Moving around the world teaches you many things. It isn’t for everyone. It takes a special type of person to be able to do what we do. Packing up all your things into two carry-on bags and two checked pieces of luggage is struggles in itself, and to generalize imagine being a woman! I could only bring 10 pairs of shoes!
I have just signed up to cycle from London to Paris in aid of the British Red Cross! It’s going to mean cycling 300 miles in 4 days, and spending approximately 7-8 hours a day in the saddle!
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My fundraising target is a hefty £1650 so every penny counts! Just £2 could help the Red Cross pay for a food parcel for someone living with HIV in South Africa, whereas £20 could train two people in life-saving skills, and £45 could provide the tools for a mechanic to maintain the wells in Afghanistan.
Many, many thanks for your help and support.
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Having just told a member staff at the hotel I’m staying at that I’ve been in Thailand since September, his immediate question was, ‘so, can you speak Thai then?’ I laughed out loud, which luckily he interpreted as because it’s a hard language for me to learn. Clearly I can’t start telling Thais that, although I’ve now been in Thailand for over three months, I may as well have just arrived in Bangkok from a different country. My Thai is limited to hello and thank you, and, although it would have made my visits to Mae Sot a little easier, I never had any intention of learning Thai.
So, Bangkok is a bit of a culture shock. Even the first time I went back to Mae Sot from the refugee camp was a culture shock – I’d forgotten how to deal with money for one thing! I came through Bangkok in September and hated it and, coming from the mountains in northern Thailand, I hate it even more! After all, I was happy living in the mountains; I’m not a city person at all. It also brought delayed flights, beg bugs, sore throats (I blame the pollution) and just a general feeling of claustrophobia.
Anyway, I don’t feel like I’m here as a tourist. I want to continue to do more work at the border, either in camp or in Mae Sot, and if I can’t, I want to go home for Christmas. Tourism just doesn’t relate to what I’ve been doing at all and it’s not why I came out here. It’s also hard to adjust to ‘real’ life and I feel bad being a tourist when my students can’t even go as far as Mae Sot.
Do I want to go to Burma? No, not really. In fact, not at all. I’ve spent three months teaching students who have fled from their country for numerous reasons and many of them can’t return. Who am I to go to their country? Even though the NLD’s boycott on tourism has been lifted, there’s still a debate over whether tourism’s good for the country. In the controversial 2009 Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (controversial because of the boycott), one of the first chapters was titled ‘Should you go?’ and the next ‘If you go’. Almost every other sentence in the 2012 book tells you how to avoid giving money to the government. Don’t use the trains, for example. They’re unreliable, slow, owned by the government and some of the railways were built by forced labour in the 1990s.
Before I came, I read as much as I could find on EcoTourism and responsible tourism in Burma. There are some good websites out there that are worth reading. Unfortunately, as Burma’s opening up, tourists are flocking there and it’s not possible to be picky and choosy about where to stay and how to move about the country. Four weeks before I was due to fly to Burma, I tried to book some hotels – not something I’d usually do in somewhere like Burma – and I couldn’t believe the response. In two and a half hours on Skype, I heard ‘Fully booked’, ‘fully booked’, ‘sorry’, and ‘no rooms’ more times than I care to count. Actually, Skype counted for me. I called 46 hotels and managed to book three. But the three that I’d booked didn’t work out. I was still without anywhere to stay for a couple of nights. With a lot of re-arranging, I sorted it, but we’ve got to move hotels in Yangon (Rangoon). We can’t even stay in one place for three nights. The second hotel’s costing $40 a night and the rooms don’t have windows!
In Bagan, though, things were looking worse. I’d called every hotel I could find everywhere and still had nothing. I was getting to the point where I was wondering whether to pay $250 a night for a room or fly back to Thailand. Luckily I did find somewhere in the end. The next problem was transport. Burma’s a big country and I didn’t want to travel by train knowing that the railways are government owned and were partly built by forced labour. I hate buses at the best of times and the thought of spending 15 hours on one doesn’t appeal to me. But yet again, all of the flights are booked. Well, we didn’t check Myanmar Airways – it’s state owned and it’s safety record is appalling. Whether we can actually get on a bus or a train we are waiting to find out once we get to Myanmar. We’ll see what happens!
On a different note, I feel that I should have updated my blog more whilst I was still in camp. I should have explained more about the everyday life in camp and I should have answered peoples’ questions a bit more thoroughly. But it’s hard to explain the reality of something that’s so, so different and so, so hard for people to relate to, so I apologise for giving up.
Tomorrow I head to Chiang Mai and then to Yangon. Right now, I’d rather be back in Mae Sot, somewhere I never thought I’d miss…
Sometimes, I think it was fairly easy to move to a refugee camp. In many ways I guess it was. The things that I expected to be hard weren’t at all – the living conditions are fine, drinking water’s easily accessible, it’s easy to buy anything I need from the market, and the people are friendly and welcoming. Teaching without a photocopier, a projector, a printer, constant internet access and other teachers to share ideas with is now completely normal. I expected to have a constant headache from the heat, but I seem to deal with humidity much better than with dry heat. All is good.
But, in terms of understanding the culture, I’m always going to be slightly out of my comfort zone here. That, too, is normal for me – I’ve been away from home the entire year and I’m just glad that my first time living as the only native speaker anywhere in sight was with Warsaw Kayak Club on a kayak trip to Slovenia. Thanks WAKK Habazie! I can’t imagine what it would have been like living here as the only volunteer around if I’d come directly from England.
Every day, about 10 times a day, I’m asked ‘do you have finished your breakfast, teacher?’ Or the same question with lunch and dinner. I’m asked at the weirdest times – like half way through an English class – and I never know what I’m supposed to say because it usually strikes me as a bit of a silly question.
I’ve been reading ‘Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour’ by Kate Fox. Written by an anthropologist for the ‘educated individual’, it offers a hilarious insight into the hidden rules of English etiquette. She points out that, in England, the question ‘how are you?’ is not actually intended to provoke an honest answer from anyone except closest friends and family. It’s just a polite formality that must be observed. And, as such, the answer rarely varies in anything except wording from ‘I’m fine, thanks’ or I’m very well, thank you.’ The same is true with the English ‘obsession’ about the weather. She points out that talking about the weather is like testing the ice with a stranger. You’re permitted to carry on and discuss the weather, or other things, at great length, or you can just mumble an agreement and leave it at that.
Maybe asking if I’ve finished my breakfast is just a polite conversation starter here. I mean, I get asked if I’ve finished my breakfast at 10:05, when I’ve just finished teaching first period. Clearly, I’ve finished my breakfast! If I have third period off, the period before lunch, I am inevitably asked if I’ve finished my lunch. This is despite the fact that two of my students cook for me every lunch time and, during third period they’re still in lessons. To me, it’s a stupid question, but to them maybe it’s something polite to say?
The other really common one, which I find really funny, is, ‘have you taken a shower, teacher?’ Asking that question in England or much of the Western world, people would assume that you’re applying that they smell and they need to take a shower. Luckily I’d be warned about this so I know that that’s not necessarily the case, but it still feels like a little invasion of privacy every time I’m asked. To us, showering’s a very private thing, but here, people shower outdoors in a longyi whilst talking to their friends, family or neighbours. It’s a very social part of the day, whereas back home it’s almost like a hidden part of life.
Phone conversations can also be challenging. Whilst the custom in England is to call and introduce yourself – ‘hi, it’s so and so speaking, are you free/ do you have ten minutes?’, here I’ll answer the phone and get ‘hi teacher, do you know who this is?’ NO! How would I? And sometimes, which is almost worse, I do know who it is but I can’t remember, or can’t pronounce their name anyway. I was asked by one teacher, with whom I was talking about cultural differences, if it’s rude for the caller to ask you to identify him. I said no, but it’s very strange, and then I thought about it a bit more. Deliberately putting someone out of their comfort zone, asking a question that’s generally not possible to answer would indeed be considered a little rude.
One Sunday a few weeks ago, I’d had a very busy day. In the morning, I went to one of my student’s houses for breakfast, and then we walked half-way across camp to get to church on time with another student. I’d agreed to go back to the first house after lunch, although I was tired and was starting to regret doing so. However, I wanted to speak to them as they’re a fascinating family and have excellent English. Just after lunch, however, I received a very strange phone call. ‘Teacher, you will be too tired to come so I think you should not come this afternoon. But of course you’re always welcome to come here’ OK, actually I was a little tired, but they didn’t know that and that wasn’t the point. What were they trying to tell me? Is this some polite way of telling me that they didn’t want me to come, that they were busy, or that they were actually genuinely concerned about me? Was I supposed to agree and say that yes, I was tired, or disagree and say that no, I’d love to go? I still have no idea. But, as I was actually tired, I decided not to argue and didn’t go.
Another day, two of my students said that I didn’t call them in the previous week and they’d been waiting for my call so that they could cook dinner for me. Well, how was I supposed to know that? Surely they could have just called me? I don’t get it! Probably, they were too shy to call me, like most of my students.
And something else that I’ll always hate is that, as a teacher I have a high status in what’s a very status-conscious society. Add to that the fact that I’m a volunteer, I’m not paid, I’ve come all the way from England and that I’ve chosen to come here, I get a ridiculous amount of respect. I’m treated, if it’s possible, too well. Everywhere I go, I’m offered food, food and more food. And this is from people who are refugees, have no real income and eat ration rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet I get the best food anyone has to offer and it’s very rude to turn it down; food is an incredibly important part of culture here. On some days, I’ve been bought or made three different delicious lunches (enough for two people by themselves) by three different people and been expected to eat them all!
All of this is part of the experience, and the last two weeks, now I’m teaching again, have been great. I’ll be sad to leave in a couple of weeks, although glad to eat something that’s not rice.
One of the biggest problems in a refugee camp is boredom, and I understand why. In my free time, when I’m not planning, teaching or eating, there is nothing to do. Even hand washing my clothes twice a week, which takes a good hour, is a welcome distraction from the void. I know it’s a little different for me – I can’t speak Burmese or Karen, there aren’t any other foreigners around, and the level of English spoken by my students isn’t high. But still, I’m only here for three months. Many of these people have been here for years – some more than 20.
I feel incredibly guilty going to Mae Sot for a few days; my students can’t leave camp at all. One of the teachers said to me, ‘did you enjoy Mae Sot? We want to go, but we can’t’. And he’s probably (in some ways) one of the luckier ones; his daughter and her family have resettled to the US, he has UN refugee status, and he’s waiting for an interview with the US DHS (Department of Homeland Security). That’s not to say there’s any likelihood of him leaving any time soon – the process takes years and years.
Another friend arrived in 2006. Her husband arrived in 2003 and has got a UN card, was interviewed and rejected for resettlement in Australia, and was granted resettlement in the US, along with their daughter, in 2009. However, my friend is classed as a ‘new arrival’ (she’s been here six years!) and therefore is on a very, very long waiting list. She’s lucky – she does have a UN card, but she’s waiting to be called for interview with DHS. In the meantime, her husband has been waiting for her since 2009 (that was his choice).
So, I can’t exactly complain that I’m bored. What I can complain about, though, is that I’ve had exactly a month off now, and I wasn’t told about it. Had I been told about it, I could have been given other work by the organisation I came here with – I could have gone to teach at a school in a different camp, or maybe given my time to an organisation in Mae Sot. Instead, I’ve had quite a frustrating four weeks.
I was initially told (by my students, not by the school), that there would be exams for two and a half weeks, so school would be closed. Then, the three days before school shut for exams, each morning I found (after having done my planning), that there wouldn’t be any lessons – an NGO was visiting and it was World Teachers Day. This was unexpected, but not unsurprising. There are very few countries that plan every minute of every day like the UK does. And I’m in a refugee camp – there’s always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. The one thing people do have plenty of here is time.
At the end of the exam period, though, I was then told that there would be a holiday for almost two weeks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t told before, and, as I still had my lessons every weekend, I couldn’t really use the time constructively. I did, however, manage to teach at another school in the camp for four days, which was very worthwhile. It happened to be very different to mine and for selfish reasons, it was also good as I was able to see much more of camp when I walked there and back each day.
Having managed to kill my last weekend of the time off doing a visa run and meeting up with some other volunteers in Mae Sot, I came back to camp only to find out (after, of course, I’d planned my lessons) that I had another few days off. This time, I was ready to scream! I’ve basically wasted two-thirds of my time here.
I was prepared for my time in camp being a little lonely – after all, there’s a language barrier to cross, there aren’t any other volunteers anywhere near me, and I can’t freely walk around. I knew that communication would be an issue due to the language barrier, but what I’ve found is that the issue isn’t the language barrier; people just don’t think to – or don’t want to – tell me anything.
I say don’t want to, because unfortunately, if my school had said that they were going to have four weeks off, there’s no way that they’d have got a volunteer when they did – they’d have had to wait until November. My school have also asked me to say that I’m rushed off my feet, because if I don’t, there’s no way they’re going to get another volunteer soon.
Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe I’m not. Probably, I just don’t understand the culture differences enough to hazard more than an educated guess.
A couple of nights ago I freaked out a little because there was a rat in my room. I’d known it hangs around there; I just hadn’t seen it before and had persuaded myself that it was probably just a mouse or two. It wasn’t; it was a very big rat and it leaves its business all over my room at night. Then it was joined by a cockroach. Clearly, the reason I have a mosquito net is not for the mosquitos!
The next day, I told my student that there had been a rat in my room. ‘Have you eaten rat?’, he replied. ‘It’s delicious!’. ‘Do you want try it?’ Erm? NO!!! But I’ll stop complaining. After all, it’s not going to do anything to me, just any food I’m stupid enough to leave out. And I’m in a refugee camp. Rats aren’t exactly the biggest of issues around here.
That day I went to teach at a different school in camp for the day and I met someone who had been born into the refugee camp. Well, that’s not unusual. There are children all through camp who have never seen the outside world. But this was a post-10 (grade 11 or 12) student. The year of his birth? 1990. That makes him 22, and he’s always lived in a refugee camp.
I don’t know whether this information should have surprised me, after all I know that the camp originated in the mid-1980s. My own knowledge of UNHCR, refugee status, refugee camps, and how people move in and out of them, is shamefully limited. It did surprise me, though, because most people I’ve spoken to over the age of about 17 arrived between 2005 and 2012.
Despite that, he’s still continuing with his education, trying to develop his skills so that when he gets out, there’s a possibility that he can create a life for himself. That’s unusual here, because nobody is made to go to school. Speaking to one of my students today, he said that there are approximately 1000 children in school here, and that only 30% of them continue after 10th grade. I have no idea how accurate those figures are (and I’d guess that they’re not very), but I do know that there are approximately 45-50,000 people here. If only 1000 children are attending school, that’s a shockingly low figure.
The majority of people here don’t value their education. And why should they? They can’t comprehend a future in an unknown country at an unknown time if or when they leave. They are worried about their day-to-day existence. They do not want to live on ration rice and yellow beans, but without money and a few entrepreneurial skills, that’s often their only option. And how will basic education help them to feed their family here? I’ve been told that they are lazy (which seems to be a really bad insult here), that they eat, sleep, and lie in their hammocks swatting flies all day.
But the students I teach are different. Clearly, they too have no idea where they will be next year, let alone in five years’ time. But they want to learn. They want to understand the world. They want to learn English, engineering, maths, IT, and to use the internet so that when they leave, they have the chance to make something of themselves. They work and work and work, and are desperate to learn English. Even more inspiring are the people who are running the school, and the people who are teaching in it. They don’t have to do anything. They were educated before they arrived here, but they have chosen to make a life for themselves: they have chosen to work hard without pay.
I have been speaking to two sisters a lot. They are both teaching in primary schools, and they both hate it. So why do they do it? Because they’ve finished education, and they want to have something on their CV for when they can leave here. They want to be successful and they are doing everything they can to help themselves from within a refugee camp. One sister had just completed the first year of a law degree in Rangoon and the other had just passed her matriculation exams to enter university when they were forced to leave to come here. Their father is well educated. He was a lawyer and can speak English well. This family know what they are missing out on by coming here, and in some ways, I think that’s worse than not knowing.
I’ve been asked many times, ‘teacher, are you happy here?’ and ‘teacher, do you want to live here?’ The answer to the first is invariably ‘yes’: the students and staff here are amazing people who would do anything for me. The answer to the second question is very difficult to answer to anyone with limited English. I could easily move here and live without any problems for a year or even for years. I do not feel the need to leave the camp – I can buy everything I need here. But that’s the thing: I can buy everything I need – I have money. Other people don’t have that luxury. It’s easier to live here than I thought – there’s drinking water, clean toilets and the food is better than I expected. But I don’t want to be a refugee. I don’t want to be stuck here. There’s a big difference between choosing to move to a refugee camp for three months and being a refugee. I have the possibility of a furthering my career in the very near future. I can leave whenever I want. I can go back to Mae Sot and sleep on a bed with a mattress and have a shower with running water. These people can’t.
Whatever people say, you do need to hire a bike in Sukhothai. Well, unless you’re one of those people who are happy, after walking just 50 metres to the next monument, to melt into a little pool on the floor with a throbbing headache and no energy to do anything for the rest of the day. Maybe if you manage to visit at sunrise or sunset, you could get away with walking.
Anyway, so I stopped to use the toilet, locking my bike up outside (luckily – I nearly didn’t bother). When I came back, an old man was looking a little confused trying to cycle off on my bike. A little confused because I’d locked the front wheel to the fork with a really flimsy lock, so the wheel had turned almost a full rotation before the lock became tangled around the brakes and stopped him dead. The toilet attendant was looking at him with a befuddled expression on her face, a little unsure what to do at this point. I had less of a problem – he was white, so I could be 99% certain that he’d speak at least a little English.
When I approached him, I showed him the key and unlocked the bike, proving that it was mine. I’m not completely surprised he was mixed up as every hire bike is identical. Well, except the colour. Mine was a garish pink, and his – maybe 10 metres away- was red. I figured he’d just apologise and give me my bike back.
Instead, he didn’t get off the bike, he just rambled on about being sorry. Sorry for what? He hadn’t actually taken my bike. I tried to distract him. Show that I wasn’t angry with him (yes, I’m a primary teacher). Where, I asked, was he from? At this point he looked at me a little flabbergasted – flabbergasted that I hadn’t already read ‘Miami, Florida’ on his baseball cap and clicked that that’s where he’s actually from (Why would he be from the place mentioned on his cap?? I mean, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess than less than 2% of the red Cape Cod lifeguard hoodies that I saw when I visited Cape Cod with Danbee were actually worn by people from Cape Cod. The same with Oxford University hoodies).
Then I realised that he must have really been trying to turn the wheel – the brake cable was completely sheared out of the brake levers. I do know how to fit a brake cable but there was no way that I could mend this, even with the tools I didn’t have. It needed a new one. That’s when the toilet attendant gave up and came over. I couldn’t work out if she was about to start laughing or screaming at him. She helped me to tie up the cable so I could ride without it being tied up in my spokes, and with a lot of hand gesturing, explained to him and me that his bike was 10 metres away. Before relinquishing the bike, he started waffling about the fact that, because I’d rented the bike from a shop, the damage was their responsibility to repair. I don’t think it works like that, but I wasn’t going to argue; I just wanted the bike back!
When I did take the bike back a few hours later, the lady didn’t even notice.