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Touched by the Keren

“Do people in your country live like this, like us, in the mountains?” The one question I’m asked, seems so simple, but I just did not know the truth of the matter. I thought to myself as I fumbled with my words out loud, I’ve never seen anything like this before – just read about it. And, while I am a cityslicker, I’ve spent more enjoyable times in the mountains than anywhere else. But no one in America lived like this – I tried to picture them in the Santa Monica Mountains. Then I though about the Indians, the Native Americans, they lived off the land, until it was taken away from them. I still had no right answer.

They lived in the mountains outside Chiang Mai. The Keren women wore their handmade pink skirts, blue tops with fringe hanging off the ends, and white towels draped over their heads. Their babies nestled into their bodies in cloth slung over their shoulders. Strings of colorful beads hung from their necks and giant holed earrings swung from their ears grazing their shoulders as they worked in their rice fields. 

I had been given a last minute invitation to join several staff of the Sustainable Development Foundation as a member of Prachadhrama News Network. I knew the essence of pleasure was spontaneity and I could not pass up such an opportunity.

It was pitch black by the time we’d ascended Doi Ithanon, Thailand’s tallest peak. We arrived at a village called Baan Khun Tae, a Keren hill tribe in Northern Thailand. I’d wondered when we were going to stop because my insides needing settling from the blender they were put through on the way up. The road went from gravel to cement to earth and back again, and at one point it just stopped and became earth. I could feel the soft, moist spots in the road eating the tires like quicksand. I wondered, did our Keren native driver, Manop, have control over the car, or did the car have control over us? The motions reminded me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, its programmed hydraulic system meant to make you bounce up and down and to and fro, dodging falling boulders, tires skidding. The car worked its way through the forest like a machete in the hands of a laborer, whacking back trees and bushes along the way.

The window was open and the cool, fresh, not so typical Thai air felt like minty menthol running through my lungs. My sense of smell was infused by the strong odor similar to that of a newly opened forest pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror of a New York City taxi cab.

We’d arrived at the village leader’s home and were immediately welcomed into their cooking hut. As word around the village traveled that a group of Thai NGO workers and one white girl were in town, many turned up into the hut. We were 17 people at one point, passing highland rice whisky back and forth, rolling tobacco and tamarind cigars in dried leaves, and cooking over the fire. I’d watched Sameva intently as he strung the dried red chili’s onto the metal skewer and placed them under the flame, soon to crush them together with other native herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle. The green concoction that transpired smelt like Lysol and tasted delicious with rice. I’d taken a quick liking to Sameva, a native Keren who is a University student, maybe it was his deep black eyes that held so much history or the smooth lines that formed his facial features.
When dinner was served we sat in a circle around a giant round platter with rice portioned off for each person along the sides, the three main dishes in the center. Each person ‘double dipping’ their way through the meal as the communal eating traditions of Thailand do not preach against it. In fact, that is the way we ate– sharing one plate.

After dinner, I retired against the wall not able to understand much. With my highlander cigar (which reminded me of the smell of the biddies I smoked in the 7th grade) in one hand, and my pen in the other, I wrote what I was seeing, as Sameva looked over my shoulder from next to me and the cat rolled up like a cinnamon bun in my lap. I’d sat for a few hours on the floor and could feel the indentations the bamboo was weaving into the skin on the underside of my legs.

P’Ple, Tuk, Gluay and I entered another hut for sleeping. They’d set out some mats along the back wall of the hut, I was given what looked like the most padded. After blowing out the candle, I was left in the dark with the sound of the highlands surrounding me and the words of this article forming in my head. I don’t remember falling asleep but when I awoke it was to the crowing of roosters and the oinking of pigs. The light of dawn gleamed into the hut through the small spaces between the dried leaves that created the structure.  A low hanging mist filled the air, it was chilly.

I saw part of breakfast moving in the bowl. I knew we were going to have a specially prepared local dish, but I was just hoping it was not going to be insects, beetles, things of that nature. It turned out to be highland crab. I set off to see Baan Khun Tae at day break. This was a society that was awake and asleep according to the light in the sky. The whole town was up, children already riding their bicycles and congregating on the soccer field. I walked past an old woman and her husband doing the wash and smoking from their pipes. When I asked if I could take a picture, she was embarrassed that it was so early and yet she already had a pipe falling out of her mouth.

On our way to  Baan Hin Leak Fai, I opted to sit in the bed of the truck with the boys. Once we arrived, I was unsure of what the plan was and much to my surprise the men had left us alone in the village, taking my precious drinking water with them. We were greeted and brought inside a cooking hut while we waited for Phado, the town leader and watershed manager. He hadn’t slept in days – he’d been off trying to sell some pigs. His body reeked with the smell of whisky and tobacco mixed the aroma of dried mud and dirty fingernails. Despite his exhaustion, he was a very gracious host. As were all of our hostess and I soon learned just how gracious the Keren people are.

I walked down past the upper part of the village, over the creek and up the hill to the school yard where the wide eyed children were dressed in sky blue smocks. My digital camera, providing its instant gratification, proved to be the most interesting toy I could have brought. I snapped shots and they swarmed around to the other side of me screaming and shouting with excitement as they saw themselves on the screen. The rest of the village was just as impressed, a digital camera was truly more exciting than the oranges and rice treats I’d brought.

Walking down the hill I noticed Teemo weaving on the floor inside her shop – the only one in the village. She waved me inside and immediately asked me if I’d eaten. Although I had, she cut open some passion fruit and mixed it with sugar in bowls – pointing to the tree across the way. It was delicious, the dark green fruit with its bright orange insides and black edible seeds. After my second breakfast of the day, Teemo taught me how to weave. Strapping me into her loom, my feet pushing on a piece of wood stabilized by a hatch in the floor and the white strings pulled taught on the loom. I’d weaved the wooden stick and pulled the strings to and from making stiches in the cloth. It was a pretty good attempt, seeing as I cannot even sew. Her children looked on a giggled as I fumbled with the strings and the motion of my body.

It had been awhile and I was told we’d be in this village for just a few hours, so I set off back to the cooking hut where we’d been dropped off. But, once I got there I noticed there were no shoes outside, where had they gone? A panic washed over me as I thought the worst: no water, no Thai friends, no cell phone service – and I’m in the middle of the mountains hours from anywhere. Some village people pointed further up the mountains, they knew who I was looking for. It was clear to the villagers who the white girl was anxious to find. I started to think about what they thought. Here they were living their life high up in the mountains, away from a more modern developed civilization below and all of a sudden a white girl walks on into their village for the day busting out with a “It’s better in New York t-shirt.”

I started up the mountain past the village – I had no idea what lied ahead. The incline was so steep, the backs of my calves started to sting as I turned the corner uphill. It looked to be like big wheat fields in the distance – but that was just my naivety, it was rice in its last field phase. I walked for about 10 minutes when a man on a motorbike came downhill towards me.  He went a little passed me, turned around, came back and motioned for me to get on his bike. He clearly knew who I was looking for and had no idea where to find them. I jumped on the back of the bike and we set off further, his pungent odor blowing with the wind as we drove uphill. When we arrived, I was weary of where they actually were. There was a path leading to a hut in the distance, we began to walk and once we reached the hut and there were no shoes outside, I started to worry. He pointed further down the path into the fields, but there was really no path, just fallen harvested rice bundles.

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