Field Trip

Trip Start Sep 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, November 5, 2005

Wake up with Clark outside our door, grab our bags and walk to the bus station. Coffee and spicy pork & rice to chase the sleep off. We play guitar in the back of the sawngthaew (pickup truck with benches and roof over the bed) until the driver's ready to leave. Three orange-robed Buddhist monks and a couple big bags of rice join us. Live catfish in a plastic bag hang from a neighboring truck.

The Organization has sent me and my students north for the week to attend a workshop on environmental journalism. Clark's the only one who has a legit ID card. This will let him be seen with me in public without arousing suspicion. The other students pay a bribe so that some shady government officials will drive them past the police and military checkpoints. We drive north along the border, starting on the highway, then into windy mountain gravel and dirt roads, steep limestone cliffs all around with plants dangling over the road. The shark-fin shaped mountains across the river are Myanmar, Clark points out to me. For those who are confused, the name of Burma was officially changed to Myanmar by the military government, which is controlled by ethnic Burmen. It's like giving the USA an Indian name while opening fire on the reservations. Almost nobody calls it Myanmar.

We drive past Mae La Camp, where thousands of Karen refugees have been living in wait for over twenty years. People are born and raised within the barb wire perimeter and leaf-roofed hut villages that cling to the rolling hills below the cliffs. It's actually quite scenic for a jungle ghetto.

Two police checkpoints, they check our passports, I watch Clark's face out of the corner of my eye as they check his Thai ID. It's legal and cost him around 1200 dollars. But for some reason it doesn't have his birthdate on it, only the year, which he has to explain to every cop and soldier who checks. Clark (not his real name) was born in Karen State of Burma but moved to Thailand when he was three. He was sent to journalism school because he was good at poetry.

The sawngthaew picks up more people as we pass through the mountains. Banana trees, coconut palms, creepers, and a million plants I can't name make up the foliage of a temperate (frost but no snow) jungle. Looks exactly like southern China but with fewer of the steep rice terraces. Homemade petrol stations in the small towns and hill tribe villages look like intravenous drip apparati, an oil drum beneath a glass cylinder and plastic tubing. Decaying betel nut smiles on the locals who hop on and off the truck, standing on the welded tailgate holding onto the ladder when the benches are full. Brightly colored fabric on the women, ragged army surplus and used American t-shirts on the men. All their clothes are somewhat dirty from the rugged rural life, and so are ours from the dusty ride.

When there are enough women in the truck, men must move to sit between them and the monks, who are not allowed to physically touch a woman. One monk smokes a cigarette. Another drinks a red bull and throws his plastic bag on the side of the road. A third gives us gum and water. I attempt to snap pictures, cursing the delay on the digital camera which takes the picture after the gap in the trees has passed and the mountain vista becomes a blur of foliage.

The diesel engine putters weakly on the steep roads. The dust and dirt rattle on the floor. Four hours into the trip and Jo looks tired but seems in good spirits. She's probably never been on this kind of transport for so long. She blushes and turns away from my camera lens. We weave through the mountains and finally begin to drop into the wide lush river valley to Mae Sariang, where we find a drink, hotel, and shower. We watch Burmese TV, which is mostly panoramic shots of bridges, ass-kissing documentaries of military officials visiting factories, and subtly derogatory comments about the UN ("60 years, time for a change"). The propaganda also includes nauseous award ceremonies and representations of happy minority ethnic groups singing songs. Picture an American news program showing Iraqis dancing in the streets for hours on end and you have an idea of Burmese TV.

Next day we take a proper bus to Mae Hong Son, the mp3 player split into each of our three sets of headphones, so the ambient hip hop blends into the winding landscape. Wooden houses on stilts, kids fixing motorbikes, more military checkpoints, hand the passport over and smile innocently. Feathery reeds by the rivers, bamboo huts in rice fields, and suddenly we're five kilometers from Mae Hong Son and I happen to see the sign for the hotel where we're supposed to meet the rest of the students and quickly flag the driver to stop. My mobile phone has died along the way so we are left at the crossroads, a few kilometers from the hotel itself, which is up a side street off the main road. We wait awhile, then start walking, after two kilometers or so, two guys on motorbikes offer us rides and we're there.

The resort is a beautifully manicured eden in the middle of the mountain jungle. A swimming pool makes quick work of the road dust and also my bitterness toward the Organization for making me hitchhike to their damn workshop. Coffee, shower, orchids, waterfalls...It's the opposite of everything I've seen since I've been here.

The next day we get to work with myself and other foreign journalists interviewing local Thai government officials in Mae Hong Son, who want the local hill tribe people off National Park land, and want to preserve the forests according to the western model, because "they make rain" for the people downstream. The National Parks Official bails on our interview and we are left with a scared secretary to tell us National Park policy about hill tribes living in the forest. 89% of Mae Hong Son province is mountainous, and the policy is that no one should be living in the mountainous region. The hill tribes are blamed for causing forest fires and slash-and-burn agriculture.

As the sun goes down we hop in a truck and wind through the mountain roads to one of these villages, where our students are waiting.

I meet some of the other trainers for the workshop. They include University professors and environmental experts, translators, and another radio trainer like me. The guy running the workshop is from Rockford, Illinois. He's been coming to these villages for years, knows the locals, and speaks good Thai.

But here they speak Karen. The students, 13 or so of them are Mon, Shan, Karenni, Arkhan, Karen, and other Burmese minorities. Everything said throughout the workshop must be translated into several languages. Half the students are print journalists, the other half radio. This will be their introduction to environmental journalism, taught in the field by visiting traditional communities that live in the forest against the will of the Thai Government. In the late 80's, a logging ban was instituted in Thailand and this went so far as to request communities that had been living in these hills for hundreds of years move to the cities, abandoning their rural lives and swidden (slash and burn) agricultural practices. But some of the hill tribes know how to care for the forest better than the National Parks people. They fight fires, don't cut trees down to the roots when they clear a field, allowing for regeneration while the field is fallow, and can be the eyes and ears protecting the forest from those who might seek to exploit it.

We sleep in the villager's houses on floors of flattened bamboo, which flexes under your feet. We lie under nets surrounded by clouds of invisible mosquitos and get soaked as rain falls through the thin leaf-thatch roofs. On the walls are faded photographs, turtleshells, and homemade crucifixes. There's a water buffalo tied up in the yard, the ubiquitous rooster crowing, kids screaming during their baths with water funnelled from the stream, insects singing like machines.

Local cuisine includes rat soup (actually more like gopher), still you can see the paws. I kind of enjoyed it till I found out what it was. We eat frog, tubers, huge cucumbers, passion fruit, stewed ferns, and local rice, which is even prized by the mean old government officials who know it's more healthy than the processed stuff in the valley.

It's quiet here and you can see the stars. But since we're here for radio journalism, I had to bring along the technological junk. Next morning my digital camera loses its light meter. I spend much of the week on a laptop plugged into a deep cycle battery hooked up to a solar panel. I'm loading my students' minidisc recordings onto the hard drive, so they can reuse the few discs they have. I feel like I'm missing much of the local experience, but I've been to rural villages like this before, so I'm satisfied that at least my girlfriend and students are making friends and experiencing the life here. Jo learns to use a local loom, talks to an orchid gardener, tries on traditional clothing and makes friends. One of the locals that Jo's befriended dresses us up in local digs, as seen in one of the pictures (which has since been censored by yours truly, sorry).

We climb Doi Pui mountain, flicking leeches off our clothing, seeing the wreckage of an American plane that crashed in the mountains during WW2. Small purple and yellow flowers on the side of the trail, bitter to the taste are a native treatment for malaria. Tracks from a wild boar crashing through the undergrowth. Here, try some cinnamon bark. An ancient looking palm tree ancestor. Bird songs with long melodies. The bamboo is flowering, which means little spiked flowers on the thin upper branches, happens every twenty years or so (also brings rats to the area by the thousands, hence the soup). Moving up in altitude, we pass from tropical to temperate forest and eventually into the clouds, misty peaks appearing for a few moments before enshrouded again. We walk down along the edges of green cliffs as thunder rumbles.

The students must pick an environmental topic and publish a story/radio program in order to graduate the workshop. They have difficulty finding ideas, satisfied to take the suggestions written on the itinerary and wonder why the white people say to find more detail. "What is the story about?" we ask continuously. Most of the students want to cover the more immediate issues of landmines, rape, and starvation in their country, but the enthusiastic westerners are telling them to write about forest management strategies and how to record the sound of birds for radio ambience. We know we aren't going to turn these Che Guevarra wannabes into tree-hugging hippies in a week, but for the next few days we visit hillside rice farms and keep the students on track with their stories and sound gathering,

The last night in the village, we sit in a circle and pass the guitar around between students and our hosts. Bob Marley is the only English music anyone can remember the lyrics to. Better than the Eagles at least. The villagers sing folk songs about the Salween River, slated to be dammed soon, flooding villages and killing fish, half the concrete being sold off by scheming soldiers which weakens the dam structure. Logging and mining have also decimated huge parts of northern Burma's, one of the richest ecosystems in Asia, where there are still wild tigers and old growth teak forests. (Google: global witness china report). Some sing church songs, which lack the Asian twang and chorus with familiar Hallelujahs, the tokens of missionaries a hundred years ago. There are unstrung banjos on a wall in every house, but no one remembers how to play. The oldest woman of the village sings us a different song, creaky and haunting, the only one that feels authentic. It is a song thanking God for us having met and wishing us safe return.

Leaving town, we are stopped by a motorbike rider who tells us there's a police checkpoint ahead, blocking our route back into town. If we are stopped at the checkpoint, all the students risk being deported to Burma and into the hands of the raping and pillaging SPDC soldiers (SPDC means State Peace and Development Council of course... or maybe it's Say your Prayers Democracy's Cancelled). The whispers get nervous. Our military intelligence contacts f*cked up or someone at the Organization forgot the bribe, they were supposed to provide travel papers for the kids for this week. Everyone but the students gets really worried. Our interview with the Interior official must have aroused suspicion. Western journalist questions cause a loss of face and somebody must have tipped them off that we're up here telling the story the government wants to hide.

We tell the students not to use the names of the villages in their stories, or the ecologically and socially friendly villagers could all get rounded up at gunpoint and moved to a city ghetto where their oneness with nature will be useless. If they were going to deport the villagers next week it would be different, we say, but to do so now would just fan the flames. We hide in a smaller village for the afternoon, unsure if we will have to hike three days out to safety. More waiting. I break out the guitar and give it to the kids. We film a music video in the back of a parked truck. I plug in the mp3 player when they start up with Hotel California. "They're used to seeing violence" sings Ben in my headphones. The kids hide when a truck comes up the road, laughing from behind the trees. Somebody's cell phone works on top of the hill. We get word that the police have left. Turns out they weren't after us, just some Hmong migrants working in the rice fields.

The rain hits hard on the ride out, soaking everything. The kids laugh and duck branches. The foreigners are shaken by what could have just happened. One of my students still has questions about his assignment. Is it good enough for news? I wonder how much do we interfere, these well-intentioned NGO's, these white do-gooders whose own native peoples have been cast to reservations outside the manicured parks, and kept from hunting/gathering in the forests we've recently decided to protect. How can these students listen to us tell them how to treat the environment when our own government does the opposite and shoves it in the rest of the world's face? Will our training mean a thing? It's our oil company that made deals with the Burmese Government to displace villages by force to make way for a natural gas pipeline.

The kids are staying at one of their friend's houses in MHS. We drink rice moonshine that night and play more guitar. The foreigners get taxis to the resort, and Clark, Jo, and myself get dropped off at the bus station next morning. It's a long hungover ride back. All my students get home safe but one of the print journalists has to walk a good part of the way back to Chiang Mai, avoiding cops along the way and offering a bus driver his towel in exchange for a ride that the Organization forgot to pay for.
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madhurima on

Thank You
Jay, I am so amazed everytime I read something of your travels, please continue! I feel as though I am with you! We are sending love and safety to you and your students. Thank you for the truth.

tulasi on

vive la verité
waow, ça fait une belle moment depuis j n'ai pas lu tes memoires. merci, vieux.

meme si on saura jamais les buts de l'organisation, je te soutiens dans mon coeur. courage.

keetch on

Truly Inspiring
Hey Jack. Thanks for putting us in the setting. Your writing is enough to make anybody think twice about complaining that his/her American life is hard. I'm completely blown away. Keep up the good work and stay safe and say hi to Jo for me.


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