Friday, December 17, 2004

Haila Haila...

Back in Bangkok again. It is so nice to come into a huge city after a couple of weeks spent in the countryside and already know how to get around. It's even better to arrive at the hotel and see familiar faces who remember me as well. And this time my room is much nicer. The Atlanta Hotel is a wonderful if slightly surreal place to stay where the owner promotes an unusual cult of personality. The hotel's restaurant has collectible drink coasters which quote various conversations that portray him as being an exceptionally unpleasant man. I've met him twice, briefly, and both times he was very gracious. I was kind of disappointed.

I had hoped to find some time to write while volunteering at the Mirror Art Group in Chiang Rai, but that didn't happen. There was always something going on there. Concerts, cooking, trips to visit villages, soccer games, instant messaging, English lessons, shopping, dogs to play with, Japanese volunteers to talk to, laundry to hand-wash, ants to evict form the house, bucket baths, Bollywood lyrics to learn....

It's gotten dark while I have been in this internet cafe. How did that happen?

A week ago I was still in Myanmar with Jon and his girlfriend Lak. We went to Kengtung in Shan State to see what was there and go visit some of the local hill tribes. Jon is busy learning as many languages as he can and had a great time speaking Thai, Chinese, Shan, Akha, or English to the people we met during our few days there. We came across a five day Shan festival celebrating the rice harvest and made it our goal to eat and shop at the fairgrounds every day. There was one stand with all kinds of deep friend vegetables and we discovered a fried bean ball something that was so close to falafel that I was in heaven.

Before arriving in Myanmar, none of us knew what to expect. The country has a reputation of being a repressive, totalitarian state. Some people call for a tourism boycott on Myanmar, while others say it is important to have eyes and ears witnessing what is happening. When we reached the border, it took us a long time to get issued travel documents. We were required to surrender our passports and hire a private driver. The driver was responsible for getting us to our destination and checking in with immigration authorities along the way. The border officials gave us each a travel pass printed on purple construction paper and sent us on our way after an hour of photocopying and sitting around. The journey to the city is Kengt*ng is supposed to take about 3 hours, but with all the check points and immigration controls, it took longer. I couldn't keep track of how many times we stopped, at least twice at search stations, three or four times at immigration offices, and two or three times to pay tolls. Once in Kengtung, our purple documents were held at the local immigration bureau and we would get them back only when we left town. No sneaking around in Myanmar...

Wandering the city was our favorite thing to do. Jon and Lak made lots of friends, talking to people in shops and on the street. I tried to learn some Thai, but being so close to the border with China, the few words of Chinese I know were more useful in some places.

Time to go off on a short tangent to shout in capital letters, "CHINA IS THE FUTURE!" No doubt about it. People would do well to start learning Mandarin Chinese. Now.

Um, yes, China, um where was I before?

Myanmar... so we went to visit some hill tribes. Jon talked to some of the Akha people and recorded their genealogies. Akha men are able to recite a complete history of their ancestors and Jon is collecting genealogies for the museum. We had tea there and then continued on to an En village. The Akha village was isolated, but the nearby En village seemed much more cut off. The Akha people told us they trade with larger villages and with the town. In the En village, the people seemed to barely communicate with each other, let alone the outside world. They are living a meager existence. Signs of malnutrition and other health problems were rampant, especially among the children. This village is where our guide decided we should eat a picnic lunch. It was one of the most uncomfortable meals I've ever eaten.

We were served on a small table under the thatch roof of a house while most of the village inhabitants sat on the attached open platform. The starving people watched us eat. To not eat would have been rude, but to eat was painful. Everything we didn't finish was given to the man who owned the house. We bought some weavings from the women of the village. Contributing financially was the only way we knew how to help. We played with the kids for a while and finally left to go on to other villages. The other places seemed like much healthier, happier communities.

Overall the time in Myanmar was very interesting. We heard bad stories about the army stealing cars from people's houses. Other than that we didn't hear much about Myanmar itself. Most of the people we met were ethnic minorities who are much more connected to their unique cultural identities than to being citizens of Myanmar or B*rma. We met very few if any ethnic Burmese at all. The B*rmese aren't very popular in Shan State.

Probably the best discovery in Myanmar was the Bollywood movie Koi Mil Gaya. My newest hobby is learning the lyrics to the songs. Considering they are all in Hindi, this is going to take some time. Thankfully there is a great website to help with such things. How did I exist before seeing Hrithik Roshan dance or hearing Shahrukh Khan's version of Pretty Woman? Right now I have Hrithik wailing, "Haila haila, hua hua," in my head. Bollywood has some virulent earworms.

Ok, that's all for Myanmar. It's almost time to go meet Chris at the airport. Don't expect to hear much from me for the next three weeks!...

Happy Holidays


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