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Up to Speed #11...out of a job - Arie and Angie Volunteer Abroad [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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Up to Speed #11...out of a job [Apr. 28th, 2007|09:10 am]
Hey All,

Let us first start with an apology for our nearly 6 week hiatus away from our blog. We have a lot of excuses, none of which are any good, so please just take a “sorry” for now.

Since sustainability of our project and local capacity building is the foremost goal both at BGET and as this specific project, it is not appropriate to say we are done. But, on a high note, we have finished the installation of our 8th and final system. Along with this came thrilling highs and numbing lows. Also, we are now writing this blog a week before we permanently leave Mae Sot, which drives a lot of the emotion that may come across in our thoughts below:

Installation number 6 (which actually represents the so called “8th system”) was a huge metric of the project’s success. Fortunately the budget allowed for a somewhat “unplanned” system. When the project first started, the Engineering School headmaster, Saw Loh Doh, gave me his patented grin and told me “what good is it if his students install 7 systems if they don’t get one for themselves at their school, that can be built and taken apart to serve as a practical training tool for current and future students.” We agreed, but available money was going to ultimately make the decision. Saw Loh Doh has many things that make him unique, but his ability to continually remind someone of something his school “needs” in just such a manner that makes one want to get everything he requests and still love the guy is most memorable. After purchasing all the equipment for the 7 “planned” systems, we did a little financial review and very happily concluded we could and would grant Loh Doh his wish of his school’s “own” system.

We took the approach that if his school wanted their own system, then they needed to install it and train others in the community …..start to finish. E Maw Lay, BGET intern, who at the time of this installation had 5 installations and trainings under his belt, was more than qualified to lead this completely independent of us. We literally arranged to have all the equipment transported to the refugee camp where the Engineering School is located and would then return two weeks later to do a final system check and allow the students to launch the system. The Engineering students would complete the entire project independent of Angie and me.

The Engineering Studies Program (ESP) at Mae La Camp is full with young bright highly motivated, incredibly hard working men and women. Many you have gotten to know through previous blogs. Most now have completed a full solar / diesel hybrid system installation and training. For these Karen students and teachers, to participate in this 2 – 4 year (different levels of certificate) engineering program, it is a major sacrifice. Many risk their lives to escape Karen State in Burma, cross the border in to Thailand and enroll in this program in the refugee camp. Each time they return home to their families in Burma, they face imprisonment, deportation, and death. Those that live permanently in the camps have fled death in Burma to their current lives in the camps. Job Opportunities for a Karen graduate of the Engineering Studies Program you may ask…. Non-existent. Here is what a typical student from the refugee camps must face if they want to go back to Burma for any reason, but a typical reason is to help their families currently residing in Burma in some capacity.
Day 1: 8:00 am Leave Refugee Camp
Day 1: 8:15 am Get Arrested by Thai police at Refugee Camp Checkpoint
Day 1 – 4: Stay in Thai prison waiting to be deported
Day 5: 4:30 am – Get Deported Across the Border to Burma
Day 5: 5:00 am – Take a truck, walk, or somehow make their way through Burmese security checkpoints to arrive at their village
Day 6 – 20 – Spend time with family
Day 21: Return to Thai / Burma border – assuming they are still alive
Day 21: Pay 20 baht to get illegally boated across river into Thailand or pay 50 - 100 baht to get a one day work permit in Thailand
Day 21: Take pick-up truck bus from thai border town to refugee camp
Day 21: Get arrested trying to get back into the camp
Day 21 – 24: Stay in Thai prison waiting to get deported to Burma
Day 25: Get deported to Burma, cross back into Thailand and try again.

Now, I was fact checking some of the above information and I learned this is only one of many options to get in and out of Burma. This would be considered the most “obvious” normal option. Others involve some brilliant ingenuity and creativity…. Always with varying levels of risk.

But, you are getting the point here. Embarking on this further studies engineering program requires major commitment and discipline. In addition, each student in the program is one less back breaking wage earner or worker a family has. This is all in the name of an education that may or may not be of any benefit. Sure, all education is inherently of some benefit, but we are talking about people who struggle from one day to the next.

Two weeks after the materials are delivered to the Engineering School, Angie and I arrived to do a system check and launch the school’s new electricity supply and training tool. E Maw Lay and his team of students and teachers nailed it. And we are talking high quality professional work. E Maw Lay has become a self-proclaimed perfectionist zealot and it showed in his team’s work product. For me, it was the best day since we arrived in Thailand. The students were very proud of their work. Saw Loh Doh, the headmaster, was satisfied. Like any good teacher, he already had a laundry list of future projects and classes this solar / diesel hybrid system could be incorporated into. I always refer to his school’s new system as my “son” that they need to treat with absolute care. He calls it his “coconut.” Thoughts?

E Maw Lay and his colleague’s success meant Angie and I were now out of a job. E Maw Lay was fully competent to lead the completion of the 7th and 8th systems. Smooth sailing right? Right…. Except for the fact that we learned the day we were headed to go to the 7th installation that E Maw Lay no longer had permission to leave the camp. The wind was taken right out of our sails. The fact that he couldn’t attend the installation was the micro issue. Sure, the other students and Angie (see below) could do the installation. But the macro issue that set in hard was this permission based life these stateless Karen have to live in. If they want to leave the camp, they need permission. If the permission is longer than a certain time period, centralized bureaucracy permission has to be issued from Bangkok. Let’s not flirt with the idea that they have any freedoms, they don’t. They have no state, no ID, no citizenship. Recently, the UNHCR is issuing ID cards for refugees. Be very sure you don’t mistake this for freedom or citizenship. This just means if they are caught out of the camps, they can be returned and identified rather than deported. Once in a lifetime opportunities for these students, which in our case is them leaving the camps to go to other camps to build these solar systems can be taken away overnight… It was just really depressing when this reality set in. So, E Maw Lay showed up in Mae Sot, and at the same time we and he learned that a human error prevented him from having permission to join us. E Maw Lay smiled when he heard the news and kindly replied “No Problem, I will do what I can do from the Camp.” His eyes couldn’t hide how he really felt. But, like other Karen, he is seasoned in the arena of bad news and unfulfilled hope. E Maw Lay wouldn’t let this visibly bring him down.

Angie and I also made the decision she would go without me so I could stay in Mae Sot and apply for scholarships to help fund a very expensive graduate studies program. This is another story in and of itself, but I have been very unsuccessful in my scholarship and grant hunt… a bit of a downer.

Angie took off as planned and alongside the only female teacher at Engineering Studies Program, they led the successful installation of the 7th installation and training of the Solar / Diesel Hybrid System at Ban Don Yang refugee camp. Hands down, there is no shortage of beautiful women in these camps. However, it is a powerful statement to show a traditional Karen Community that two beautiful women, one Westerner and one Karen, can lead a team of male engineering students. Great Job Ladies!!!

For those who know Angie well, she avoids writing like foreigners avoid Thai fish paste (a ghastly concoction of fermented rotted fish). It is something she doesn’t enjoy and therefore typically tries to steer clear of it. We have been receiving feedback that people want to hear “more of Angie’s voice” in the blogs. So, we decided she would write as detailed as she could her story and reflection about the two eventful weeks she spent leading the solar / diesel hybrid installation at Ban Don Yang refugee camp Northwest of Bangkok along the Thai / Burma border outside of a town called Sangklaburi in Kanchanaburi province. Please see subsequent blog, written entirely by Angie!!!

We’re finished! We successfully completed the seventh and eighth system installations, and I’m going to take you through these installations from the woman’s perspective.

We loaded the truck for the final time on February 19, Monday morning, and were scheduled to leave at 9am when the ESP students arrived from Mae La. I had to make a trip to the Tak Immigration office to get an extension on my Visa, and when I returned to the office, the students were waiting. The only problem was that there was no permission for E Maw Lay, BGET Intern, to leave the camp and join the team. This was a harsh look into the reality for all refugees…they are not free to leave the camp. If they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to leave the camp, there are extremely strict rules governing how and when they can do so. Since E Maw Lay did not have permission to leave, he must return to the camp until permission could be obtained, which could take anywhere between two weeks and months. This was extremely frustrating for us as E Maw Lay is an important member of the team with valuable experience, and also because Arie was not going to be coming to this installation so he could work on several things in Mae Sot. So our team was small but mighty and consisted of me (Angie), a woman ESP teacher named Si Si Poe, and three ESP students named Saw Blessing, Saw Nyi, and Saw Ler Kyaw Say.

The journey to Don Yang was our longest yet, including 11 hours of driving the first day, which included a phone call 2 hours into the trip to tell me the Tak Immigration Police were looking for me because they had stamped my visa with 2008 instead of 2007. We obliged and returned, which added 4 hours to the journey. We made it to the camp safely and were anxious to get started. The computer center was connected to the home of the Vocational Training Chairperson, who was our main contact in the camp if we needed anything. Throughout the installation, he made arrangements for us, his wife and daughter and several neighbor ladies provided all of our meals, and his son and niece worked as part of our team. Thus, we really became a part of his family during the time that we were working there, and they took wonderful care of us.

The actual site was difficult due to very tight quarters and many trees in the only area we had to install the PV panels. One of these trees was a beautiful mango tree, which I learned attracted gigantic red ants that covered the entire back yard. The ants viciously attacked us as we tried to map out where to put the panels. It was a funny site of watching people jumping up and down and constantly swatting at their legs, arms and head. Definitely a hard price to pay for fresh mangos outside of your door, but worth the cost.

Si Si Poe, the ESP teacher, spoke great English and thus became my translator to the group. The three students had all helped with the ESP installation and one of the students worked on the first installation in Mae La, thus they were familiar with the system and tasks that needed to get done. Each day I would tell them what my goals and they took care of getting it done. They were dedicated and worked diligently to accomplish each goal. They worked with five hired laborers (which grew with interested people through the week) and worked extremely hard in the excruciating heat of Thailand in the summertime.

I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the amazing qualities of the Karen people, which have already been mentioned in previous blogs, but as I admire them so much I will say them again. They are special people with so much kindness in their hearts and warmth in their smiles. The Karen are incredibly hard working people! They do not have the conveniences that make their lives a little easier and as such, their daily tasks start early in the morning with washing and cooking, and don’t end until they are ready to go to bed. Their energy and excitement are endless and we see this time and time again at each installation. They never complain and take things in stride. They are extremely humble and put others ahead of themselves. They are respectful of their elders and their teachers and as such, we have and been treated like royalty in the camps (example…the computer trainer learned that I loved iced coffee. Each afternoon thereafter, she would make the entire team iced coffees, which were an incredible treat in the 100 degree afternoons). They are gracious hosts and love to make guests feel special and welcome. They value family and have very big families and help each other through each aspect of their lives (the camps are filled to the brim with children running around). Everyone is family to one another, thus making it difficult to determine the relationships. They call everyone their aunt or uncle or cousin or brother or sister, whether they really are their relation or someone they just met. They value the land that they live on and a simple life style. The Karen are very gracious people and I am thankful to have met them and learn from them.

Sleeping arrangements…the students were not allowed to stay in the camps for this installation. As such, the three boys stayed with the ZOA field officer in his home, and Si Si Poe and I stayed in a beautiful guesthouse in Sangkhlaburi that looked out over the longest wooden bridge in Thailand measuring 400meters. Si Si is 25 years old and grew up in a town in Karen State of approximately 15,000 people. She graduated with an engineering degree from a university in Burma, and has taught at the engineering school for two years now. This turned out to be a truly special opportunity for the two of us. This time we shared over the two weeks of this installation and Si Si’s fluency in English, who she learned from her Grandmother, allowed us to share our hearts. We stayed up late each night lying in bed and talking about our families, the special people in our lives, our childhoods, the places we grew up, music, our travels, our work, the installation, and everything under the moon. She taught me many things about the Karen culture and traditions. Si Si has a love for learning and trying new things, and I developed a deep respect for her during this time.

On one of the days of the installation came an unexpected surprise. I was standing behind the computer center near the base of the building and I started to feel the ground fall out from underneath me. I fell into a hole about 2 meters deep. The base of the hole was wet and I immediately knew what this was…the sewer tank for their toilet about 3 meters away. I was in shit up to my knees and absolutely disgusted. Three guys pulled me out of the hole and Si Si Poe whisked me off to the toilet, where she helped me get cleaned up. After about 4 showers and a fresh set of clothes, I emerged with a few bruises and one less pair of pants for the trip. This was a nauseating experience, but one I know could have been worse and we went on.

A new thing we brought to this installation was a solar box cooker. The solar cooker is a cardboard box with a cutout on the top that has glass covering it, which uses the heat of the sun’s rays to cook food. There are some theoretical aspects that should be followed, but that is basically it. It is really simple and easy to use. Food takes longer to cook in a solar cooker, but there is no stirring of the food, more of the nutrients stay in the food, and the sun’s rays are free. In places where firewood or charcoal are difficult to find or expensive, solar cooking has proved to be a wonderful tool for people and has simplified their lives in many ways. If you want more information, here is a great link: www.solarcookers.org

So the cooking experiment began. I started out with several vegetable curries during the first week, which are difficult to screw up. I used mainly eggplant, okra, tomatoes, and green beans, and Si Si provided help with the spices. The curries actually turned pretty good. The following week, I tried baking in the solar cooker with banana bread (one of Arie’s favorites). The first couple attempts weren’t quite cooked completely, but after adjusting the recipe slightly for this type of cooking, I began to get better and better. At our one-day renewable energy training, I cooked a curry during the day and I taught the people at the two camps about the solar cooker. I was excited by the enthusiastic response that I received. They saw it as a useful tool for their own lives and they wanted to make one for themselves. We left them with materials and instructions, and have yet to hear if they have had success in making one.

The Don Yang installation went extremely smoothly. The students did a professional job with all parts of the installation. We finished everything in a week and had renewable energy training for the interested people in the camp. Upon completion of the training, we said our goodbyes and made our way to Kanchanaburi, which is a major town between the two camps. The plan was that if we finished the Don Yang installation early, we would be able to then proceed to Tham Hin camp and begin this installation. Upon arriving in Kanchanaburi on Wednesday evening, we were notified that we would have a few more hurdles to deal with. We would not be allowed to enter the camp until the following Tuesday, which was the date that was originally requested on our permission papers several months prior to the actual installation. That meant that we would spend five whole days in Kanchanaburi. While this was a little frustrating for the students and me, it was also a wonderful opportunity to take the students to some great sites in Thailand as Kanchanaburi has a lot to see and explore.

So explore we did and I became the tour guide!
Day 1 – Trip to the Bridge Over the River Kwai and the War Cemetery. The building of this bridge was the basis for the award-winning 1957 movie of the same name. Here is a little background on the bridge and the area. During WWII, the Japanese army ordered the building of the Burmese Railway. This railway was to extend from Burma to Thailand, and the Japanese army used prisoners of war and forced labor to build it. This bridge was bombed several times during the war, and was rebuilt in its present day state after the war. The working conditions were horrendous for the laborers and approximately 16,000 foreign POWs died and around 100,000 Asian laborers died due to the railway. Thailand built two separate war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi to honor those who perished.
Day 2 – We spent as a teaching and learning day. I spent the morning teaching them about wiring. In the afternoon, they became the teachers and I became the student. The rule was that they each had to teach me something…anything that they wanted to share with me. So that afternoon they taught me some basic words in the Karen language, how to make tea leaf salad (one of my favorite Burmese foods), how to make an origami heart, and how to sing a song.
Day 3 – the first stop we made today was to visit Sri Nakarin Dam, which along with another local dam produces 41% of the electricity for Thailand. This dam is 140m high and 610m long. It is massive. For a group of engineers, they really enjoyed seeing the dam as the most they have seen in the past was possibly a micro-hydro installation on a very small scale. After the dam, we went to Erawan Waterfall, which is truly spectacular. There are seven different levels to this waterfall and the scenery surrounding it is truly beautiful, albeit crowded. We brought a picnic of sticky rice, spicy papaya salad, grilled chicken and pork, and pad thai. We spent the afternoon eating, watching the monkeys chase each other around the trees, and swimming in the beautiful pool of aqua blue water.
Day 4 – we rented five bicycles and set out for an adventure. One of the students had never ridden a bicycle before, and unfortunately, even after instructions and practicing in the parking lot, didn’t feel comfortable with the cars on the rode to give it a try on this day. Down to four, we set out for the beautiful Thai countryside. It felt great to be on a bike and active. Map in hand, we made our way to Kao Pun Cave. This is a cave that holds many Hindu and Buddhist statues. After enjoying the cool temps in the cave, we set back out on the road. About 12km outside of town, my bike got a flat tire. This brought me back to my Little Five (famous bike race at Indiana University) training days and the countless flat tires we had to change on the rode. Lucky for me, there was a bike repair shop a km further up the rode. They pumped up the tire and we set off for home.
Day 5 – I went to the River Kwai Art Museum and the students chose to take advantage of the air conditioning while they had the chance. That afternoon, we all went to the movie theatre. The students had never seen a movie on the big screen before. The movie was all in Thai and a long one at over three hours, but the students enjoyed the experience. That evening, Arie, Saw Loh Doh the ESP principal, and E Maw Lay, all joined us!

These five days with the students was an interesting time for me. These students have lived in only a few environments in their lives and were not familiar with this type of city living. The language was foreign, the food was foreign, the transportation was foreign, and they were brave. They tried what they were comfortable with, but also depended on their own comforts when they needed to. They have eaten the same foods all of their lives, and they are not used to trying new foods. The students don’t know the names of any Thai food with the exception of two dishes, and the guys ate these dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day. This was a wonderful chance for us all to see and experience new things and new places together, and challenge us to be open-minded.

Here is the link to check out some pictures from the installation. http://www.flickr.com/photos/bget_tak/

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2008-02-15 08:50 am (UTC)

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