Saturday, April 11, 2009

Maehongson 31 March 2009 Afternoon

After returning to the hotel, eating breakfast, and showering, we set off for the remainder of the day. I didn't have a specific itinerary for the day, but I did want to go out to the refugee camp at Baan Nai Soi to photograph "Freida" (Ma Jon) the young Paduang woman that I had met twice before. We also wanted to see how she, her mother and her sister were doing. I had heard and read that there had been an effort to relocate all the Paduang people (long necked women) to a single refugee camp. Prior to setting out we checked but did not double check and then verify that Paduang people remained at the Baan Nai Soi and Ban Huay Sua Tao camps.

We had a map with us and I remembered a great deal of the route from my previous trips to the area. As we approached the area where Baan Nai Soi is located we passed by two large wood barns similar to the tobacco drying barns that I saw as a youth in the Connecticut River Valley. Next to the barns was a field where several Shan people were busy working on stalks of dry garlic. We quickly turned around and returned to the sight to photograph the workers.

The workers were taking stalks of garlic that had been drying in the open field and placing them in bundles that were secured with wraps created out of long thin bamboo strips. The bundles of garlic were then hung over long bamboo poles. The garlic laden bamboo poles were then carried into the barns where they were hung creating a dense matrix of hanging stalks from ceiling to floor.

The Shan people grow garlic on a very large scale. It is rotated with their rice crops during the off growing season. Garlic is eaten raw as well as cooked in Shan cuisine.

We spent about 30 minutes with the workers talking and photographing them at work. They were curious as to where we were from, what we were doing, and where we were going. They were pleased to see pictures of themselves on the monitor of the digital camera. It is amazing how digital cameras have opened up the world. Now it is no problem at all to show people the results of your work. Often showing the people what you are trying to accomplish with your photography, increases their confidence and comfort with your presence. It is a wonderful ice breaker and works with people of all ages.

We found the exit off of the paved road on to the dirt road that leads to the Baan Nai Soi refugee camp without any problem. I remembered the water crossing and since we were in a pickup truck rather than a regular car, there was no difficulty. We continued on the rough, narrow, and dusty dirt road. We came to a steep rise in the road that appeared to have about 12 to 18 inches of talcum powder consistency dust on it. Learning from my previous experiences on Highway 1095 to Maehongson, I downshifted into a lower gear and speeded up to attack the rise. The truck made it about one half way up before bogging down. No problem, I put in the clutch and rolled down the hill to retry. Seeing a couple of motorbikes behind me, I waved them forward before trying to conquer the hill a second time. I dropped the truck into first gear, reved the engine up and let out the clutch. The truck aggressively attacked the hill and made it up 3/4 of the way of the hill before the fish tailing and lack of traction bogged us down. This was now serious! There were two people on a motorbike waiting for us to climb the hill before they descended. This was personal - me against the hill. I backed down the hill and got as far back as I could on what was a straight run before the hill. I put it in first gear, reved up the RPMs, and popped the clutch to build up as much speed as possible prior to climbing the hill. The engine was roaring. The back end was wildly fish tailing side to side but we were making progress. I countered the swerving rear end and kept the RPMs up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the motorcyclists as we passed them in a huge billowing cloud of tan dust. The people were closing their eyes and covering their mouths as we struggled by - but we made it. Duang and I laughed at how crazy the road was. Later at the hotel, we saw a layer of fine dust covering the back bumper.

Because Duang is a Thai citizen, she did not have to pay the entrance fee into the camp. Despite showing my Thai driver's license, I had to pay 250 baht ($7.15 USD). From the girl at the entrance booth we learned that we had just missed a festival at the camp. The three day festival had ended the day before. As we walked into the camp we were surprised at the state of the camp. Houses that we knew the people who lived in them were gone with only compacted dirt and a few bits of wood remaining. One half of the houses were gone. Very few people were visible. Unlike previous visits to this camp there was no contingent of school girls at the entrance to greet you or seduce into buying postcards, stationary, or other small trinkets. One little girl that we had previously met would also play her guitar and sing. We have seen her in documentaries regarding the Paduang people.

We found several men and women at a long table underneath the canopy of a village hut. They were spending a sunny and hot afternoon drinking coke, beer, as well as whiskey - perhaps leftovers from the festival. These people made no attempt to engage us in any conversation or tried to sell us anything. There was not much available to be bought at the little booths in front of the huts. We continued our walk around and through the village. We found a small hut that was the village health clinic. A young Thai man was in charge of the clinic and from him we learned that about one half of the people had relocated out of the camp. He works in the clinic on a grant from the thai government and also deals with NGOs for the benefit of the camp residents. As he prepared to each his lunch, we walked over to the group of residents that we had seen on our way in.

I asked about "Freida" (Ma Jon) and one of the men told me that she had died. I was shocked and asked when she had died. He said that she had died last year. Somehow I didn't quite believe him and asked him if he was joking. He eventually admitted that she had moved to another camp. She wanted to be located to a foreign country so she had moved from Baan Nai Soi into a closed camp of 20,000 people on the border. Tourists or "travellers" are not allowed access into the camp. Freida's mother and sister had also joined here in the closed camp. It was apparent that there were some issues between this man and Freida. I guess no matter who or where you are, there will always be interpersonal issues. We inquired about the sad elderly widow who had lost her daughter three years ago. The woman had moved away just like the school girl that used to greet people at the gate. It was a depressing place and it appeared that the people themselves were depressed.

We watched two young boys playing beach volleyball in front of the new school office hut. The old school buildings were very ramshackle and I suspect but could not confirm that they had been abandoned. We did find out that some of the children that remained in camp went to class in the new school office hut.

We came upon a young school girl. She reminded me somewhat of Freida. She had a brightness to her eyes and a charming personality that remind me of the waste of so much talent in this world due to economic or political adversity. This 11 year old girl, her 9 year old brother, and her 11 year old friend were manning a small booth. They study English, Thai, Burmese, and their native languages in the village school. They also study geography. I asked about science and she did not know what I was talking about.

We spent about an hour talking with the children before buying a couple of trinkets and setting back to the hotel. The girl asked if Duang could bring her some pants when we return. We plan on returning in September or October and will keep our promise.

We returned to town with both Duang and I thinking that the children's parents had not had their children's best interests in mind when they refused to relocate and elected to remain in this particular camp.

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