Life in Mae La

21 Jun

Life in Mae La


Little clouds of dust floated lazily on the air from the pattering feet
of people who looked as if they were from not a single place but many
places. The young men in Mae La wore jeans and old tattered shirts washed clean
and had facial features I recognized from photographs of people in the camps. The
older men had a look of concern on their faces. Many elder men had long and
thin gray beards and looked almost sad, but their eyes held a stare of defiance.
The young women wore below knee length dresses or colorful longyis with
traditional designs and a complete top with a scarf. They held umbrellas for
shade against the saturating sun far less forgiving than Jesus on the chains
worn by the camps many Christians. In spite of the strength, each person
showed walking over the rough earthen paths; there was an equal amount of despair.
In a place where people have few possessions or luxuries, cleanliness seemed a
form of order related to one’s desperation. Many camp residents had less than
clean clothes to wear that day.
People were busy going back and forth to a bulletin board tacked to the
outside wall of an NGO’s tent. They were looking for their name or the
names of people they knew. The names on the list were of those selected for
immigration to one of the many western countries taking trickles of refugees.
Back and forth they came, an endless parade of people young and old to look at
the list in hopes of seeing a name they recognized, if not their own.
The relocation selection notice board
Inside the tent, a western aid worker was shouting instructions into a crackling
inaudible bullhorn. I approached the tent, peeked inside and saw several dozen
residents sitting on wooden folding chairs set in rows to simulate the inside of
an aircraft. As the European aid worker shouted out some accented English
words, the residents leaned or tilted sideways to the far left. As the aid
worker slowly leveled his imaginary aircraft arm back to a center of gravity,
the residents returned themselves to the sit upright once again. A moment after
the air passengers returned upright the aid worker shouted into the bullhorn and
moved an arm the other direction. The passengers all leaned to the right, way
over to the right, not stopping until their pilot leveled them off to sitting
upright once again, safe and sound.
I thought the activity resembled an experience one might have on a
carnival ride. I can’t imagine what the refugees practicing to sit in an
aircraft were thinking. Many had never used plumbing or sat in an automobile. Somehow,
they were supposed to learn that sitting inside an airplane was like getting shoved
around by five-foot ocean swells while sitting in a kayak without a paddle. I
saw they were having fun and life in the camps must have been mundane, so it
was not for nothing they played airplane and at the very least, it was good
entertainment, it seemed.
The school’s Karen teachers, Guy Moo and Yu Weni, arrived just then and
announced they would take care of me. They arranged a wood plank for me to
sleep on in the library, got me a lamp, mosquito netting, and brought me some
rice. When they were done they left me alone for an hour with a plan to walk me
around the camp and to show me where to get food. A family living in a house
next to the library came to greet me with gifts of rice and a blanket. One of
the boys spoke English and relayed my appreciation to the elders.
Once they left I stretched out on my wood plank. A few minutes later the
grandfather, hunched over and using a walking pole, returned. With a huge smile
that showed blackened teeth, he began talking and pointed to a large worn red
thermos. I smiled and tried to deny the water he provided. I wasn’t sure if it
was safe to drink. I’d heard the stories warning travelers to drink only
bottled water. Then I realized I had no water source.
After grandfather left he went to
his sleeping perch overlooking the library. For a moment I watched him watching
me. He laughed a little and waved. I think he was happy to have me there to
observe and befriend. I was his reality TV program. I smiled to him and waved.
Then I thought about my water predicament for a while. Out of need, I drank the
water grandfather left for me. I had to drink the water. What else could it do?
I opened the thermos and poured a dose out into a metal cup. I looked up at
grandfather and smiled and gave him a small salute with the cup.

Teacher Yu Weni

No sooner did I fall back for rest did
Guy Moo and Yu Weni return to walk me around the camp. They showed me an open
walled hut with several benches and tables that served as a restaurant. There
was a line of similar huts along the path just wide enough to let a truck pass
if the walking people stepped aside. The restaurant was on a bend at the bottom
of a long slow decline in the path. On one side of the path, there was an open
trench about six inches wide yet deep enough to guide along a foul-smelling,
black watery sludge. It cut across the path to where I sat in the restaurant at
the only space available. The sludge flowed right between my feet. Sitting
still on the tiny bench while eating rice and talking with my fellow teachers
presented me with an unusual dilemma. I was shifting my weight back and forth
to avoid stepping into the sludge with my sandaled feet. The smell of the
sludge didn’t add to the taste of fish oil on rice. Though, I wished it had.

We continued on the walk around the
camp that was more like a walking sprint. Saw and Guy Moo moved fast. I was a
steady twenty steps after them trying to keep up. I took in as much as I could
while often looking to catch up to my guides. A mosque, a Buddhist shrine,
church, clothes on a line, women walking with umbrella’s, a dentist sign, I
barely had time to notice more. At one point we walked into a market fully
covered with a canvas ceiling. Under the canvas cover, sunlight disappeared and
it was instantly black. I had to stop walking for a moment to let my eyes
adjust to the dark.

Children playing under the canopy

Within moments I began to see a
different camp life. Babies and happy children sheltered from the sun were crawling
around or playing with plastic toys and making funny sounds with air filled
balloons. No sooner did I begin to see clearly in the dark market, we were outside
under bright sunlight. Sweat that was magically absent in the cool darkened
market ran over me in beads called forth by the devilish heat. After a brisk thirty-minute
walk past uncountable numbers of light brown bamboo and leaf houses and hundreds
of people going about their camp routines, we returned to the library.

Guy Moo fetched me some noodles and
I tried to treat him and Saw. They declined since they were hurried to return to
their homes before sundown to be with their families. I saved the noodles for
later and reclined on my plank with something to read and dozed off. The comforting
sounds of people preparing food and the footsteps of the curious residents walking
past to quickly peek into the library between spaces of the bamboo wall grew
faint. As I closed my eyes my thoughts were of my parents, wondering what they
were doing, and then of taking long walks in the old quiet hills of Western Massachusetts,
then silence.

A boy playing in the runoff water

Leave a Reply