Mae Hong Son

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

After a few days in Chiang Mai recovering from some rather nasty food poisoning (that sent me jumping between café toilets, and had a pharmacy lady look worried at the urgent need on my face when I ran in), and hanging out with friends, networking, and generally living the good life of Chiang Mai, I was bound for Mae Hong Son. I decided to take the 6 hour mini bus ride on the mountainous 1864 corner road. Recently two local buses crashed as they are getting pretty old and cant quite make the corners as good as they use to. I sat next to the driver with another woman, men were in the back, I didn't mind, as its easier on the stomach on that road. The drive was comical/interactive driving to say the least. The driver would beep his horn at passing vehicles, motorbikes, buffalo, dogs and chickens. And whenever he did, did so with a very assertive karate like chop onto the horn, usually just as I was drifting off to sleep. He would also do thumbs up to other drivers, stop to do a spot of shopping, and would drive hands free whenever we passed a temple or a shrine to wai (hands in prayer like position).

As my bus pulled into MHS, I could feel the tears welling up, I was trying my hardest to fight them away not to lose face next to my exhausted driver. It was raining, and I just stood by the lake in the centre of MHS in a state of total shock, I was back in a place where I left my heart two years earlier and simply could not believe it. As soon as I met Astra she made me hire a motorbike. So there I was back, my first time driving a motorbike, in pouring monsoon rain, when Astra looked at me and said 'Iona you are shining!’

I spent the next few days catching up with old friends and making new ones. I met Stephen The Branch Foundation volunteer, and together with a few others we built a play ground for the children at the EMFS nursery, the partner organisation of The Branch Foundation where I spent a lot of time two years ago. You should have seen Stephens face when he asked what resources we had, and I said bamboo and rope. The playground was attempted by a few volunteers, who kind of messed it up and spent the donees money on a not very safe playground for 2-4 year olds….it was our job to make it safe without spending anymore money. It was an interesting process, and slightly difficult as the project management was conducted in English, Dutch, Shan, Wa and Thai. At one stage I had to ask Stephen to be less kiwi so we could all communicate better as he said ‘well if a kid walks under that, he would get hit in the chops eh’ in a nice thick NZ accent. I almost lost my focus in fits of laughter. Stephen is doing an amazing job and will head to the Shan camp in a few days to work there. I sat late one night briefing him on the situation there, and how he could put his skills best to use.

I went and visited the boarding house, the one that just opened in time of the Thai school year…it’s a bit of a road trip out there, then a slippery walk through the mud and the rice fields. Its simple, but these children have a place to call home. Many of the children I recognised as they were in the nursery last time I was here. I was also reunited with a boy named Tutu, one of my favourites. Again I was almost moved to tears when I saw what a strong healthy boy he is. For those of you on facebook he is the one that was on my profile shot for a long time. When asked if he recognised me, he said he didn’t. But before I couldn’t contain myself any longer and wrapped my arms around him, he sat there watching me.

Life here is amazing, from sitting on plastic stools at the road side at an old ladies roti shop, drinking Burmese tea, to cruzing the highway on my bike, yelling out the odd wahooooo (kinda like my elbows out, pedal to the metal, don’t worry mum and dad I wear a helmet), to watching Helixes look important, to chatting to NGO workers in a local bar, sitting by the lake watching monks clean the temple, people do tai chi, visiting the boarding house and nursery….I tell you people I am living the dream. No I’ll recorrect that, I am living my dreams, working in the field, with Burmese people who I have the world of respect and time for.

Life is intense here, both physically and mentally. I have times where I feel overwhelmed, and my head is like a washing machine of impressions that just is on spin. I had a good talk to Astra and Stephen about our position as foreigners living here. It helped. In the culture here the biggest no no is to lose face. Basically nothing is done direct, no one confronts each other, meetings are not for problem solving like they are at home. It is a different way of behaving or conducting oneself, and there are times where you just feel like you need an outlet. A room with your best friend where you can just talk freely. But instead I go to my bungalow at night and the washing machine continues, from stories I hear to things I see, its intense, it makes me feel alive. My poor mum when she visits me at the end of the month is going to be my springboard, my debrief and probably the first person I have been able to have a proper talk to since I left. When I see other foreigners who live here you can see their hardened from living here, their faces say it all, yet they have a glow, a clearness that I cant explain.

I do need to take this moment to say that rosters here have got it all wrong, they start the first time at midnight, then 4am, then 6 am….there might be a few less rosters in town in a few days!! I am currently sitting in Mae Sariang, its so small that if you swung a cat by its tail and let go (ow make that roster, I like cats) it would land way out of town. Within five minutes of being in town I met the NGO community, five foreigners live here, and there is one café to hang out in. I had my meeting with the Karen Women’s Organisation. They offered me a 6 month unpaid internship. I cant get hold of Leo from the TBBC as he is on home leave to discuss how much they are willing to support me, but even if my accommodation is covered, its not really feasible. Plus I think I would go mad in this small town.

So I have decided to head back to Mae Hong Son for a few days, catch up with the boarding house project some more, finish the play ground and then go party in Pai before going to Chiang Mai, NGO capital of the border work….my new home!! I do remember saying I would love to live in Chiang Mai, so it just works out well. Plan is to teach English while I look for paid NGO work, run The Branch Foundation and do a research piece for the TBBC. It took me awhile watching the Slaween River to decide which direction to take, but now it feels right.

In a few hours I will head back on the bus to MHS, one of the scarest rides I’ve had in awhile. A local bus, windows wide open, winding roads and a driver that looks like he is a wizard stirring his big pot as he hunches over and turns the large steering wheel. This wizard is a rally driver, and I was left going ‘oh my Buddha’ a number of times, in fact I think some where in there all gods appeared. Might buy some local whiskey to make the ride a bit smoother. And when I arrive I am meeting my friend Sai On to drink rice wine and chat by the lake.

Thank you for all your messages of support….it does give me strength and is very humbling …thank you!
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gypsymilan on

Hey Sweets!
Love reading your updates! Ain't life grand when you are actually living it!!! Keep up the amazing work. Oooh and Gypsy just isn't the same without you :-) Nichelle x

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