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Kindness of a Karen Family

By Dara Walsh

KarenAnother story from the land of smiles sorry it's long. I was walking to have lunch at the canteen at school, and I saw some Thai students advertising a camping trip at the Humanities Faculty (the faculty my mom used to teach English at over 20 years ago.) The students had posted some pictures up of Karen children and said that we would go through some Karen hilltribes along the way of our trek. I was willing, and signed up not really knowing what I was getting myself into. My idea of camping was walk a little, take nice pictures of mountains, set up a tent, sleep, and do that over and over again until you get back to where you started Little did I know, that the Thai students' idea of "camping", was my idea of a National Geographic On Assignment experience.

So I found myself in the back of the biggest truck I've ever seen, surrounded by metal rungs on all sides. All 26 of us, Chiang Mai University students, were crammed in the back of this truck, along with our supplies for the coming week. The team leader had a loudspeaker (identical to the one my 6th grade teacher used to call us in from the playground at the end of recess), instructing people to load this, load that give a Thai a microphone and the show will never end. The group sang for 3 hours straight, under the direction of the team leader, all the way to our new home for the week. We split up in groups of three and were assigned to a Karen family.

Finding their house in the pitch black was problem number one. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have absolutely no kind of compass in my head, would be problem number two. On the way to my new house, my flashlight caught glimpses of buffalo, black little pigs, dogs, cats among other animals, and when we finally got to the foot of the house, and I stared up into the sky the stars were sharp and plenty.

Karen2We made our way into the house and my Karen mom (mo) and Karen dad (pa) greeted us, and made us feel at home by giving us warm blankets actually, more like sacrificing their blankets to us. We did donate some clothes and blankets to each family before we left. We campers were given maps of the village as well as a small booklet of Karen words, all written in Thai of course. The first three things to learn in Pakayawe language, was "What's your name? Did you eat yet? and, Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?" While struggling to read the pamphlet, cute little voices filled the room. I turned to see faces of my new brothers and sisters, their cheeks golden, from the reflection of the candles I was using to read.

They all had knit caps, which reeked from not being washed for ages. Their entire body smelled, as did ours after the 6 days (and only having one shower). My host mom taught me how to take a shower with a "pha zin", a traditional Thai sarong, and my biggest challenge with that was to keep it up. No matter if you changed your clothes to be clean, or if you didn't to be "campish", you'd get some comment from the Thai students for being too much of one or the other. My toilet paper became my best friend, and parting with it when I sacrificed it to a village boy with a bloody nose was noble, but devastating.

So the first night, I was freezing. I had on 4 layers, 2 pairs of socks and a knit hat (courtesy of my last adventure) (knitted by a mae-chee or Buddhist nun). The kids wore short sleeved shirts and shorts and would make fun of us city people for not being able to stand the cold. I would wake up each morning at dawn, from the little sound of feet running across the wooden floor. Each night it was pitch black, I opened my eyes and it was though I was blind. I could only hear crickets, motorbikes in the far distance, and occasional coughs from my little sister in the next room the family bedroom being the size of my bathroom at home. Once I heard Whoopie Goldberg, singing " I will follow him follow him wherever he may go" from one of the neighbor's radios. I couldn't help but chuckle...if only Whoopie knew.

Our projects were to construct a building for them. We spent a lot of time mixing cement and helping out in the human chain, sending cement from the mixing ground to the building. A lot of the villagers helped out, so I often found myself receiving a bucket full of cement from a Thai student, and handing it to a Karen woman dressed in her traditional skirt and towel wrapped around her head. A belief that the towel would keep the ghosts away. In thinking of this human chain I felt lost at times the Thai student...the real Thai, me, half Thai and the Karen, guess I would call them "hard core Thai", but I looked at both groups as being a part of me, they were my people, and my looks made me a "chameleon in their world but only if they could see the lizard inside" (this quote is courtesy of my new best friend Joy, who is also half Thai and half American:).

Those women who were married, wore colored skirts they wove themselves. While those who weren't married wore all white. We walked to a waterfall nearby, and walked through some cabbage fields on the way. I needed some help here and there crossing streams, and a Karen boy about my age helped. His hands were rough and solid, and mine soft...although I'd like to think my hands got rougher by the time I left, I highly doubt mine will ever be hard as the result of hard work. We held a "day for the kids", and had games and prizes.

We played takraw, volleyball, and also tug a war, which the villagers beat us at every time. The women were excluded from the games, but I suggested that we had the Chiang Mai University girls against the women. I don't have to tell you that us pen pushers lost. Some of the women marry so young, the child in them shines through. I could feel their eagerness to join the fun. The last day we had a campfire and put on a play, later, the villagers danced for us in their traditional outfits. The men reenacted a wedding ceremony, whisky drinking seeming to be the main event. All of us campers borrowed the traditional dress from the villagers for the show, and felt more a part of them the last night.

Every morning, Mo would make breakfast for the 9 of us in her family. She boiled cabbage, threw in a few chillies, placed it in the middle of a round tin plate and scooped out rice all around the small cereal sized bowl. We ate with our fingers half the time, and if there were enough spoons, we'd eat with those. Sometimes she'd have two small fishes, ones that my cats eat at home only they ate 3 each, we had 3 for the 9 of us to share. She would wrap rice each day in banana leaves tied with thin bamboo strips to hold it closed. Even though I ate a lot, I have never in my life, ever, gone as hungry as I did there that week. I hit Dunkin Donuts 4 times in 2 days when I returned to the city, after never going there once in 4 months.

Dogs and cats would try to get at the food at every meal, and I felt my animal instincts come out at any sight of food, similar instincts to theirs. I would eat every meal with the cats yearning for a piece of the fish and the dogs for the scraps of leftovers. I peeked at black little pigs underneath, through the slats I was sitting on of our wooden house, and timidly ate as the aura of buffalo dung seeped up through the slits that made up the floor. I was later asked by one of the other campers if I "tok jai", meaning, did my heart drop at the sight of little black pigs. Yes, actually it did. As it did every morning, when I would brush my teeth facing a buffalo tied to the foot of a piece of wood that held up a house out near the water pump. at the crack of dawn, I would often see my little sister playing with a dead mouse, throwing it around like a stuffed animal.

The women worked all day,they "thaked khaw" pounded the husk off of the rice, which I tried to do but got laughed at by the women for doing it wrong. They do women stuff, and men do more of the harder labor, like building the house or going out into the fields. A few traces of the city can be found, such as the yellow plastic Penzoil bottle Mo used as a bottle to keep water in. (I wonder how the first round of that tasted.) She would also burn plastic wrappers from candy the kids got from one place or another. Throughout the camping trip, we had 3 cups for over 200 people. I hoped my hepatitis shots kicked in.

I always seemed to carry my bag around with me, for no reason other than my mother teaching me all my life to watch out for my "stuff". I guess I was subconsciously worried about loosing my Visa card and my money to buy what I don't know The Karen just don't have "stuff". I walked in the first time and looked around their house, looking for "stuff", like a bed, couch, stove, anything but no bed definitely no couch the only thing was a black pot over a fire. Their "stuff" is their kids, most of them being carried by mo or pa with a piece of cloth.

The last night we were there, all the campers sat in a circle and after telling about their experience, lit the candle to the camper next to them, until the circle was complete. Me being the "farang" got me the most popular award the last night which would never happen in America, I just don't fit the popular tall blond hair blue eyed, popular type. A lot of the people in the village knew there was a farang, but where was she? Campers pointed to me, and soon enough most people knew that I came far away for this adventure, 24 hours on an airplane in comparison to the campers 2 hours by truck. Although this was an adventure for me, this was everyday life for them. The language barrier wasn't so fun, but the triangle of language confusion between the Thai students, the Karen, and me, made me feel more comfortable in that I wasn't the only one totally clueless at times. My nod and smile technique worked, but not when an open ended question was asked.

The maid at my house in Chiang Mai is Karen, and I proudly showed her a world map for the first time a few weeks ago, explaining the concept of the ocean, continents, languages etc to her, thinking that she was such at a disadvantage for not knowing about this world that had so many adventures in store. I now learned after coming back from her home, that their village doesn't need to know about what the world has to offer, if they did they'd feel sorry for themselves that they only have cabbage to eat and black little pigs that cause the "more fortunate" like me, to "tok jai".

Mo, after my "foreigner in disguise" suit was zipped off, gave me a bag of rice as a good-bye present. "It's not like the rice in the city", she said. Their generosity and constant cheerful disposition, left me more at peace and gave me a better understanding about human nature. We need only ourselves and the love that binds us. They were perfectly happy, with their sky as their ocean, babies as their baggage, and life as their profession until the next adventure :)

Dara Walsh is a senior at the University of California, San Diego who spent this past year studying abroad at Chiang Mai This article describes a trip she took up to the Karen hilltribes.

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