Harvest

Harvest is wrapping up on the Idaho home front. My cousin sent a report a while back that one of our fields registered a record-breaking 133 bushels per acre.

I got that report during a particularly rough week in Bangkok during which I was struggling to hang on to hope of a fruitful harvest with a few cases here.  A series of drug relapses were causing downward spirals among a few students.  These added to several health crises and a myriad of other issues in our community, not to mention a few more heartbreaking nights of outreach where we realize just how much it’s going to take to break these cycles of broken rural families sending broken women to work in broken bar districts frequented by broken foreign men… Taken together, it tipped the scale enough to trigger questions and emotions that I didn’t particularly want to face.

I sat reading this bright email from home, 8000 miles away, and feeling much further even than that from a bountiful harvest.

And then I remembered.

I was around eight years old. We had a bumper crop in the fields; just waiting for another week of sun to ripen it and ready it for harvest.  We came home from church, shared our Sunday family dinner, and sat on the porch to watch a storm roll in.  But this one wasn’t an ordinary storm.  It carried enough hailstones to destroy that bumper crop in a matter of minutes.

I wasn’t very old, but I knew enough to know the consequences of those hailstones.  Completely out of our control.  Completely devastating.  But oddly, I don’t remember the devastation as much as I remember the reaction of my dad.

We watched in silence as the storm came and went.  He calmly got up, smiled, and said “There’s always next year.”

Dad illustrated a lesson for me that year that I’ve revisited many times since: We have the responsibility to plant and tend, but ultimately we’re asked to hold loosely to the work of OUR hands and instead trust in the work of GOD’s.

Put differently, harvest doesn’t always look the way we’d like it to look.  It doesn’t always fit into nice spreadsheets or “win” columns.  For me, that year of a destroyed crop provided more fruit than a bumper crop would have. It gave me a picture of faith, and of faithfulness.

It’s a picture that reminds me that success doesn’t always mean seeing the fruit of our labor in the near term.  Success means faithfulness over the long term.  It means faithfulness to the calling you’ve received, and more importantly, to the One who called.

“…if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday…”  — Isaiah 58:10


The Sweetest Melody

Bar outreach in Bangkok is a key part of our work here, but not one that I write of often.  A good friend of mine that visited this last week wrote the piece below and offered to share it as a glimpse into the world of outreach.  Thanks to Erin for joining our community here and for sharing her reflections.

The Sweetest Melody

by Erin Manfredi

You’re all out of options; this is the last resort.  You show up and sign over your name.  They give you a number and you pin it on.  It’s your new identity.  They make you stand out front so everyone can have a look; they look and they think evil thoughts about you.  The nights are long and there is so much pressure.  You have to meet your quotas or you will pay.  All they care about are numbers.  How many men, how many drinks, how many dollars.  And that’s all you are to them.  Another number.  You feel it from your family, too.  They’re all counting on you.  So you keep going.  Night after night, you continue to count.  The days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months.  This is your life.

Tonight is just another night.  No one has come to take you away yet.  You are standing there hoping they’ll like what they see so that you can do what you have been trained to do.  Then you will walk away with a large number in your pocket.  They live for your number and you live for theirs.  It isn’t even a fair exchange.  But it’s enough for you to get by.

All of a sudden you hear your name called out over all the noise.  It sounds sweet like a melody.  It startles you.  It’s been a while since someone has called you by name.  Who could be asking for you like this?  You turn to see.  Her eyes shine from the inside out and her smile is overwhelming.  She walks towards you.  Her arms are wide open and she wraps you up in a hug.  She takes your breath away.  She says your name again and all you can do is smile.  You repeat it in your head.  It’s a beautiful name.  You feel like a person again.

She tells you she has a place for you; a place where you can leave your number behind.  You won’t need it there.  At this place, they call each other by name.  She asks about your family and about your life.  You take a seat and lift your tired feet. You wish you could go away with her.

Then your boss comes out; he’s looking at you.  You stand up and your smile disappears.  With that one glance, you remember your number.  You’re just a number.  You go back to your spot.  A man comes to you.  He buys you a drink.  You see the girl smile at you and bow her head.  One day you will go.  One day you will join her.  You watch as she waves goodbye.

You don’t know but she prays for you.  At 6am she wakes.  She writes your name in her book and she calls you out to her Father.  She reminds him constantly about you.  He looks down on her and smiles.  He smiles because he knows; He knows you by name.

He also uses numbers but not like the others; his are different.  He counts the hairs on your head.  He counts the times you sit and the times you stand.  He counts your thoughts and he counts your tears.  He counts because he loves.  He also has a place for you and he is waiting to welcome you in.  One day you will overhear him calling your name.  It will be the sweetest melody you’ve ever heard because it is written just for you.  Yes, one day you will join Him.

How ’bout Eggs?

I mentioned in the last blog post more details on some of our Buriram projects… and then I promptly fell off the face of the planet.  A quick follow-up to that.

My Father’s House is a children’s home for abandoned children and orphans in Buriram province.  The home is led by Pastor Narin Torbprakon and his wife, Kraneung, who have a heart to help at-risk boys and girls further their education in order to increase employment options outside of prostitution.  Pastor Narin and his wife have a compelling story and emulate creativity and innovation in how they run the home and desire to move toward self-sufficiency.

I spend a fair amount of my time in Buriram learning from and partnering with Pastor Narin and his family.  He’s a key partner in putting together a replicable model of self-sufficiency agriculture and spiritual formation that can be used in other villages and, hopefully, other provinces.

Our first formal partnership was in the building of an egg-laying chicken house.  (Add it to the growing list of innovative projects he has in the works, including aquaculture, hogs, vegetables, specialty rice, frogs, meat-chickens and I’m sure I’m forgetting more.  Not to mention starting the district’s only church.)  Thanks to the financial support of so many donors, I was able to partner in up-front capital costs for the chickens and start-up feed while they covered the cost of the building and materials.  The result?  Check it out.


A group of youth from the children’s home will manage the new chicken house, developing skills and responsibility and also helping move the home toward self-sufficiency as they consume and sell eggs.

PS… because I’m an agriculture geek I have to share.  In case you’re wondering why the chicken house is built over the pond?  (I’m sure you were wondering…)  The feed boxes are situated in a way that the chicken feed that naturally drops from the boxes during feeding will fall into the fish pond below and help reduce the feed costs associated with the fish operation.  Cool, eh?   

Looking forward to reporting back after the next visit how the chickens (and kids!) are faring!

Trendy

“My older sister finished school, but I can do even better.  I want to quit school, move to the city and find a foreign husband.”

This is a common attitude among Buriram girls starting in their early teens.  Many rural youth will study until the age of 11 or 12 and drop out.  Many because they’re pregnant.  Many with plans to move to the city to find work with older siblings, relatives or friends.  Some will make it to 9th grade, but are susceptible to a similar fate as those that quit three years sooner.  Even those that finish primary school with dreams of further study face a tough future as money is short for university, jobs are hard to come by close to home and the return on the few available jobs simply can’t compete with the jobs in the city.

It rattles me to see the economic situation in Buriram, to talk to community members aware of the issues, to see the blank faces on a few young girls lacking hope for a future different than that of their mom or sisters….  And then to come back to Bangkok, head out to the bars for outreach and sit down with a new friend.  Hear her story.  Hear her say she quit school and moved to Bangkok when she was twelve.  She worked in a food shop for a few years and now is working in the same bar as her older sister.  Where from?  Buriram province.  Prakonchai, to be exact.  Funny – yet not funny at all – that Prakonchai neighbors Prang’s village and is home to my oft-frequented bus stop in Buriram.

I wrestle a lot with this picture; the urban migration patterns are obvious to the naked eye.  Bus stops in Buriram populated with men and women making their way to Bangkok for work.  The men most often in construction.  The women in small food stalls, restaurants, or often in one of Bangkok or Pattaya’s abundant entertainment establishments (read: sex tourism industry).

Packed buses leaving broken villages.  One or both parents leave kids to be raised by grandparents while they seek work in the city.  Kids grow up with little or no parenting and little motivation for education.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Poverty.  Brokenness.  This is often all they know.

Except they see that their neighbor or relative or sister or friend went to the city and sent home a wad of cash from her work there.  Another came back with a foreign boyfriend and she now has a big house and money.  She might not love him, and he might not stay around long, but at least she has money and something going on.

And now this young pre-teen girl wants to have something going on too.  She decides that’s her goal.  She’s going to go find a foreign husband.  The best way to do that is to move into the city and find a job, the location of which is a detail often omitted from stories back at home.  As my Thai counterpart tells me, “this is Thai trend, Cori.” 

Oh, how I wish Thai teenage trends were as simple as boy bands and bracelets.

What can compete with these trends?  What can break the cycle of parents going to the city for work, and daughters and sons following suit?  What can restore hope and pride in these rural villages?   These are questions too complicated for a blog post, but they’re what rattle me at night and get me up in the morning.  They’re the focus of my prayers, and an invitation for you to join in prayer as well.

On a happy note, because I would prefer to end on happy thoughts:  There are some powerful things happening in Buriram right now.  I spent a couple weeks there this month, doing some research prep and helping with a two-week community-wide music camp hosted by a local agriculture-based orphanage and church.

Teaching guitar lessons and pouring concrete for a new chicken house made my heart happy.  So did the thought of God redefining what’s trendy in Buriram.  I’ll save more on that for a later post…

Youth, Beach and Bieber

Three days at a secluded Thai beach sounds like heaven doesn’t it?  It was for us last week, but not like you might expect.

A little background first…. Last year The Well started ramping up efforts to serve the youth in our community, driven by the recognition that the children of students in our program were craving discipleship as much as their moms were.  Though the kids aren’t with us year round (most spend the majority of the school year out in the provinces with extended family – usually grandparents) they venture in to Bangkok during their long school breaks a couple times per year.

The youth activities have quickly expanded in a crazy, organic fashion to our neighbors in Bangkok and our extended family of kids in Buriram this spring.  We have a rock-star team of Thai leaders – spearheaded by the fearless Jup – and have seen some awesome growth in these kids in the short time they’re with us.

The culmination of this current school break for the kids was a three-day camp in ChaAm just a few ours out of Bangkok.

A few highlights:

  • Consequences of losing Thai games seem far more severe than in America.  Think red-food-coloring-mud-baths, corn starch and embarrassing dances.
  • It’s easier to get kids to concentrate on lessons when the ocean is infested with jellyfish.  Kids running out of the water screaming “I itch all over!!!!” was not uncommon.
  • Thai teenage girls are as obsessed with Justin Bieber as our NCC youth (or at least their fearless leader Jenilee Joy!) 😉

On a serious note, the kids were exposed to a series of lessons on what it means to “see Jesus” — looking at Him not as some foreigner teacher, but as a personal Savior, friend, and God of all nations and people.

One of my most precious times was a walk on the beach – careful to avoid the jellyfish mines – with a couple of our teenage girls that I’ve come to adore. (Not that I have favorites, but if I were to have them…..)  Switching gears abruptly from the all-important “Does Justin Bieber live in America or Canada?” question, one of the girls looked at me and asked if all foreigners were Christian.

She said she was curious because her teacher said that Jesus is for foreigners, not for Thai people.  I chatted with her in my broken Thai, giving her some different ideas to ponder – that Jesus came for everyone and not just for white skinned Westerners, and just because someone is a foreigner doesn’t mean they have decided to follow Jesus.  We chatted a bit more before the conversation migrated off to some more silly teenage talk.

Later I spent some time thinking about the context of her question.  She lives in a country where Christianity represents less than one percent of the population. Her dad is Muslim but she was raised by her single, hard-working mom that ended up working at a bar as a last resort to make sure her daughters would get a better education than she was able to get. Her only personal exposure to the concept of Christianity was that it’s a religion of foreigners and of no real consequence to Thai people.  I’m not entirely sure what foreigners she had been exposed to prior to the handful of us at The Well (and Bieber, of course) but I have my guesses.  I wonder what sort of impression other foreigners lave left on her idea of Christianity if she had been taught to believe that their white skin made them Christian regardless of their actions.

But here’s the good news:  She and a handful of other teens with similar stories have been drawn into a community where they are being loved and discipled by some rock star Thai leaders that not only believe in Jesus but that have “consequential faith.”  Each is living out a radical faith in light of Christ’s work in their lives.

My little mini-sermon in broken Thai can only go so far, but it’s the faith modeled by their Thai brothers and sisters that is turning their concept of Christianity upside down and right side up again.

I love our Thai leaders.  We need more of them!


Mountains and Messes

Who doesn’t love being on the mountain top?  I suppose there are a few folks out there afraid of heights, but even if you don’t like them in the literal sense I’m guessing you like them in the figurative sense.

I confess I have a small obsession for these high places both literally and figuratively.

Some of my favorite memories growing up were watching magnificent storms roll in from 50+ miles away from the ranch at home; the photo above can’t do it justice.  Or drinking in the uninhibited views from my favorite Idaho peaks in the Seven Devils range or on top of Mount Borah.  Breathing in the thin air at the top of Cotopaxi in Ecuador or the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. Dangling my feet and peering over the crag on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

These mountain top moments represent the times I feel closest to my Creator, standing (or falling down) in awe of His wonder, power and majesty.  I find joy and perspective in those places. Conviction in purpose and calling. Divine energy.

I’m spoiled with frequent mountain top moments in Thailand.  Not so many literal ones in this tropical climate, but plenty of figurative ones to keep me energized in the morning.

They generally look something like:  Seeing street kids escape their heartbreaking reality for a moment as we play games and laugh together. Holding the dream-like gaze of a new friend as we talk about possibilities for her life outside the bar as customers come and go in the background. Walking and chatting with a couple of teenagers that have just learned the message of Christ for the first time and are overflowing with questions. Photographing the wedding of a student and watching the couple commit to raising their adorable daughter together. Busting up ground with a bunch of ragamuffin kids in the countryside as we plan out a new garden plot.

But then we leave those moments and face the reality of the hard stuff that follows.  The fact that those street kids that were able to escape for a moment will still have to sleep on the street and will probably get deported again soon. Walking with this new friend through the uphill battle of trying to leave this bar scene, peppered with disappointment and a system working against her. Discipling teenagers who have no healthy role models in their lives and who are only in our community a few months out of the year. Seeing the newly-wed couple walk through the difficulty of relationship and child-rearing, even in community, as they struggle with serious addictions and trust issues.

Off the mountain and into the valley we go.

The reality is, life is tough in the valley.  Brokenness and poverty – be it material, spiritual, relational, etc – are ugly and often seem unfixable.  Helping someone in such complex environments is like trying to catch a bar of soap in the shower. Or rather, trying to catch a bathtub full of bars of soap.

I confess I’m often tempted to run away to build a house on the mountain top.  I can better stomach brokenness and poverty from high up and far away, where I have clear and unobstructed perspective that God is bigger and more powerful than they are.  In other words, I would love to live for those first moments of hopefulness and avoid the messy aftermath that happens in reality.

A friend recently dropped one of those timely reality-checks on me as she reminded me that God didn’t create us to DWELL on the mountain top.  God created us for the valley.

The valley is messy, but it’s where He’s working.  The Kingdom is built when we step into others’ messes, when we walk people out of messes, and sometimes when we make messes that need to be created.  The mess of the valley is where He calls us to dwell.

Can you imagine a house on the top of Half Dome? No way.  For one, it’s crazy-dangerous.  And it’s not “real life.”  If I lived up there, not only would I likely get struck by lightening but I would quickly lose touch with the beauty and intricate complexity of what I was seeing below.  Part of the reason I like the mountain top is the joy of going back down and sharing what I saw, experienced and learned.

Why, then, in our spiritual lives do we always want to build a house on the mountain?

Look at Moses – my all-time favorite mountain man.  Moses met with God on the mountain. We all have the flannel board scene of the burning bush burned into our memory.  But how many of us remember that Moses had to go down from the mountain to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  In other words, he had to leave the mountain for a mess.  Fast forward to post-Red-Sea-parting and the Israelites freed from Egypt… God summoned Moses back up to the mountain again, this time to give him the Ten Commandments.  Did he stay up there this time?  Nope. Moses came down from the mountain and stepped into another enormous mess, carrying the power and presence of God to make history in the valley.

Imagine what would have happened if Moses had stayed up on the mountain?

In our case, what would happen if we left the conversation at “there’s hope for you” and then failed to walk with her through the mess of stepping into that hope?  What would happen if we simply handed over the photos of the beautiful wedding and failed to walk with them through the mess of relationship?  What would happen if we left the ragamuffins with this plot of cultivated soil without walking with them through the process of planting, tending and harvesting a crop?

I’m asking myself these questions and would and invite you to join in asking yourself as well.

How often do we live FOR those mountain top moments — those joyful moments of safety and security where we can just point to God at work and clap our hands — rather than live BY them as we step down and join God in His work amidst the mess of the valley?  What mess is God calling you into?

When we’re in the valley, how can we better treasure those mountain top moments?  How can we develop the discipline of “lifting our eyes up to the mountain” and be sustained by what we’ve seen there rather than just seeking out the next mountain top moment?

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Where does my help come from?”   – Psalm 121:1 

Happy New Year, Round 2

Three months and some change after celebrating the Gregorian New Year with it’s fireworks and resolutions, Thailand shuts down for three solid days of Songkran, the country’s traditional New Year celebrated with massive water- and powder-fights.

It’s sort of like having a second breakfast.

I have to confess to loving second breakfasts.  (Who could turn down a second heaping mound of dad’s famous pancakes or, in the case of my previous two days, a second heaping mound of mango sticky rice?)

Second helpings of new year celebrations (or third, if you count the Chinese New Year in February) are equally welcome in my life.  A little change of pace from the craziness of the schedule for some even crazier fun and a little time to reflect on the “new year” ahead.  And maybe I can start over on those New Year’s resolutions that didn’t make it to February, let alone April.

As for Songkran-specific celebrations… it’ll take some time to recover from the unexpected full-day workout I underwent by violently throwing water at cars, trucks and motorcycle gangs driving by on crowded Bangkok streets.  Not sure it was enough to work off the sin of mango sticky rice consumed in large portions, but it sure left me with a sore arm.  And that was just day one.

Thai people like to call Songkran the world’s largest and longest waterfight. Granted we’re now only two days into the three day event, but I would have to agree with that claim to fame.

Here’s a small taste of the fun; photos taken at great risk to life and lens…

Happy New Year!

Country Bumpkin

The first of a series on Buriram…

As much as I love our activities in Bangkok, the biggest area on my heart here in Thailand is the vast expanse of rice fields that make up Thailand’s rural Isaan region — a region known for it’s extreme poverty and as “home” to the vast majority of the women we meet and serve in Bangkok.  My biggest hope here is to somehow grasp the root factors leading to the migration of women from the rice fields to the red light districts and, God-willing, invest in some areas that will help break the cycle on a holistic and sustainable basis.

I admit to having many assumptions about those root factors before I came here.  Assumptions about poverty.  Assumptions about needs, resources, values, desires of communities to change and assumptions of what I might be able to do to “help.”

Some much brighter minds than mine warn of these assumptions and accompanying attitudes with respect to how to tackle poverty.  Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself” gave me some paradigm shifting food for thought last fall which shaped my approach to Buriram:

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.

I had to chew on that one for a while, I admit.

The alternative to entering a situation with a god-complex (or the attitude that I’m less poor and therefore have come to “help” people out of their helpless state) is entering a situation with humility and the primary objective to learn.  Rather than documenting the number of ways that they could or should be better off (read: more like us), it’s seeking their unique value and worth.

Corbett and Fikkert characterize it this way: “By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

So, I spent the last several trips trying to rid myself of my western pride, attitudes and assumptions by simply being a part of the community and not really trying to change, or do, anything.  I hoped simply to build relationships. As a result, I was able to see that there are many people in Buriram far less poor than I am in many ways and I have a great deal to learn from them.

One thing working against me… Many in the region are used to white people coming in and throwing down money to “fix things.”  Sadly, many of the nicer things in the area came as a result of an influx of foreign money, often through a foreign husband.  Sometimes those foreign husbands are still around, some visit every few years, but most are out of the picture.  I could write another blog post on this, or perhaps a thesis (which I should be working on right now instead of blogging, by the way…) but I’ll refrain for now.  I’ll simply observe that the allure of foreign wealth is a significant contributing factor to young women migrating to the city — and to the red light districts — to find a husband.

It leaves me with the uphill battle convincing the community that I’m different than the white people they’re used to; that I’m not a source of quick wealth.

I just have to convince them I’m not a foreigner at all.

Fast forward to now.  My time just hanging out and being one of the family members has paid some dividends.  When someone calls me a foreigner, the kids quickly and protectively shout back before I ever get the chance:  “mai chai farang – khao bpen khon thai leeo”.   She’s not a foreigner – she’s Thai!   It’s a running joke now; I still stick out like a sore thumb, but those words bring me great joy.

How did that happen?  Pretty sure a gracious God had something to do with it.

Some say I earned those stripes by eating (and loving) their local specialties of fermented-fish-flavored spicy food (nothing earns you more rapport with Thais than eating their food in mass quantities).  Snacking on bugs generally turns some heads; they’re not used to foreigners eating them other than for a possible photo-op. I think the scale tipped when I broke a flip flop but instead of tossing it, I fixed it with a piece of rope and kept wearing it until someone sneakily tossed them while I was asleep.  (I’m still a little bitter about that one.)

I think it’s starting to stick that, despite my white skin and my incessant questions, I’m just another Buriram sister, cousin, aunt or niece.  In many ways, more country bumpkin than they are.

Thankful for the chance to be welcomed into their community and looking forward to what this next season has in store.

Next up — putting the hand to the plow…

ICM: Changing the Face of Poverty

International Care Ministries in the Philippines.  Awesome people, amazing mission, brilliantly executed.

I’ve been a fan of ICM — an organization dedicated to changing the face of poverty the Philippines — since I attended a presentation in a DC conference room over a year ago. I was quickly enamored by their model of ministry and their well-constructed strategy designed to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor on a holistic level.

Naturally, when an invitation came to spend a week with them to learn more about their programs and management in the Philippines with the backing of one of my generous supporters, I leapt at the chance.  I spent a week traveling around the country with a group of ICM staff, supporters, potential partners, and a handful of other missionaries from Cambodia and Indonesia.  I made some great like-minded and like-hearted friends, and came back to Thailand re-energized, loaded with ideas and equipped with some concrete tools to integrate into our work here.

ICM has developed a “values, health and livelihood” curriculum which they deliver through three- or six-month training programs, administered in partnership with local pastors reaching the poorest of the poor in their communities.

I geeked out a bit when we dove into their livelihood curriculum which includes teaching vermiculture (worms!) and vegetable gardening or container farming (in coke bottles or old tires) for homes without space for a garden.  We visited the demonstration farms but also saw their practices being employed in rural villages, fishing communities and slum communities alike. (The second photo below was a model for slum community projects.) I took the liberty of asking the local kids whether or not they liked the vegetables they were growing, to which I got a resounding “yes.”

ICM also operates preschools for those with limited or no access to educational opportunities; they currently have 80 preschools around the country serving 2,000 kids and their families. We not only got to spend some time doing activities with the kids but attended several graduation ceremonies; each consisting of about 300 confident five-year-olds running around in caps and gowns.  (And I thought Thai kids were cute…)

They have also recently started a malnourished children feeding program and run a number of other “mercy” programs designed to provide special assistance to individuals and families in need.  These range from funding special medical cases for poor individuals facing serious illness to operating a children’s shelter, and from partnering in slum reconstruction to providing economic opportunities for at-risk women.

Malnourished children program

Slum Community Reconstruction

It was awe-inspiring to see ICM’s presence and hear and see firsthand stories of their impact; they are an organization on mission to change the face of poverty in the Philippines, and they’re actually doing it.  They have a solid staff, strategy driven management with Kingdom vision.  I can’t think of a better model to learn from.

On a personal level, I admit I was a little worried my “squirrel” syndrome would take over when I got there and I wouldn’t want to come home to Thailand.  That wasn’t the case at all.   Though I certainly fell in love with the adorable kids and was quite jealous of the fact that the Philippines is a) already predominantly Christian and b) largely English-speaking… I found that I itched to get back to Thailand where the kids and families weren’t just new faces to me, but I knew their stories.  And I’m not merely a visitor to them, I’m now auntie Cori.  Despite the language barrier here (which is getting easier by the day) and the relative spiritual darkness we face, I would still choose Thailand any day of the week.  It’s home for me for now.

So… now my challenge is to apply some of the good stuff I learned.

Next up:  Stories from Buriram…

Where’s Burma Again?

Ingredients: Motorcycle, camera, and a few days a stone’s throw away from Burma…  Result: A good break from polluted Bangkok air, a new understanding of the word “refugee”, and a new ability to drive a motorcycle after clocking 250km of windy, mountainous border highways.

I snuck up north to Mae Sot this week with a few objectives —  investigating some new raw material sources for The Well’s sewing and jewelry business and photographing a friend’s knitting project with Karen refugees were two. Mae Sot is a town near the Burma border… (some might recognize it more easily as Rambo’s hometown).

About 60km north of Mae Sot is Mae La, the largest of the nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border estimated to have around 50,000 refugees that have fled Burma’s oppressive government.

The term refugee is one that I’m not sure I truly grasped it until I saw the camp and started putting together the puzzle pieces of “before, during and after” for these oppressed individuals. Too much for a blog post; Burma’s story is a story worth investigating and knowing for yourself. (For more info on Burma’s political situation, the Burma VJ documentary is a good start if you haven’t seen it already.)  But here are a few quick shots to give a glimpse of the Mae La camp.

 

I also spent some time in a small village another hour north of Mae La learning about a friend’s start-up knitting project (check out their hats at www.amfreekaren.org) and a local orphanage. This time we were literally a stone’s throw from Burma with the river providing our only separation, meaning we were carefully watched by the Thai police (and who knows who else) for most of our stay.  I left somewhat disturbed by the odd relationship between Thai border police and, likely, the Burmese officials who like to make sure nobody makes trouble or talks too much about what goes on on the Burma side of the border, or what “business” is conducted between the two countries at these crossings.

I’m fascinated by the Karen culture and that of the other Hill tribes along the border. The oppression they’ve endured is unspeakable but their language, culture and beauty is alive and well.  I felt honored to get to hang out with them for a bit and steal a few photos to share.  Here’s a snapshot of the colorful characters and scenery of “Noh Bo” and a sneak peak of Jaime’s knitting groups.