Friday, December 19, 2008

Rise Up



The sun is up. The low hanging ceiling of fog is receding, revealing ridge lines puff painted in green fauna. The old white sheet lifts, the scene is set.

Yesterday I wrote off the walls of limestone encrusted valleys as an endless uphill battle. Today is different, today has started with a new feeling--the last day on the bike of a human powered journey covering over 2,000 kilometers. Though I'm not feeling fresh, I saddle up with a smile. Today I will ride to the ceiling of Vietnam; Tram Ton Pass.

There are bright colored hill tribe women trading goods at the market, chiefly, H'Mong and Black Thai. The ebbs and flows of the market are a 3D screen-saver; uneventful and constantly entertaining.

One last sip of coffee.
I start pedaling.

***

The remote border crossing in the mountains of Lao/Vietnam border territory, tape-worm-roads, and agricultural shelves in the Vietnamese highlands near China can most aptly be described as having more variety than I normally desire; a stiff Caucasian of "ins, outs, and what-have-yous."

The last three weeks was a head-first dive into a muddy river; I bumped into some interesting things. On the eve of my birthday I was in the remote town of Hat Lok. At 11:37am a moped sped by, nearly nicking my left shoulder. Fifty yards down the road the driver hit an elderly man, approximately fifty more and he drove into a group of young school children on their lunch break. The children blew over like tall grass when the wind blows. The universe skipped a beat as the moped went airborne, spinning and twisting, while spirals of injustice were changing the future for people stuck on the ground.

I reverted to my EMT training. After assessing the scene and the victims I was forced to leave the scene of one dead moped driver who's breath smelt of booze, an elderly man with badly bruised ribs, and a paralyzed young boy. I rode past the dead drunk driver and away from the young paralyzed boy, in a culture that does not cater to the handicapped.


***

Now, I've hung out in the peloton with roadies (road bike racers) and talked about how many ounces my wheels weigh; I've gone scientific on race nutrition and training strategies with tri-geeks (triathletes); when 500 hipsters from Critical Mass took over the Alaskan Viaduct on two wheels and one gear I helped block on-coming traffic (www.seattlecriticalmass.org); and last year my dad rode the entire West Coast of the United States with his brother Chris (way to go Pa!). The undeniable characteristic in all these groups is the desire to approach life at one's own speed.
From the rear-pocket handkerchief hanging hipsters on single speeds at Critical Mass to my friends stuck inside on their trainers out of fear of damaged bearings, there is one agreed upon common ground. In every possible figurative and literal interpretation--riding a bike epitomizes freedom.

On December 2nd, the day before my birthday, I was reminded how fortunate we are to share this freedom, to move and utilize our senses; relish in your aliveness.


***

It's cold now. I look up and it's the same flat white. I've been climbing the same ridge line for 25km and haven't broke through the fog. The concept of wind resistance has been introduced. Every time I round a hair-pin the wind stands me up with enough force to float me back to the rice paddies a thousand meters below. My water is gone, my fingers are gripping the bars disconnectedly, and I'm reaching deep fatigue.

Fatigued, not tired. Note the difference.

This has got to be the last corner.

I round the bend, visibility improves with the worsening head wind, a half-mile across the valley and looming two thousand meters above I can make out a shiny piece of silver. The silver line hanging precariously on the opposite ridge is sloping up at a 5-6% grade. "Maybe it's a new pipeline?" I think out loud.

I know God-Damn well what it is; a new guard rail.
Two hours later the shiny rail is on my right side and I reach the top of Tram Ton Pass. My reward: a billboard and a large group of photohappy tourists snapping pictures of each other on a big pile of dirt.

A brief visual description of what lies beyond the pile of dirt:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeutFlSpYVM

***

After three days of recovery in Sapa the fog lifted. Sapa is full of tourists but it still serves as a trading spot for three different types of hill tribe people living nearby. My immune system decided to quite working after I made it over the pass (deeply fatigued... Not tired) but by day three I was ready for the final ascent of the tour; Mt. Fanzipan.

Peddling up the backside of Tram Ton Pass I got my first look at the objective. Carst limestone ridges leading to committing summits surrounding the highest mountain in Indochina. Unlike it's neighbors, Mt. Fanzipan is a big uneventful lump covered in fog six out of seven days.

Five minutes past, I made a judgement call, coasted 30km down the road I struggled up three days prior, summited Tram Ton Pass a second time with clear skies as a backdrop, and coasted past Sapa down to the Red River 5km from China.


***

I'm at the base of a route called Elephant Man, it's overhung and my upper body is atrophied; for the past month my legs have been stealing all the nutrients. The crag is called Butterfly Vally and it lives up to it's name with a diverse local population of our delicate two whinged friends. I wasn't planning on guiding on the island, nor was I keen to shell out $15USD for gear to climb. The owner of Slo Pony Adventures and I worked out a deal which basically allowed me to climb five days a week and work one or two.

I lead kayak trips and belayed first timers in exchange for climbing gear and good company. Most of the clients were better suited for the party barge...

Cat Ba was my shelter from the storm.

For pictures of climbing Cat Ba Island peruse the picture and video tab on left of this URL:
http://www.slopony.com/


***

I am passing on the Iguana to an expat inspired to tour.

Happy Holidays.

Get busy livin'

Andrew

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Yet Anoher Junction





I’m searching for a way to transcend the experience...

When the bus dropped us off at the junction of the two roads there wasn’t much we could do. I had been riding my bike for 1,115 kilometers through the northern stretches of Thailand and Laos. My visa for Vietnam started in two days, I needed to rest while still covering ground; I didn’t know what to expect and was too tired to care. In retrospect, I think the driver had the mid-way drop off planned before we departed.

At 7:30am a mother, her small child, a middle aged man with worn through dress shoes, the Iguana and I loaded the flatbed-turned-bus in the junction town of Vieng Thong. At 7:45am the bus-driver pushed the front seat forward, pulled out a bamboo-bong, walked out to the road, smoked himself some opium, then came back and starred blankly at the front drivers side tire. Five other Laotians trickled over twenty minutes of philophosphorizing followed. Half-hour later the stoned driver was wheeling the tire in a dizzy line down the road; the mother, her child, man with worn-out shoes, the Iguana and I were still sitting in the back. A Songtow showed up shortly thereafter, we reloaded and set out for the hills toward the provincial capital, Xam Nuea.

About one-third of the way to Xam Nuea the road reached another junction village, which is where the driver pulled over, unloaded our belongings and handed me less than half of what I paid to get to Xam Nuea. The village felt like many I’d already ridden through, Saba Dee Screaming children, toothless elderly smiles, skinny dogs and small pigs.

Somehow, using my digital watch and organic to the conversation sign language, the man with worn-out shoes explained that another bus would pass through at 2pm. Despite the language barrier, it was comforting to know they had the same goal in mind.

We’d been waiting a couple of hours when the truck came around the corner. There was yelling, laughing, flags, camouflage, big guns and fake Ray Bans in the back of an army green 1 ton truck like overstuffed cigars in scrofulous heaps.

I felt like a possum about to become road kill in the middle of the night, frozen by shock and disbelief; my mind was sending signals but my feet wouldn’t move. So, I stood numbly trying to figure out which movie this reminded me of, The Last King of Scotland or one of the war scenes from Blood Diamond. Deep in my stomach was an undeniable threat that this was a guerilla group.

My shiny new bike was propped up on display next to my bag, which had all my money and passport, fifty feet away on the other side of the street.
Two options:
Option 1: Run over, grab the bag, mount the Iguana and hammer down the hill past the truck in it’s final struggle to ascend.
Option 2: Continue the possum act and see what happens.
I unwillingly ended up choosing the latter.

The truck whipped off to the side of the road, young soldiers with scarves and trendy sideways baseball hats spilled out, music was turned on loudly, and two big silver bowls with engraved lettering were placed on the hood of the truck. The men scattered into the village and a couple camos stood guard by, what I assumed to be, the loot buckets.

I was starring at my feet, racing through the options of what may happen and how I should react. Without an approaching sound two boots appeared next to my feet. I traced up the boots, past the shiny belt buckle, to a set of eyes I knew immediately could see through any front I tried to put up.

Awkward silence...

What the fuck would I say anyway, “I like your shirt, just a minute let me grab my wallet sir.”

The possum act continued.

“What is your name?”
“Hi, my name is Andrew,” regretting how friendly I sounded as I spoke.
“Hmph,” he said.
I looked back down with the williwaws.
“And were is it you come from And-drew?”
“Oh, just 50k west” proud of my smart-ass intellect.
“No, what country do you come from?”
“From the states,” I said without hesitation.
I looked back up to see 30 young soldiers semi-circling the conversation. My back was to the Iguana now but I could hear the men shift her gears, ringing her bell, picking her up to feel her agile light frame; emotions stirred. I turned to see one guy sitting on her rack, another pushing her odometer and yet a third jamming down on her front shocks. Confidence ensued. I turned back to the filled out—man boobs and all—bruised t-shirt guy, still there; damn.

“Where’re you from?” I asked, eyes stuck on the man boobs.
“We come from a competition, these are our trophies,” he motions to the hood of the truck.
“What kind.” I’m confused now.
“A shooting competition in Phonsovan.” Phonsovan is a touristy area known for mysterious jars 9 feet in diameter.

****

He called himself Lu and neither he nor any of his men were part of any guerrilla activity. Lu told me about his beautiful wife, young daughter, and that he limits himself to two Beer Lao per day so he doesn’t get fat. I told Lu I’m scared of marriage but look forward to it and am enjoying the pace of human powered travel through his beautiful country.

***

A majority of the roads in Laos are good quality chip-seal, tiptoeing high up on ridges or pasted to the lower valley with jungle wall on one side and a meandering river on the other. I won’t soon forget the children in the villages or the behemoth 26km climbs.

Tomorrow I will start a 10 day bike approach over the Tokanise Alps of Vietnam to reach Sappa and the base of Mt. Fansipan which I hope to reach the summit of without the use of any engine other than my own.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Partly Cloudy Chance of Rain



“The first of November is the end of the rainy season and the beginning of clear skies and cool nights,” Markus said in a promising tone. It had been precipitating in Mae Sot for three unrelenting days. My usual ten minute bike ride to work in the mornings with an occasional rain peppering had turned into something of a ride of doom which inevitably left me showing up to work sopping. For three days it was the same; get soaked in the morning; show up to work pruned and damp; sit a puddle behind my computer underneath water weighted clothes until the end of the day. One of the downsides to traveling with nothing more than a daypack is dampness. Seeing in how it was Halloween night and Markus had completed building yet another playground for migrant schools in Mae Sot, spirits were high and the wet week was becoming a distant memory.

Halloween night felt a lot like Washington; dark and moist. It ended up raining so hard that night the golf-ball sized drops sounded like they might work through the tin roof of my guest house and start pelting me in the head.

***

I woke the next morning with two feet of standing water moating in the guest house. Naturally I thought there must be a drain clogged; no worries. Being landlocked for the past couple months without a pool or Puget Sound, I found myself aimlessly sloshing around in the front yard fascinated by the weight and density of the knee deep water. Somewhere in my early morning stupor I found myself near the entrance road leading out to Main Street. The block and a half road, cement fences on either side, was now a tributary to Main Street River that had taken over the town. From my knee deep vantage I was looking strait into the cross-section of a class II rapid where Main Street should have been. “Wow…Shit!” slipped out in a pre-pubescent quip. I began a zombie march of curiosity towards the flow.

Before reaching Main Street River Chi Chi, a Karen guy I play soccer with went floating by on a small piece of bath-tub shaped styro-foam. He glanced at me wearing the same smile that was smeared all over my face. The next 48-hours recreated those sensations from childhood when the power would go out and we’d play ‘hide and go seek’ and ‘flashlight tag’. The streets were boiling with people all giddy as kids at a fun fair.

***

The second of November I woke to blue-bird skies and a nice cool breeze, Markus was spot-on just a day late. It was a good thing the roads cleared because I’d been asked to sit in at a donor meeting. The meeting proved to be very insightful with expert reporting on the current situation in Burma and where funds are most needed. There were around sixty people at the meeting; I think I was one of two Americans.

As a side note:
I’m not sure if you heard the news, as the reporters have been neglecting to spin the campaign trail, but apparently the United States of America has a new President. His name is Barack.

On November 5th, the day the results reached Mae Sot the other American from the meeting went to Dave’s, a local hangout, to watch the returns. Around 10:39am during the umpteenth PowerPoint presentation I was doing my best to fight the gravity raising hell on my eye lids when all of a sudden the gal next to me from Australia got a text message from the other American. She jabbed me in the ribs and said, “looks like Obamas’ done it.”

At exactly 11:00am cell phones began to erupt in concert, the results were in. The meeting actually stopped and turned into a comment circle to share enthusiasm/pessimism/hope. It felt very different in that room as a stranger in a foreign land than it did when I was in New Zealand and the US’s involvement in Iraq was dominating headlines.

***
After the meeting I needed to go to Chiang Mai (6hrs North) to share notes with a Hussman representative. Also on the agenda was to outfit my new bike, the Iguana, with touring gear. Since then I have traveled 541 Kilometers by bike to make a half circle through the mountains of North-western Thailand, ending up back in Mae Sot. My work in Mae Sot is coming to a close with an invaluable experience weighing heavy on how I see my surroundings, both abroad and at home.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Meat Head



I had just reached the five mile mark of my runners high. With ear-buds blaring I was shouting the chorus of a choice Citizen Cope song (in my head), probably looking like people I usually laugh at—oblivious to their surroundings—and loving every breathless track. The gravel road turned back to chuck-holed cement, my indicator to pick-it up, I was less than 10 minutes from a refreshing cold shower. The milliseconds between shuffling songs provided just long enough pause to realize something didn’t feel right; I was being watched.

***

Because of the time of day I run the only onlookers are those awake to give the local monks food on their daily alms rounds. I’ve grown quite accustomed to the farang (Westerner) sighting stares and sheepish glances from the children; this unsettled feeling was different. Like starring down the imaginary monster in my closet while waiting for sleep, I could not rest without a feeling of resolve. Last resort; I paused the last song of my ‘Morning Run Mix,’ Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades of Funk.

A hauntingly close sound of commanding presence drowned out Rage’s political angst before I had a chance to turn it off. Tired as I was, the need for immediate action and response quickly became beyond apparent. The last sound I remember was the loud scream of a diseased killing machine. The next sequence of frames came to pass quickly; before I had a chance to pause I was left bleeding.

The self-proclaimed stallions of stray dogs are always easy to spot but it doesn’t make them any more predictable. They don’t skip and scamper like the other strays, they strut and saunter. Direct eye contact is an open invitation for nothing less than an up close and personal, jaw-snapping, bark or three. These dogs share traits with the alpha males at every local pub, constant reassurance of their dominance being a requirement of their daily self-fulfillment.

A few nights ago a friend and I were walking home from dinner when we heard a stray bark from a fair distance, thinking nothing of it we carried on. A hundred steps later the same dog, teeth showing, was chasing our heels; we heard nothing until the dog was within biting distance. I turned, flailing appendages at anything that moved and yelling obscenities at the top of my lungs.

“Why don’t you like dogs?” my friend asked moments later. “Oh I love dogs, I have a Golden Retriever at home,” I replied still out of breath. “I just don’t like rabies,” I added.

***
Quickly glancing over my left shoulder I got a memorable snapshot of fang and fur. Doing my very best in the tired state I was, pivoting on my left foot, I laid out my right leg into the strongest side volley I could muster. I spun, right leg still flying through the air, arms extended like a Bruce Lee wannabe, left leg holding the weight of the entire frantic movement. Loose bits of gravel on the transitioning surface below my feet sent my left leg whipping into the air to meet the right, neither making contact with anything but the oppressing humid morning air. The following seconds were flooded with shock.

Perhaps most pressing of all the questions running through my head: what was this wiener dog doing panting in my lap? Did you know the standard size of Dackel was developed to scent, chase, and flush badgers and other burrow-dwelling animals, while the miniature was developed to hunt rabbits? Needless to say, I’d been taken down by a wiener dog. Elbow and ankle bleeding and feeling like a dog hating chump, I began the limp of shame back to my guest house. Twenty or so hobbles down the road I began to hear something over my left shoulder, I turned. The owner of the dog, probably having seen the entire fiasco, was laughing hysterically from behind her half opened gate.

***

I haven’t yet decided which is more humiliating, being taken down by one of the only domesticated dogs in Mae Sot, which happens to be a wiener dog, or the fact that the owner saw the entire thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Context

It is uncomfortable for me to build the context that I am witnessing, so I won’t. It makes more sense to let the voices of the people who live here tell you what they see; the following two stories paint a vivid picture.



We Have To Fight For Our Education


I write this message to you about our Karen “aim.” We need to open our eyes and see the suffering of all the minorities in Burma. We have the right to think about our state, our freedom, and one day we will definitely become the best leaders and save our people from the SPDC. We need to destroy the SPDC with our education.
The Burmese army has had power over our Karen people for many generations. Before the British, Burmese kings came into the Karen state and took over power. A lot of Karen people were killed by the army. I’ll never forget a story I heard from my parents about what happened to our Karen people. They had to dig a pond with their fingernails. At that time a lot of Karen people had died. They had to work for many months and they had no food and no break time. If they stopped working the army would kill them. Went they finished there were very few people left alive.
In the past we had our own state, our own culture, our own language, and our own alphabet, but we did not have freedom to study, read, or write our alphabet. The Burmese army did not want Karen people to have education. When they saw Karen people reading they took their eyes and killed them, when they saw people writing they cut off their hands and killed them.
After the British gave independence to Burma, the Karen people asked for their freedom from the Burmese army but they could not get it. Their life was controlled by the Burmese army so the left their beautiful place, their villages, and they moved from place to place. The never had a happy life because the army followed them from place to place. Then they started the revolution on 31-1-1948. They knew that if they did not revolt the army would continue to kill them until they were finished in Burma. Now they still revolt because the SPDC does not stop taking over power. They don’t only take over power, but the SPDC also has the deepest plan for genocide of the Karen people, to clear up the Karen in Burma. You will see when you open your eyes. Your people are still suffering.
The SPDC wants to split the Karen and they try to do it in many ways, such as religion and business. Because of their deep plan for Karen people, now we are split into three groups. Two are called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Karen Peace Force. These two groups are against the KNU because they are uneducated and rally foolish. They do not think about breaking down the SPDC. I hope and pray for these two groups to come back with pure hearts and organize themselves together and break down the SPDC.
Now we have the right to study and we get free education. We have the right to our state and how to save our people. Some people live in refugee camps. There are very good opportunities to get education in the camps. If we look back to our ancient people, they were not allowed to study. That is the difference between them and us. Now education is very important and every development country is full of education so that each of us will get education and open our eyes and see our people in Burma. One day we will organize and fight for our freedom from SPDC. We’ll never again let the SPDC control us. We will build up our state full of education so your people won’t be SPDC’s slaves and we will fight with our education. Remember that SPDC never sleeps!

We Want to Go Home

Our village and our homes are located in Karen State. We call our land Kae Thoo Lei, which means plentiful, pleasant and peaceful country. Our lands are very beautiful and there are many natural resources in our country, so many people like our country and our hometown.
The Burmese army (SPDC) started to torture our Karen people and raid our lands. Our people don’t like violence or killing each other, so they moved their homes and left their lands but he SPDC followed them. Because the violence became worse, in February of 1947 the Karen National Union (KNU) was founded. They tired to solve the problems and arrange negotiations between UN (Burmese leader) and Saw Ba oo Gyi (KNU leader), but the violence made it too difficult.
On the 31st of January 1949, our leader declared the beginning of the Karen Revolution in Insein. Our people said, “We need our land, we need our rights, we need equality.” Burmese and Karen should have equal rights, so we fought for our freedom but our army was very weak. They didn’t have enough food, weapons or soldiers to face their enemies. Due to these problems, three months later our Karen people left their land and moved to Eastern Burma (also called East Kaw Thoo Lei). The big problem was that many of our Karen people had died and been killed by the enemy. The enemies followed them with violence and made it difficult. Our Karen insurgency is still continuing.
In 1995 the Burmese government launched an offensive force against our headquarters in Ma Ner Plaw. They sent many soldiers to fight and capture the Ma Ner Plaw headquarter. Many of our soldiers died at this time. Soon the headquarters was captured by the SPDC. Some of our leaders moved to the Thai-Myanmar borderline. They left their land in an attempt to try to be safe. Many people became displaced. They lost their homes, land and everything that belonged to them. They started to move to refugee camps. And spend their time in camp.
When they live in refugee camps, they have no hope for the future. The children can go to school, but if you are an adult you cannot do anything. They have no jobs and they cannot do and join Thai villages because Thais look down on Karen people. We cannot do anything. We have no rights and no freedom, but the good thing is that we don’t need to be afraid of the SPDC. This life is difficult to understand.
Some people move to refugee camps, but some do not wan to leave their beautiful land, and their beautiful towns. They find places to hide and be safe in the forest. They have no house and no home. The children cannot go to school and if they fall ill, they don’t have medical care or hospitals. Their life is very pitiful. They live in the forest like wild animals that never have homes. Their life is so difficult to understand.
If you go to visit them, they will tell you “We want to go home.” We want peace, we want freedom, and we want equality. We hope we will have our own country again. We hope that one day peace and equality will be in Burma.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

First Impressions



These images are from my first day at Hsa Thoo Lei, where I am working. It was also World Teachers Day which included a Karen traditional dance performance.








Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Migrant Youth


Migrant youth would a person born by an illegal migrant worker. They do not have Thai registration and, therefore, are unable to leave the migrant camps in which they are born.

Pho Chit


Pho Chit starring down the morning sun, ready to tackle the day. She is a 3 year old from Burma.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

First Dispatch

Today was a very good day. Last night? Apprehensive. But today, ah, today was the introduction to a world I’ve never known.

We’ve all been to Nowhere. It might have been in the middle of Seattle or Saskatchewan. It might have been at a Zen monastery, a no-man’s-land border outpost, or a bungalow in a nameless beach town. You may have found Nowhere on a sultry summer night in Paris when you’d spent your last euro and had no place to sleep; or on a midnight jeep safari in the Botswana bush after you’d blown your last spare tire, with your campsite a distant pinprick of light; or in the comforting cocoon of an all-night train compartment, sharing soul-secrets with a total stranger. Nowhere is a setting, a situation and a state of mind. It’s not on any map, but you know it when you’re there.

This time it has taken, as it usually does, a tremendous amount of energy and an open mind to get to Nowhere. This time, Nowhere is Mae Sot, Thailand.

I tend to prefer the places that Lonely Planet only generates a paragraph about, for these are the places where culture dwells and tourists do not. Today I learned that the size of the world is not fixed; original experience is more abundant than arm-chair adventurists have led me to believe. Three months ago when I committed to working for BMWEC and the Hussmann Foundation I pictured myself working in refugee camps with Karen, Burmese refugees, slipping on identities like over-coats. Instead, Nowhere is turning out to be a land of heroes and compassion making it very hard to act in any other way than how I feel.

So, as for the apprehensiveness? It has been extinguished by the two-hundred and fifty teachers I saw today, all contributing to something bigger (6,200 Burmese refugee children, to be exact). Subsequent posts will surely see times of un-governed happiness just as they will unparalleled empathy. My thoughts will be unedited and I welcome your replies.