....enough about that.
 
Once safe from the choppy waters of the Gulf of Thailand, we were taken to the final stage of our trip: scuba diving in the emerald waters off the coast of Koh Tao. This part of the trip is intended as a sort of "reward" for all the hard work and travel weariness. Thus, our accomodations were fresh, clean, and way nicer than I would be able to pay for as a solo traveler. After spending a day and a half in shake sipping, curry eating, people watching reverie, we began our scuba course. I must say that my history with water is both nearly void of experience and full of anxiety (especially sharks!). I have never really taken to water. Yes, I can swim. That is about it. The idea of breathing underwater is, naturally, unnatrual. Furthermore, the movie Jaws has been a thorn in my psyche for more than two decades. I have been convinced that, if I were to endeavor in oceanic activities, that I would literally attract a shark due to my depth of fear of the creatures.
 
Our instructor, Claus, was privy to many of the myths and fears that plague the mind of a beginning diver. He gave us a lot of information about shark attacks (virtually nonexistent for divers....they seem drawn to surfers who look like seals as they float across the surface of the water). He gave us some heartening figures about likelihood of shark attack (if you haven't been struck by lightening, you won't be attacked by a shark). He also gave us info on sea snakes, jelly fish, trigger fish, eels, and other critters that could potentially harm us. Of course, all of them will harm only if provoked or trapped, so many of my worries were, if not entirely dismissed, at least greatly eased.
 
We had our first lesson in the swimming pool, just getting used to breathing underwater and getting familiar with our diving apparatus. We practiced dropping and recovering our breathing device; how to achieve neutral buoyancy (basically like floating in space) with our buoyancy vests; how to breath off someone else's tank in an emergency; etc. The next day, we went out into the ocean and began our lessons. The waters were choppy, and thus murky. Visibility was at about a meter, which is to say the conditions were difficult. After much hacking due to involuntarily ingesting saltwater; a near case of hyperventilating due to a state closely resembling panic; and getting knocked about by the waves, I finally mustered the courage to deflate my vest and immerse myself in the underwater world. We went to 12 meters depth, at which point we all reached the bottom and practiced the previously mentioned skills. I must say that the bottom waters were much calmer than the top; I felt safer and more peaceful below the surface rather than floating on the surface. After spending 30 minutes at this depth, we came up and had a break (in order to release trapped nitrogen in the body). The sea was having it's way with the boat, I lost my lunch, and was catapulted into the familiar world of sea sickness. The students dove one more time, then we all headed in.
 
The next day, I was given a Dramamine, and it was on! The seas were calmer and clearer, and the pill allowed no room for seasickness. The two dives were absolutely amazing! Visibility was about 10 meters. As we reached a depth of 15 meters (45 feet), a whole wilderness of coral greeted us. Each coral formation had it's own unique ecosystem, with many different types of life to be found in varying numbers. Sea anemones, Moray (SP!) eels, trigger fish, angel fish, zebra fish, small schools of less colorful but no less graceful fish....all were available for our viewing pleasure. I found the brain coral to be especially interesting, as it is very aptly named. The sheer weighlessness of neutral gravity; the lack of effort needed to be mobile; the array of colors and life; all made for a very surreal experience. Both dives were a success, and we motored back to the island to eat, eat some more, and then eat some ice cream. Surprisingly, diving requires quite a bit of energy. The amount of pressure put on the body by being in those depths; the fact that the body loses heat 25 times faster in water than in air; and the adrenaline crash once the diving is over; the outcome is a euphoric fatigue and an invitation to practice the art of grubbing on Thai food. Hog status was achieved.
 
I went on two more dives the next day, without the company of the group (they were scheduled to fly that evening, and one shouldn't fly 24 hours after diving...a pressure thing). Again, the dives were phenomenal, and I intend to explore this new version of wilderness (new to me, anyway) in the future. At the end of my 5th dive, I received my SCUBA certification, which allows me to go on a dive with an outfitter anywhere in the world, without classes. At this point, I was the only one of our group who had enough dives to get the certification. However, since the Bangkok airport snafu was not reconciled, the group's flights were rerouted through Phuket, but were delayed by a day. So they all went out in the evening, and everyone was able to get their SCUBA certifications. We celebrated with a lovely meal that evening, and nostalgia abounded as we discussed our 3 months together. The next day was to be the final day of our journey.
 
After 2 hours on a boat to Koh Samui (another island), I went to the airport with the group, shared some laughs and some hugs, and watched them walk to their terminal. I went and found a cheap seaside bungalow in a nearby town, and meditated under the moonlight. It was an interesting feeling; being alone. I had been so engaged with the group, with all of our hosts, with the random people we met along the way, that being solitary was both an incredibly freeing and somewhat uncomfortable notion. Where would I put my energy now? How would travel differ? What do I want to do with the next few days? Few weeks? Few months? What was my purpose at this point? My intention?
 
I started by simply relaxing. I rented a motorbike the next day, and spent the entire day cruising around the island, exploring groves of coconut trees (I climbed halfway up one, and was shaking in every limb....I want to get better at it!), beaches (ah, yes, the European topless and speedo phenomenon), and road side restaruants. The next day, I cruised around other parts of the island, and found a wonderfully secluded and beautiful area. I had turned onto a cracked and seldom used road. About 2 kilometers in, I came to a west facing vista that overlooked the sea, with some distant islands in the background. I parked my bike and walked from this point, as the incline was insanely steep (I'm talking a 50-60% grade). I had to literally jog down the slope...trying to walk killed my knees. At the end of the road, I found a trail that lead to a lovely, if small, white sanded beach. About 10 meters up the bank, there were 5 intact bungalows. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that the bungalows were abandoned, though still in excellent condition. My guess is that someone attempted to establish a small resort here. However, with the crazy incline, the relatively small size of the beach, and the abundance of other options on the island, the resort failed. So, I found myself alone in this secluded place, fantisizing about bringing a group of like minded folks and moving in to the place. I then went back to the beach, got naked, and swam/sat in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, taking in a lovely sunset. I thought of home; of family and friends; and sent out a lot of love to everyone. The sun set just beyond the islands, and I did a bit of night riding to get back to some food and a bed.
 
The next 3 days were spent idly, checking out more of the island, catching a flick at the cinema, and getting used to being alone. Travel as a lone, white male is very different than traveling with a group. I found myself in the midst of hawkers constantly, and the offers for drugs or prostitutes increased a hundred fold. I think that people equate a lone, young, white male traveler as perhaps a social deviant; someone who is looking to experience things of a darker nature. I think this manifested in me becoming somewhat internal, as I began to tire of being asked to buy, buy, buy, and buy some more. I spent some quality time with my mandolin, playing on the beach and having my tunes carried to distant places by the constant ocean breezes. On day 4, I caught a boat to Surat Thani, and then a night bus to Bangkok. I arrived in the big city at 5:30am, to the sounds of tourists partying on Khoasan Road (a notorious strip of shops catering to every desire a tourist may have) and to the surprisingly industrious scampering of the cities ample rat population. I walked a couple of kilometers to a quiet guesthouse I knew of, and settled in for a day in the city. I spent much of the day getting my Vietnamese Visa, as I was to meet Julia and Juno in Ho Chi Mihn City the following day. After getting my visa, I did a bit of shopping, utilizing the amazing motobike taxi system along the way. These guys weave in and out of traffic jams, and you find yourself saving hours of time in the hellish Bangkok traffic. While perhaps a bit, ahem, adventurous and daring, it is quite an experience. I caught a taxi to the airport the next day, lucking out in that the taxi driver was incredibly friendly and upbeat...we talked the whole way (him in broken English, me in broken Thai). After engaging a Dairy Queen blizzard in a contest of wills (I won, naturally), I caught the plane to Saigon (or Ho Chi Mihn....still can't tell which is proper).
 
I'll leave the story there, as you, the reader, are undoubtedly fatigued (if you made it here at all).
 
Much love to everyone out there! I'm still in the works in terms of what the next few months will look like....I let folks know when I do.

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