Monday was a day of driving. We drove from Mae Sot to the last village accessible by car on the way to our final destination, Lay Tong Ku. We were headed there, the three technicians, another volunteer, and myself, to install a solar system in a medical clinic that services both the village of 1,200 and many people who come from Burma specifically to avail themselves of the clinic’s services. The system will power seven lights and a vaccine refrigerator. The refrigerator especially will allow the clinic to expand its services, as it currently has no way to keep vaccines or medications cold.
The drive took about six hours, including a long lunch break at a roadside restaurant near Umpiam refugee camp. I spent the drive dozing, trying to stop my seat cushion from sliding off the seat every time we went down a hill, and reading Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. I liked the book mostly as a travel story, though it was interesting to see the beginnings of his ideology forming (at exactly my age) and learn more about his life from the introduction.
We stayed at the (very nice) house of our ‘guide’. I watched the technicians play caneball—think volleyball with no hands, except the people here are still able to spike! They wanted me to play but it would have just been embarrassing. I spent the evening playing the Thai version of gin rummy with two of the technicians. Once we cleared up some rules misunderstandings we had a good time. Going on these trips is when I interact with the technicians the most, and that is definitely a highlight. They are—and this is characteristic really of most people in Mae Sot and elsewhere here—very happy and friendly. Even listening to their conversation without understanding anything you notice how much they laugh and how animated they are. And even with their broken English they are always joking around with me about anything and everything.
Tuesday was a day of walking. It took probably 4 hours to get to LTK from the end of the auto road. We went up and down two mountains, but it was the heat that really made the hike hard. There were nice views at times, but most of the time our view was obstructed even at the top of the mountain by the dense vegetation. When there were gaps, though I could see forested mountains in what must have been Burma, and occasionally the outlines of villages. We met a group of maybe 30 Karen men going in the opposite direction. They stopped to talk with us, and I repeatedly heard them say one of the two only Karen words I know: “Tahb-luh” or “thank you.” It turns out they were our porters, men from LTK who were carrying our equipment, especially the behemoth vaccine refrigerator. Though, as we soon found out, they decided the refrigerator was such a behemoth that they could not carry it on the trail, so it would have to be brought to LTK by tractor over a much longer route.
Anyway, the particularly interesting thing about these Karen is that they are not Christian or Buddhist as most are, but have a belief system that is some combination of spiritualism and animism. This leads to many differences. They do not drink alcohol, or eat domesticated animals. Second, the men mostly have very long hair that they tie in a bun at the front of their head similar to a samurai’s topknot. In most ways they are like all other Karen though—incredibly friendly, agile and fearless when it comes to manual labor, fanatical about spicy food and betel nut, and generous with their food and time.
Wednesday was a day of work. The refrigerator still had not arrived but we installed the rest of the system so that if the refrigerator arrives tomorrow we will still be on track to leave Friday first thing in the morning. The five 130W solar panels are also powering six fluorescent lights and one LED light for the clinic, kitchen, outhouse, and doctor’s house. Except for a short time carrying wood in the morning, I spent the first part of my workday helping assemble wire ties (very unskilled labor) and following M (the third technician) around passing him tools as he climbed up to the rafters to hang lights.
Soon though I was doing my own tasks. When you think of installing solar-powered lighting you probably think of setting up the panels, or maybe hanging up lights. But actually the vast majority of the work required is laying and connecting wires and setting up switches. Wire ties have to be nailed into the wooden columns and rafters every three inches or so, differing in size depending on how many wires need to be held in place. There are wires that go from each switch to each light, but also a main line that comes from the batteries/panels, and in some locations that main line must be ties in to lines going to the outer buildings (nurse’s house, outhouse, kitchen). Therefore in some places four wires needed to be run in parallel and tied down. The particularly tedious work is nailing in the ties. I spent most of the time nailing in the 1-wire ties, which have a nail the size of the top of a grain of rice and themselves are less than half the length of my pinky finger. To nail them in you fold them over the nail to hold the nail in place until it is firmly in the wood, but still holding the tie in place with my fat fingers means that there is almost no room for error in where I hit the nail. And because the nails are so small even one hit in the wrong direction will bend the nail severely.
Now I believe I possess many talents but fine motor skills are not chief among them. This task would have been hard enough for me had I been doing it standing on the ground. But most of the time I was in the rafters, sitting either on a wooden crossbeam an inch thick or on the bamboo doorframe (a little thicker but much creakier) of the nurse’s bedroom. Though it was fun to climb all over the buildings and I never felt like I was putting myself in danger, it meant that I could never give my complete focus to my hammering, and increased my mistakes. I later had to climb back up to tie the ties around the wires, which often meant I had to stand precariously on a thin piece of wood without touching the wire so that I could pull it taut.
The other main job I had was making switches, which again is more complicated than it sounds. In the simplest switch, the wire to the load (lamp) is connected to the main line from the power source. The wires must first be stripped to expose the positive and negative wires, which in turn must again be stripped at their ends to reveal the copper that actually conducts the electricity. The negative wires are then twisted together to allow current to flow freely, while the positive ends are screwed into the switch. In this way, when the switch is closed (in other words, the light is turned on) a complete circuit exists, and the light will receive power while when the switch is open there is no circuit.
After we finished work for the day we took a trip to the local waterfall, which must have been 75 feet high or so, full of deep pools, almost vertical drops over craggy rock, and funnels with violently rushing water. I was just looking forward to swimming in the pool at the bottom and taking some pictures until the technicians started literally running up the falls. They ran up the steep parts, climbed up the vertical stretches, and waded through the fastest flows. They could even run and jump down the falls without a second thought. I was persuaded to try to climb the falls myself and so began my very slow ascent. I never felt at all out of control, but that is only because I tested every foothold and handhold obsessively. It was a pretty big thrill when I got to the top, and we all spent maybe 30 minutes fooling around in the water and relaxing. After all, we had definitely earned it.
Dinner was ready soon after we got back from the waterfall and finished showering. I think now is a good time to describe what it is like to eat a Karen meal. Each person is served a plate of rice and each dish is placed in the center and eaten family style. Before eating you use your spoon (or hands when especially traditional or hungry) to break up your rice, which is often clumpy or stuck together. You then eat a bite of plain rice before you combine with anything else, I assume as a check on the rice’s quality. Then you are free to eat from the shared bowls. It is customary to take only a small amount at once, enough for maybe two or three bites. Fish dishes are very common, as are chicken and pork (except in this village). They do have decent selection of green vegetables that they eat, mostly leafy greens that are put in soups. If there is a dish that looks like it might be spicy is almost definitely is—of the 3 or 4 dishes served at a meal there are never more than 2 I can handle and 1 often is only vegetables. I have acquired a taste for many new vegetables in Thailand, including cucumbers, kale, and many leafy greens that many not even have English names. Because all of the meat here is heavy on bone and gristle it is acceptable to pick up the pieces, which are always small, with your hands, or to put them in your mouth and play with it to remove the meat. The bones and waste are put in a pile next to your bowl to be cleared at the end of the meal. I am always completely full after a meal, even if with mostly rice on occasion.
Thursday was a day of training. For most of the day that meant that I sat and watched as the technicians trained the nurses and villagers in Karen, following along by the diagrams drawn on the blackboard. I had been informed a couple days ago that I would be doing the refrigerator training and Thursday evening the time finally came. The refrigerator arrived at dusk by way of some long tractor journey in Burma, and we quickly installed it, though we had to break down a wall of the clinic because the refrigerator didn’t fit through the door. Doing this was much easier than it would have been in the US—we just took out a few nails and the vertical wood planks came out, and then we sawed off a piece of the horizontal support and voila, we had a hole big enough for a refrigerator. Anyway, over the past couple days I had been reading the manual and not quite understanding some of the instructions. I was consequently extremely nervous about this training, considering that not only was I going to have to explain everything, but I would have to do so with a translator that spoke only relatively simple English (for example did not know the words dial, mold, or metal). As soon as I got a look at the refrigerator and the electronic controls on the top, though, everything clicked into place. The diagrams that were unclear suddenly made perfect sense and I felt a lot better going into the training. Though I had some translation problems, as far as I can tell it went off without a hitch. If we get a call in a week saying that they tried to fix a broken thermostat with a sledgehammer I’ll need to revisit my confidence, but for now I am happy with how things went.
The other interesting part of the day was our visit to a local shrine during the afternoon. As I mentioned before most of the people in this area are adherents of a spirit religion of which I do not know specifics. At this shrine they worship a pair of enormous elephant tusks, intricately carved with animals and other designs. I’d never seen tusks even close to as big as the ones in this shrine. There was also a Buddha in the shrine, underneath the tusks. I asked our guide if they worshipped the Buddha as well. He said no, that it was only there so that Buddhists who come to visit “feel more comfortable.” Bizarre, no?
Friday was a day of traveling home. We woke up at 5 am to get an early enough start to get home by the evening and to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. We left by about 630—part of the delay was due to our discovery that one of the two porters who were coming with us to carry our equipment was a strict adherent to the spirit religion of the area and therefore refused to carry—or even touch—the backpacks holding the gear. Maybe he thought that there were some animal products in it (leather?) and so it was related to not being allowed to eat meat? He brought a bamboo basket, however, and they loaded as much of the gear as they could into it. I volunteered to carry the backpack along with some of the lighter gear. Only after a couple minutes did I discover that one of the arm straps was broken, and held in place by being tied to the chest strap. This meant the bag was hopelessly lopsided and I couldn’t tighten the arms. Still the bag wasn’t too heavy and having a waist strap was nice, so it wasn’t much of an issue.
Probably because we left so early, the hike out wasn’t nearly as tiring as the hike in, and I think was quicker as well. When we got back to the truck (after an incredible meal at the house where we spent the first night) I volunteered to sit in the truck bed because it would have been really crowded in the back seat with three people and I like feeling the wind and seeing the view. I really enjoyed the ride, though it was incredibly long (almost 7 hours) considering I had nothing to do but look at the view. The mountain scenery was incredible, especially as the sun was setting, and I got great views of villages and refugee camps. For the first couple hours the roads were extremely bad, and sometimes we hit potholes that made me feel like I’d punctured a lung, but once we hit the highway it was smooth sailing.