Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Episode 3: Fear and Loathing in Burma

OK, so maybe it's a little soon for my next installment, but the last few days merits two episodes. Here we go...

I headed north to Mae Sai, a border town with Burma to visit an amazing organization that does unbelievable work with trafficked victims and at-risk youths under incredible odds and unimaginable circumstances. The time I spent with them I will always remember, I just left them this morning after a wonderful 4 days and I am still a bit sad. My experiences with them and with trafficking wil be sharred in Episode 4.

But today's story's about the crazy events of yesterday, and my time in Burma.

I woke up from a restful sleep, ready to head to an important meeting after breakfast. I took the fruit from the fridge from the previous day's breakfast, a feast of the freshest pineapple, jack fruit, and one other one which name escapes me at the moment. I happily sat down, prepared my notes for the meeting and dove into the bowl of fruit. Nearing the end of my delightful breakfast, out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move at the bottom of the bowl. I took a closer look.

Sure enough there was a white worm squirming around in the fruit juices. OH - there's two. HA - make that three!

And i just sat there in mid-chew thinking that I've certainly ingested some extra protein already with my fruit, why waste the rest? But I just seemed to have lost my appetite a little bit. So now the question remains -- who will win? My digestive track or theirs? We shall see!

I had a FANTASTIC meeting, which left me excited and full of useful information on the current situation of trafficking in this section of the country. Feeling great, I seized the opportunity of a free afternoon to cross into Burma, I wanted to see some of the conditions that made these people risk everything to escape. I wanted to see where some of these victims are coming from, I wanted to learn, and so I went.

Crossing over was easy (for me), there is a river that marks the border, cross a bridge, hand a man your passport and $5 UD dollars and you're in Myanmar. The bridge is flooded with vendors selling what looks like every possible market good that comes from China at probably a 1/4 of the price.

I chose a direction and began walking, and as I left the main part of town, the paved roads turned to dirt, the concrete buildings into tin and bamboo shacks, and the fancy goods and vendors into the poverty that is Burma. The poverty was striking and I didn't feel comfortable whipping out my camera to take pictures of their misery and struggle, instead I politely nodded and half smiled. Some smiled back, most just starred blankly, curiously, angrily, longingly.

Then on my left reappeared the river, the brown border river snaked its way deeper into the country and out of my sight. I continued to walk mesmerized by the immense beauty of the hill tops that jut their way out of the ground, covered with every shade of green, such a sharp breathtaking contrast to the dark brown of the muddy river below.

I kept walking. The shacks became shabbier, and as I walked around the bend I saw that they were burning the hill sides on my right. From the black earth rose huge billows of white smoke that blended their way into the gray sky overhead. Through the smoke I saw two women in the distance with bundles on their heads walking towards me barefoot on deep red colored earth. Then then something further up the river caught my eye, it was a man with a huge bundle crossing the river, and I watched him until he disappeared out of sight into the Thailand hills. Risking be shot or worse if he's caught alive, this is how it happens everyday--people crossing the river to freedom, and sometimes just into another hell, crossing borders but still trapped by poverty.

Finally, a group of men sitting under a bamboo canopy asked me to stop and join them. I surveyed the scene, a woman appeared, they all smiled, and it felt alright. Only one of them spoke English which he was very excited to practice and his friends offered me what food they had. They were all very welcoming, and the man tried to explain their troubles to me but he had not the words. He asked me how he could get to America, but what could I say?

When I asked him if these people were his family, he laughed and pointed to his boss and then his partners.
"What work do you do?" I asked.
"How to explain? We bring things from Thailand, " He said.
"Into Burma?" I asked.
"Yes." He said.

Right. I was sitting with a bunch of smugglers, and I can't blame them for what they do to try and survive, but perhaps this was not the best company for me to keep in such a militaristic state. Too late. A military officer pulls up on his motor bike shortly there after (did he hear my freaking thoughts???!!). I didn't think anything of it too much, but he walked directly in front of me and stared at me until his eyes came to rest on my bag.

I politely nodded and half smiled. He glared in return, his eyes repeatedly shifting from me to my bag and I began to get a sinking feeling. His glare became menacing and he began barking questions at the guy who spoke English. He responded but the questions kept coming and the officer wouldn't take his eyes off of me. Then he let out a small evil smile and my stomach dropped and my eyes shifted to the Burmese guy for some sign of what was going on, but the look on his face didn't comfort me.

The officer pointed to my bag and barked something else, the Burmese guy asked me if I had a camera. "No" I responded and shook my head, looking as innocent as possible, blatant lie--please don't check my bag! please don't check my bag! The officer's agitation grew, and they talked some more. Then some guy around the corner called the officer who was momentarily distracted.

The Burmese guy turns to me and says, "You must leave. Hurry now! You can't be here, he doesn't like tourist here. Leave!" Unsure if me just getting up and running away from the scene is the best idea, I look at him and then the officer who has his back to me, "now?" I whisper.
"Leave now you must. Please!" And the look on his face is more than enough for me. I take my bag and calmly but with quickened pace start walking away. Damn all this MUD! And all I can think is how do I get myself into these situations?!

I walk straight without looking back, but above the pounding of my heart I hear arguing behind me growing with intensity--my stomach sinks. I keep walking, cursing myself.

Over the arguing I hear a motorbike start. My stomach jumped straight out of my body and flopped onto the ground. Well, this is it I thought, not quite the way I had planned to spend my day, month, or maybe even year. Ain't this a bi*ch! I turned a bend in the road and I can still hear the arguing over the sound of the motorbike, and the motorbike revs up and I hold my breath as I'm trying to book it down the road.

Then out of NO WHERE, this mini-van type vehicle they use here for public transport appears and four guys are happily smiling in the back and wave to me. I had stopped and said hello to them earlier in the day! They signal to the driver to slow down and motion for me to get on--YES! YES! Thank you Jesus! Thank you Buddha! Thank you Mohammad! Thank you Shiva! Thank you Abraham! Thank you!

I jumped on and slid to the back and bent over pretending to fiddle with my flip flop - in reality, just trying to hide. I heard a motorbike whiz by.
Maybe it was him, maybe it wasn't. Maybe he was just on his way to get his favorite ice cream, maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was just arguing about why Greece just won the soccer cup, maybe he wasn't.
I'll never know.

We reached the bridge and I set off across it, steps away from safety I still held my breathe excepting him to appear any moment.

He did not.

After what seemed like an eternity, my feet touched Thai soil and I needed a drink! BADLY! And I then I cursed, I cursed Thailand and the northern conservatism that prevents respectful women from buying alcohol! I stormed into a 7-Eleven a downed a bottle of water imagining the smooth, strong taste of vodka and rode my bike home.

I arrived to the company of my new friends from the shelter and upon recounting my story, one of the girls disappeared and then reappeared with a mug. I took a sip --alcohol! Ah, it's good to have friends! And the whiskey slowly coursed through my blood stream, calming my stomach, caressing my nerves, and warming me from head to toe. I took a deep long breath of the crisp clean air fragranced with the remnants of fog and sweet rain, fresh earth, and wet trees, and I let out a sigh and a small smile--the kind where only one side of my mouth rises in a half crescent.

And I was myself.

We ate and drank and before I reached my pillow for the night I would step on a burning mosquito coil, whack my head on a low door frame, and find a centipede in my bed!

But it was all good and I feel asleep, ready for another day.

My love to all of you! I am safe and I am well, and I am not telling my mother about this till am am back in th states and I would appreciate if you didn't either! thanks--good looking out!

Info on trafficking requires a separate email to share with you some of what I have learned and seen. I know I keep saying this, but it is on the way soon I just didn't want to bog down your inboxes.

Stay safe and stay well,
With Love,

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Episode 2: Touched by a Monk, Lady-Boys, and Water Buffalo!

My Beautiful friends!

I hope this finds you all happy and well! I am almost compelled to write you guys everyday because, indeed, everyday is an adventure! OK, how to make this short and sweet and answer some of your questions, right!

1--Massage: those of you who wanted to know about my massage, no I didn't get the traditional thai massage yet because it looks like somethng out of a wrestling match and I haven't been that brave yet. LIttle Thai woman trying to turn a big body into a pretzel??? hmmmmm....

however, the place I went was AMAZING! It was absolutely beautiful with dark wooden paneling everywhere, wood carvings, golden buddhas reflecting the dim lighting and the scent of soft incense. This tiny little thing shows me to a room, points to the table and leaves. There's a towel and paper underwear that you're suppose to change into, and as I pick up the paper underwear a wave of panic overwhelms me -- these are made for little Thai butts! Oh dear! And all i could do was picture myself ripping the little thing to shreds and having to flash the little Thai women who only comes up to my belly button!

But to my relief, the little undrwear gave way to my African...heritage, and I lay on the table (didn't quite fit, but that's alright) to enjoy a TWO HOUR massage of first rubbing you with warm ginger and then followed by oil. All for $8 USD, yeah, it's a great way to start your day.

2 -- Yes, I have managed to hit the towna few times, my night started out GREAT with this taxi driver in his late 60's who made someone translate that Thai men love tall women who are firm, and have nice legs! ??? Ah, you don't have many of those here do you? And he smiled his big smile revealing the last of his three teeth and said -- I know.

Old man's got GAME!!!

He dropped me off at some bar and i heard this girl on stagewho sounded like she was imitating some monkey's mating call andall I could think to myself was --OH NO! I'm in a kareoke bar!!!!! AHHH! Butto my complete surpriseit was a band of Philipinos and Thais that were GOOD! We're talking JAMMIN! You name it, Ricky Martin, Linkin Park, Queen, Mary J Blige, Evansence--GOOD!!!
I mean what does a 5 foot nothing, 50 pound chick know about Bootylicious when she ain't got one??? But she had some attitude and was singing Beyonce like it was nobody's business! I had to dance, couldn't help myself. But then when this Thai guy tried to rap the Jay-Z part--oh, Bad! Bad Bad Bad, the man busted up my groove so badly I had to sit back down again and order another drink.

Speaking of Beyonce, that's what they call me here! And I ain't complaining, it's much better than calling my Godzilla like I thought they would.

And speaking of Godzilla, let's just talk about me and shopping for a moment. I love the markets here so much, in most places there's a night market that's just bustling with people and vendors and life, and it's justa great place to be. I just skip over the clothes cause well, there's just no need for me to put myself through that. But every once in a while a vendor will call me over and say, "Hey! Big size for you! Have BIG Size!." And I get all excited and come over, like the other night there were the cutest shoes that cost $1 and they were GREAT! and I was so happy! So she digs way in the back and pulls out her 'big size' and I slip them on, and my feet only hang off about two inches in the back. She gasps, "YOU! You very BIIIIIIG!"
And I smile politely and give her back her stupid, ugly shoe and go on my way! Do I EVER learn????

Speaking of learn (everything just fowing so nicely today), can we just talk about monks for a minute! I love them! I want one! I think it's turning into an obsession, I just can't get enough! I'm now in the north in the smaller city of Chiang Mai and they're everywhere!!

Everytime I see a flash of orange, me heads whips aroung, and then I discover it's just some fool in an orange shirt and I get angry. I mean, they're in the markets, or a bus full of baby monks (that's what i call the younger ones) will drive by, or they're just walking and doing they're monk things and I just can't stop staring. They're just majestic to me, I don't even know why. It just about makes my day when they smile at me, and I feel like I've done something right or something! Issues! I have issues!

And finally the other two I met these two monks form Cambodia who were so awsome!! They were SO sweet and so nice and they invited me to come sit and talk with them. They were so excited to practice their English, the older one was about 59 eventhough he only looked 40 (Asians got this aging thing DOWN), and he had this dark, curved wooden walking sit and a calm warm smile. The younger one was 22, and just didn't stop talking! He wa so animated and excited, i couldn't help but bit my lip to prevent myself form laughing sometimes.

The older monk pointed to a seat next to him on the bench, but out of respect I sat a little further away to make sure the was no way that I touched him or his robes. The younger one is just talking away and I;m having the greatest time, and he tells me how he wants to travel everywhere and when I tell him I'm going to Cambodia he takes out some paper and writes down the address of his Wat (temple) and his phone number and say I must visit.

Digits from a monk! Damn I'm good!
(just kidding it is not my intention to offend any of your Buddhists out there!)

And he's just talking away about his studies, and he's got these black, think-immed glasses, and a blad head, and nice dark skin off-set by his bright orange robe, and this brilliant, adorable smile....and well.....I'm going to hell anyway so i might as well tell you I was attracted to a monk! Attracted to a MONK!

Wat the HELL is WRONG with me????????

--------------- (here's where you take a potty break or grab a snack)

Anyway, as luck would haveit, yet again, I've connected with some Peace Corps volunteers here (give it up!)and this ex-volunteer offered to let me crash at her place when I came up north--so nice.

After a series of successful meeting in Bangkok, Imade my way on a 13 hour train ride, I didn't even fit in the bathroom--but that's another story altogether), and arrived in Chiang Mai. It's a very quaint old city with much of the ancient outer city way still intact, complete with a moat, however it's now an inner-city wall as the city has expanded in every direction. Little motor bikes scoot around everywhere and little red buses, kind of like a big pickup truck with a covering in the back,will take you anywhere in the city. Most of the buildings are small and are interupted by elaborate golden wats (temples) EVERYWHERE!

I had some great meetings and interviews with shelters and organizations here, and met some of the victims themselves and heard some of there stories. However, tomorrow I head further north along the Burmese border, I've been invited to spend several days with this one organization called DEPDC. I'll be working directly with the victims themselves and although I can't wait, I know it will be a challenge, many of them are extremely young kids and to put a face and a name with the stories and actaully industry may just break me for a bit. Yet, this is why we do it right? Without the name and face, a story just becomes another number, the number another statistic, and the statistic gets thrown around by really important people in really important governments half way across the world who sip their coffee, report on the lastest stastic, and then move on to the next agenda item while the little 8 year old gril whose virginity has been sold for $300 is lost in
a pile of papers and numbers, another statistic on a desk somewhere.

WOW, sorry, didn't mean to do that! But along with all of the complex issues that are enveloped in the world of trafficking and exploitation, I have uncovered many of the roadblocks these victims and anti-trafficking organizations face--and in a word, they are disgusting.

And I believe, I lack the ability to understand that mixed in with all of the beautiful things that people can do, and build, and be, there is an absolute evil that exists....

and I can't comprehend it.

I will write more on trafficking after this weekend, I think I will have a lot to say after I leave that place and those children.

but not to leave you on a dark note, i believe I won't be able to prevent that in some of my future emails, I shall leave you on a light one:


So this other night on the town was one of the most RANDOM of my life!!

Hanging with the ex-peace corps people, we go out for a drink and that was ONLY the beggining! Went to one bar, met a bunch of travels who invited us out to another place, sure what the hell?! The other place was just a bunch of Thai guys rapping--BADLY, and and a very...ecceltic crowd bobbing their heads--ahhhh no! Cross the street to Heaven Beach, a bar with sand for a floor, bamboo furniture, and there's this crazy metalband with a guy playing congo drums with drum sticks and he SUCKS, but he's so happy. Right! What the hell! Just drink, everything's better when you drink!

Met this lady-boy, that's what thai's call them her, guess you'd call her a drag queen, and she looked good! I'm just going to call him a 'her' cause that's what she looked like to me! Met the most random group of people, they invite us to follow them,hey, live a little! End up at a thai dance club that's totally out of control, flashing lights, a smoke machine, ragging house music--I am CRACKING up! I'm walking around with my new girl friend Sarah, the lady-boy, and we're just having a great time, but all of her lady-boy friends at the club are just starring me up and down and have NO idea what to do with me! Am I a women? But women are only 5'5"! Am I one of them? They so confused and I just think it's great!

End up dancing on stage (you know me), end up surrounded by prostitutes, their pimp (an old woman) kept pushing me over to where her girls were, and i'm like HEY, i'm not for sale here. then she pushed her girls on me and i'm like HEY, i'm not buying here! then she pushed some dude on me and i'm like HEY, no deniro!! jesus! Let me dance!

Dancing up a storm to house music, get a ride in Sarah's truck somewhere else, and end up hanging out till 6 in the morning songs(she LOVES Tracy Chapman! heeeey), met some crazy people who all ended up being really cool, the drag queen just loved me--too funny!

and you know me, if it looks good i'll eat it, we were a little intoxicated late night and these people bought food and invited us to join. everything looked good so i just dug right in. i was CHOWING down when this one thai guy looks at me like i'm crazy and says YOU LIKE THAT? i'm like respond with an enthusiatic nod (too stuffing my face)! he makes this crazy face and then looks at me funny and says -- do you know what that IS?
i'm still eating it, "no."
then i get a little curious myself, what IS it, i ask as i swallow.

water buffalo intestines, raw!
how's that for yummy.


and he' laughing in satisfaction like he thinks i'm going to be sick or something now that i know. he's just smurking!
and i just looked down at the plate, looked at him, looked back at the plate, everyone at the table is looking at me, and I just grabbed another handful of it, pop it in my mouth and said--HMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!! in his face!
everyone just starts cracking up, some dude gave me a high five because a lot of people wont touch it i guess and i kept chowing.

i mean if i knew what it was, i might have hesitated, but it was GOOD,I swear!


adventures in food to be continured!

All the best my sweet little ones across the way!
Much love to you all,
South East Aisha