Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Burma's Border

The village was called Huay Kok Muu, and comprised of several hundred people, mostly of the Lahu tribe. It was some four hours’ drive north of Chiang Mai, and only a few kilometers away from the mountainous Burmese border with Thailand. The small farming community consisted mostly of houses constructed on stilts to avoid water and animals from entering the living space. There were a few Christian churches and a school, but no commercial enterprises except the very small "convenience store" at the corner of what was considered the town’s two major streets. Surprisingly, many of the roads in the community were paved, although this was inconsistent, as were the other two utilities: electricity and water. Some houses had neither. It was like stepping into a documentary giving an inside view of life in rural Thailand.
We were privileged to be able to visit this community and stay overnight with relatives of our Thailand hosts, the Jupo family. Despite being halfway around the world from my home, I felt entirely welcome and comfortable regardless of the limited and rustic facilities of the village home where we stayed.  The house itself was made up of a large ground floor room and one directly above it connected by a wooden set of stairs. The elderly Jupo parents/grandparents slept on a mattress on the linoleum-covered ground floor, while guests would have mattresses set out on the upper floor. Upstairs windows were simply small window holes with a board to slide in place to keep the heavy rains out. Attached to the main house was a large, covered, but otherwise open, kitchen area with concrete flooring (except for around the cooking fire area where the flooring was compact dirt). Furniture was sparse, with two long tables in the kitchen, around which were placed plastic chairs or stools. A few low "squatting" wooden seats were placed around the two small wood-burning cooking stoves in order to allow someone to sit minding the fires and food.  The washroom facilities were considered deluxe compared with most of the neighbors in that there was a three room concrete building that had been constructed to house two small toilet rooms (one with the traditional squatter) both with a half barrel of water and dipper with which to effect a flush. The third room accommodated a shower (cold, naturally). I found that memories of growing up on a farm in an extended family environment with little beyond the bare necessities flooded my thoughts over and over again. I saw, and experienced again, the simple, uncluttered life of family and friends sharing a farm culture that changed very little from year to year.
After the Jupo family, Carson and I settled in the second storey room of the elderly Jupo couples' home, we all went out to explore the village, and later the family pineapple field.  It was perfect timing for ripe pineapples. It proved to be the best pineapple I have ever eaten; honey sweet, not woody or acidic. After standing in the field, eating the equivalent of at least two pineapples, we loaded a basket full to add to the fresh-picked bananas, mangoes, lychee, jungle and star fruit we would enjoy later. The passion fruit and other yet to ripen crops would have to wait for another visit.
Next, a delightful trip around the village on our host's motor scooter, and gathering chuckling children everywhere I went (as I struggled a little with the gears), I returned for supper. Eating with our hosts' family, we were joined by five or six elders, and some of their spouses, who had been invited to come and share with us their thoughts on leadership and challenges. Following a traditional Lahu meal, with fresh fruit, the discussion began. Most of these men were in their 60s or 70s and had, at least at one time, held responsible and respected positions in the village, including some pastors in local churches. The discussion was reserved, respectful and deferential, while at the same time revealing their hearts and their desire to serve their community.
To my surprise, one of these gentlemen, a man by the name of Jaseu, age 63, had Parkinson's disease, having been diagnosed five years ago. The gathering seemed genuinely interested as he described his views on the disease, as well as the challenges he had experienced. It was apparent that he did not speak of it often, but he agreed with me when I suggested that it was necessary for us to talk with our friends and family about our PD not only so that they will understand us and the disease better, but so we can feel accepted for who we are, shaking and all. I was pleased to hear that he was able to get medication for Parkinson's, which due to his financial circumstances was provided for free. I was reminded of my lengthy interview the day before with Dr.Rattana Chanchaem, neurologist in Chiang Mai Hospital. She told me of the difficulty that people had of being able to afford the medicine. She also said that there was little in the way of support outside of the hospital, thereby minimizing the kind of therapy that we've seen being carried out by Parkinson's organizations in other countries. She shared her encouragement that a neurologist in Bangkok was trying to start such an organization for Thais, but was unsure of its status or ability to help those in outlying areas like the village.

Of course, my first response after experiencing staying at the village overnight was overwhelming appreciation for what I had at home. However, it was not pity that I felt for the villagers, but a deep sense of respect. They worked very hard to maintain what we would consider subsistence living conditions. Like my own parents and grandparents, the villagers tried new ideas, struggled for a better life for their children and were honest and ready to share what they had with others. Certainly, the Lahu community was not a model of economic success, but it was a reminder that the luxuries and distractions offered by the developed world are often worth very little in comparison to the values maintained in humble places such as Huay Kok Muu.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments reminded me that as a young boy in Illinois we lived in a country house that had an out house and a pump to get water into the kitchen. I am not nostalgic for those days but amazed at how much things have changed in my lifetime. Your visit sounds like a high-light!