Wednesday, January 23, 2013

So what happened?

It's been a long while since I wrote an entry to this blog.  After an amazing time in Thailand, my computer was stolen in Vietnam.  It was a pretty big blow to writing this, and a lot of photos were lost.  However, I want to finish this blog, and I'm going to put some effort into that in the coming weeks and or months.  I'll be using memories, my journal, and whatever photos I can scrounge up from the depths of Facebook to do so.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Missing Persons

When visiting shopping centers in Thailand, it’s hard not to notice the plastic-like sheen and pastel colors that make everything seem a bit artificial, like it was all popped out of a mold that morning.  Standing in the food court of the Thai equivalent of Walmart, it’s hard not to be slightly put off by that notion.  

We were heading to a village 100 km from camp, and we needed to pick up supplies.  For us that meant sandals and snacks. 

The upcoming village was again part of the Akha tribe.  However, the auspices of our visit were a bit extraordinary. 

Dr. Mar Naw was on a mission.  He had been contacted months previously by an American businessman.  This fellow had visited this village previously, and met a 7 year old girl from the Long Neck Karen tribe. She, like many Long Neck Karen, had been, effectively, shipped from Burma to Northern Thailand to participate in what was essentially a human zoo, one catering to tourists interested in seeing the signature enlongated necks of the Karen people.  Her group had been settled in a camp next to the Akha village. Unfortunately, her mother died of illness while in Thailand, and her father was killed when he attempted to return to Burma.  

As an orphan, it appeared as though she was being drawn further into that human trafficking ring. Realizing this, the businessman wanted to help her; he decided that he would support her financially and put her through school.  So he contacted Dr. Mar Naw, pledging to donate to WTIND, so long as Dr. MN found and took care of the girl.  Dr. MN agreed.  Since then he had visited this tribe twice, but had failed to find the girl.  It appeared as though the traffickers were one step ahead of him.

This put Dr. MN in an awkward situation: he had promised the villagers that he would build them toilets and run clinics in their village.  He couldn’t renege on his promise, but, having failed to find the girl, he was faced with losing the businessman’s funding.  Luckily, after a short back and forth, the businessman agreed to pledge a fraction of his original offer, and Dr. MN pledged he would continue to search for the missing girl.  The business man promised: if he found the girl, Dr. MN would receive the rest of his original offer.

When we got into town, MN set off right away, flashing a color photograph of the girl to the villagers, trying to find if she’d been there.   

We waited in the car.

After a fruitless few hours¸ it appeared that the trail might have run cold once again. 

But then he got a tip.

A village about 30 minutes away was home to another Long Neck Karen camp.  She might be there.
Unfortunately for Dr. Mar Naw, night was falling, and we had to get settled in. 

A long tribe meeting was called wherein they decided where we would sleep, who would cook for us, and which 2 families would make the best use of the toilets we would be building.  We were overjoyed when the meeting ended because we were getting eaten alive by mosquitos at this point. 

I’d also like to mention that it was a little bit before the tribe meeting that we a villager that we would be interacting with heavily during our time up in that hill village.  His name was Kite, and when we met him, he was smoking a cigarette out of a bong constructed from a piece of PVC pipe with a piece of bamboo crudely epoxide into the side.

We didn’t know it then, but he would be watching us, every day, as we worked on constructing two toilets in that village.

I digress.  We ate dinner, and hit our beds.  Unfortunately, the guest house we were sleeping in did not lend itself to mosquito nets well, and the first night looked like we were sleeping in a mosquito net shanty town.  Zhou was not happy.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Soccer and Sand

For the first time since our excursion to the Lisu Village, we were woken up by sunlight instead of roosters.  We got ourselves together, and back into town we went to buy rations and other supplies.  Base camp is built on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, and it takes about 20 minutes to drive into town.  Some of us sit in the main cab of the car, the rest sit in the pick-up bed.  Is it safe? No. Is it effective? Yes.

The location in Chiang Rai that we typically head to is a series of market booths selling vegetables, fruits, meat, and things which straddle the line in between.  All the vendors are very friendly, which is indispensable when you’re staring at food you’ve never seen before and don’t know how to eat.  In other words they give us free samples.  

Other than rations, we also bought long-sleeved pants and shirts.  After being eaten alive by mosquitos and who-knows-what-else in the bamboo jungle the other day, we decided that we’d rather be hot than food.  Also, the novelty of doing heavy manual labor while wearing Calvin Klein was strangely seductive.  We bought our clothes from an open air store at the side of the road that sold clothes that had been meant as free donations to the poor.   

With our new clothes packed up, and a new idea of what kind of equipment we should bring, we began our trek out to the next village: Pa-Kue, home of the Akha tribe.  Along the way, we met up with a group of kids from the village that had been sent to find us by Dr. MN.  They were packing sling-shots, and as we walked down the trail to the village, they took time-outs to try to kill birds to bring back for dinner.  They never managed to kill one, but they were surprisingly good shots.  At one point, they stopped me to ask for my machete.  One proceeded to cut down a sapling, and began to poke around in the branches of a tree with it.  I couldn’t see what they were doing. I was about to ask when my question was cut short by a beehive falling out of the tree; the kids scrambled in all directions. Needless to say, I was a bit confused as to why they would want to randomly destroy a beehive. It was then that they picked a stick with a honey comb on it off the ground, and started sharing it with us.  It was the best honey I’ve ever had. 

We got into the village around 5.  Not long after, a bunch of the kids invited us to play soccer with them, we accepted.  The field was a dirt hill in the center of the village.  In the middle ran 3 trenches carved by water flowing downhill, and here and there were patches of rock.  The kids were playing barefoot.  On the edges, male villagers with no shirts on were giving children haircuts.

The kids set up one beer bottle on either side of the field as a goal. Scoring required that you knock the bottle over with the ball.  We played for about an hour and a half.  Halfway through, we were joined by some older villagers, maybe around 17 or 18 years old.

 By the time we were done, our clothes we soaked, we were exhausted, and dinner was almost served.  We cleaned up, and ate. 

Dinner that night consisted mainly of vegetables.  

 Dr MN said that this village ate many more vegetables than the other tribes.  He accentuated this point in clinic that night, showing us the patients’ blood pressures.  On average they were 100/70.  Some were even lower.  Clinic was held in a mud and staw building built to the side of the soccer field. 

We found out that night that many of the villagers suffered from parasitic worms.  In this region of Thailand, there are 5 main worms that most villagers suffer from: trichinosis, round, tape, and 2 others.  The worms live in water and lay their eggs in the dirt.  Apparently, it’s not unusual for children to come to the clinic coughing up worms 6 inches long or longer.  Other times, the worms present themselves by coming out of people’s anuses at night to lay eggs. This in turn leads to itching, which leads to scratching, then whenever the people eat, they ingest the eggs stuck beneath their finger nails, restarting the cycle.  Ultimately these people end up suffering from malnutrition.  It was after that speech that we stopped walking around barefoot, decided not to drink the water, and started washing our hands with bottled water.  

After packing in clinic for the night, we split into 3 groups and head to bed. Greg and I roomed together.  Our room was a supply shack.  There were spiders everywhere.  Our beds consisted of a reed mat on the floor, and 4 blankets.  I used 2 as a mattress, one as a pillow, and the last as an actual blanket.  It wasn’t so bad, really. 

The next day Dr. MN filled us in on our project for the day.  We would be preparing for the construction of a fishery.  We needed sand for the cement.  So off to the local sand supply we went: the riverbed.

We spent the next 8 hours moving 30 pound bags approximately 300 meters from the river to the village.

We entertained ourselves by playing a game Greg showed us called GHOST.  It was basically categories, where the thing you named had to start with the last letter of the thing named before, mixed with HORSE.  The finals found Ilacqua and myself in a showdown, the topic being “Food.” 
It was a close match.

After a long day of sand moving, we ate and passed out.  The next day we did the whole thing over again.  We did the calculation, and we think we moved over one ton of sand.

We finished up at 10AM, an early day, and headed back to base camp.  Dr. MN told us a new volunteer was coming that day.  His name was Ray.
Ray is a 25 year old dude.  He studied at Penn State, and now goes to a small college in Pennsylvania as a premed.  He actually just took his MCAT.  He probably aced it.
At 5 PM today we all got together and headed into town.  This time we were checking out the Evening Market.  It was a lot like the Weekend Market.  We spent time eating crickets and such.  Tim actually broke off a piece of a filling and needed to see a dentist while we were there. 

You know how much it took to fix it?  $50.  Speaking of Tim, his birthday is June 22nd.  I hope you all wished him a Happy Birthday.  If not, now’s your chance.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goodbye Falls

Day 3 began like any other day, with roosters crowing. However, we had already begun to adapt to their cockadoodling, and managed to sleep until 7 o’clock. We were told that we’d be hitting the jungle for more wood before breakfast, so we threw back on our muddy, soaking wet clothes from the day before, and went outside. Fun fact: Clothes don’t dry in the rainforest.
Luckily, plans changed, and we got to eat before heading out. Which was a life saver considering what happened next.

The path through the forest was worse than the day before, the rains having washed it out even more. We made our way deep into the forest, to the point that the path disappeared.

There we began to cut down bamboo as wide as a telephone pole, and much taller. It took the combined efforts of Chris, Josh, Dr. MN, and myself to move each piece further down the hill so it could be cut to size, and 2 to 3 people each to move them. By the time that we got to the last piece we needed, only Dr. MN and myself were left. As we pushed the bamboo out onto the hill, it suddenly came loose from the branches it was tangled in above us, which resulted in me being knocked 2 meters downhill and Dr. MN getting pinned beneath the tree. Luckily, we were both fine, I crawled back uphill, he extricated himself, and we cut the tree to size.

We then had two more obstacles to getting back. First it began to rain. This washed out the already treacherous path, and soaked us both. We realized we had to move quickly or the steps that we had dug into the hillside would be washed out, and getting back with our bamboo would be impossible. Then, we realized that Greg G. had taken the second machete case back to the village with him, so we would have to move the bamboo while carrying an unsheathed blade meant to cut through trees, all while sliding downhill and tripping on mud. I wish I had photos of this to show you. We soldiered through though, and we tripped, slipped, and crawled our way back with our 12 foot long bamboo shaft in hand.
When we got out of the forest, finally, we met up with the rest of the team, the sun came out, and Chris and Josh helped us lug the bamboo back to the village. It was glorious.
After we got back, it was announced that Greg B. would be leaving that day to head back to Texas. He needed to get back to Chang Mai, and so we decided that we would leave the village: Dr. MN would drive Greg B., and we would hike back to base camp. We were ready to go at about 1130 AM, but decided we wanted to check out the nearby waterfall, which was about 1 km away. We agreed that we would meet back up with Dr. MN at base and parted ways, wishing Greg B. luck in his future in medical school.

Our trek began with a steep descent from the village, down a grassy hill, and into a smaller village along a, thankfully, paved road.

The road continued through a valley, with tea growing on either side.

We started to get further and further from the village, and the sides of the path started to fill up with banana trees, wild vines, and all sorts of other familiar rainforest vegetation. Finally, the path turned to dirt, and we started to ascend to the falls. Climbing up, sometimes crawling up, we made it to the falls. Josh was kind enough to take a photo. TUSM represent.

Greg does not like mosquitos.
We weren’t done though. The falls started a good number of meters further up, so up we went.

It turned out to be a big waterfall.

Greg decided to leave before us because he realized he’d taken the key to the lock for our hut, and needed to return it. Sans Greg, we began to head further up the falls, and reached a rickety wooden bridge. We decided at that point that to head further up would mean snaking through thick jungle, and decided to head back.
We made our way back down the mossy, rocky hillside, through the village, and down the road. We intended to meet up with Greg at the intersection between our road, and the road to the Lisu Village. He was a no show though, and when we went to find him in the village, it turned out that he had been there and left. With no way of contacting Greg, we decided we’d have to hope that we’d meet with him on the path back, and we turned to head back to the base camp.
The walk back to camp was much more pleasant than the walk to the village, since it was now mostly downhill. As we got closer to Chiang Mai, we started to get more concerned about Greg. That is, until he came flying up behind us in the back of a blue pick-up truck. I’ll save the story for Greg to tell in his blog, but needless to say, we were all very relieved, and the family he was with offered to drive us the rest of the way to town. We were so happy, we took this photo of Greg.

We were beyond elated when we got back to Dr. MN’s camp. We finally got a chance to wash the mud, sweat, and rain out of our clothes, and even got a chance to see Greg B. off properly, as he had still not left.
We spent the rest of the afternoon getting our affairs in order, eating, cleaning ourselves and our clothes, and off-loading photos and video to my laptop. We even got to have our first cup of coffee in days, so you know spirits were high.
Dr. MN let us know then that we would be heading into town for the Weekend Market, so we got ourselves together, jumped into the bed of his pickup, and off we went. Along the way, we saw this sick clock.

The market was a mishmash of all sorts of fantastic sights and sounds.

Vendors hawked dolls made of yarn, hand crafted baskets, and an array of unique cultural food stuffs from brightly colored candies to roasted crickets, all under multicolored glowing neon lanterns. And about the crickets: you know we had to try some.

In my opinion, they tasted like shrimp poppers.

The rest of the photos from that night were pretty fantastic, and I can’t even choose which to put up here, so take my word and go through Ilacqua’s album when you get the chance, it should be up by now.

We finally finished up, weathered a sudden monsoon blast, and headed back to base camp. We’re picking up a new recruit tomorrow at around 10 AM, then heading to another village.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

We woke up the next morning at 4 o’clock to the sound of roosters crowing. We all silently agreed that was ridiculous and went back to sleep. Unfortunately, the roosters didn’t agree with us, and woke us up at regular 30 minute intervals up to 6 AM, when I decided I was going to start moving. Not too long after, around 7, breakfast was served.

It was just as filling as dinner the night before, consisting of beans, chillies, beef, pork, noodles, and eggs. I’ll get a proper photo of it up one day. Afterwards we cleaned up and started clinic.

Dr. Mar Naw set himself up like a sage or some sort of bazaar merchant behind row after row of medicines: pills, powders, and tinctures. One after another, villagers began to show up, as they came Josh and Greg B. would take their blood pressures and pulse, then hand them a number. Within what felt like minutes, the tiny clinic, set up in the same place we had dinner the night before, was filled with at least 20 people. As much as each had come to see the doctor, it felt like a social event. There were people of every age group: mothers with children, old men and women, children, and young adults. They were all talking to each other, and when it was their turn to see Dr. Mar Naw, they spoke about their troubles in front of everyone. There were no secrets here. I couldn’t help but think about how vigorously we guarded the state of our health in America, about HIPAA, and about how closely knit the Lisu’s society must be for them to be so comfortable around each other. They may as well have been one enormous extended family. From what we had learned from Dr. MN that night, that probably was not so far from the truth.

We took turns in the clinic, acting as pharmacists, giving shots, and taking care of blood pressures. The pharmacists filled in Dr. MN’s Rx’s, which he filled out on tiny plastic packets that he would hand us. It was not easy to read what he wrote, and I immediately understood pharmacists’ pain.

The cases were mostly malnutrition, which Dr. MN treat with IV shots of vitamins, and pills of vitamin B and C. The second most common set of cases involved fungal or bacterial infections of wounds. We saw almost 30 patients within the span of about 2 hours. Then the rain started. We had chosen to volunteer during monsoon season.

So, of course, we packed up, and decided to start working on our next project. We would finish up the lattice-work and ladder of the new hut in the village. But first we needed the materials, so we had to the stop at the local wood supply shop. Off to the Bamboo Forest we went.

We spent the next few hours trekking through the mosquito-infested, soaked, muddy, and slippery rain forest. This entailed walking along one foot wide earth paths, which we constantly fell on, followed by absailing down treacherous slopes using bamboo saplings. At this point, we cut down some trees with machetes, chopped off the bottom 10 feet, which on a tree that appeared to be 30 feet tall seemed pretty wasteful, and hauled them back to the village, one by one, in the exact same conditions we he reached them in.

It was no vacation.

We got back and started working on the ladder, while Jum Tay took care of the lattice.

Overall, it was a day well spent.

That was a Friday, and so that night, before dinner, we had special guests. The kids didn’t have school, and ambushed us.

Needless to say, we were exhausted by the time they were through with us. And, after another dinner and lecture, we hit the sack.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

East Meets West

*Note: These entries are being posted at semi-regular intervals, days after the events in question have occurred. Be careful of getting chronologically confused.

Hey everyone, we’ve finally made it. We flew into Thailand 3 days ago, touching down in Bangkok airport at about 6 PM.

We all jammed ourselves into a souped up, cherry red taxi driven by a Mr. Ashung. He invited us to participate in a Tokyo Drift-esque race, but decided that meeting Dr. Mar Naw took priority, so we had to turn down the offer. We were dropped at the bus station, were completely lost, got persuaded into buying first class bus tickets, and on we went to Chang Rai.

The bus was probably the best possible way to introduce Thailand to us. It was luxurious. After weeks of rickshaws and A/C lacking beat-up taxis, we felt like kings. They gave us blankets and pillows, and little puff pastries filled with sweet bean paste, or at least, I think that’s what it was. As far as I can tell, Thailand is a much less English-friendly country than Nepal or India, and the bag had no English translation on it. Oh well. It was delicious. We ate our pasties, drank some interesting tea in a Juicy Juice box, and passed out.

When we woke up we were in the new Chang Rai bus station.

Not too long after we got there, a metallic sound filled the bus station, followed by a bell ringing 8 times. At which point the national anthem started playing, and they raised the flag.

Watching everyone stand up at once, recite the anthem and then continue on with their day reminded me of being back in high school. These days, I haven’t pledged allegiance to the flag in a long while, here they do it every day, according to Tim and Greg.

We were all wondering what Dr. Mar Naw would turn out to be like. We had spoken to him more than once by email, but, honestly, that doesn’t tell you what a guy is like. It took him about an hour to show up.

He was a professional, affable but serious guy, and look at his sweet ride:

I thought we were about to drive to Jurassic Park. Which, honestly, turned out not to be so far from the truth. More on that later. First we headed back to base camp, and settled in. There were 2 other students here already, Greg B. and Josh. Greg was an incoming medical student in Texas, Josh has just finished his first year as an English major in Michigan.

Dr. Mar Naw gave us an approximately 2 hour speech that covered a variety of subjects, from his personal biography, to the plight of the hill tribes, to religion and disease. It’s going to take some time to edit that one. We then head into town to buy rations, mosquito nets, and various other supplies. By the way, there’s some weird, spiny brown fruit called Sara here, which I am sure I’m spelling wrong and probably misunderstood, that are delicious.

We then head up into the hills. Dr. Mar Naw took his truck packed with supplies, we had to hoof it.

Nice scenery was a plus.

It took about 2 hours to reach the village. The people living there belonged to the Lisu tribe. It was a small village built onto a, yes, you guessed it, hill.

It consisted of a number of bamboo huts of various sizes, covered in roofs made of dry grass, held in place by a lattice-work of bamboo. We were greeted by Jum Tow, his wife, Limway, and their children. Please forgive the spelling, it’s probably going to be wrong, but phonetically accurate. They would be our hosts while we were there.

We met up with Dr. MN there, and were shown to our cabin. It was a larger hut, with a latched door. On the right was an elevated platform where they had assembled 3 thin mattresses, blankets, and pillows. The front of the room had a platform with one bed, and to the left were some long wooden shelves filled with lanterns and other objects. There was also a burnt out camp fire to on the floor with a metal stand for a pot or other kitchenware. We settled in, put out our mosquito nets, and were invited to dinner.

It was delicious, and extremely authentic. We were all excited to know that we would be eating like that every night, and even more so when we learned that every tribe we’d be meeting had a different style of cuisine.

We spent some time talking afterwards about tribal culture. Dr. MN told us that in the tribes, responsibilities are equally handled by men and women, that if a chore needs to be done, whoever is available will do it, and that there are few gender-specific roles. I am a bit dubious about that comment though, and am not sure I understand it in context, because all the construction work we’ve taken part in since, from collecting bamboo to building huts had involved Jum Tow, while all the cooking appeared to have been taken care of by Limway and her daughter Nuna. In addition, each village is run by a “Head Man” and each tribe, the collection of villages, is led by a “Chief Man.” In addition, Jum Tow was the assistant “Head Man” in his village. There is also a male Witch Doctor, Dr. MN’s term, that takes care of the spiritual health of the village, like chasing away evil spirits and keeping benevolent spirits happy. I haven’t had the opportunity to dig up more info about the tribal government, but, as of now, I don’t know what role women take in it.

Dating in the villages was also an interesting subject. Dr. MN explains that many people begin the process of marriage around the age of 12. All of us found this information to be shocking. Upon further investigation, he explained that in many of the families, there are a large number of children, around five or six. The families want to send their children to school, but they don’t have the money, so often they ask the eldest child to quit school and start working. They typically acquiesce, and begin to work the fields so they can pay for the younger children to go to school. Dr. MN went on to say, that without school, and working in the adult world, the children start thinking about what they’re going to do with their lives. So, they figure they should start families. The boys then form large bands, and ride from town to town on motorcycles, looking to meet girls. When a boy meets a girl, he basically moves in with her family, and assists in working the fields. If things go well, the two families meet, and discuss a dowry. A typical one would be 2 pigs. Pigs are very expensive, so the boy and his family need to work the fields for about half a year or so to afford one. The dowry gets paid, and the children, now, by many standards, adults, are married. By this time, they may be 13 or 14. In regards to extramarital relations, Dr. MN says they’re mostly non-existant. Tribal justice is mostly shame based, and if anything like that were to happen, the people involved would be ostracized.

We also talked to Dr. MN about the Lisu Witch Doctor. The Hill People, or at least the Lisu and Hmong, believe disease is caused by possession by evil spirits. However, and Dr. MN thought this was pretty funny, the Witch Doctor and his family come to visit him whenever they are ill. Reflecting on this, it seems like the people, at least in the LIsu village we had visited over the past few days, see the value of Dr. MN’s scientific medicine because it works, even if they don’t see the immediate connection between vitamins, antibiotics, and spirits.

After learning how he pumped water up hill, we went to bed. Quick comment, Malarone, the antimalarial Tim, Chris and I are on, gives you some crazy vivid dreams. We’re still trying to figure out if that’s good or bad.