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Up to Speed # 12 China, China, China [Jul. 14th, 2007|06:18 pm]
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We’ve been back in the states now for almost one month. Re-entry, as some call it, has been mind numbing. Depending when, where, and how you ask us, and depending which one of us you ask, will drive our response at that exact moment. For me, it is a cyclical feeling, never constant, and almost always in motion. I have adopted the response to the question “How does it feel to be back” by tucking my upper lip behind my lower lip, getting a deeply confused look on my face, and muttering some unintelligible pondering sounds that, I think, generally conveys the idea that I really don’t know how I feel. One major failure I have had in the first month since re-entry is giving myself adequate alone time to gather my thoughts and reflect on what just happened during the last year abroad. More to come on our emotional state…

Our volunteer work with the Border Green Energy Team (www.bget.org), locally that is, came to an end May 1. Between May 1 and June 20, we traveled through Southwest China and Burma (Myanmar). Saying goodbye to our family, friends and colleagues in Mae Sot (rural Thailand along the Burma Border) wasn’t fun. There are 4 categories of people we said goodbye to. 1, 2, 3 are International Volunteer Colleagues, Thai friends and Karen friends and colleagues who have jobs with NGOs in Mae Sot, respectively. Saying goodbye was fine. They all have good lives and we will see them again. Category 4 is where things get difficult. Cat. 4 are the refugees living in the camps, comprised of two groups (this classification is only for our “saying goodbye” purposes). The first in Cat. 4 are those who have applied for resettlement to a third country (mostly the US in this case) and are likely to or have already gotten their resettlement approval or those who have large families and communities and are firmly established in these camps. (Remember, these “temporary” camps have been around for over 20 years and for many have become far more “permanent” than temporary). This group is relatively safe, reachable, and presumably we will see again. The second part of Cat. 4 is where things get painful. These are all the refugees who have little to no family in the camps or at all or those who are recent arrivals or recent registrants who are very far down the very long list of refugees applying to resettle to third countries. Their day to day is uncertain. Some have to return to Burma occasionally to help family (the return trip is very dangerous), the security in the camp is uncertain because of the threat of Burmese troops and Karen Buddhist troops. Will we ever see these people again? They still are living day-to-day survival. As we said goodbye through the barbed wires that separated the free and the stateless, emotions were heightened. ***Note*** Your donations bought our Intern, E Maw Lay, a beautiful guitar, the nicest one we could find in Mae Sot. Every Sunday, E Maw Lay spends at the Church, singing and playing guitar. He is brilliant at both, but the guitar he was using was of such low quality. Not anymore! Great work everyone. Also, your donations bought Saw Tha Wa private English lessons for one year. He was one of our best engineering students and the most courageous with his English. He will take classes 3 days a week for two hours from 6:30 – 8:30 am with a private teacher in the camp, whom we met and speaks perfect English. Somehow, she was educated at Ithace College in upstate New York. Go Tha Wa!!!

I have waited to tell this story until after we returned from our traveling through Burma. Before we left for our 6 weeks of traveling, we had to get visas to travel through china and Burma. We arrived at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok about 10:00 am. To our dismay, the day before was the Burmese national holiday “Armed Forces Day,” which, as one would expect, is deemed by the military junta, a very significant holiday. Burmese embassies around the world are closed on this day, making the embassy in Bangkok particularly crowded the day we arrived. There are two lines at the embassy, the “orange” line and the “blue” line; the former is for “individuals,” the latter for travel agents representing multiple individuals. One window serves both lines. Pecking order is one “orange” then one “blue” and so on. Each travel agent in the “blue” line can have upwards of 25 passports. If someone in the “orange” line is proud of their profession as an attorney, writer, photographer, human writes activist, etc. and answers honestly in the “occupation” line on the visa form, they are up shits creek, meaning, after extensive probing by embassy officials, they are documented and denied a visa…. Darn troublemakers ;-) You see that the line, when moving, moves at a snail’s pace. Between the two lines, we were probably # 15 in line. The waiting area of this embassy screams Ken Kesey’s loony ward, depressing linoleum only brightened by the far more depressing artificial light and absence of natural light or color. Noon (lunchtime) rolls around and a lady comes our from behind the plexi glass to inform us the embassy would be closed until 1pm and everyone needed to vacate the room, everyone’s pleasure. She kindly informed us lunchtime wasn’t designed to build a strategy to swindle your way further up the waiting line; we were to return to our identical places in line. Those who arrived during lunch would proceed to the end of the queue. At 10 minutes to 1:00 pm, a horde of people start lining up at the front door. Most I don’t recognize from before lunch. The inward opening doors were not even half open when this pack (like of group of wolves or hyenas) burst open to the door and run straight for the “Visa” window. When the dust settles, there are about 8 people at the front of the line who either had been at the back of the queue when lunch started or who had arrived at lunch. So our # 15 spot, which probably started at # 17, was now # 23. What to do? Unfortunately for me, I don’t have any say in the matter. Before I had time to make a plan, I was at the front of the line. A young woman (early 20s) and her mother (50s) had first position. “Excuse ladies, we were informed before lunch that our places in line would remain the same after lunch.” Young girl: “How do we know that’s what they said, we weren’t here.” Arie: “That’s exactly my point, we all were here. It’s only fair that the line operates first come first serve from the beginning of the day.” Young girl: “Well, why don’t you show us where that is written.” Arie: “This is the unwritten rule of human decency.” Young girl: “We’re here now and we don’t have all day to sit the in the line so we are not moving.” Arie: “I think you are selecting an option that is not available.” Young girl: “Why don’t you get the f*ck out of here, I don’t give a f*ck what the rule is, I am here and not moving.” Here’s where the excitement starts. I look down and sure enough their passports are sitting on the counter. As quickly as my heart explodes through my chest, I grab their passports. Profanities fly my way and as I start to walk away, the 95-pound mother proceeds to grab my arm bag and try and climb me to get her passports back. She can’t make it up the 8 feet to the top of my raised hands where the passports are safe from them. We now have everyone’s attention. In a Buddhist country, people go great lengths to avoid having anyone’s attention. Young girl “Passport thief, someone stop this passport thief.” Mother “Someone call the police.” Arie: “Yes, please call the police, I will gladly, in Thai, tell them I would like fried rice and a mango shake, about the only two things I can say beautifully in Thai. Within 2 minutes, the police arrive. Careful to not create a scene, they keep their distance from me, the American. Fortunately, because Angie’s and my family were visiting us within the next few days, we had undergone intensive Thai language classes the previous 6 weeks. It would be too shameful for our Thai, after 8 months, to not be decent enough to properly guide our family around the country. I explain to the Thai police the situation. Immediately, 2 Thai people pick up where I left on and properly explain what happened. The police escort the two ladies from the embassy. Their fate we don’t know. I’ll operate under the assumption they were taken around back and had their visas issued on the spot and told to enjoy their trip to Burma. But, because we never know, it is more comforting to assume they were thrown out of the country and thrown into some land of egocentric derelicts. The young girl gracefully exited with her conclusions about my sexuality. Things return to normal at the embassy. 4:00 pm arrives before we know it. The two Israeli girls behind us get in a conversation with a Burmese man. Passports and money exchange hands and the girls get up to leave. “Excuse me,” Angie says to the girls, “what just happened there”? Girls: “This guys just sold us “express” service on our visa processing.” Angie: “Oh, really”? Angie and I huddle up. If we don’t get our visas in that day, we won’t get them back before our parents arrive and we will be traveling around the country without passports. Not an option. Angie to the guy with “express” offerings: “Sir, can we have “express” services”? Guy: “What country are you from”? Angie: “USA” Guy: “Hold on.” He makes a call on his mobile phone. A man behind the plexiglass in the embassy answers the call. Conversation ensues between the two of them Guy “Yes, this is the price for 3 day service.” Angie: “But sir, we need our visas in two days. You just gave those girls 2 day service for $xxxx.” Guy: “That service at that price is no longer available. Goodbye”! As the guy is walking off, I chime in: “50% more than those two girls just paid you.” This gets his attention. The guy calls behind the plexiglass. “Done.” He says. We hand over our passports, application, and cash and are told to come back in two days. He will be waiting for us.

We flew from Bangkok to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China. Population ~ 5 Million, Chengdu is the biggest city you have never heard of. But with over 1.3 billion people, this is not uncommon in China. We were to spend the next 3 + weeks in Sichuan and the province just south of Sichuan, Yunnan. This is God’s country, or better yet, Buddha’s country. Our intention was to spend most of our time in China trekking, climbing mountains and just generally doing our exploring on foot, outside. First we set off to Emei Shan or Mt. Emei, one of China’s 4 Holy Buddhist Mountains. From the bottom to the top of Mt. Emei is almost 8,000 vertical feet. Emei Shan means “Eyebrow Mountain” named for its two peaks at the summit that are supposed to resemble classic chines eyebrows looking at each other. The walk from the bottom to the top was rainy and cold, but pricelessly beautiful. We made the trip in two days up and one down, each night sleeping at a different Buddhist Monastery. Emei boasts China’s first Buddhist temple, 2,000 years old. Covering 8,000 vertical feet, there are different sub-climates and vegetation. Memorable views are abundant deep green trees starkly contrasted by a classic red-roofed monastery. One of the 4 “sacred” things to do on the mountain is to watch the sunrise from the summit. We woke at 3:30 am to get to the top for sunrise. What greeted us at the summit was not the sunrise, but thousands of Chinese tourists. The first week we were in China was “Golden Week,” a weeklong Chinese national holiday that produces an estimated 255 million domestic tourists. We think half of them came to Mt. Emei, armed with their mobile phones to photograph the Emei sunrise. 99% of them take the bus up the side to the summit, although we did see some, in the patented Chinese blazer and dress shoes climbing the full 8,000 feet.
From there we headed to the town of Kangding. Sichuan province’s western border is Tibet and Kangding has a strong Tibetan influence. Physically, the Tibetans resemble more closely central and south Americans and Native Americans than they do the Chinese. Kangding would be our meeting point and our base for launching our 5-day trek around the 7,556 Meter (just shy of 25,000 feet) Mt. Minya Konka (Gonga Shan). Accompanying us would be our Tibetan horseman, 3 horses, mules, donkeys; our chines (English speaking guide Kevin) and our gourmet cook Mr. Yen. This trip would stay above 13,000 feet and peak out at between 15 – 16,000 feet. Everything was perfect except for one thing. Mr. Yen was a chimney chain smoker and probable close to 60 years old. He had never before been in the mountains. It turns out our travel agent, who is an entire additional blog of a dishonest crook, couldn’t find a young cook with mountain experience. They were all already booked. So, in last minute desperation, our travel agent went to his family restaurant and told Mr. Yen, a restaurant line cook in the capital city of Chengdu, that he needed to get on a 12 hours bus ride to meet us and be our high altitude gourmet, mountain chef. To Mr. Yen’s chagrin, we collectively decided no one wanted to see Mr. Yen suffer through 5 days of long hiking, altitude sickness, and rough weather. Mr. Yen chose life and returned to Chengdu without ever stepping foot into the mountains. The kicker is he had already gone shopping for all the food, ingredients which he planned to use for our gourmet meals. Nobody else on our team knew how to cook. The result: 5 days of boiled slop that typically was some concoction of overcooked noodles, hot dog, cabbage, and spicy Sichuan sauce (our saving grace). There was an unspoken understanding that our meals were better left for the horses and we should stick with our bread and butter…. Chocolate Oreos, banana chips, and Chinese wheat crackers. My favorite part was watching the horses take a double take before eating our leftovers.
The trek was beautiful. I kept commenting how “big,” “expansive” and “remote” the landscape was. We walked mostly on what I would describe as Chinese tundra, not quite as spongy and deep green as Alaskan tundra, but more like a grassy tundra, riddle with yaks and their plentiful excrement deposits. Backgrounds and foregrounds, were large snowcapped peaks, epic looking backcountry skiing as far as the eye could see. We camped some nights; stayed with a Tibetan family in a traditional Tibetan village one night and stayed one night at a sacred monastery directly below the towering glacier covered Mt. Gonga. Traditional Tibetan diet is dried yak meat, yak butter tea (thick yak milk mixed with lots of butter) boiled over an open fire fueled by dried yak dung, and let’s call it “dough” which is aforementioned yak butter tea mixed with flower. For those interested there is a lifetime of appropriate technology work that could be done with the Tibetans. When we returned to Kangding, we had put in about 100 miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain over 5 days. Remember though, we had horses carrying all our gear. I strongly recommend the pack animal route, particularly in landscapes where pack animals cause minimal impact. Also, if you are trying to get someone who is not very “outdoorsy” outdoors, the pack animals can carry some luxuries that typically are too heavy or bulky to bring on a normal, carry-it-yourself trip. Plus, whether or not you are willing to admit it, having no weight on your back eliminates those “irritable” moments that tend to coincide with any incline.
Our tour guide and trek were great. Our travel agent was a crook. Without going into all the details, he charged us several hundred dollars for services and items we didn’t receive. Thankfully, we only paid 75% prior to the trek. After explaining to him we wouldn’t pay for a cook we didn’t have or a second horseman we didn’t have or a promised “Landrover” that turned out to be a 91’ Volkswagen, he became outraged. He concluded that because the trip had been completed, all agreed upon prices would be paid. His calm, grandfather tenderness turned into a raging, screaming nut in all of 30 seconds. Before we new it, he promised he would send someone to our hostel to collect the money. We went into 24 hour hiding and escaped Kangding scared, but unharmed.
In this area of China, there are entire towns that don’t speak a word of English and we don’t speak Chinese. After our experience with this travel agent, we lost that benefit of the trustworthiness, which sucks to lose. While traveling to our next trek, the Yangtze River as it rages through Tiger Leaping Gorge, we made complete fools of ourselves. We arranged for transportation from Point A to Point B in a minivan. The minivan had to go to Point B so we got a great price. 20 minutes into the journey, Angie woke me up and said we were directionally going the wrong way. What were these little swindlers thinking? Angie and I are seasoned travelers. This is the oldest trick in the book; the old “Here we are in Point C after 5 hours of driving.” “Oh, well we said we wanted to go to Point B and you said you would take us to Point B.” “What, you never said Point B. Give me money now”! We made a complete scene and demanded they pull over and show us the route on our map. Sure enough, we were going to Pt. B, but via Point C, 2 + hours out of the way and never mentioned. In the middle of nowhere, we abandoned our van and told them we didn’t care where we were or where they were going, we were getting to our destination “honestly.” 30 seconds after the van drove off, it started raining. Were we being punished? After all, before the drive they took us to the town monastery to pray for a safe journey, make an offering, and earn some merit. We had 2 hours to get back to town before the last bus was to leave for Point B. An hour into our walk, we were wet and at Kilometer Marker 20 (mile 12) from the town. There was no way we would make the last bus, yet alone arrive before dark. During that first hour not one car passed us heading towards town. The occasionally rural farmer passed us the opposite way in some obscure makeshift tractor. We came across a coal mine. Things got eerie quickly. Now, I know the US contributes 25% of all greenhouse gases and China, although awful and home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, contributes less, a rural coalmine in China is as bad as it sounds, from an environmental perspective. There is a hole is the side of the mountain and below the large mountain all the liquid runoff from the coal mine and mining activities is stored in a man made pool, charcoal gray. Safe enough right? Well, it rains so much out there that the pool just spills over into the river running through this valley and they river becomes the new exit for this toxic mix of pollutants. All the way down the river, just to start, people drink the river water; eat the animals that drink the river water, etc.
Nevertheless, this coal mine was our first sign of civilization and our only hope of making the last bus out of town. One of us had to go inside the back office building of this coal mine. In our usual responsibility assigning process, we played “Rock, Scissors, Paper.” This is actually very effective if the participants respect the outcome. I had literally won 14 of the last 15 and had Angie figured out. I lost. I walked into the floor, single room, about 50 X 75 feet, wet and not Chinese. Within 3 seconds 25 male Chinese, stern, stoic eyes were upon me. “Knee How (phonetically Chinese for hello),” not a word in response. I glance around. Seriously sophisticated electronics and communications equipment lay everywhere. Two guys are randomly sitting in the middle of the floor making beautiful Chinese characters on large sheets of white paper. Absolute silence….. staring continues, finally, thank you lord, a man from behind a table says “you want what.” Arie: “I go Point A” Man: “No.” Okay, there wasn’t much left to the imagination. I might be going to town A, but completely independent of him or his guys. I pull out 100 Yuan (~ $15). Arie “I go Point A.” Chinese conversation erupts. Chinese man who initially declined my request made eye contact with another guy, nodded and sure enough the other guy, got up, walked outside and drove us in his brand new “Volkswagen SUV” to Point A. We got to Point A just in time to be told there was no bus leaving that day or the next. We slept at Point A. The next morning we learned all vehicles going from point A to point B had to go through point C during this time of the year because the direct road is closed due to rockslides. So 24 hours from when we had embarrassingly jumped out of the minivan and two times the original price later, we found ourselves driving the identical route through point C.
The trip through Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) was memorable. TLG is about a 20-mile stretch of the upper Yangtze (called the “Jinsha” by the Chinese in this stretch of the river) that carves and flows through a gorge with vertical walls and snowcapped peaks 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above the river. The main attraction is a mammoth stone in the middle of the river, where legend has it, a tiger used to use to cross the river. There is a small walking path several hundred, if not a thousand, feet above the river and the heavily used driving road that ferries in Chinese tourists. This small footpath called the “High Trail” offers great views and an occasional guesthouse, where one can rest, eat, and sleep slope side with 15,000-foot peaks on either side and the distant views of the river below, typically $3 - $4 per person.
Prior to our “entrance” into the TLG, it had rained for 5 straight days. We were warned of rockslides and general danger during these rains. Forecasts called for 5 more days of rain. Backpackers we met were headed other places intended to return to TLG when the sun returned. We didn’t have the time luxury to do this so we decided, the heck with it, weathermen are only right 50% of the time, let’s give it a whirl and we can always come back it if is too muddy or hairy. 5 sunny later, we had hiked through the gorge and arrived at the Naxi village of “Haba.”
According to our San Francisco native Amy Tan “In China there is a saying made popular after the revolution: Women hold up half the sky. In the Naxi Autonomous Region, women have always held up the whole sky. It is a matriarchal society, where the females do the work, handle the money, and raise the children. The men, meanwhile, ride on the backs of shooting stars, so to speak. They are bachelors, boyfriends, and uncles, roaming from bed to bed at night, not knowing which children they have fathered. They take the animals out to graze early in the morning, they bring them back at dusk. In the mountains, they roll their cigarettes and smoke, and when they call the animals, they lure them with love songs. The men do poetry. To hear a song sung in the mountains is always poetry.”
We asked the lady running the small guest house if we could climb Haba Mountain, elevation 5396 Meters (17,700 feet). Looking at 6’3” me and 5’3” Angie, she calmly replied “you very strong” to me and “you, wait at base camp” to Angie. I chuckled and immediately had flashbacks of our trip to Mt. Shasta when Angie punishingly drug Jaron, Max, and me to the top of Shasta. To demonstrate Angie’s capabilities, I imitated a jogging motion pointed to Angie and said “she 42 kilometers, like run.” The young Naxi lady had conviction and stereotypes were not to be destroyed with my words. “Fine, I said.” “Make sure you get us a strong guide so Angie doesn’t have to spend her whole trip waiting for us.” Puzzled is the best way to describe her look.
Haba Snow Mountain has the southern most glacier in China. Also, it is probably the least technical almost 18,000 foot mountain, which allows people like Angie and me to climb it. The hike to base camp was pretty straightforward. The local minorities include Naxi, Hui (Muslim) and Yi peoples, as well as the occasional Muslim. A beautiful turquoise moraine lake and small man-made stone hut greeted us at base camp. There we met our non-english speaking guides, brothers of the lady who ran the guest house. After sizing Angie up, they broke into Naxi language clearly gameplanning what they would do when Angie concluded she couldn’t make a summit bid the following morning. Even if I could speak their language, what do you even say?
We had a 2:00am departure for the summit. The guides were superstar climbers and Angie literally was on their heals for 5 hours in the dark until we arrived for sunrise, which we couldn’t see from the summit. It was a great adventure. We got hooked up with crampons, boots, ice axes, tent, gloves, etc. I ended up wearing my New Balances because no Naxi people have feet my size. Big mistake!!! New nickname, Arie 8 Toes.
From here we headed to historic Lijiang and stayed in our most comfortable guesthouse to date. Good thing because we were both plagued with Mao Tse-Tung’s revenge. This must be a sign…. time to get out of China.
Traveling in China is a love hate relationship. The landscape is pricelessly stunning, diverse, and never-ending. The people are warm, extremely helpful and memorable in their desperate attempts to babble in some English. Because the chain smoking 40 year old tacky blazer wearing man who spits any and everywhere and throws and elbows you in the kidney when he wants to pass is such a more entertaining story, I rarely talk about the 20:1 ratio of helpful, great Chinese to each manner less degenerate. Chinese, Tibetans, and Naxi individuals spent time helping us buy medication, find snow jackets, navigate a menu, read bus schedules, negotiate prices, etc. All for the whopping price of $0… just a big smile and a thank you. We’ll be back to China, undoubtedly.
But for now, it’s on to Burma overland via Ruili. Recommended reading originally from our friends Leah and Joanne, but now us too is Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning about traveling along the Burma road…. very similar to the trip we did, but described by a brilliant narrator who is native Chinese.
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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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Up to Speed # 10 Random Acts of Kindness [Mar. 23rd, 2007|07:28 am]
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Up to Speed # 10 Random Acts of Thai Kindness:

By no stretch of the imagination have I seen the world or gotten to know its people. But, I will make this assertion: The Thai people are the warmest, most genuinely nice people I have ever met. What I really mean is the people in Thailand, so this also encompasses people from Burma, both the Burmese and Ethnic Minorities. The reason I choose to write this is, literally, every day someone does some random act of niceness to Angie and / or me. And this niceness is totally pervasive, from young children to our peers to elders to men and women alike. So, I am dedicating this blog to sharing some of our favorite “Random Acts of Thai Kindness.” The one caveat is we have spent all of our time outside of Bangkok and southern island tourist areas. I have heard people may be a little rougher around the edges in those parts.

Almost every Saturday night I watch English Football (soccer) with my Thai friends who I play soccer with in the evenings. We always watch at the same house, about 5 – 6 kilometers from where Angie and I live. I usually wrap things up around midnight. My mode of travel is always my giant 3 – speed bike (the Cadillac of Bikes). Like clockwork, they will never let me bike home alone. The only way they will let me leave is accompanied by two motorbikes, the first leads the way and provides the light. The second is the caboose and provides rear lighting. They always tell me the rear motorbike will prevent me from getting hit, either that the driver will see the bikes lights or hit the motorbike and veer off or stop before it hits me. I have no say in the matter. And in the remote case the situation arises where they decide it is appropriate for me to bike alone, they insist I call them when I get home…. Like the parents.

Angie and I do our own laundry; we don’t wash it by hand, but we bring it to the little coin operated laundry mat. The co-op only accepts one demonination of coin, the 10 Baht. Of course, we never have this coin so I go to the 7 – 11 (rampant in Thailand) and hold one 10 baht coin in the air, next to one 100 Baht note and say, in thai, what would translate as “I would like 10 of these for this.” Depending on my dramatics with hand gestures, they usually get it. So, some of the time they don’t have 10 of these coins. Without missing a beat, the clerk throws up the plastic thai sign at his counter that I assume means “this register is closed, please go to the next register” and disappears out the front door. Between 1 and 10 minutes later, they return with the remaining 10 baht coins. I am thinking 7 – 11 is the LL Bean of customer service here in Thailand. So I decide to test this theory. I bring my 100 baht note to another place, which is the local Thai lottery salesman. I ask him for 10 coins. He says they don’t have, snatches my note and disappears out the back door. 15 minutes later, he comes in the front door, clearly sweating, with the 10 coins.

Last week we were in the west of Bangkok province of Kanchanaburi. On Sunday, we were away from the Engineering Students from the refugee camp. It was just Angie, me, and the driver. For lunch, the driver took us to this great little swimming hole that has bamboo platforms over the bank of the river for picnicking. There were several Thai families there when we arrived. As soon as we sat down, one family brought over 3 iced cold cocktails and another tried to give us food from their picnic. This has happened in some capacity to us several times.

My bicycle is the copyrighted Cadillac of Bikes. It is huge and the seat is probably 4 ½ feet off the ground. Any time I park it in public places, people come over and stand next to it to compare their height to that of my seat. Many times, they just point and giggle. Anyway, my bike was like a stable rocket, free of any problems… until one day when everything changed. There are probably 50 small bike repair shops in Mae Sot. When I need air in my tires, I just stop at the closest store, point to my tire, and the technician drops whatever he is doing to come inflate my tire. They don’t have pressure measuring tools, so they do it by feel. Well, one time technician and Arie disagreed on the right amount of air. I made it fill it beyond what he “eyed” as the right level. Sure enough, by the time I was home, the tube had completely exploded. Basic tube replacement right? Right, although whatever they did, my chain has never been the same since. It has broken 7 times since then and been repaired by a different shop each time. My Thai isn’t good enough to explain I have had the same thing done 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times and it keeps failing. Life here is so simple and convenient that my biggest personal problem is the damn chain. See, it’s already coming out in my writing… this is clearly affecting me. Okay, so the last time my chain broke I was heading out to soccer, which is a little bit out in the middle of nowhere. I am very much looking forward to playing. But I also know my chain can break any time because I can hear this little clicking sound. Sure enough, it breaks. I am furious, partially because it is the 7th time this has happened, partially because I am sweating profusely, partially because I am not close to any bike shop that I know of and partially because that morning I was reading Atlas Shrugged and was inspired by the idea of people being judged by their merit and measuring men by their competence, nothing else. So, I am thinking these bicycle repair experts should be better at their jobs. Well, just when I am standing their with chain in black hands watching a man walking his bull, and implicitly, his families livelihood, three little thai ladies come to my rescue. They are probably about 60. One grabs the chain from me and the other two grab my bike. They whisk me around the corner and start banging on some garage door while simultaneously shouting in thai hyperspeed. Sure enough, the garage opens, a guy replaces my entire chain and in very broken english tells me “chain no good, cannot fix, need new.” My three thais ladies wait with me the entire time talking the entire time to each other just laughing up a storm.

The house we rent in Mae Sot is a good 15 minute bike ride to the office. We describe ourselves as living in the quiet burbs. To arrive at the office, we basically bike through the center of Mae Sot. There are really 5 different types of people I may interact with during the bike ride each morning to the office:
1. Those that have seen foreigners before and are comfortable enough to let out an ear to ear smile,
2. Typically, the Burmese or Muslims that maintain this deadpanned deep stare of curiosity. For these people, they are waiting for my cue. If I make no expression, they also make no expression, but are the earliest sign of any grin from me, they let out an ear to ear grin realizing everything is okay.
3. These are the gigglers. Upon eye contact, they just start laughing or giggling, typically this “type” is in a group and they can talk amongst each other which only encourages the giggling. I try to say something to this “type” of person to get them giggling even deeper.
4. These are the confident English speakers. These people don’t need any eye contact, cue from me, or me to even notice them. As soon as they see “white” man they yell every English word they know without stopping until they have exhausted their vocab. A typical interaction would be me turning my head at the sign of hearing English. Someone is yelling at me “Hey you, where you come from, where you go, hello, how are you, I am fine, good morning, good evening.” Usually, I just start laughing, but I try and respond in slow English to each of the things they have said although they have no idea what they just said or any idea what I am saying.
5. This is the person who goes about their business and doesn’t notice us. We do stick out pretty distinctly, so, particularly in the early mornings, this group is limited

The point here is I usually arrive to work giggling like a little school boy about how good everyone I have passed has made me feel. Every morning there are different stories. Remember from an earlier blog, a large percentage of the population here don’t have cars. My generations family car was the 86 Volvo Station Wagon or the Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager. Here it is the Honda Dream 110cc motorbike or the single speed bicycle. However, there are no fewer people in the families so 2 – 6 people need to fit on these modes of transportation. My favorites are the two little kids that giggle at me out of the basket on the bicycle, or the boy and his father who are taking their bull to graze, or the older thai ladies who are waiting to give the monks their rice (alms), or the little migrant children at the school I pass that yell “Good Evening” every morning at 7:00 am, or the muslim men at the mosque I pass every day who stare at me so seriously until I start to grin and they all erupt in smiles, or the occasional caravan of military men that try to maintain tough images until I exchange a smile with one of them, the others see and pretty soon the whole squad is giggling like a bunch of schoolboys.

Around Christmas time, Angie and I were headed to the Philippines for some R & R. We were catching the night bus from Mae Sot to Bangkok. We walked to the little motorcycle taxi stand to get a taxi to the bus station. Sure enough, the taxis were done for the evening. So, we would miss our bus, then miss our flight, blah blah. We called our director and got her before dinner to come take us to the station. She arrived in less than 10 minutes, we made the bus, everything was fine, blah blah. But the highlight of the story is, during the 10 minutes we waited for Salinee, our director, 6 – 7 separate thai people or parties pulled up and asked us where we were going and if they could help us and take us to the bus station. All we were doing was standing on the side of the round about and they could just sense we needed something. And they responded…

The other day we were in the refugee camp to teach a training. Very embarrassingly, we got our truck stuck because we took a turn we shouldn’t have. The truck had basically bottomed – out and couldn’t grip the dusty road on the rear tires. Before a cat could wink it’s eye, there were 100 refugees either in the back of the truck, pushing the front of the truck, helping to lift, or simply observing or directing. Problem resolved. Crowd disappeared…several people stayed behind to shake our hands, talk with us, or just observe to feed their curiosity.

I could write these kinds of stories forever… about the time our neighbor broke into our house to help angie because the bolts inside had accidentally fallen into their holes, or the team of neighbors who rescued me when I crashed my broken motorcycle in our house, or the guy who put us in the back of his truck after our anniversary dinner because it was raining and we would have had to bicycle 10 kilometers, or the various ice-cream truck drivers that always offer to give us a lift anywhere in mae sot, or our waitress at our favorite restaurant who comes and talks to angie and tells angie how beautiful she is, or the people in the refugee camps who completely unnecessarily treat us like royalty, or the countless families that have prepared elaborate meals in the camps for us, not allowing us to give them a penny (this is an extreme financial burden for some), or those who have introduced us to their families, villages, etc. We love the people!!!

What other countries have people this fundamentally nice and warm to foreigners? Please respond and let us know your thoughts.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 9 Over The River and Through the Woods... To the North We Go [Mar. 2nd, 2007|11:53 am]

Hey All -

Please forgive me, I am writing in arrears and not chronologically. This is part me falling behind and part me wanting to mix things up for our readers. Anyway, we hope everyone is well. Enjoy!

Really, the worst part about each Solar / Diesel Hybrid Installation is the first day. On this day, we all arrive a little early and frantically load our large rented equipment truck with all the materials we will need for the installation. Without question, bags of cement rip open, battery acid leaks and by 8:00 am, we are sweating and filthy. Because the project equipment is so expensive and the availability and budget to replace the equipment is non-existent, we made the decision that one of us (Arie) would always accompany the equipment by riding with the materials truck from Mae Sot to the respective camp location.
January 8, 2007 was just another “First Day.” However, we were headed to the two remote northern camps and needed to transport two installations worth of equipment in the same truck we use to typically transport one. To boot, the 3 hours of dirt roads to these camps really goes over the river and through the woods, not conducive for large trucks carrying heavy, fragile equipment. 6 “repair” stops later, we abandoned our attempt to make it all the way to the camps in one day and gave the truck to the local after hours auto mechanic shop with the intention it would be revived and ready for the poor road conditions the next morning. Angie, the 5 Engineering Students from Mae La Camp and E Maw Lay (our intern), traveled separate transport trucks, no problems.
The driver, who drove all our equipment, had the obligation to deliver the equipment to each of the two camps. We agreed on a price. Half way through our journey, he said he wanted 50% more, that he had been misinformed of the location and the agreed upon price was not fare for the actual job being done. We agreed. When he dropped off the first set of equipment at the first camp, he told us he was almost out of gas and couldn’t bring the equipment to the second camp. I asked him if this was really a gas issue or a money issue. He said gas. The project we are doing is replacing diesel as the electricity supply, so luckily there was diesel on site. We put twenty liters of diesel in his tank. He then said he wanted an extra 30% of the original price to compensate him for poor road conditions and the wear and tear to his truck. Telling him to take a long walk off a short pier was not an option. He wouldn’t transport our equipment until we agreed on his rate hike. We agreed, so now we had given him 20 liters of diesel and 80% more than the original fare. Finally, he dropped our equipment off as obligated. 30 seconds after he left, his truck got stuck in the mud. With a deep look of “Now, I am really screwed” he walked back with his tail between his legs and asked for our help pulling him out. Unfortunately our BGET driver couldn’t be talked into charging him 80% plus 20 liters of diesel for our services to pull him out. Our driver is representative of all Thais we have met. This other guy was out of place in the country.
Mae La Ma Luang (population ~20,000) and Mae La Oon (pop. ~15,000) refugee camps are 2 – 3 hours southwest (along the Thai Burma border) along a crappy dirt road from a small city named Mae Sariang, which is Southwest of Chiang Mai. The closest Thai / Karen village to this town is Mae Toh La. Since we cannot legally sleep in the camp, a house was arranged for us in Mae Toh La. At each of the other installations, the Engineering Students slept in the refugee camp and we slept just outside, but never together in the same building. For some reason, the camp commander for the Northern Camps denied the Engineering Students sleeping privileges in the camps; all guests need to be out by 6:00 pm sharp. So, for the 3 weeks we spent up North, 5 ESP students, E Maw Lay, Angie, me, drivers and various others shared a small wood, wall less house of sorts in this high, mountainous remote Thai / Karen village.
Privacy was unavailable, but the opportunity to get to spend so much time with the students outside of work, learn their routines, habits, rituals, etc. by living with them was great. This living arrangement gave us a lot of time to get to know the students. On the weekends we were responsible for our own cooking. Angie (having taken a Thai / Burmese / Karen cooking class here in Mae Sot) expressed interest and participated in cooking activities by independently preparing some dishes and generally just hanging around the cooking area to learn some tips from the pros. The Karen don’t leave their tastes open for interpretation. If they don’t like something, they speak up. And they say exactly why… too salty, too sweat, too bland, etc. Angie’s Massaman Curry was devoured.
Typical days included a 6:30 wake up, 7:00 departure, 7:45 arrival in the camps, 5:45 pm departure from the camps, 6:30 arrival back in the village, bucket showers, clothes watching, feast of a dinner (when we do these projects, we typically pay a team of 3 people to cook all our meals for us. So we eat breakfast (typically breads, cakes, fruits or Muslim / Indian style breakfasts (samosa, roh ti, nan (like a flatbread cooked in a stone oven) and lunch (white rice, meat of some kind, fresh vegetables, fish and chili paste, and usually eggs in some capacity) in the camps. We leave the camp each evening with buckets and bags full of our piping hot, fantastic dinners. After dinner activities included English lesson games, “Spoons” card game, reading, talking, walking around the village, etc. Minor detail.. Our little guest house was not quite complete; it doesn’t really have any walls. Lighting is a tube light 12V Fluorescent Light connected directly to our trucks battery. The star viewing is mesmerizing; there is no light pollution within hours.
When Angie and I go for each installation, we typically pack enough clothes to not need any laundry done. This sometimes means I wear dirty clothes, but, heck, we are surviving jungle life, right? The engineering students and E Maw Lay bring 2 outfits. Day 1 they wear outfit 1, Day 1 they wash outfit 1, Day 2 wear outfit 2, outfit 1 dries and so on. Each evening they scrub all their day’s clothes sparkling clean and each morning, regardless of the quality of their wardrobes, they wet their hair, comb their hair, make sure their wardrobe is perfectly clean and they walk out of the house as professionals; after all, they are going to work, it is important they look their best.
The actual installation and training was unique in that we had the same team for back to back installations (install # 4 & 5). Also, this was now # 4 & 5 install for E Maw Lay and us. Here’s a little background into the Angie’s and my thinking. There was enough money in the budget to purchase the “8th” system (the project originally designated 7 systems). The Engineering School Headmaster, Saw Loh Doh, sold us very early on the idea that the school itself needed its own system, for electricity needs, but most of all for learning purposes, to serve as a curriculum device and a hands on application that would be used for myriad engineering courses in the future. The idea wasn’t in question, but the budget restrictions were always a factor. Long story short, the budget proved sufficient for the “8th” training system. The way the schedule panned out is the 8th system is actually to be installed, chronologically, as the 6th install. Our plan was that E Maw Lay would be fully independent of us by the end of the 5th install and would lead the Engineering School Training System without Angie and I present. For inherent safety reasons in electricity, we would arrive on the final day to be with them to turn the system on after checking all the wiring, etc.
Work progressed according to plan. By the end of the first week, I was actively walking around completely unneeded. E Maw Lay and his team of Karen Engineering students were almost literally independent of us. It was such a strange sensation, the conflicting feeling of wanting to be needed and feeling the like and job couldn’t be done correctly without us and the understanding and accompanying happiness that comes along with E Maw Lay and his team completely succeeding on their own, the goal of the project.
This freedom, if you will, gave us more free time than we were used to. We spent it eating whole made banana cakes, swimming in the pristine river connecting the two camps, visiting micro-hydro sites various individual camp members had built using make-shift parts, practicing our Karen language, Angie buying a beautiful table cloth that a friend she met in the camp’s mom had made with a back weave, without the use of a loom. I met the 3 most positively model looking 2, 5, and 7 year old siblings. Mostly, I would ask them the same 5 questions I can ask in Karen over and over again. But, we managed to sneak them lots of treats and pretty soon they copied everything I did. God knows what the locals thought of me leap frogging and somersaulting all over the place with the little rascals imitating my every move. I am certain they used their cuteness to completely take get anything they wanted from me… but I loved every minute of it.
We had an international guest at our second of the two installations. He is Mike Chin, from Vancouver, BC. His business is all about silent PC computing and has carved himself a large enough niche that all manufacturers of PCs now address this concern in some capacity. He is evolving into Eco PC computing. He thought our project in the camps could serve as his first piece for his eco pc computing website. Angie and I had voiced our interest in having “Interesting” people join us for the trainings. Mike proved to be all that and more. He took hundreds of professional resolution photos. He took video and had a high tech digital voice recorder and got some amazing sound recordings of Karen students singing. Enjoyably, he kept us up late with interesting conversation and stories of his very interesting life. He provided some excellent tech geek input on the power consumption of the computers and options we could explore for the computers to have some combination of energy efficiency with our solar installations.
In consistent Karen fashion, the students refused to allow Angie or me to help with the laundry or dishes. A highlight was the lessons I gave E Maw Lay and another engineering student in driving a truck. To help paint a picture, most Karen in the refugee camps have never been inside a truck; maybe in the bed, but not inside. Often, when we have students in the truck, they are unable to figure out how to get out, meaning the power locks and power windows are such a foreign, novel concept that a typical exit effort will involve rolling the windows down, looking around, pulling on the handle (to no avail) and then just sitting there until one of us gets the clue and unlocks the door so it can be opened for them. So, teaching them to drive on terrible dirt roads in a manual transmission truck is like taking a city slicker, throwing him in the middle of the Amazon and telling him to meet you 2 days later at point X and giving him a knife and sling shot and telling him some of the plants are not safe to eat. Let’s just say my right hand was always on the emergency brake. I am not gonna argue aesthetics, but both managed to get into third gear, do a 3 – 10 point turn, and reverse. Total damage to the truck? Well, let’s not get bogged down with details, it’s all about the experience, right? After all, when Angie and I were in Boston last year for a summer wedding, I taught Angie how to drive stick (manual transmission) in the parking lot of the school next to the wedding site in her full length black dress so she could drive those who were drinking home after the wedding. Not to mention it was 95 degrees, high humidity, and after the wedding we had to drive through Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox had a home game that night). Well, we are still together. Moral of the story (although debatable)… anyone can learn to drive stick!
Nighttime at the village was soo cold (for Thai standards). It got down to around 40 during the night (5 or 6 C). When we arrived home each evening around 6:30ish, we took our standard cold bucket shower. But in the mountainous setting of a remote Thai village, it was both breath taking and breath taking away. After, we get in our fisherman pants, thermal top, fleece, and beanie. Then we eat our excellent Karen feast. The food we eat has no preservatives, is fresh that day, is spicy, and full of flavor. We comment our bodies and skin feels better than ever. Angie’s mom sent us a care package that included Swiss Miss hot chocolate with the little marshmallows, enough for 1 per after dinner during our time in the field (on this trip). Does anyone appreciate Swiss Miss like we now do? It is a must for all future mountain / cold weather trips.
The high and low of the trip really piggy backed off each other. Like clockwork, when either Angie or I get a stomach bacteria or parasite, the other gets it within hours. We then are uncontrollably emptied for 24 hours. The night before our final renewable energy training for the interested members of the refugee camp community, we came down with our 24 hour debilitating stomach bug. The next morning we felt no better. E Maw Lay, our intern, and his team of Engineering students taught the entire 8 hour training to an audience of 60 ish, ranging in age from high school to elder. Feedback from camp leaders expressed how impressed they were, particularly with E Maw Lay, but with the whole group of Karen students. Job well done team. You are ready to do this project on your own. Now prove it!

Next up. The Engineering School, lead by E Maw Lay, will install an entire system on their own, completely 100% independent of Angie, my, and BGET’s presence.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Karen Refugees Finally Get a Voice [Feb. 27th, 2007|12:06 pm]

We have created a blog for the Karen engineering students at Mae La Refugee Camp. Of the 7 Karen camps, there is a total of 1 internet connection. Our goal is to give the Karen Engineering Students a voice to share their stories, culture, history, feelings, etc. 6 students have access to the account so you will see posts from many of them.

Please be aware that what they write is very heavy reading at times. This is a function of their honesty in combination with their reality.

They will be very encouraged by any "comments" you make at their blog website. This will encourage them that people are listening and people care.


Secondly, we have updated our photo website with pictures from the last 3 Solar / Diesel Hybrid Installs (including install performed and photographed entirely by Engineering Students), Micro - Hydro Install, and very recent Bio - Digester Install.


Please be on the lookout for another comprehensive "Up to Speed" shortly.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 8 Let It Flow, Let Yourself Glow [Feb. 8th, 2007|10:55 am]

Hey Everyone!

Although we feel each installation / training is a unique all around project with many similarities and equally as many differences, we are mixing up the chronological order of our blogs a little bit to attempt to avoid repetition.

Let it Flow, Let Yourself Glow!

BGET is the pseudo sub-contractor of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Small Grants Programme (SGP) for five micro-hydro installations and related capacity building in five different Thai / Karen villages.

Angie and I structured our schedule to participate, really as students, installation number 5 of 5. Late January 2007, we descended upon the remote Thai / Karen village of Mor Ti Ta. Located 5 hours north east of Mae Sot, 3 hours from the nearest paved road, and completely inaccessible during the 5 rainiest months of the year lies the subsistence village of Mor Ti Ta, population 200 – 300 Thai / Karen. The most important distinction between this project and the Solar / Diesel Hybrid Installations we typically do is the difference between the parties involved in the project and the ultimate recipients of the systems. The Hybrid Solar Systems are installed in Refugee camps, where stateless ethnic minority groups from Burma flee to avoid myriad methods of persecution. The Thai / Karen villages where BGET installs Micro Hydro systems are inhabited by Thai citizens, albeit ethnic Karen, free from government persecution and able to live simple village life like so many Burmese Karen dream to return to. Historically, the only tangible difference between Thai and Burmese Karen, is, at the time of Thailand relinquishing present day Burma to the British to avoid colonization, some Karen belonging to Burma and some to Thailand. The actual difference today is the Thai Karen live relatively free while the Burmese Karen are the subjects of ethnic cleansing.

This particular micro-hydro installation is a far cry from a BGET project alone. BGET really serves as technical expertise on the project. To avoid writing out the entire BGET family tree, BGET has really 2 partner organizations: 1 administered entirely by local Thai / Karen staff and leaders and 1 administered by a Taiwanese director using local staff. These are the groups that have the village and governmental relationships in the Thai / Karen village, and for the 5 micro – hydro projects, are the ones who submitted the proposal and received the funding. Skipping ahead, our consortium of parties involved on this project included about 18 male villagers, 3 female villagers, Chris (BGET founder), Salinee (BGET director), all 5 current BGET volunteers, 4 Thai / Karen employees of BGET partner organization TBCAF (who are the liaison between the village, government, and the project), 6 Engineering Students from Mae La Refugee Camp (the 6 students who are unable to attend a hybrid solar installation), 20 high school and college students who are current students or alumni of a small private alternative high school (Spring Street School) on San Juan Island in Washington State, Spring Street Student leaders, local governmental officials, Blake and Trevor, from Manhattan, NY and Fairbanks, Alaska, respectively. Blake runs a successful business that has allowed the flexibility to run his business remotely while simultaneously starting to participate in “Do Good” type renewable energy activities around the world. He produced a documentary on Bulgarian Gypsies and plans to release a documentary in summer 2007 for this micro-hydro project at Mor Ti Ta village. Trevor works with American Indian tribes outside of Fairbanks and has a strong desire to introduce alternative energy options to replace diesel and kerosene based current energy supplies.
This list doesn’t include the former BGET volunteers who did survey work, a Karen Engineer nicknamed the Water Doctor, a BGET affiliate who has a PhD in Astrophysics from Berkeley (socially a bit different, if you will) and provided some preliminary consultation, various drivers, and those within the village who cooked, cleaned and offered their homes for us to live with them for our one week stay at Mor Ti Ta. Clearly, this was a crew for the ages, literally a hodgepodge representation of both the community stakeholders of the project as well as misc. local and international representatives of individuals and groups interested in doing some good, learning lots and having a memorable experience.

Micro-Hydro is very different than Solar / Photovoltaics. And the comparison between this specific micro-hydro project and our Solar / Diesel Hybrid project consistently fits this assertion. Previous blogs give good background description of our Solar / Diesel project. In short, the Solar / Diesel systems are used to power computers at the refugee camps computer centers. The Micro-Hydro project at Mor Ti Ta is designed to provide electricity for the Mor Ti Ta’s primary and secondary school, which would mean 12 lights, a small battery charger, and a television w/ the option of powering a satellite. Not all Thai / Karen villages have schools and certainly not all Thai / Karen villages have local teachers. So, Mor Ti Ta’s school boards students from neighboring villages and teachers… the teachers are provided by the Thai government. So, both the Solar and Hydro systems in these examples provide power supplies for educational purposes. Both are clean, alternative energy and both can be applied on both small and large scales. After these similarities, the technologies really differ in their applications. Here is my little accountant’s breakdown of the differences using my limited experience of one micro hydro installation and 5 solar panel based installations.
Solar Panel / Photovoltaic Installs are very Expensive with a capital E. They can be installed and function pretty much anywhere there is any unobstructed sun light and site locations can be rather easily artificially manufactured. Design and install is pretty geometrically 90 degree angle logically oriented and ascetic. Human design can mitigate most natural risks. Range of design and construction (although open to disagreement) is relatively limited and person A would likely construct system similarly to person B. Systems are inefficient and extremely limited to optimal daily sunlight. Strongly driven by seasonality. Can be designed as plug and play in combat zones.
Micro-Hydro: Comparatively very inexpensive. Requires certain thresholds of naturally or artificially created falling water. Design and install is entirely driven by natural landscape. Nature ultimately determines the success of the system. Subject to any number of potential natural showstoppers. Installation is very subjective, requires technical engineering, knowledge of local landscape and geography, extreme jury rigging, extreme creativity, and many right and wrong solutions to obstacles. Design and installation runs the entire geometric spectrum and then some. And Person A and Person B could design a completely different system in almost every aspect of the project, in the case of Mor Ti Ta, person A could conclude the site is impossible with the budget while person B can conclude the opposite. Electricity creation (assuming year round water flow) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Not applicable for Plug and Play in combat zones.

2 Parallel stories took place during our week in Mor Ti Ta. First was the installation itself, second was the resulting social scene due to the influx of 30 white folks to a place that has seen very few in its 70 year history.
Story 1… The Installation
Angie and I run the Hybrid Solar Project. By no means did we run the Micro-Hydro project. On the contrary, we installed our previous two solar systems in overdrive so we could go to the micro-hydro install as very un-educated, inexperienced students, willing to carry some stones, film some video or just assist in any capacity we could with the intention to try and soak up some experience and expertise from the experts surrounding us.
The actual site of the ~ 48 vertical meter (160 foot) waterfall / water drop is roughly 1 kilometer from the school. A power corridor through dense bamboo / wooded jungle was created by local villagers under direction of BGET team member Yotin. Every 20 meters felled trees were used to created posts for the power line run. The walking trail to the waterfall started at the school, went along the direct road for 100 meters, then climbed through the village, through some pig pens, under some cotton storage areas, paralleled the rice plantation until arriving at the small stream that we trudged through for 500 meters until arriving at the waterfall… one of our more interesting work commutes. The actual waterfall is a series of drops and platforms ranging from 2 to 20 meters. The climb down from top to bottom was pretty hairy. A rope was fastened to trees and tree roots, make-shift steps were carved out of whatever was one step below the previous one. 3 Teams of various numbers were assembled, one team to build the dam, one team to carve the power corridor and run the wire, and one team to construct the powerhouse for the turbine and run the PVC pipe from the dam to the PowerHouse. The Dam is built to ensure the intake (meaning the opening of the PVC pipe where the water enters) is submerged at all times so there is no air in the pipe and a constant flow of water. Dam building was a lot like kids at beach or creek trying to stop a flow of water using anything available in the vicinity. Throw in a little engineering jargon and some cement and we had our damn. The real test will be the rainy season. The locals are to bamboo baskets what a clown is to those long skinny balloons. They can create any and every size, shape and form basket with sliced bamboo strips. We needed to create a basket that would serve the purpose of a filter that would fit around the piece of the pipe (intake) sticking into the reservoir created by the dam. This would serve as the mold. We would then wrap this bamboo filter with a wire mesh and prevent most everything besides water from entering the PVC pipe. I decided this would be a really cool thing to learn to do so I walked in the local villages bamboo making circle and motioned I wanted to try. I took the bamboo strips, sat down on the neighboring log and inadvertently slipped off the back of the log into the river. 2 hours later, 5 repairing efforts (by the locals) and multiple curse words in many languages, I abandoned my incompetent creation. Angie then decided to try. Her beautiful basket is now nicely sitting in our host families eating area. She didn’t think it was so touch. Large masonry round culvert rings were brought in to serve the function of a settling tank. This idea was ultimately abandoned so we placed them to protect the dam and intake pipe and filled them with rocks. One morning Angie and her three 8 – 10 year old Curious George local children, who came to watch us work until I recruited them to get themselves a hoe, mixed cement religiously for 4 hours. Several blogs back I wrote of Arie’s Angels. These three little workhorses were Angie’s little Curious Georges.
The PowerHouse and PVC team had the extreme engineering and construction job. Realizing we could create all the power the needed using only half the vertical fall of water, they built a robust, bomber Power House on the middle of this hairy, steep slippery slope in the middle of the tropical rainforest. Constructing the PVC run, which is 3 “ diameter PVC piping from the damn to the powerhouse where the water to spin the turbine would be diverted was the real job. Climbing through trees, hanging from limbs, standing on each others shoulders, making makeshift bamboo stilts and ladders, pick axing through limestone and shale this team of local villagers managed to, using no angled connectors, create an obstructed path for the water to enter the pipe in the reservoir at the dam and exit the pipe, spin the turbine, create electricity and exit the turbine arriving the same exit at the bottom of the waterfall. When we slowly pressurized the pipe by gradually filling it with water, there wasn’t a noticeable bend or leak in the pipe. Great job local engineering acrobats!!!
The power corridor was up and down hills, through rivers, crossing and paralleling contour lines. I walked 25 percent of it twice. The first time, I slipped and cut open my finger. The second time I sliced open my toe and scraped my shin. This team cleared the entire thing, carried and placed 50 + kilo poles, and ran wire the entire way. Oh yeah, those who had shoes had 30 cent wal mart thong specials.
We were ready to partially open the full pipe of water at the powerhouse to begin spinning the turbine to ensure everything was functioning properly. To our dismay, it wasn’t. There was major leakage between the collar that attempted to seal the PVC to the Turbine. Several discussions in several languages ensued and eventually when darkness arrived and we had no solution we called it a night. That night, after fireside debates about a very ambiguous shoddy engineering design, a decision was made. The next morning, the previous nights solution decision proved effective (used motorcycle inner tubing to seal leakage). We connected the wires, and watched the school illuminate with 12 different sized fluorescent lights!!! Job well done. A team remained to train the locals, capacity building, maintenance, troubleshooting and sustainability efforts.
Story 2: 30 White folks come to Karen village
Really, I think our most monumental social, societal contribution was the two 175 gram high quality Frisbees we brought. Out front of the school, there was a large soccer field. They took to the Frisbee on this field hook, line and sinker. We taught them formal ultimate, but mostly they just enjoyed hour after hour of exploring all the different things this flying discraft could do. They seemed to all prefer the forehand, which is traditionally the more difficult of the two main throwing techniques. For the week we were there the Frisbee entirely replaced the soccer ball.
It was frigid during the nights in Mor Ti Ta. The village sits in the mountains, but in a mountain valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. During the nights, it average about 7 degrees C, which is about 40 – 45 degrees Fahrenheit. My local community sleeping bag has completely ripped on the bottom, so now is a sleeping tunnel. The Mae Sot crew, about 10 of us, all stayed in the same small open aired, wood house. At between 4:45 and 4:55, every day, the house owners woke up to begin preparing our breakfast. At 6:45 am, they rang a bell related to some Buddhist ritual and at 7 on the dot, breakfast was ready. Food was lousy; we ate basically the same meal 3 times a day every day for 1 week. It consisted of white rice, Thai top ramen with pumpkin pieces, fish or chili paste, and an occasional small green leafy vegetable possible mixed in with some angel hair type pasta. There was no protein. Angie went running every morning and was noticeably weak by the evening. I also, for the first time, felt the absence of the protein resulting in energy loss and muscular fatigue. 4 days into our trip we found the one house that had a small store. The only food item was cookies. 100 baht (less than 3 dollars) later, we had all 20 bags.
During the evening and night and at times during the day, Karen in the Thai / Karen villages drink rice whiskey and at times some type of a sweeter more mild wine that comes from a tree. This evening activity seems to be more male than female but not entirely male. Whisky is the drink of choice in Thailand, as vodka would be in Russia, tequila in Mexico, or rum in sugar cane rich countries. The format for drinking this whiskey is as follows. One person pours, typically the host. Drinks are taken in “shot” format and only one cup is used. The cup is passed along the ground both before the shot and upon completion. When we first arrived in August 2006, we participated in the activity. Since then we have not, but like clockwork, the bottle comes out every night we are in the villages. The refugee camps, on the other hand, ban alcohol and any noise past 9 PM so I can’t accurately compare whether this nightly drinking is for both Burmese and Thai Karen or just Thai Karen.
During the solar installations, Angie and I really only have each other for stimulating conversation of any length. This is purely a function of the language barrier. At Mor Ti Ta, however, we really got some good quality time to spend getting to know both the other BGET employees as well as Blake and Trevor.
On one of the nights, the entire village came out and we had a huge bonfire. The students in the village sang songs for us, there was a makeshift talent show, which the contributions from us westerners were less than talented. The Karen songs were then translated by one of the Engineering Students who speaks excellent English. The village leader and local government leader, through translation, expressed their deep thanks and appreciation for the opportunities we have created in the village with the new electricity supply. As part of the closing ceremony, everyone held hands in an interesting kind of cross arm linking scheme and then one by one we all shook each others hands, bowed, and thanked each other for whatever each person was thankful for. It was memorable.
Those who know Angie know she adamantly believes rats are the root of all evil on this planet. Sometimes I will give her 3 completely terrible scenarios, 2 that are so outlandish and disgusting, and 1 that is not so bad but involves rats. I then ask her which scenario she would most hate to encounter and without a doubt, it is always the one with rats. The hair on her arm stands up when she talks about them. Several months back when she accidentally almost touched a maggot invested rat that had washed though our roof rain gutter drain, she was visibly disturbed for at least two days. One morning, after breakfast at Mor Ti Ta, we were talking about the recent addition of the papaya (I think?) salad. Being that Angie loves this, she was in on the excitement. Salinee, BGET director, told us, deadpanned, that actually most of the juice was from the papaya, but the meat was rat. Angie just about died. And to top it off, every time she smiled or talked to me that day, I always reminded her of the little rat still stuck in her teeth or her breath hinting a little rat flavor. Field rat is there main protein source in the village. A far cry from Manhattan sewer rats, we struggled to differentiate the two enough to continue eating it.
We are currently awestruck by the prospects of micro-hydro, but are back in Mae Sot focusing on the next hybrid installation and misc. catch up work. For me, the most exciting part of the entire project is happening as we speak. The Engineering School, lead by E Maw Lay, BGET Intern, is installing the Hybrid system at their school in Mae La Camp. Why is this so exciting? Because Angie and I are not there. Over the last two installs, which actually I haven’t written about because I wanted to put the Micro-Hydro blog in between the last blog you’ve read and the back to back installations which I will write shortly, E Maw Lay proved his complete independence of Angie and me. A major factor in sustainability and local capacity building and really the ultimate measure of our success is to phase Angie and me out of the picture. It is actually quite a humbling thing to do. To be honest, it is hard to not be needed and realize the job we can do can be done just as well by those who learned from us. But, you have to take our word how absolutely positively amazing of a person and leader E Maw Lay is, and how competent the students in the Engineering School are. All selfish personal feelings are completely outweighed by the feelings of seeing E Maw Lay lead a training for an entire day with 90 participants or watching him lead a group of ESP students successfully through all the inverter, AC, DC, and charge controller wiring without using the wiring diagram. The project couldn’t be in better hands. Plus, it is so empowering for the school to build this entire system without Angie and me… for them to have this tangible accomplishment of something they have now been working directly on for over 6 months. We will go up to Mae La Engineering School twice, once when they are ready to turn the power on (for a safety check) and again to participate in the training they will give to other organizations in the camp that have solar systems but no technological background.

I have formally accepted at the University of Michigan beginning Fall 2007. Angie and I will be there for a minimum of 3 years. The program is a dual degree Masters in Business Administration and Environmental Science. We are so excited!!!

We hope this message finds everyone well. We often dream of fresh powder and steep skiing. Please share any skiing stories with us so with can live vicariously through you.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 7 Happy Holidays! [Jan. 2nd, 2007|12:58 pm]

Up to Speed # 7

Happy New Year!

We have fallen behind a couple weeks on our blog so this blog is sent on January 2, 2007, but was written as of December 13, 2006.

Happy Holidays! It is warm 91 degrees here in Mae Sot, Thailand. As Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, the “Christmas” feel is logically absent. December, however, is still a very important month in Thai society. Their King was born December 5. Our Thai friends and colleagues describe His Majesty the King as a father to the Thai people, someone they love. We asked if he was revered as a deity or semi-deity and those we talked to said no. They love him for his sacrifice and commitment to the Thai people and what they describe as his transparency to the Thai people as well as his absolute dedication as a public servant. They love him because they trust him and he has lead by example, they describe. He has the overwhelming support of the Thai people. Thailand, a constitutional monarchy, legally divides power between “the people” and “the king.” Our Thai friends say any major political decision or action lacks legitimacy and credibility and will not be supported by the Thai people without support of the Thai King.

Within the refugee camps, however, the traditional American and Christian “holiday season” is very present. More than 100 years ago, Western Baptists began missionary work in Burma. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Karen Baptists. Baptism, being a Christian religion, celebrates the birth of Jesus and a similar Santa Claus and gift giving exchange as in Western cultures. The Karen Baptists also celebrate what they call “Sweet December” which is a night of festivities on November 30 leading up to a midnight Mass on December 1. During this night of festivities, Baptist families light candles inside and outside their homes. Families pass out “Sweets” (small candies) to children and passing “Galawah” (white skin (Angie and /Arie). The celebration of the arrival of December, the month Jesus was born, is very important in the Karen Baptist culture. We just finished two weeks in NuPoe Camp from November 27 – December 8, where we got the “Christmas” feel, which is rightfully absent in Thailand.

Angie and I have now read several books, papers, pamphlets, etc. on Karen History and the persecution the Karen have faced at the hands of first the Japanese and for the last 60 years, the Burmese Government. But, these books and articles that claim to talk about Karen History, would be more aptly titled “The History of Atrocities committed against the Karen.” Now I recognize a major part of Karen history is their very long struggle for their freedom, but I feel many of these books do an injustice to the Karen because the reader learns very little about Karen history outside of the long running ethnic cleansing campaign against them. We notice that these books paint a picture of the Karen identity as that of a persecuted people. If that is the author’s goal, then fine, they succeed. But, in these books, the reader learns very little about Karen culture, Karen traditions, Karen individuals, Karen politics and Karen history (non persecution related). With this being said, we set out to learn more about these things we knew next to nothing about. What we found was, at times to our delight and other times to our sadness, interesting.

Nu Poe camp is about 5 hours driving south of Mae Sot. For those who know Thailand or have a detailed map, it is about 2 hours south of Umphang. The three camps we have now been to (Mae La, Umphiem, and Nu Poe) all physically parallel the main highway. Because Mae La and Umphiem are between two main cities, they have a lot of thru traffic. Also, Mae La has close to 50,000 people and appears overcrowded with very little, if any, space between each small home. Umphiem appears less crowded than Mae La, but still very little space, if any between homes. Angie noticed the homes in Mae La have very little privacy from outside passerbys or neighbors, whereas Umphiem had more “closed or walled” homes. Umphiem’s mountain setting also creates an appearance of more space. Mae La is surround by large, almost cliff like limestone forested mountains. Geographically beautiful, these cliffs at Mae La serve to make Mae La appear even more constricted and crowded.

Nu Poe camp is very different. Nu Poe has between 10 – 15,000 refugees, but you would never know. Located 2 hours south of the closest city and not sitting between any two major areas of interest, the camp has little thru traffic on the parallel highway. Also, there is noticeably more space per person. Homes are still very close together, but residents can have small gardens or fruit trees. And there is noticeable equal spacing on all sides of the homes. My understanding is the previous Camp Commander at NuPoe (Thai Military) was a passionate organic farmer. With available space, he, alongside the people, built large vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, irrigation systems, and several micro-hydro sites. In parts of NuPoe, you now see hundreds of Karen working on their crops, flowers, vegetables, etc. There are elements of a village feeling in this camp, a higher standard of living and quality of life for some. Our 5 engineering students confirmed these observations.

The Engineering Students and E Maw Lay, as always, stay in the camp. Angie and I stayed, literally, across the street from the camp. There is a Thai / Karen lady who has a home here. Her husband works for the NGO American Refugee Committee (ARC). He lives 2 hours North in Umphang. Their 3sons are in university in the Northern city of Chiang Mai. The woman, Sri Porn (Karen name is Bugay) is college educated and was bored senseless in Umphang. She and her husband decided to buy a home for her across from NuPoe so she could have plenty of space to grow vegetables and have a large garden. She has refugees help her on her vegetables, flowers and fruits and in turn pays them when she has money or otherwise gives them food. Many of them are also her companions. We were only the second foreigners to ever stay with her. She has been there 5 years. She welcomes any and all visitors. The price is whatever you want to pay. Angie sprained her ankle running. A traditional healer came every evening to massage Angie’s ankle. Angie commented how the healer always new exactly where the most pain was and Angie believes decreased the recovery time. Culture is upon the completion of this massage, the injured party pours water over the hands of the healer.

The headmaster of the engineering school we work with assigned, very logically so, students to go to the camps where they have family. So, each morning, we met the students and went to a different family member’s house. Karen culture says that if you enter someone’s house you cannot leave without eating something. These family members prepared feasts (traditional Karen meals) for us. There is little to no distinction between a traditional Karen breakfast, lunch and dinner. All are composed of white rice, one or two vegetable dishes, and one or two meet dishes (usually beef, chicken or pork (they have no chicken in NuPoe due to bird flu concerns)). The meals have a lot of oil (acts as a preservative if the meal has to sit for a while). All, and I mean all, meals include a bowl of fish paste which when you ask every Karen (not generalizing here, really every one we have met) what they’re favorite food is, they say fish paste. Fish paste is made by fermented fish and used as a condiment added to rice. Westerners typically think it is terrible and Angie and I fully agree. It is such a strong, terrible smell and taste that our best efforts, to date, have failed to acquire any enjoyment for. Traditional Karen eat with their hands. They ate one bite at a time, meaning unlike Western culture where we fill our plate with everything we will eat, they load their plate one bite at a time. The rice, however, is loaded all at once. Traditionally, the first plate of rice is 3 scoops. If you finish this and want more, then you will receive two scoops, and then one scoop. If you still want more after this one scoop, you can serve any amount of scoops. A Westerner may believe using their hands to scoop their food is bad manners. Karen do not believe this. The hand is the tool they have always had available and they use hands to extensively massage the fish paste and other flavoring items into the rice. All meals are served sitting on the floor and are eaten family style. The owner of the dormitory where the students slept prepared all of our lunches and dinners. I learned to tell a Karen person they are a very good cook so, very deservingly so, I told her this every evening.

Because we physically stayed so close to the camp and the students, we had substantially more free time with them. We ate all of our meals with them and typically talked with them in the evenings. Seeing them outside of work, we were able to observe them interacting with each other. Angie commented this group, in particular, seemed to connect and really appeared to be a team. An interesting observation we had about this group of students is they are quite nationalistic, not as much towards Burma, but towards Karen state and Karen people. One student, Saw Tha Wah, 22 going on 40 in terms of maturity speaks good English. We talked with him the most in the group. He carefully articulated his passion to go to the United States, receive university level undergraduate and graduate education, build a life in Engineering and politics and return to Karen state when the security and political situation permits. He feels a personal obligation to learn Karen history and culture and studies this in his free time. E Maw Lay is the most nationalistic of them all. I encourage him to practice English, he tells me I need to practice Karen. I ask him about resettlement to a third country, he tells me he will resettle to a 4th country (Karen State). When we are visiting Karen family members or elders, he always puts me on the spot with my Karen language. He is vocally the strongest proponent of challenging us to do things the “Karen Way.” Sometimes, when he won’t refer to a tool in English until I tell him in the name in Karen or we are walking and he tells me all these things to say to people in Karen, I want to ring his neck. Our real feeling is we admire his courage in a time when many of those who surround him talk only of resettlement to a third country and a chance to start over. He and his family do not want to resettle. He tells us his family “will remain in Mae La until God permits them to return to Karen State.”

Learning about Karen History, culture and spending more “free time” with the students has brought up many observations and unresolved issues for Angie and me. These are questions we have for you, our family, friends and readers that we don’t have answers for. We noticed many of the students know very little Karen history and their historical facts are either inaccurate or blatantly wrong. Their understanding of their holidays, their calendar, important dates, people, etc. was very limited if not grossly inaccurate. Some you could really tell they were from their respective refugee camp; they had spent little to none of their life in Burma. And is this any different from Angie and my and all of our knowledge. I find I know essentially nothing about Dutch history (my heritage), Dutch holidays, culture, language, etc. And my father was born in Holland and my mother’s family is all from Holland. Angie had a much better knowledge about the history of some American and / or Christian holidays. I did not know the history of Christmas nor were my dates accurate about Thanksgiving. Are the Karen any worse for not accurately knowing their history than Angie or me not knowing ours? I am actually embarrassed, to be honest, of my ignorance.

The second issue is that of Education refugees. We have noticed some students leave their families and come to the refugee camps because the access to education is 1) available 2) free 3) far better than in Burma. Their families remain in Burma and are relatively physically safe from the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Burmese government. So, if, for example, a refugee camp has a quota of 50,000 people and 10 students are Education refugees, should they be removed from the camp and replaced by someone whose life is at risk. The answer seems to lie at the order of importance. We must agree “life” is clearly at the bottom of the pyramid and “education” somewhere higher.
The third issue is that of the Christian influence in Karen culture. Many of the customs, traditions, and historical stories we hear are Christian customs, traditions, and historical stories. But Christianity is certainly a part of recent Karen history. However the DKBA, (Buddhist Karen Army) and the KNLA (Christian Karen army) are at war with each other. A monk rallied many Buddhists Karen to leave the KNLA because the Christian influence was bad and eroding Buddhist culture. Now, the DKBA allies with the Burmese Military Junta and literally Karen brothers are killing Karen brothers. There is quite an obvious divide, with those who have converted to Christianity believing the missionaries work was great to those who have remained Buddhist believing the missionaries work has been one of the worst things to happen to the Karen. Who is right? Both or neither?

As I am writing, more and more complexities arise. I have just read Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother, the Proles, and the Brotherhood screams present day Burma, from what little I know of it. Except, I am uncertain who the Brotherhood is in the Burma crisis? What we see is the Burma situation being incredibly complex: the more we learn the more we are confused and the more difficult the situation seems. A recommended book for those who haven’t read it or read it recently.

I realize I have brought up major discussion points and have offered very little answers or my own opinion. I don’t really have either at the moment. I know we are confused, yet fascinated.

Thanks again for all the books and continued emotional and financial support. There are tangible, small on a large scope but large for some individuals, differences and impacts we have made in our time here. Your support is a large contributor to this.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 6 [Dec. 9th, 2006|12:23 pm]

Up to Speed # 6

Umphiem Camp Install # 2

With one installation under our belts, we felt more confident leaving for Umphiem camp. Umphiem camp is in the mountains about 80 km south of Mae Sot. The drive is beautiful for the eyes and terrible for the head and stomach. This installation and training took two weeks. Chris, the BGET founder, arrived the second week to help with the most technical things.

This installation and training was special for several reasons:
1) The 5 engineering students who joined us from Mae La camp received permission to leave Mae La (albeit to another refugee camp), drive through Mae Sot, experience car sickness, see some of Thailand and temporarily have their barbed wire, military patrolled boundary somewhat figuratively and literally lifted. Naw Shaw Ney Moo, a female student from ESP and a natural leader, was born in Mae La camp 18 years ago. This was her first trip outside Mae La.
2) We, meaning Angie, me, E Maw Lay, the 5 Engineering students and our driver (nickname Karen Burt Reynolds) would go alone. This autonomy was warmly welcomed.
3) My best friend Max, a student at University of Washington Business School, joined us in Umphiem for the 1st of two weeks. Max has spent the last 3 months on a business school exchange program in Shanghai, China. He stopped through Thailand on his way back to Seattle.

Max arrived in Mae Sot at 4:00 am on the overnight bus from Bangkok. In typical Max form, he got to know an attorney from Australia on the overnight ride. I arrived at the bus station at 4:15 am to Max’s huge smile and an introduction to his new friend. Soon after which we took off towards home on the motorscooter. A brief little history about the motorscooter…If we need to leave Mae Sot, have friends in town or just have a ton of around town things to do, we rent a scooter for US $ 4 per day. The night before Max arrived I went to my usual spot to rent my usual scooter. It had a flat tire. The Thais we have met have an incredible gift to find a way to get you what you need. In stride, the “rentor,” a young Burmese man walked next door and found me a little mini scooter. The owner of the mini scooter, a older man who speaks fluent English from Singapore, tells me the bike is a little small but runs like it’s new. The oversized Dutchman zooms off on his undersized bike. That night, while leaving soccer, I notice when scooter is not moving or moving very slowly it “revs” very high when you turn to the right, which means it gives itself a lot of gas without the driver giving any gas. I was in neutral so the bike didn’t go anywhere and I didn’t think twice about this loud revving the scooter was doing. That night, after a nice shower, I get on the bike in my driveway to go off to watch English Soccer with my Thai buddies. I am backing the bike up in 1st gear and turn the bike to the right so I can get out of my driveway. Since the bike is in gear, it flies out from under me. I hold on. Next thing I know the bike and I slam into the side of my house. The bike is broken and I am moaning in agony on the ground. Within 10 seconds, Angie and my Thai neighbors were huddled around me frantically asking me if I needed to go to the hospital. Besides a deep pelvic bruise, a smashed pinkie fingernail, some surface level scratches and a bruised ego, I told them I was fine. I call the owner and ask him if he is aware of any problems with the bike and he casually mentions I shouldn’t make any hard “rights” while in gear because it is having some “revving” problems. Blah, blah, blah, they brought me a new bike, the one I ultimately picked Max up with the next morning. My experience supported the contention a Thai newspaper author recently made… foreigners who have never ridden scooters come to Thailand and rent these “one way tickets to the hospital.” In their swimsuits and sandals, they galavant around Thailand thinking they have been riding them for years. Many find themselves with their vacations cut short with extended stays in the hospital. Foreigners should not rent motorbikes, period. My co-worker hear at BGET supports this contention, but counters that “Damn, they’re fun.”

We arrived to Umphiem Refugee Camp. The computer center, which we will power with the solar system sits at the highest point in the Umphiem boundary, about 100 – 200 vertical meters above the rest of the camp. The views from the computer center are breathtaking, with Umphiem camp below in the valley and grass / forested hills around all sides. On the hill with the Computer Center are the agricultural school, music school, 1 year management school and English Immersion Program (EIP). All are funded (although I am not certain about EIP funding) by ZOA Refugee Care (NGO that BGET is working for on the solar project) as part of their vocational training program. Along with the beautiful environmental backdrop, we worked to the sounds of Karen and Burmese guitarists and vocalists. Music breaks all language barriers.

The installation, training and capacity building went very well. We had the opportunity as well as responsibility to successfully complete the project. We tried, learned, failed, learned more and succeeded on a daily basis. Every decision and action done by other BGET members at the previous camp now had to be made by us. Well, actually this is not completely true. With each passing day E Maw Lay, the Engineering Student from Mae La who has been hired by BGET as BGET staff for the duration of the project is getting more and more independent, competent and confident. He can do more and more on his own, which is ultimately one of the main goals of the project. E Maw Lay (which is a significant name in Karen history as well) is a natural leader. The students respect, admire and look up to him. Also, he is a complete entertainer, captivator and comedian. He keeps individuals as well as entire groups of Karen people in stitches laughing for hours at a time. He has a powerful voice and the most beautiful smile and contagious laugh. There are so many times when Angie, Max or me comment on how special of a gift he has to interact with people. I find myself disappearing into timeless periods of just watching him operate. He really is the younger brother I never had and I love him.

The ESP students slept in the boarding room next door to the computer center and music school. During the two weeks we were in Umphiem, a small community formed within the greater Umphiem community. Our project budget pays for the food for the students while we are at a camp doing an installation. At Umphiem, the students wanted to buy the food at the market and cook for themselves breakfast and dinner. The director of the management school had much more free time than the ESP students. His name is “Go To” (how it sounds). He ended up preparing all of the dinners for the ESP students, us (some nights), some music students, and some agricultural students, etc. We stayed for dinner two nights. Go To (the head chef) and his team would not let these two nights go uncelebrated. All day he prepared a feast of fruit, cooked vegetables, many meat stews, rice, many sauces…. Truly gourmet. In the small wooden, thatched roof kitchen 10 – 30 of us would eat under candle light, talk, laugh, pray. Immediately after dinner the guitars would surface and Karen music was played into the night. Everyone in the room knew the lyrics to all the Karen songs. If you know Max, this story will not surprise you at all. If you don’t know Max, among his many many gifts is his ability to dance, get other people to dance and really just get others to find an inner comfort and release themselves physically and emotionally. By the end of the first song, Max had his arms around three students, ten students were following his dancing lead, and the whole group was ear to ear smiling. This is something Max does effortlessly everywhere he goes. He is deeply comfortable with himself. The ultimate irony reminded me exactly where I was. Several songs into the night, I got talking to Go To. He is Burmese and in his early thirties. His English and humor are fantastic. He and I had several long conversations. In the Kitchen, while the others were singing and dancing, Go To and I got to talking. He said he doesn’t have this sub-community when the ESP students are not there, that he loved having them and it made him so homesick. I asked him how he felt in Umphiem and described it as being under “house arrest” comparing his feeling to that of the famed Noble Prize winning Burmese Freedom and Democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi. He was essentially locked in Umphiem, with no state and stripped of his identity. We spent a fabulous thanksgiving with this group. Angie explained the significance of Thanksgiving and Angie and I shared individual reasons why we were thankful for each of the people at the table, people we had worked with, played soccer with, talked with and gotten to know over the previous two weeks.

Max, Angie and I stayed less than 1 kilometer from Umphiem. There is a Department of Transportation highway rest station and an Ethnic minority group Mon village close to Umphiem. Other than these, there is nothing in the way of civilization near Umphiem. We asked the local Department of Transportation folks if we could stay above the restrooms in an area that is basically an octagon floor with a small perimeter wall, no windows and a corrugated metal roof. The locals said it was not safe. So, in consistent Thai fashion, instead of sending us on our merry way, they said we could sleep in their little satellite government office and use their shower and anything we needed. They even found us a couple of extra pillows and blankets. And the strange thing is, I knew this would happen, because the experience towards us has been consistent with this treatment the entire time.

There are a few other people Angie and I would like to introduce you to. The first is Ke Doh and his sister Mie Chaw. They are half Karen / half Shan (The Shan are another Ethnic group in Burma). Both are quite tall for Karen. They are the computer center trainers at Umphiem and arrived from Burma less than 1 year ago. Ke Doh is a born student of life. He has family who provide him newspapers and magazines. This access to outside world information makes him capable to discuss a wide range of world events and issues. By the end of the second day, he and Max were already having long discussions about US politics. Something was different though about Ke Doh. I say this in a good way. He voiced what he did and did not want. If he disagreed, he said so. If he had an idea, he voiced it. If he was asked a question, he answered it. His sister Mie Chaw was priceless…tall, beautiful, wouldn’t let Angie lift a finger and willing to do any job. I vividly remember the look of pure frustration when we wouldn’t let Mie Chaw and Angie carry 75 lb bags of cement up the 200 meter climb to the computer center. Angie and Mie Chaw connected, a bond that can be better explained by Angie but something between two women that they understand and I do not. Ke Doh and Mie Chaw gave Angie and me beautiful scarves as a token of their appreciation.

The installation and training were successful. Umphiem now has a 1 kilowatt hour solar system and outside of the rainy season may not have to use diesel to power their computer needs in the future.

Thanksgiving this year reminded us to think about and be grateful for what we have. So, during this time, we are thankful for being born in America. We thank those who have fought for our freedom. We thank our parents for making possible and supporting all of our opportunities. We thank the writers of our constitution for the Bill of Rights and those who have fight and continue to fight to uphold it. We thank our family and friends for your loyalty and support. We thank the Karen, Burmese, Thai and other Ethnic groups we have encountered for allowing us to work with you, for opening up to us, for your beyond the call of duty generosity and your persistent curiosity. And we thank God or whoever you believe in for the luck to be born free.

Thank you to all who have sent books and care packages. Your support keeps us going.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 5... 1 Down 6 To Go! [Nov. 12th, 2006|12:43 pm]
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Up to Speed # 5

1 Down 6 to go!

Over the past 2+ weeks, some really amazing people, from many walks of life came together to collaborate on our first successful solar hybrid installation. Angie and I were there also.

It is important to continue to write about the Karen and for that matter all those persecuted by the Burmese government. As global citizens and human beings, our belief is we have an obligation to do good. Doing good means something different for everyone.

For the past 3 weeks, we have been able to release ourselves from the self-perpetuating addiction of reading about the atrocities in Burma. Reading and educating ourselves has been very important. But, this alone fosters extreme frustration and feelings of helplessness for us. Planning for the trainings and installations is necessary but keeps us in Mae Sot and around our computers. Listening to people’s stories is powerful, but only reminds us there is an endless supply of lives taken or ruined, something we already know.

Working directly with the Mae La Refugee Camp Engineering School Students, installing the solar hybrid systems, capacity building, and offering training to various members of the Mae La community is the main reason we are here. Day 1 of the 2+ week install and training was our highest moment yet. Not only did it immediately recharge us and remind us why we are here, but also it reiterated how eager the Karen are, how much they want opportunity in their life and how much they deserve it. A brief side note. A mentor and friend of mine recently advised me to do away with “generalizations,” that they are as good as bullshit. So, when we make conclusions or comments about the Karen people, it is important to know there are several million of them and we have crossed paths with just a minute fraction. We therefore only can speak about those we have met.

The first week at Mae La was really Angie, me, E Maw Lay (Engineering student who is our BGET Intern), Yotin (who is a long story, but basically part of a partner organization that allows BGET to share their office space. This organization has a program where they hire Thai Karen (Thai citizens) as interns who work full time, pay them, and pay for their university education, which they attend on weekends. Upon graduation they work full time. Anyway, Yotin was the first of these interns seven years ago and has found his calling with engineering / renewable energy work. He therefore is allowed to spend much of his time with BGET), PolChai (an amazingly talented Karen engineer trained in Rangoon in the 80s. Car rides to and from Mae La are used as his platform for educating us on his many philosophies, metaphors, and great humor) 5 students from the Engineering Studies Program and 5 laborers from Mae La camp.

We cleared land, built the powerhouse / equipment room, ran wire, built the PV structure, mounted the PV panels, filled batteries, taught various PV related theory, grounded the system, wired the panels, had may discussions, broke some small things (us included), learned about “western” tools, learned about “Karen” tools, bonded, began to build a relationship with the students, learned a little Karen and Burmese language. Who were the teachers and who were the students? Well, this, self-admittedly, is a very grey area. I guess it depends on who you asked and when during the 2 + weeks you asked them. I am certain that of the 15 people working during week 1, 16 people learned more than enough to keep our minds busy for a while… some technical, some decision making flexibility, some cultural, some language, some humility, some safety, some listening, some, well…you get the idea. Angie’s highlight from week 1 was time alone she had with the ESP students and sitting with them exchanging ideas, learning, and talking about the “plan.” Polchai and Yotin always want to know the “plan,” what we want to get accomplished that day and in what order. The students have two gears, 5th and neutral. They swarm wherever the action is, work in 5th gear, and then run to the next piece of action. If there is no action, they rest. Now don’t be fooled, these students are not careless or not intelligent, quite the contrary. They are just highly motivated and a bit raw, unrefined as we like to say. We spent a lot of time on “Slow and Steady, we are not in a rush, think first, think again, think about what you just thought about, then act.” We over-killed safety. If you don’t have it, you don’t use it. Eye protection was a foreign concept. Using something other than the “taste” method to determine if liquid was battery acid or water was a foreign concept. If you can’t read the warning on the aluminum ladder which reads “Danger, do not stand on the top step,” does that mean the rule doesn’t apply?

The idea is there is no hierarchical reporting structure. The UN funded this project, and the project clearly states this is more than a basic solar install, this is a vocational training project. So almost all decisions, we made as a group. If we had 1 watt for each time one of the students came up with an interesting way to do something, we could power another 3 computers. Sure, there were frustrations, some bigger than others, but if you can’t laugh about them along the Thai / Burma border, it is gonna be a long 10 months.
Week 2 brought out the hitters. The two founders of BGET, Chris and Walt were there, Salinee, the BGET director was there, Danny, the British volunteer from Vietnam was there, Jim, Walt’s friend from another organization was there. Everyone from the previous week was there too. Week two for us was about project management. Angie has a gift for putting a positive spin on things. She says “everyone was very willing to give their opinion and we have some very strong voices” or “people have very high expectations of us.” Translated = Everyone wants to tell you exactly how they think it should be done and everyone expects us to be able to accommodate their voice. So, I guess the remote refugee camps aren’t so different from the rest of the world after all? To not voice the difficulties and frustrations would be to leave out a piece of the puzzle. Our resounding feeling is BGET is an organization supported and run by highly motivated, highly talented team players. Everyone was flexible and positive and did what needed to get done whether it was enjoyable or not.

Besides the systems going live during week 2, a highlight was the 2 day training to wrap up the program. 50 – 60 members from the Mae La community attended the training, including camp committee members, ESP students, teachers, principal of ESP, computer center trainers, generator technician and various BGET members. The 6 ESP students who worked with us during the previous two weeks were responsible for, in 3 teams of 2, teaching a 30 minute section. This is not easy for anyone to do, let alone an 18 year old in front of their principal, teachers, and camp decision makers etc. We allowed this to be optional; if they were not comfortable we would not force them. All 6 insisted they do it and although we have no idea what they said spoke loudly, clearly and after answering many questions walked off the teaching platform to a thunderous applause from 60 people.

We learned a lot. The students learned a lot. They deserve so much more. The engineering school director, Saw Loh Doh and BGET are doing all they can to provide more. These students do not lack desire or potential, they lack opportunity. Angie often tells me what its like to be an older sibling, the joys and memories she has. I think I got a little taste over the last few weeks.

Monday, 11/13 we are headed to do 2 back to back camps south of Mae Sot. We will not be staying in Mae Sot during this time. We will have a fresh set of 10 students (5 at each camp). This is our favorite part!

We hope everyone is doing well. Thank you to those who have sent us books and packages. We love receiving them. We have a backlog of books to last Angie about 1 month and me about 2 years.

All our best,

Arie and Angie
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Up to Speed # 4 [Oct. 16th, 2006|03:09 am]

Hello Family and Friends!

Meet E Maw Lay – Male, Born 1985, Age 21. Fled Karen State Burma in 1993 at the age of 8 with his family, 4 sisters, 2 parents. Lived as an Internally Displaced Person on the run from Burmese military with his family from 88 – 93. Status as of October 1, 2006. Current Resident, Mae La Refugee, Camp. Third year student in Engineering Studies Program. Selected by Engineering Studies Headmaster to represent Engineering School as a 9 Month employee with BGET (our NGO). Never been in a city, never been part of the “money” economy, never surfed the net, never had a “magnum” ice cream bar, speaks very little English, never has ridden a bicycle, can’t swim, never been able to safely speak his mind, never been able to buy any book he wants, you get the point. Status as of October 10, 2006 – We haven’t yet taught him to swim, but everything else he has now done. Part of our project is to hire the top student in Mae La Refugee camp Engineering Program to work with us as a technical expert during the 9 months. We received permission to have this student leave the camp and live in Mae Sot with us. His job description is, in short, to learn the technical aspects of the system, understand the training and installation manual, teach some of the training, and be the liaison between us and the Engineering students during the installations and the trainings. His arrival in Mae Sot goes down as one of the most memorable days of our lives. He misinterpreted our pick up time at the camp. Now remember, he is Karen / Burmese so speaks little or no Thai or English. In English, when we tell time, we have two 12 hour periods, AM and PM. In Thai, they have four 6 hour periods. So for example, 10:00am in Thai could easily be interpreted as 4:00am because it translates as 4:00 but you say the second time period of the day so it is really 4 hours after 6:00am, meaning 10:00am. Lost in translation, he began waiting for us at 4:00am. We arrived at 10:00am. He was sitting there with a huge grin!

E Maw Lay amazes us. He wants to do and try everything. He wants to watch everything, learn everything, taste and try everything. He reminds me of Curious George.

Meet Muang (Violet in English) – age 23 today! – Thai Karen, speaks fluent Thai, Burmese, Karen. English Major in University. University Graduate, Brackett Scholar (foundation in US she applied for university scholarships and received for her 4 years of study), brilliantly witty, 40 kilos (88 pounds!), courageous. To begin to understand Muang, you need a background of the Thai education system. Saving face and respect for elders means Thai students rarely ask questions, never challenge the teachers, learn by a system of memorization and writing down everything the teacher writes. Participating in class is regarded as showing off and disrespectful. So, realistically, an English major in a Thai university can graduate without having spoken a single word of English. They know most words when they see them, but have never actually spoken the word out loud. When we hired Muang, she was very shy and quiet. Her English appeared poor. Now 1 month into the job, she can’t stop with her English. She is willing to try and say anything, which often time results in some comic relief and we say to each other how “Adorable” she is. What we admire most about Muang however, is how she is with her peers. She appears to command respect, speaks confidently, and people listen when she speaks. She will be totally fluent in both written and spoken English by the end of the project. Her memory is like a computer hard drive. Muang’s integrity is flawless. A quick little endearing story about Muang’s integrity… We were reconciling our cash at the end of the month. We had 25 baht too much (which is about 75 cents). Muang had bought a small coin purse to hold our petty cash and paid with her own money. The purse cost 25 baht. So, I told Muang the extra 25 baht was hers because she bought the purse with her own money. She said she did not buy with her own money and this 25 Baht was not hers. I said it was and finally told her to just keep the 25 baht, it was not a problem. She said no, I said yes, back and forth and finally she said, quote “Okay, I will keep money….. (long pause), but Muang not forget I owe project 25 baht.” We nodded with a sign of admiration.

Life in Mae Sot has become quite comfortable. I am a creature of habit so I want to go to one of 3 restaurants every night. Angie wants to try every restaurant in Mae Sot so we agreed to try 2 – 3 new restaurants each week. I went frog hunting the other night with my Karen friends. Angie returned home that evening to find gravity had locked our front door from the inside (there are vertical bolts that go into the floor). After realizing she couldn’t get a hold of the landlord at this hour, she went next door to our neighbor’s who have the three rotweiler dogs that are straight out of the Sandlot. After yelling “Kor Toht (Excuse me) for 10 minutes as loud as she could over the dog’s barking, our female neighbor came out to investigate this extremely strange sound that may have sounded a little like Thai. 20 minutes and a small monsoon later, Angie had successfully communicated “door lock.” Now if you say one Thai word to a Thai person, they assume you speak Thai so they start going off like you are a native speaker. 2 hours later I returned from a successful frog hunt to find Angie just getting in the house! Oh yeah, I caught one frog and my hunting partners caught the other 49. I deeply thanked the lone frog who graciously let my scooter run over his hind leg, therefore disabling him and allowing me to pick him up. The next morning I learned to make Karen Frog Curry!
Our best Thai Karen friend took us to a very remote Karen migrant school. Of their 45 students, 21 board at the school. They have an occasional candle that can be used to provide reading light in the evenings. All 21 sleep in the same room. Angie and I are in the process of hopefully using your donation money to buy them a small solar system that can power 2 – 3 LED lights in the evenings. You have directly contributed to 21 children now having the opportunity to see their books and notebooks past 6:00 o’clock. Great work everyone!

Our Hybrid System Project is now at the end of the Planning stages. We will begin work on our first installation at Mae La camp October 19 and complete November 3. We prepared a 46 page technical training manual in English. Translating technical subjects into Karen is very difficult and costly because there is essentially no one who has both the technical capacity and translation capacity. The director of the Engineering Students Program (the school in the refugee camp whose students we are working with) said it would be extremely valuable to have this manual in Karen. Well, your donations found a way to get this done. The students will not be able to read the entire manual. Thank you so much!

Angie and I are certain we never expected this project to be so difficult to manage. The driving difficulties are Thai governmental bureaucracies, one US company, and much to our huge reality check, the installations and systems being far more complex from a technical standpoint than we could have ever known and the actual refugee camps looking far different than we could have ever known. But the staff of BGET, both internationally and locally, are really quite amazing people. This has lended such a helping hand to us. I must emphasize we are managing a project where we are responsible for making sure the project gets done correctly, timely, and within budget. Our entire support team is far more technically capable and far more capable at the language. Therefore we must extensively engage the rest of our team and probe them to try and bring to light every “showstopper” and minutiae related to the project. Not one day can go by without a serious curveball being thrown our way. But we can say we really have the benefit of feeling true ownership over a project which fascinates us and accountability to a group of people we have become emotionally attached to, the Karen.

Beginning October 19, we essentially will be installing one system and performing applicable capacity building work each month for the next 7 months. Our first install everyone and their brother will be there to kickoff the project and ensure a successful start. Camp 2, it will just be Angie, me, E Maw Lay, and one other Karen technical expert. Camp 3 – 7…. just Angie, me, and E May Lay. So you can see the sharp drop off from about 6 technical go to people at camp1 and then it is “boom,” basically just us and E Maw Lay. The expert we will bring to Camp 2 is designed to prevent failure. We must be prepared to facilitate camp 3 alone.

We have nicknamed all Thai stray dogs “Scrappy” or “Scrappers.” There are literally thousands in Mae Sot. Progressively they have been getting more and more aggressive, we don’t know the reason. Up until October 10, we had managed to fend off several half hearted attack attempts by either opening an umbrella or in the case of the large shaggy corner store “scrappers” that attacks me twice a day, by running circles around my bicycle until the nearest Burmese laborer comes to my rescue and gets rid of him. When our friends Dayna and Eric were here several weeks back, Dayna tried to pet a self-described “cute” dog. DON’T PET ANYTHING in a third world country. He bit her. We found the owner to determine the dog had received its rabies vaccine. The owner in broken English, said “receive vaccine…no touch this dog…very mean, don’t like people, been mean since young, always bite westerner.” Dayna got the rabies series vaccines. Running and biking particularly gets them worked up. October 10 Angie was going for a run on a new route. She ran past a lying down scrappy that instantly was airborne and managed to sink a incisor into her leg. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but she got nipped nonetheless. Apparently, Salinee, our boss has been bit by this same scrappy. We went to the hospital and got Angie her rabies shots. She has already had 3 prior to departure, so just needed to get the post bite additional 2. We have raised the white flag to the dogs of Mae Sot. It may be on to wooden pants for us.

Angie has been running a lot and occasionally includes me in her track workout which immobilizes me for 48 hours. I have been playing lots of soccer and have been invited to play on a team. My fitness and touch is back so I am fully and completely in love with the game again. The rainy season, which ends in mid-September has not let up. Mornings are gorgeous and afternoons are downpours. It has begun to cool a bit. A large portion of the country is heavily flooded and, according to some sources, more than 2 million people have been displaced. We took a weekend trip to Sukothai, the capital of Thailand from 1300 – 1500. Temples there were fascinating. We saw flooding where the entire highway and neighborhoods were under greater than 1 meter of water. Life goes on in Thailand and the market becomes a half submerged market and the canoe taxi replaces the motorcycle taxi. The children of course thought it was great, but caused noticeable devastation to non-raised homes.

Angie is still reading away. She is currently reading East of Eden by Steinbeck. I am reading God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. We are running out of books here in Mae Sot and replenishing our stash is impossible. If you are still reading this far down in the blog, please buy a used paperback version of your ONE favorite book or a book you think Angie and I should read and send it via the cheapest method possible to us in Mae Sot Thailand. Our mailing address is:

Angie Beier / Arie Jongejan
PO Box 66
Mae Sot, Tak Province, 63110

Thanks for all of your love and support!

All the best,

Arie and Angie
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