Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | Golden Triangle | Mae Sai – Harbor House
Anyone who claims that humans are at the top of the food chain has never spent time in rural SE Asia. Round here, we are thick juicy walking blood banks just waiting to be pierced or puckered upon by the tiniest creatures in exchange for nasty bits of poison itchiness – or worse. And whatever food-stuffs we manage to prepare for ourselves are just moments away from becoming ant-fuel, should we turn aside. Meanwhile, all sorts of creepers and crawlers and bwinged devils drop into our prepared or our stored food, sometimes while its even in the fridge. Others skip the pretence and just drop straight onto us: down the shirt, in the hair, or crawl the forearm or back of the neck. And this is to say nothing of the hornets, cats and rats that have variously vied for residents status where we deign to attempt to live as well (more on them later).
So there is something almost womb-like about sitting within the cozy confines of my mosquito net. Draped all about the bed, suspended from four corners of the room where a nail is available, the thin blue gossamer mesh walls create a literal no-fly zone. From within my little nightly safety sector theres no need to be on guard for that next mozzie the one that is obviously carrying Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria or Dengue fever (or all three). Its a chance to breathe deep and listen to the nights sounds, and up here, in rural northern Thailand, the night is alive. Crickets in the distance create a soprano background chorus while those close at hand carry the lead, their various rhythms creating a hypnotic syncopation. Geckos, improbable mini-dragons that stick to any surface – vertical or horizontal – scramble silently toward their next insect entrée but stop the hunt every so often to proudly croak out their name in an astonishingly loud and clear almost cartoon-like nasal voice: ge-ko, ge-ko Every so often something rustles in the rice paddies followed by a ker-plunk; a frog, a snake, skinny dipping under the stars. Meanwhile, I watch the tireless mozzies from within my cocoon as they hover, probe and seek the secret passage that they are convinced exists to grant them access to me and my delicious plasma. At that moment I take great satisfaction in being one of the great teases in this part of the country.
Where is Shira in this nightly net-work? Well, for the first nine nights that we spent at Harbor House Foundation (HHF), Shira and I were given separate sleeping quarters. At first I found this arrangement on the ultra-conservative side. I mean, we ARE legally married. What kind of place keeps even married men and women apart at night? Ah, the clod-like question of a man with much to learn
We arrived at HHF from Bangkok on November 1st, full of anticipation although rather short on details about the place that would become the centre of our lives over the next three months.
Harbor House provides a physical shelter and practical framework for children from the surrounding area who are victims of physical or sexual abuse or who are at risk of becoming such a victim; or who have ended up in one of the less-reputable but monetarily tempting trades which are all too common in this area: prostitution or drugs. Built on some four acres of land about 16 km from the golden triangle an area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect, and infamous for its cultivation of opium poppies as well as a legend of lawlessness that fast money often brings to poor regions Harbor House is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization which gives children another chance. In addition to providing them with a refuge from the dangerous situations into which they have fallen, HHF gives them an opportunity to get back to school, develop normal childhood friendships and, hopefully, to learn new skills which will enable them to avoid the nasty alternative careers.
Upon arrival we were shown to our respective lodgings. Shiras was in the female staff bungalow, a raised cement and brick building with four separate bedrooms, front and back balconies with respective views of the jutting mountains and the adjacent rice paddies, screened-in glass windows, a small refrigerator; squat pots and showers below.
Some 300 metres away was my bamboo shack containing two rooms separated by a thin bamboo-mat wall (the other room is occupied by the one permanent male staff member), and an adjacent outhouse/toilet+shower. My room was entered through a door that had warped and didnt really fit its frame any more when closed. Inside was the bed I mentioned in my previous update, a plank of hard wood raised off the wooden floor by four legs; and a solid bamboo window with top hinges which I could prop open with a one-time broom handle. Luxury.
All this tucked away in a corner of the property beyond the fish-farm pond and adjacent to local farm houses where the chickens and roosters and cows know no not when we top-of-the-food-chain humans prefer quiet for the purpose of sleeping. The walls and corrugated tin roof afforded some privacy but otherwise there was not much to choose between my accom and the world just beyond in terms of air temperature and wildlife. Days are hot and nights are kinda cool up here at this time of year which means my room was a comfortable temperature for about 30 minutes, twice a day when I wasnt in it. Whenever I would say Im heading back to the shack, it was not a figure of speech. Still, I say none of this by way of complaint about my housing compared to the womens quarters. The shack was just the kind of housing to make me feel connected to my surroundings.
After unpacking, we were introduced to the staff, and had our first lesson in what will be our on-going botching of the pronunciation of Thai names and words. The staff present when we arrived were Peethaa, Peethorn, Tchiep and Maelaa. In addition, we soon found out that many of our colleagues have nicknames that are used interchangeably with their given names, so that in practice the names we hear around the office are Pethaa (Thaa), Peetorn (Torn), Maelaa, (Laa). Sometimes, the nicknames have very little in common with the given name. Krisna, the manager, who was away at a conference in Bangkok when we arrived, is also called Kuna. It took some time until we realized who Kuna was during discussion. As for trying to remember 25 kids Thai names well, its a good thing were here for three months.
During our second day, before being introduced formally to the children for the first time, it was explained to us that some of them have suffered repeated sexual abuse and are very sensitive to any display of adult physical contact. Hence, the nightly separation. There was even some consideration of our being introduced as brother and sister, a fabrication neither of us was keen to try to carry off. Happily, that idea was nixed, but only at the last moment.
And so we were brought to the Buddha room. Located in the main office building, the room is a 15×6 metre space in which there is a shrine to Buddha to which the children pray in chanting unison every night at one end of the room, and a tv to which the children also pay homage each night at the other end. There, in between these two unlikely bookends, we were introduced to the 25 or so children living at HHF.
Such beautiful souls, shining and smiling shyly but clearly curious about the two farang who materialized out of Is-ra-ayr to join in with them, teach them and, I expect, learn a great deal from them. Shira and I sat in the middle of a circle, surrounded by the kids as we were introduced. Diabolically, both of us come with names with difficult-to-pronounce sounds for native Thai speakers. When our names were announced, the kids spontaneously repeated them as if trying out a new game: from around the room giggles were mixed with the repetition of: Shee-la and Ree.
As per our plan, we then let them ask questions, translated to English for us by Tchiep, the childrens case-worker and the only staff member present upon our arrival who speaks passable English. This gave the kids a chance to get to know us and to open up communication between us and them. Where are we from, what do we do back there, how old are we, do we have any babies? But my personal favorite was from a little girl who was clearly a bit embarrassed but whose 8-year-olds curiosity outweighed the potential cultural faux-pas: Why do you have such big pointy noses? How do you answer that?!
Over the next few days, as we got our feet on the ground at Harbor House and spent more time with the children, I couldnt shake certain haunting feelings; I still havent really dealt with them but Im not sure they can ultimately be resolved. Faced with these gorgeous, smiling, mischievous, shouting, laughing, kids, the tiniest a waif of six and the oldest about 16, who look so, uh normal, on the outside, I just cant fathom it: how could ANYONE abuse them? How could anyone be monstrous enough to do THAT to them? How could it be that these shy, joking, big-nose-curious kids could have already been through THAT in their young lives? Haunting questions, occasional rumbles of anger at the perpetrators Ive never even seen and hope I never do.
I draw some solace from the fact that HHF exists at all, at least giving these kids a second shot. And, hopefully, Shira and I can leave something behind that will help the kids who are sheltered here right now, and those who may require HHF in the future.
In terms of helping the kids right now, Shira and I put our big pointy noses to the grindstone and made some progress the first week in getting some elements of our work schedule together. At Tchieps suggestion, we began teaching an all-inclusive English class for the kids, 3 or 4 evenings a week at 5 p.m. In addition, there are three girls who, for various reasons, have not been reintegrated into the regular school curriculum at local schools like the rest of the kids. We tutor them in English and some basic math skills several afternoons a week at 3 p.m. We were also taken to the local primary school, about a 15-minute walk down a narrow road between rice paddies, where the principal, a very stately early-40s-ish woman almost jumped out of her Eastern air of Mona Lisa-like composure when it was suggested to her that we could teach her students English and computers. So, we are scheduled to do thusly for three hours every Monday, Shira doing honours with the English teaching and me in the 4 work-station (each with a different operating system), computer room.
Sawadee and B’Shalom for now.