Akha Chronicles 1991-2004
Chapter 2: The Bridge

 

Living in Maesai to sort out a small fledgling business, exporting glass beads from China, was a very different kind of life for me. But shipping items to the US certainly wasn't a full time job and so I would spend my spare moments down at the quiet bridge to Burma in those days. The Maesai Burma bridge.
It wasn't long before I noticed children in very bad health on the bridge begging.
The Bridge to Burma was where I met the Akha people and began giving them first aid care.
I was first attracted to them as a people, beyond just compassion for their obvious condition of poverty, when I heard the women around me talk as I cared for their children.  I found the language soothing, like poetry, like keepers of the watch, who understood their job, a fact lost on most other people.
The bridge was also symbolic of past events in my life both good and bad, choices, errors, opportunities missed, opportunities seized.


The Bridge was a chance at redemption for so many people
I met an Italian friend, living in India, spending days in Sri Lanka, traveling, and self retired.  He built a hospital in India, and was also inclined to help the kids on the bridge, these kids that all turned out to be from some of the displaced Akha villages on the Burma side.
I was hesitant to use what I knew about first aid, but Romolo suggested that if I felt to do that I should go ahead and do it, that no one would mind and that no harm would come of it. In the west all we learn is liability. Don't help anyone, they might sue you.
For that piece of advice, I have Romolo to thank. Or "Lomolo" as all the Akha kids could only pronounce.
So I began supplying first aid care to these people.  Word rapidly spread and soon mothers were bringing their babies for simple but unavailable solutions.  The mothers came daily to the market on the Maesai side.  At first I met them either there or as they headed back over the bridge to Burma in the evening.  But as I provided first aid care more and more Akha's came. I ended up having to go to the market in the early afternoon in order to have time to take care of them all before the bridge closed and they crossed back into Burma.  I saw some real nasty wounds at that time.  Babies in a horrible state, and then of course the worst stuff I got them on to the Maesai hospital, but the attitude there wasn't very good toward poor people, sure not Akha from Burma, so that was somewhat disheartening.
The bridge itself was a fascination, the convergence of two different lands and many races of people, all trying to maintain their social position, economy and cultural identity.

The Language
At the time I found the Akha people curious.  I very much enjoyed listening to them speak as they gathered around.  Sometimes I was on the bridge, sometimes under it or along side it at the Thailand flag pole. 
I didn't have a clue what language they spoke or who they were.  The language was soft and their faces were gentle and poetic.  I felt a great attraction for these people.  Some of the children spoke English, they almost all came from Burma, and they told me that they were mostly all Akha people.  Once again, I had no idea about this, but soon put together some observations that some still held to their tribal dress, and most still held to some level of their traditions, which I did not quite understand at the time. 
In time I tried to learn the language, so I could talk to them a little, and ideas on how I could help them came to mind and began to interest me more. I became more involved in their lives, visiting them on the Burma side, finding villages on the Thai side, all the more interested in their lives high in the villages where it was so peaceful but seemed so hard to me.  Life was hard for them, but also there was a lot which was foreign to me, which made it more of a surprise.  Although many aspects of their life were hard, some were just new to me and took getting used to.
I spent many an afternoon in the market where the Akha sold their vegetables and herbs, and discussed what I was learning of their language with my new friends from both Maesai and Burma.  I began to try and write the language down as I could, and discovered an almost undecipherable dictionary.  I was struck by the fact that there were not good language resources in writing.  I wondered how the children would possibly learn to read and write the language if it was this hard to work with?  I asked Akha people who were trained by the missions if they would help me but it was only on a "per pay" basis and not very cooperative at that.  I got bits of information, not a helping spirit, and my interest to make the written language accessible was laughed at.  All of which increased my sense of how important it was to do so.  I felt that the missions had a monopoly on education of the Akha, creating dependency rather than liberation.

 

The Bridge
There were two large trees, very symetrical, like in the story book drawings, that stood at either end of the bridge on the upstream side.  The trees were like time sentries and I wondered how many different bridges they had seen come and go at this location? They were quite large and would appear to be at least a hundred years old, but since I had no idea what kind of trees they were I had no way of knowing for sure.
The river in between was just a junior one, sometimes not much more than a stream, sometims surging up over the banks in a wide torrent during the rainy season, which once again, was not too far off.
The bridge was now of concrete and I had spent many hours under the shade of the large tree at the far side, sitting on the railing, next to the green iron gate, with its blue overhead sign watching the people and carts come and go into Burma.  At that time the sign said "Socialist Rebublic of Burma" or something like that.  Later they changed it to Myanmar on the sign.  Many people took offence at this, western people, but the government only changed the name to be after the people of Myanmar, which was a name for them as well.
The concrete bridge couldn't have been much more than two hundred feet long, if that, and it had to be the laxest border crossing I had ever seen.  People wandered back and forth across it. There was checkpoints on either side, the one on the Thailand side not so much more than the one on the Burma side.
Only in recent years with the coming of a bigger road from the south had it become slightly more formal.  People had to pick up a piece of paper when they came into Thailand, but many women and children just walked in unnoticed or climbed under the railing a few meters before getting to the check in box.  All of which was ignored.
This was also true of many Burmese men making their living off bringing items from Burma to the tourists who came to the bridge to see the northern most point of Thailand.
On either side of the bridge on the Burmese end there was not much but a few shops.  On the Thailand side there was a restaurant to either side, the one on the upstream side was quite good, beneath the great tree,which was a part of the restaurant.   The restaurant on the downstream side was never up to much though the building was quite large.  A Suki house moved in, fixed the place up well, was there for some time, then the woman who was owner and landlord, and way too greedy, no one liked her, well she wanted more money so they moved out.  That was years ago and no one stable ever moved back in.  She was like that.
All day the traffic of every sort crossed the bridge and one could learn many a lesson just watching it all go by.
Sometimes the Burmese police came out and fought with the Burmese hawkers on the bridge, taking their cigarrettes, stamps, coins, whatever they were selling and throwing them into the river.  Once one guy tried to get away till the Policeman punched him hard in the head and then grabbed his arm.  Several of the guys did six months in the Keng Tung Jail for this, where they said there was lousy food, and scabies a lot.
But come six o'clock the bridge on both sides closed and all those wrapping up some sort of business had to hurry to get through one gate or the other.
On the Thai side a small older man with big plastic framed glasses was the one closing the gate.  It was always an event.  He would blow a whistle and then hang around pushing the steel gate a little bit more closed all the time.  Even sometimes after he had closed it all the way he would reappear when some Thai person's car had gotten out of Burma late and then he would reopen it for them.
   Pedestrians who waited too long had to climb the fence or take the boat. 

Prasit and the Guy Drowns
The story goes like this.
There was this Burmese guy selling cartons of cigarettes to tourists near the bridge, has been going on for years, occasionally, less so now, the police would try to bust these guys.
One guy got caught by this particular tourist policeman Prasit, who was also known for hitting the beggar children. (though no policy on the beggar children was ever instituted.) Prasit took his cartons of cigarettes away.
A bunch of cops were having lunch, so the story goes, when the man came to where Prasit was sitting and asked him if he would give him back his cigarettes, as they were borrowed to be sold and he must pay for them if he doesn't sell them and he had no money.  A small favor, that was all he asked.  But Prasit, wanting to impress the fellow officers, had one guy put some drugs in the man's bag when he wasn't looking, which then Prasit goes on to "discover" and the man goes to jail in Chiangrai.
He was there least a month, and would have been there a year, but his family took up a donation to get him out, some 50,000 baht. He had been married only a year.
   He got out and he came back to the bridge but the bridge was closed over some dispute and the water was a little high.  He swam across but when the guys pitched his bag of clothes over they didn't quite make it, so he quickly swam out to rescue the clothes, which would have been another loss, and he was tricked by the swift waters, now tired, and was pulled away and drowned.  His friends and my friends buried him.
   Prasit is still in town, or working with the Tourist Police in Chiangrai. He works both ends of the province. Many shadows hang on his house.  Word was he borrowed money and bought a large ruby in the ruby market.  Then he showed it to some chinese tourists and they tricked him and took off with it.  He then pressed everyone for money, to pay the sizely sum back, asking even tourists to give him a little cash. If he could find them in the guest house with drugs or something "illegal" it sped up his repayment plan.

 

Natalie
She used to be at the bridge.  An Akha girl. She was very short for her age, passed her self off as much younger to gain more money and was a seasoned actor. She was also a seasoned fighter for her share and more, fighting with the burmese men if need be who enjoyed taunting her because she was so fiesty and entertaining.  She was a small but ruthless photo girl, always getting two to three times the daily earnings of the other girls. She would throw stones at the Burmese hawkers from the bridge and on one ocasion while taunting them she leaned from the railing over the road just a little too far and fell down below onto the street, breaking her thigh bone.  She limped after she recovered from that but was all the more feisty.  Any tourist who did not give her sufficient money for her photo she would jab with a big hat pin and run away.  The police got onto this and would not let any girls come for two months to the Thai side to take photos.  The collective economic loss was probably in the hundreds of US dollars.
Later she went to Chiang Mai to work in a bar and whatever else that includes.
Then she was back to the bridge, and later back to the Wang Tong massage and sex house.
She had worked there some good time when she returned home for a few days on the Burma side.  While in her house, a non paying customer tried to crawl into her house and rape her.  The police caught him and told her mother that the man could either pay a fine to the girl of 20,000 baht or stay in jail.  The choice was Natallie's.  I did not hear what choice Natalie made.

 

Burmese guy pitches 2500 baht of powder in river after being searched by cop
The little tweaker, after the cop searched him up there in the restraunt and turned away for a second the little guy pulled out a bag of powder and threw it to his side into the river below.  I was sitting across on the bridge railing watching it all. I asked him about it later, he said he lost 2500 baht of heroin on that deal. 
Well, was better than going to jail for three years or more.
Lots of foreigners came here and used the stuff too, I am not sure how pure it was but it must have been quite pure because a lot of adicts came here and checked into the guest house, shot up, and checked out.  Dead.  Lots of first time users too.
Course, there were a few parties that seemed to have a vested interest in this occuring as the wallets and such went missing right after they died.  The Angel of Death?
I figure someone told them to shoot up way more than they needed to so that they would in fact die of overdose immediately and then took their money.  This happened over and over at the hand of one foreign man who lived there.

 

Others from the Bridge
Meeh Smm and Meeh Yer were sisters whom I met on the bridge.  Their older sister was Meeh Dtah.
Meeh Dtah had a baby she abandoned by a house at birth and then went to the doctor, but Thais found the baby.  She then came back and asked for the child and got it somehow.
Meeh Smm is grown up after many years working the bridge, then went to work for a Thai family.  She got very chubby at this job.  When I years later went to her village she was getting married and she was building a house for her, her husband and her mother.  Her father had died.
   Booh Gah who used to be Eessalah, about whom there is another story here, was at the bridge for a few years.  Her mother died recently. Her mother was an opium addict but a very kind woman.  Father lives on. Then Eesallah disappeared and I never saw her ever again.
Meeh Seh and Ah Pymm are sisters, From the school.  Now the older one is a real character.  Big mouthed, obnoxious, never met a mirror she didn’t like.  They came to school for a while, then ended up selling themselves.  When all the high paying free lance work was over, they and their older sister work in the Wang Tong massage parlor.  They had other options, but the money train was so sweet.  Its so nice to have new motorbikes, telephones, gold and nice clothes.  Nice when people give you money.  In their case they had many more options, very good options, but preferred the flash of the flesh game.

 

Beggars, their parents, families, and personalities
Bridge Baby
Among all the women who begged their children on the bridge between Thailand and Burma it was often common to beg their babies as well.  They would do this by giving their new infant to one of the small girls of six or seven years.  Wrapping the baby on  the child’s back, similar to what they do in the village the girl would then dart off through the traffic of the bridge to ply the pedestrians on either walkway for coins.
   Getting run over by motorbikes on the bridge was not so uncommon and I knew several kids who bore the scars from that.
There was this one particular woman who had a very small baby at her breast that she was also giving to the bridge girls to run back and forth with and beg.  One girl Booh Gah would also do that job for her.  One day while taking photos of the baby I warned the mother to stop from that habit but once again she only laughed it off.  I warned her of it because I cared, not because I didn't understand the economics that was forcing her to do it.
That was until she showed up at my door one day some weeks later awith tears in her eyes.  She didn’t have to tell me.   The baby was dead.  Fever two days.  Now she wanted copies of the photos.
I had talked to the Catechist about these bridge problems but the Catholic church was not inclined to address the matter in any constructive way though they had plenty of money in the Tachilek area with some pretty good land holdings near to the village where all these kids came from.  I wonder why the church is always surrounded by poverty?

Burned Woman
An Akha woman brought another woman from Burma side to where I sat with some first aid medicine on the bridge.
I cleaned a fevered six inch unhealed place on her shoulder after she has already healed 90% of a burn of her head and face and upper body.  The last six inches is healing itself down now, leaving a thin membrane of new skin behind it.  I had never heard of such a thing or seen such a thing, and all with little to no medical care. The scar pulled her head to one side and this needed to be relieved. I never saw her again.  She had been burned by boiling water that fell on her somehow.  The skin which grew back, produced by the ever shrinking fevered tissue, was very fine and very thin.
Then they brought a child with a leg and foot abcess, the foot badly swollen. I found the start point which was a tiny little scab smaller than a pin head near the toe and picking it off, working a very large amount of fluid as nasty as it ever gets out of her leg and foot.  She promptly got better.
When word got out there was a line, cleaning wounds, applying salve, bandaging, taking people to the hospital.

Reflections Around The Bridge
There is what I call the bridge Mafia, the tough girls and boys on the bridge.  They fight for every baht they get in a gauntlet of tourists, Burmes men, Burmese police, Thai polcie, Thai tourists police  and each other.
They range in many differen ages, 4 to 16.  But 16 is a little old, and then they begin finding jobs or go into prostitution.  To where they go after that is difficult for me to say.  They get dispersed, like flotsom in the wind, often a very tragic wind.  As I would talk with my friends, it was hard to remember one good story in this town. They were all bad stories.  Tragedy without let up.  Always someone waiting to exploit the weekest in a hundred ways.
We take for granted that many of our community efforts and events in the west are from surplus, a luxury, giving off the top, but few are struggling like these people have to.
The poverty here, there is often not enough for the long term solutions that are needed.  As well there is not the authority. Many families are impoverished by internal and external oppression.  And unless you have the authority to alter some of this, there is no fixing the problem it would seem. The solutions, as they come, must get past these localy imposed limitations.  And those who oppress and slave and accumulate wealth are no help.
The children on the bridge are tough.  Each group grows up.  Now there  are many using the bright pink and purple fake hill tribe outfits to get photos taken and numbers of the younger ones just begging. It is common to see the young girls of ten and eleven, carrying an infant through all the dust and heat all day, or even younger than that, feeding with a bottle, in order to imporve the begging look and gain a sympathetic baht.  And it is not because they don't need it.  Despised by life, fighting for every grain of food, gathering to take something home, these miraculous children only get blamed for being some scourge by those who have never studied the plight they come from.  Their stories are not tidy stories.  They are at the very bottom, hoping for a little hope.
They dodge two way bridge traffic skillfully although some have been hit.  One, Anna got run over by a motorcycle years ago and has a round scar between her eyes.
In years gone by the burmese men saw the Akha children as competitors and often hit them.  I persuaded them to let this practice go to which they finally did. Still there are the few hard heads.  All in all we ended up being friends.
   The photo children make up to 100 sometime 200 baht a day.  70 is average while the beggars make 30-40 baht per child.  Mostly the beggars are the younger children.  While the children work, some of their parents use opium and others are working to bring vegetables to the moning and afternoon markets.
Consistently opium,  alcoholism and gambling are problems for these people.  And not just the Akha.  It is endemic to the entire community.  The winners buy the prositutes, the loosers are the prostitutes. There is heroin involved in the Tachilek area, quite common actually and that is a very expensive habit.  As well there is now much speed or methamphetamine.
The mothers serve as their own gang bosses, and extraction of the last baht is always the goal, snapping at their child to jump here, run after that tourist there, get more money, quit sleeping, quit playing.  The children fend for food themselves begging bags of this or that food off the hands of Thai tourists from Bangkok.  While their government exploits all it can from Burma, the average tourist has not a clue.
Booti was a beggar child.  I didn't see her around much anymnore, nor Meeh Kauh.  Bootis mother died giving birth to a child.  She had been a hard core opium addict for years. Booti was thin with big quick eyes.
Recently as this fall Natalies father died from opium and shortly there after her mother gave birth to another child. For people here, having a child can be a way of making up for loss.  But it is sad to see the despair cycle that the children enter into.  But these people too have to live, though some wish they did not, and they make progress however they can understand.  Always keeping the children alive is the hope.  Some people might say that if they only have one or two children they would live.  But fate is not that kind, and those with five kids, they all die. And those with one kid, the child dies too.  Life is just that rough.  For those that had 12 kids, four survived, so they thought they had gotten their job done. One can not imagine the toughness all around.
One year Mee Yer is working.  Mita, her older sister is working.  Mee Yer is begging and caring for a little brother just born. 
   At the market there are also a few kind yao girls from the opium village who speak Akha.  They live with the Akha, I never learned the story of how they ended up there. 
Mee Mee, I don't know  where she is.  Probably prostitution.  Her mother was burmese, father Akha. He went to prison in Chiang Rai for stealing video tapes and other things.  The video tapes are what did him in.  He used to take Mee Mee to the market and have her carry the bag that he put stollen stuff into.  It was a way she wouldn't be suspected, she hated the work, but they were of course as poor as it gets.  After her father went to jail, Mee Mee worked in a soup kitchen and then I lost track of her .  Often they shuttle from Thai home to home, the lives becoming blurred as to what their job actually is, though its always called "washing".

 

The Closing of the Bridge
One winter, during the Thai Demnocracty Uprising and slaughter, there was a dispute here in Maesai between the Thais and the Burmese at the bridge and in a tit for tat trade off both sides shut their border. This always hits the poor very hard who depend on this bridge. They must cross it to sell things and of course the beggars use it for begging.
My friend Adjew, she came across the river secretly and told me that they needed rice.  I  went and bought a hundred kilo sack.  The next morning 15 women showed up to collect.  At first I couldn't see them but after a moment they all came out of a narrow space between two houses on the rivers edge and filed into the lower part of the guest house.  The sack was soon gone and so I went and got more. Time I was done I had loaded up 1,000 pounds of rice into their baskets. 
In helping the Akha one must be cautious and experimental, braced for disappointment.  I think this is true for helping anyone.  But it beats the cowardice of looking for an excuse to not help or to quit helping the less fortunate. How can one expect to help the poorest, those in deep poverty, and not view their down side?  Will they not be less dressed in this manner than the rich who can shuffle greed and every other bad habit out of sight?  Why do we remember when the poor clamor, but not notice when the rich use a computer to do it?
   And the young men are often overlooked.  The young men don't attract much attention since most of the organizations see the girls as the prize, without considering the issue of marriage.  Who are these girls going to marry?  The church, or the state, has always wanted to be every girl's husband. 
The young boys go into very hard work early on, be it the fields or construction labor. Their chance to support a wife is very difficult.  Western missions who take the girls away to the "good life" make it all that much more difficult.
I have tried repeatedly to assist the Akha in Burma and in Maesai with medicine, encouragement and what ever energies I could muster. Many times I have tried to come up with grass roots ideas for helping to support a form of economics, but it is hard to do with no funds.  To get close enough to see what is happening to the poor, one ends up being poor themselves, and as well, one can see more of the ugliness of poverty than making a cute donation to United Way requires.  But I will still do it.

 

Meeh Choo choking Meeh Dtah
So I am at the bridge one day and Meeh Seh, the girl who never met a mirror she didn't like got into it with Meeh Dtah, over some baht, and soon was strangling her frantically.

 

A rock injury
An akha man came to me with two large holes above his ankle from rock splinters that injured him and then became infected.  He worked on the big quarry rock pile on the Burma side near his village. Sometimes he worked up above drilling and breaking loose the large bolders on the hillside that rolled down where anyone could take some to their spot and break it all into small gravel pieces for road work. they got paid for how ever many large cans of gravel they produced.  Not enough to buy a days food, but the job everyone took when they couldn't find any other job that day. Rock chips had flown off from the sledge hammer and chopped into his leg. This had happened some time before. The tendons were exposed and it all was rather ugly.  I got him some medicine from the pharmacy to get it to begin to heal, it was infected, raw and open for two months now.

 

Back at the bridge
Jun 97
Cripple.  There are a lot of cripples here, caused by injections in childhood which damage the nerve in the leg, and then the leg dies and withers.
One burmese girl, her legs swollen at the knees, is the child of a lepper family. Her sister sat beside her, collecting coins in an aluminum pot.  After a time she disappeared. So horrific.
Then there is the cripple girl on the catwalk, hopping along like a rabbit, unable to straighten her bad leg and the other leg going bad along with it. Her family refuses medical treatment for the girl because her crippled condition makes them more money, her father doing a lot of drugs and even more poverty.  I always love the morality of those who blame the drugs on the poverty.  The tragedy, the oppression, the incredible surrounding force of those who have no one to help them, no hope, has such an immense effect.  And in the end, drugs are a pain killer, secondary to the pain.  But now her father is dead after many years, those willing to help are gone, and the girl is still crippled, still begging now for her mother and whoever else is in on her poverty.
   Her one sister went to Chiangmai to sell herself.  She got a AIDS and died by 12.
Then there was the cripple boy with the crutches come from the far river bank, up and across the bridge to get a hot meal of rice, potatoes, fruit and meat.  Crippled from a misplaced injection. The other boys would take his crutches and beat him up to get the money he collected. He was very quiet, never said much, his crippled and withered leg swinging loosley. Once one of us chased the boys away who were taunting him.  He said they beat him up anyway on the way home.  His mother came to the bridge, to get a large boil cleaned.

 

The Older Akha Women
Many older Akha women, 25 plus years, work in shops near to the bridge for the Thais.  They would stop by the school to visit.  As well I noted that numerous girls began to come who were also prostitutes, looking for something different to do.  When you see this in your soul, you kind of die.

 

The guy with the camera
One day while I was cleaning a child's wound, a tourist with a camera came by and said a"Are you a doctor, I wouldn’t be doing that first aid if I were you."  Reminded me of all the other asshole foreigners who always have a comment but never help.

 

The border was like a valve
Every time that regulations at the bridge changed then all these crossings along the river would open up and half of everybody would go across the river that way.  Well the authorities knew this but this was the overflow system that kept this whole place going on smoothly while the winds of policy and politics blew.
Then there was the clever chinese lady at the corner of Sailom Joi who made up all the shit that she sold to the Akha who came from Doi Tung where they in turn sold it to all the tourists who came up to Doi Tung.  I spoke with her a few times, she reminded me of a very greedy woman, she made her living off the hill tribes.  Something few Thais liked to admit.  She was really secretive about what the Burmese girls were busy making for her there at the shop.

 

The Catfish
Whenever a rain or a flood in the river was coming you could see the cat fish come up to the shore in large numbers right next to the bridge.  They knew when it was going to happen, some changes in the water, pending pressure rise or something.  And then the water would rise and they would be all along the banks resting and coming up for air.  The water was full of silt.

 

Girls Try to get back to China
This evening five girls from China tried to get back into Burma on their way home but Burma wouldn’t let them in and Thailand didn’t want them back.  They had been prostituting in Bangkok.
I watched for a while at this forlorn sight till a man came out and negotiated with one of them and took her back into Thailand.  After some time an old woman came out on the bridge and after some talking the remaining girls all picked up their plastic bags of clothes and went with the old woman back into Thailand.
One could only guess for what kind of job.
A common experience to the bridge was that these young women, who worked for however long in Thailand, sometimes years, would have all their earnings robbed from them in searches when they got to the bridge, either on the Thai side or on the Burma side.

 

Typhoid Woman
She had come to Maesai from Burma for many years. She had been there on the street when I first came to the town years earlier.  She brought her children with her and they never got any older as it looked to me, always they remained small boys.
She was small and had a childlike face herself, a darkened red plaid scarf, typically worn by Akha women if they weren’t wearing a head dress, pulled down to her eyes, covering her hair.
She moved down the street, begging near cars, especially ones with foreign tourists.
She was always hard to pick out in the street scene, always quiet and reserved to the shadow spaces as it were.  I had gotten used to looking for her in this way, but I had practiced it, because at first I always overlooked her.
And I liked this about her, her low key approach, her  way of approaching life.  Always she remained gently beautiful, never grubbing as it were, for her money.
Her clothes were traditional, but sparse, rumpled black Akha dress and jacket, a dirty t-shirt and a visible beaded rosary of turquoise plastic beads along with some other red and white plastic beads.  The Rosary the only benefit the Catholics offered her, and that in plastic.
Always she carried one of the boys on her back, the other one slipping between parked cars nearby, looking for a coin.  Sometimes one of the other older Akha women would borrow one of the boys to go begging with.
Her children were different than the other beggar children and appeared to be the result of her consciously holding her family together with some dignity despite very difficult circumstances. I wondered about her begging, but couldn’t imagine that it was because she was lazy because she didn’t come across this way, rather I guessed it had to do with the quantity of money she needed and the circle in which she lived, making it more appropriate a solution, with no training in any other regard or proof that any other employment would actually improve her lot.
The street was dusty this time of year, dry and hot.
She never clamored with the other women , but mostly kept quietly to herself.  She might compare notes with them at the end of the day during roundup before everyone made their way back to Burma.  They begged aggressively, where as I felt as though she was not even a beggar but had only been there a few minutes.
I wouldn’t spot her every day but she always caught my gaze every few days as if we were both checking in with each other, the world unchanged.
This contact became common, passing each other frequently and all the while she raised her family best she could.
But my life changed more rapidly, and I left town on one occasion to tend to pressing problems.
And so it was one day, later on, that I spotted her coming across the bridge into Thailand from Burma where she lived, creeping forward with a limp, shaking uncontrollably, sweat pouring from her fevered forehead and leaning on a thin bamboo cane.  She was the same woman but her childlike wisp of a body had become more pronouncedly frail against the backdrop of whatever ailment held her in its fist.
Without hesitation, my heart paining me at what I saw, so I took her to the hospital as though she were my child. But that was only the beginning of what was to become a long journey for me. 
She did not stay at the hospital for various reasons which tend to dominate the lives of the poor, and so I got the medicine and pursued her with it.  The first she took, but when she couldn’t perceive herself getting better she refused to take anymore and chose to once again face her illness alone.  She had Typhoid, and the treatment is long.
I talked to her often, trying to get to the world she lived in.  Once she told him that she had dug some dirt loose from a man’s hill and he put a curse on her and no medicine would fix that.
I went to her hut, outside of any of the Akha villages, and interestingly enough against the military hill, but without the protection of the village.  The hut location was somewhat on the back side of life and the place was sinister.  The inside dominated by the heavy use of opium.  I scolded the old woman there for making a slave of this younger woman. The old woman and man lived off  her coins that she collected before she died.  I think I have a picture some where. 
Back in Maesai I mused to myself.  I could understand some of her thoughts, life not being so sure or kind to  justify going to heroic lengths of faith to save it.  But it was equally sad that she didn’t understand how close deliverance was.
Possibly her hovering at deaths door for so long was like a prophet calling out to the ears of passerbys of social injustice.
Like Lazarus of old, she begged near the rich man’s gate, the driveway of the Wang Tong hotel.
She lived on, resistant to what should have killed others months before, moving slowly back and forth to Burma, no solution in sight.
I kept track of her, gave her kind looks and conversation, knowing that she wouldn’t take more medicine but aware that I might still sustain her with a sense of understanding.
In the later days they pointed out where she lay down in the afternoon when she was too frail and tired to stand up all the time in the heat.  Spread out so small under the steps of a bank, in the shade, her older son crawled about her as a puppy licking its wounded mother.
I had felt for months that death could not be so far away but she held on persistently to life just as persistently as she refused medicine, not only from me but from a world that cared not for poor people.
As she had expressed so specifically, if she died, if she waited to die, that was her problem, nothing to anyone else, and if she died it would be a better thing than the hell she came from which he needed not telling of.
Around her perched like vultures were kin who stripped her of her daily collection for their opium habits, she gleaning enough off the top to feed herself.  They were more frail than she, they had no farm land, and the opium stove off the need for food until they too died. She was catholic but no Catholics came to aid her.  She was not of any use to them.  Her rosary did not even have a priest at the end of it she could call.
The hostility of those who didn’t live with her was that poor people were stupid. To blame the poor for their own poverty as a result of self inflicted stupidity was a conscience cleansing theme as sure as Pilate’s water.
She got considerable sums of money.  She looked so frightfully close to death's door that people, Thai and foreign alike, convulsed visibly upon seeing her and thrust frantically into their money totes to give money of kindness and maybe also fear of an omen.
In the heat of the day when not resting she would shift her way over to the water pot near the bridge, some of the merchant women giving her food or fruit.  All of the Thai women were kind and compassionate to her.  She represented something,  a kind of courage to everyone who knew her.
I wondered often what she thought of from behind all of that grief.
Even when the border closed she would make her way up the river and come across anyway, her one leg giving her much trouble as it shook violently.
The Burmese police left her alone though they might send the other beggars fleeing.  Once when the Thai police were doing a roundup I stood talking to her behind a van with tinted glass, looking through the van at a truck of those police looking for her and her friends, parked just a few yards away.  The Thai women told her not to move until the police were gone.  Quite obviously they cared for her.
He found that to address the situation of the woman was not so simple because of all of the intertwined problems.  If the hospital, if Thais in general, had a better relationship to the Akha it would help.  But the hospital looked down on them obviously and didn’t understand their unique situation.  This led to a sense of unwelcome for the Akha.  I had seen where the Akha from Burma had to pay the nurses five hundred baht on the side, and then they failed to do much at all that was necessary and the baby died from simple respiratory distress anyway.
As well there was nothing for the Akha who had to come down from the mountain, no overnight accommodation for small children and often they had no food. 
And my experience with the Akha had always been that they said it cost a lot of money for them to go to the hospital although the hospital I was always told was mostly free, except for medicine.  That was because I asked of course.
After a time, when I would bring the Akha in to the hospital the staff came to resent it I sensed.  In addition they would tell me to take the individual to the night lab of one of the lab workers and pay their prices rather than easily get the service from the hospital. In everything with humanity there enters the arrogance, the elevation of one individual over those they sense to be inferior, and in this case dirty.
In the end, my sense that I could change something for the better carried on but not without a fight.  I felt that other people denied knowledge of the causes, defending the status quo that holds the poor so often in its grip, all the while blaming the poor, that their plight was solely of their own doing.  Shame on you for pointing out how the greater society or even those same individuals might be benefiting greatly from the exploitation of these same poor.
I was reminded of the proud Akha woman, in ragged clothes, who came across the bridge with four of the most beautiful golden orchid plants in bloom.  Old Thai merchant women came and offered her ten baht for them when they were worth well over the forty baht she was asking.  I asked the Thais how they could have the face to do such a thing?
And so the sick Akha woman limped back and forth into town, the locals all of the feeling that nothing could be done, not at their expense anyway.
I gave it great thought and wondered if someday I might come up with the solution.
I hoped I would before it was too late. I admired her and she needed to be there for her sons.
But later when I had been gone for a while and came back I found that she had died.

 

Eessallah
I knew her well.  She was part of bridge life. Her hair was dark black and all ratted up.  If she were seventy years old someone might have called her a banshee because of her wild appearance.  But she was only six years old.
For her, life consisted of running back and forth across a bridge, touching people on the hand, and tilting her head back with an upward cast plea for a few coins.
Even for her age she was really small, tiny one could say.  She had a spirited flare to her style of collecting coins, that gave more character to it than mere begging.
Her mother was usually not far off, a tall, very thin woman who always wore a dark brown jacket that was as thin as she was.  Sometimes she could be seen near the river’s edge washing out clothes.
Where she lived I did not know, but as with most all of the begging children, opium was involved.  Either the father smoked it or both the parents smoked it.  Some women who carried an older child on their back might sometimes give opium to the child in some form, the child sleeping most of the time.
The little girl would come and talk to me many times when I sat near the bridge, watching all the people coming and going.  Her name was Eesallah, which was a charming name for such a charming child.
I felt it unfortunate that she couldn’t go to school.  But that was the least of it when you consider the future such a child will have.  The families depended on the children to beg and they would be punished if they didn’t, which was the stark reality of it.  Without someone addressing the situation of the parents there was no hope for the children.  And one could not be so foolish as to disregard what many of these families had gone to that had displaced them to this border town, wars, villages burned, incredible poverty. And unless someone addressed the exploitive nature of the overall environment in which they lived no progress could be made either.  In their world there were far more predators than the  few who could save them when they came into the jaws of peril.
I had known most of the children of the bridge for a long time. I did what I could for them, but really what they needed was security.  A half day school and fun things to do would be a start, the chance to be children instead of living the hardening life of beggars.
I didn’t have the money to set up and maintain a school so I contented himself to be their friend and always listened to their elated chatter and arguments about a one baht coin.
Eesallah, despite being so tiny, managed to hold her own, and due to her flare even seemed to be respected by the bigger beggars.  Often the child who was smaller for their years became a kind of mascot for the older and bigger children.  I had seen this happen before and suspected that it might be the case here once again.
   Eesallah would chatter at me for a while and then flit off across the bridge like a black butterfly, with golden cat's eyes, lighting up the dark.  Her Burmese sequined base ball cap, set rakishly to one side, reminded me of an old sarcastic tobacco spitting ranch hand.  I found it amusing that in the personality of a child one could so often see the traits, developed over many years, of older people who I knew.
Almost all of the beggar children, same as other village children, had head lice. Between hopping and dancing across the bridge, as she would often do, Eesallah might stop and shove both hands into her hair, scratching her head and pushing the hat up on a stack of black tangled hair as she did so.  I wished I could find some remedy for head lice, available from the jungle which these families could use without cost.  They could hardly afford the pricey shampoo from the stores.
When Eesallah got tired of the bridge she walked down below it for some shade.  Maybe she marched off down the street by herself or with another small child, and began begging near the big hotel.
One could try and throw a lot of reasons at it but the chief contrast I saw here was strictly a matter of the rich and the poor.
If I took any of these beggar children and added enough money to the equation they would come out groomed, well clothed, well fed and healthy.  With so many things working against their future what they really needed was intervention to break the cycle and give them enough respite to learn of or experience other possibilities in life.  One could look for all the possible causes they could and they would still come up with the need to intervene, to set lives on a new track, going in a new direction.  This I thought to myself was the meaning of redemption.  The mission solution of course was to break up the families.
At the end of a long day, eating bits of food and bits of candy she had begged off the passing folks,  Eesallah handed her coins dutifully over to her mother for the last time and headed back across the bridge to sleep in some dirty corner of a hut, the likes of which I had seen many times before.
In my mind, most sad scenes such as these were the result of the inequitable distribution of wealth, many people having far more than they needed, without seeing the connection which that had to those who had little or nothing.  Sure , reasons could be found, events of human frailty, which caused these people to be poor, but wealth begets wealth and poverty begets poverty.

 

Ajew
I remember the day that Ajew’s baby died.  That was a few winters ago in the my early years at the bridge.  Her two sister-in-laws had just lost new baby’s. 
I was on the bridge that crosses to Burma that day.  I saw her there.  I had held her baby numbers of times.  He had gotten sick and they hadn’t told me for those two weeks, and then he died.  Ajew was sitting on the bridge walk, her hair let down in mourning, long, black and gracious, as she leaned against the railing looking at the small Maesai river.
   She looked at me with a look of deep sorrow as she shook with sadness, the tears gently rolling down the brown skin of her lined face, her thoughts of him in rememberance.
 Later she also lost her other son. In the end I don't know how many kids she had, but I kept photos of the boy. On occasion I saw her in Maesai or even Chiangmai at the night bazaar.  The women outlived so many of their children.

 

Bridge Children
The children on the bridge work for money for their families posing for photos, begging intermittently.  At the ripe age of 7 or 8 they are perfected at their business.
Some worry about the wooden switch if they come home empty handed often supporting their families or even an opium habit.
They worked often in a collective, sharing the take, so no one got left out and to limit fights.  If the money was an uneven amount that could not be devided between them equally, they used a gambling method of paper, stone, scissors, which was a chinese system using the hands, which was not much different from dice or drawing straws.  I won't explain the method cause I never had a child fully explain it to me other than to say that scissors are stronger than paper and a stone stronger than both of them, something like that, so the winner with the best hand signal takes the odd coin.

 

Anna’s Step Father
Anna’s step father had a bad leg in his final days.  He had long been a heroin addict, but drove a taxi motorbike, was very strict and worked very hard as well, unlike some of the other addicts.  Anna's mother preferred to go to church or get her hair done.  When Anna's father finally went down for the count he was in bed for a long time before he died.  Her mother would bring a new lover to the house and go at it in the other room, now that would be the death of a guy. 
Later her oldest daughter Meeh Jooh, was sponsored by an American woman to go to the US, but would not do all the required paperwork, was too busy hooking for a living, and lost the chance.  Was quite amazing, they have a set role, everything in a certain kind of balance, perverted by times yes, but a balance and they don't dare disturb that no matter how self destructive it is.  Parents and child, coming up with the days needs to keep them all alive.
I mentioned it to the Burmese white haired pastor that I found it odd that Anna's mother went to church while her daughters hooked at the Wang Tong a block away, sitting in the line up, waiting for a bidder to come and take them to the hotel for some fun.  But being pastor, owning a church, was just as distant as anything else, and church was about money, and you would't have any if you helped other people.
People here were going to have to learn how to end the cycle.  Those who didn’t weren’t going to make it.

 

Oct 5, 91
Romolo Dipaolo

I had made friends with Romolo Dipaolo, an Italian who lived in India and built a hospital there.
He helped me get started caring for the children. I started by buying dressing for one boy’s abcessed leg and changed the dressing every day for a month.  Then the injured kids from the Burma side began coming out of the wood work.
I had to work on very little money as I didn't have much but I did what I could.  There are many skin infections from dirt and poverty, more here on the border than in many villages as I was to learn later.  Abcesses, ulcerations.
All of the children soak up all the love you can give them.  A meal here or there, always.  I metered out my small money.  The group gets bigger every day.  What to do?  Every day I ask for them all by name, searching for the missing faces.  Oh, sick today, fever or some such.
There was boisterous talkative Natalie and her group.  As mentioned she was very small for her age.  Then there were the other girls dressed in their tribal dress instead of the fake colorful dresses of the photo girls.



Boober, Boo Choo, Dolo, Meeyer and Mee Smm with her catching eyes
I wondered where the boys were, working with Dad and not able to sell being cute.
If I was to travel on to another place, would there be anyone to help take over this work?
In those days I hoped to travel on to another place, other places.  I thought I could arrange for people to help me in each place.  Hardly the case, it takes much more than that.  Everywhere there is an outstretched hand with few able to help in return.
The men selling on the bridge are often jealous of any kindness shown the kids.  Without question life is much harder for them than this rag tag band of rufian children.  And often the children make more than the grown men do.  But neither group had anything to make them enviable to a stranger.
The Burmese people appeared impoverished but could there be other answers than wild market capitalism?  Did they want to do to their country what the Thais had done?

 

Oct. 6
The children on the bridge met Romolo and I this Sunday and took us to a picnic.  We went to the top of the hill with them all dressed in their street clothes for Sunday, and overlooking Maesai from the small pagoda we ate lunch.
All of the bridge kids are Akha from Burma.  On the way back down the steps the girls began squealing about a snake which we chased away. 

 

Beggar Boy
Near the main street a beggar boy who was žslowÓ met us and walked back to the bridge with us.  I had been doctoring sores on his legs.  The days outing had been most pleasant.  The children had been very good to us, even bringing the food.
On arrival mear the bridge one policeman grabbed at one of the smallest girls as they all squealed and darted into the crowds of people. Our group scattered.  The Italian and I stared in disbelief as the policeman chased girls through booths, a look of defeated meaness on his face.  Unable to catch  any of the girls, the oldest 11 or 12, he grabbed the žslowÓ boy who had fallen behind.  Dragging him to the police booth he closed the door.  Moments later the boy came out screaming and making a fist like holding a gun and shooting the policeman. Hobbling as fast as he could, wild eyed he crossed back into Burma.  The policeman was angry that these beggar children had gained some friends?
Romolo saw it as well, and could only shake his head, žshit peopleÓ.
The Italian and I looked at the guard so he knew we had watched him but there was not much we felt we could wisely do.  But those days would come.
I wrote a poem about this guy.  About 16 years old or more I would guess. Then later I saw  him on the street and bought him some clothes.
In the morning I found his net bag on the ramp next to the bridge, I knew he often swam the river because the police beat him so he was afraid to walk past them on the bridge.
But then I thought that most the guys stripped their clothes if only to keep them dry.
I never saw him again and felt that either he was driven away, or more than likely he drowned.
The next day I found his empty bag at the bridge, no clothes, no boy, only deep water.
The earth eats up the living and makes them into the dead, the poor, die in silence and suffering, no one to comfort them, no one to say kind words or set their souls at ease, the world a harsh place where one minute you are fighting the dirt, and the next you are down in it, glass eyed.
Such an odd thing, and us humans so weak against it.

To which I wrote these few lines:

 

ADO
Ado was a little bit slow
Sometimes the people took him in tow
And then they whipped him fierce
ŽCause he didn’t know no better
And don’t you come back here no more

He had no clothes but dirty old rags
And his legs were raw  and scabby
ŽCause he always slept on the ground
So I bought him some new trousers
And don’t you come back here no more

I went down in the morning to the riverside
To find that Ado boy
But all I found was his carry bag
New clothes were gone and the river deep
And don’t you come back here no more

So that last night God took home
A battered and slow young boy
He had new clothes for going away
Maybe the river was his chariot that day
And don’t gotta come back there no more

And he don’t gotta come back there no more!

 

Romolo thoughts
Romolo. My friend from Italy. He saw many things, he saw through many things.
What people are thinking is their right but what they are thinking should never effect your life.
What you are you are.
What you are not you are not.
Never think about what people are thinking about you.
If I have not plate of rice to eat no one is going to bring one so why do I care what they are thinking?
Punch harder to get what you want.  Ask people to give it to you.
Punch hard when people try to make shit to you. 
Don't use violence to do it.
Always thinking positive.
Don’t react to it.  No response. No anger.
Be yourself quietly as no one can make you angry if you don’t like to be angry.
Enjoy yourself
Don’t repress yourself
Live with your feeling, it is always right
Do it.
If people make trouble for you, respond
See them leave.
Do it without anger
Do it without violence.
It always come back to you.
Be willing to wait.
Live peaceful, not like violent people.
Life is beautiful in what we don’t have.
Know what you like and want.
Life can be easy or hard depend on you.
Learn to enjoy what life give you every day.
If you feel badly you are thinking too much about the problem.
If you think to the positive side, only the positive side will come to you.
Vibration.
If you are negative, vibration negative come around you.
Learn about the world and what makes it all go on.
Everything going on around.
Education about life.
Reaching your dimension.
You know what you need.
You know yourself.
How to live with people.
How to think.
How to build relation.
How to solve problems.
Coming up with solutions.
Teach others to avoid problems.
People who don’t want problems don’t get them.
Teach how to live a smoothe life.
If you don’t want problems you can not get.
Know yourself very well.
When you know what you want to be, what you want from and for your life, there is no obstacle,  I call this vision.
Goal, you want to go there.  Really want, don’t deviate from there and you will get it.

 

Mistreatment of the Children
Oct 10
The mistreatment of the the girls on the bridge proceeds.  We interdict it where possible.  One confrontation yesterday.  These situations are stupid.

 

First Aid
Oct 17
Still treating children for infections.  Mostly Akha that come across the bridge from Burma.  Some real bad infections.  One little child of a year old had almost all of her scalp consumed in a fungus and bacteria infection.
My own personal export business has been slow for me so I am working on very marginal supplies.  Not much money.
The Italian had encouraged my ideas about medicne in India in pediatrics.

 

Peg leg woman and first aid tales
The peg leg woman went with me from Burma to Chiangmai.  She had been in a nasty accident and the doctors did very little so she had two inches of flesh missing from all around the bone just above her foot, her foot looking like it was on a peg.  We went to the Chiang Mai Hospital and they said she didn’t want to mess with it and have another scar from the transplant, sort of the do nothing policy of doctor and patient, with great likelyhood that she would get no use out of her leg and eventually loose it from the calf down.  Horrid to look at or picture in the mind.  I could never tell if the patient didn't want the help, or if more than likely the discussion went that the doctor decided for the patient that they didn't want the help.
Then my friend's baby died.  No one said the child was even sick.
One boy had a huge swollen ear infection and no one said anything about it till I heard and insisted they bring him over.. It went away with some medication.  He later died of too much heroin and opium as a very young boy of 19 or 20.
An Acher woman had a baby with a huge amount of scalp rot but I mixed antibiotic cream with a fungal cream and we got rid of it very rapidly despite how horrible it looked.

 

Opium Kids
Often the poor kids of opium parents would come past the guest house along the road.  Their father or mother woiuld tag along, faces yellow.  Sometimes the kids were happy and hopping along unaware of their plight and other times they dropped behind wailing from a cuff or from being hungry or scolded or not having gotten something they wanted.
A wretched existence at best one might say.
Was there hope in their hearts, a future, education on some level?  One couldn’t jump to a conclusion too soon.
Often they didn’t even have sandles and during the wet season their feet sometimes got infected from never drying out.
As I worked more and more in the villages in the  mountain, to see the government take the land, to see what conditions had been imposed on these people, it was only a wonder that there weren't more of them on the street.

 

Attur's Brothers kill a man
When I got back from US I found out that one friend's brothers had fought with a man after he got into an argument with the brothers.  He kept butting into a discussion, from where he was lying under a stoop, and the kept telling him to mind his own busines, which he would not do, so finally they fought with him and he got clobbered in the head with a piece of wood out of the fire. A catholic village with its share of despair and hopelessness and then some.
I knew their mother. The man died next morning, The brothers went to jail.
I asked if the dead man had children.  Pious the catechist explained it all to me.  He had a son. I asked who would care for the son? My friend said "you adopt him", about the orphaned boy of the dead man. The attitude bothered me. 
Two of the youngest brothers bailed out, I gave some of the money, the oldest went to Keng Tung.  I only agreed to help the  youngest two because I knew their wives and children and acted on their behalf.  Appa's father, who had to go to Keng Tung died there within the year.  I knew him, he came to see me at my house. Such a sad place. His daughter Appa went to see him on the day he was to be moved but they had moved him already and she never saw him again. He died of stomach problems within a couple months while in the jail. 
I never knew really what happened.  But the oldest brother was a good guy. They all were.  How they got in this fool's mess I had no idea.  Meeh Oh was the wife of one of the brothers who died. She lived in Thailand now. She lived in a village up in the mountains west of Wiang Pa Paoh, on the way to Chiangmai.

 

Anna’s one eye ruby experience
Anna lost vision in an eye when a child struck her with a stick and a splinter went in the center of it, scarring the iris even. If  you looked real close you could tell which eye wasn't working.  A man offered her a job cutting stones, but she couldn't focus her remaining eye sufficiently to do it accurately and had to quit.
Stone cutting, which lots of girls did, was high speed and very exacting if they wanted to make any money at all.  After a while the eyes felt the strain and the girls went on to something else.  Ms. Q was a stone cutter at one time but went to selling fruit on the main street when she grew up.

 

Man Buying Rings in Bridge Restaurant
This American man came to Maesai.  I eventually ended up talking to him in the restaurant next to the bridge.  It has a very big tree that grows over it and this was a twin to a tree across the river at the Burma gate side.  These days the restaurant had not been added onto yet with concrete and the floor of the original section was wood and is still there witness to so many things on the bridge.  Once a year it floods that part of the restaurant, thus the new section is higher up.  But right next to the railing one can sit above the water and watch the kids jump in off the low concrete pilings of the bridge into the water.  There is always something restorative about sitting near water.  Like bringing your troubles to the water and the water washes them all down the river, like making room for hope again.  The Northern Guest House had a restaurant perched above the river. Quite a bit higher, but it also was a beautiful view, the river, the men loading sand, diving to the bottom with baskets, and Burma scattered on the other side.
This fellow was buying rings from the Burmese guys.  He said he prefered not to go around but to sit like a king as it were and have the men come to him with a long line of wares, silver rings of this and that.  Well, I think most of it was made in Chiangmai, real cheap designs with silver and it was getting sold off the carts near the bridge, the glass carts with the displays inside and these red ring boxes full of rings under their glass covers.  Well he thought they were going across to Burma for all of them and so he went on and they charged him probably 100% more than what he could have negotiated for himself just a few yards away, but that is the price you pay to be a king for a day and after about $800 of rings he left. Of course he never came back cause there is no profit in it doing it like that.  But such are the žpack it up in a wooden crate, stamp it with stamps of import and ship it to homeÓ mentality that so many would be traders come with.  A few make it.  A few even stay.  The illusions are the same.

 

Appa Missing
I had been out of town and just getting back to Maesai was nice.  I began taking some photos around town.  The Akha were coming back from the afternoon market.  I was wondering where Appa  was.  I had a picture of her with her new baby.  So I asked some of the Akha and they said she had left her baby at her mothers and gone south into Thailand to work. 
That was a year before.
Her husband was in prison, her father dead at 46 and she was only 17.
What made it worse than just grinding poverty was that there was plenty of demand for prositutes in Thailand and the brokers were always out looking for fresh girls.
The whole game was hard.
A few years before when Appa was 13 she was begging in Bkk with her mother.  They got caught by the police and they did a year in  the prison there.  She had been through diffulty there.
One must consider the life here, without some great western style shield.  The people so often end up in bad situations and the people who feel it their job to help are too few and far between.
I remember the day Appa had come to me to show me her new baby.  I wondered if she would live to see it grow up.
Aids kept a lot of girls from making it home again.
I hoped I would see her again.
And then one day I did, happy, her well displayed gold in place and looking better than robust.

 

The Dehydrated Child
One begging Akha woman had a very small yellowish baby all wrapped up. She was out begging.  I took one look and could see that the baby was not nursing enough and was very dehydrated.   Its eyes were gooey and it slept with its dry mouth open.  The skin on its arms was loose and slack.
I told her she must begin to feed it formula as she had no breast for it and that she must keep it out of the sun and quit begging the child with the small girls on the bridge.  Sometimes I could buy the formula, sometimes I could not.
I knew as I told her it would be of  no use.
A week or more later she waved to me from the roadside.  I stopped.  She said the child was at the house and very small.  I told her she must bring the child from Burma and come over to the house so I could help.  She said she would and this time I actually thought she would but she did not show up. A few days later I saw her and she told me the child was dead.  The bridge was difficult to cross and expensive and I could not do it for each emergency, because they were all emergenices and I had next to no money at all.
These people knew me well yet I felt that there were those who just lacked the willingness to believe, to seize the moment.
Sure, I didn’t speak enough of the language but when your baby is dying you must take some action.  Because they didn’t often have money they resisted going to doctors and when they did it was often too late. The doctors and nurses did many things that took away the trust.

 

The Bad Tooth
There was this one kid, I don’t remember whose kid she was, it was a long time ago, but I met them near the bridge one day and  her face was swollen up huge on one side from an abcessed tooth.  The swelling had been bigger but was already ruptured out through the cheek and going down.  Her teeth were swimming in it.  So after that when I saw someone with a cigarette burn type scar on their lower jaw I knew what it came from and that once they were in a really bad way, and believe me it isn’t that uncommon that you see it. 
Come to think of it, I think it was one of the sisters of Booti, this little girl who was always at the bridge begging for money and real super hyper. While she begged there her mom and younger siblings begged the streets further into town.
That was dangerous back in the old days of maesai, the cops chased them, but now maesai had gotten so busy that they didn't got chased so seriously since traffic problems were now the greatest problems the cops had.  But there were other predators, now Thais who wanted to make money off them.
Once I asked the Chinese at the Chinese Baptist Church just around the corner from the bridge if they could help, but they said there was nothing they could do.  Then they built an immense four or five story church building and painted it pink.

 

Boogah’s Mother Dead
Boohgah's mother had a bad tooth. She called for help in the summer’s heat and so I pulled the tooth.  She’s dead now, came for an IV one day, shortly after I went to get Ah Dteeh.  I had spotted her in the hut and she had a tremendous fever.  She was an opium smoker but a very nice woman.  I told her to please come over to the building since I hadn't brought any fever medicine with me.  She didn't come over, but died.  It was a kind of resolution. Death happened to you for years, you wore out, you got ill too many times, you worked all you could to keep your children alive, and give them every chance, and then you laid down and died.  Just like clockwork.  No vacation till then.

 

Ah Muh’s mother dying
When Ah Muuh's mother was dying Ah Muuh wouldn't even speak to her. Her mother took an IV for a day, it was so hot.  She was skin and bones. She said she saw many people in the room waiting for her, but her and I were the only ones there that I could see.  She told me not to worry, they were good people.  The next day, after a good nights rest, as if having gathered the courage, she went home to the Burma side and died.  Later Ah Muuh told me she was sorry for not caring. There was a party going on in town, people were paying kids to come to the parties.  Why watch your mother die when you could be at a party? Such are the illusions of life. She went on. She ended up in Bangkok.  Her father and sister lived in Burma. Her sister often was at the bridge or at the rock pile, watching a new economy speed by that they had no part in.

 

TB Anna goes to chiang rai
There was one child at the bridge named Anna.  She had been the one hit by the motorcycle and had the damaged sight in one eye.  I was at the bridge daily and did not see her for several days.  I asked the other children and for some reason they made up excuses and stories as to what had come of her and where she was at.  So finally I got one girl to talk and she said that Anna was a little bit sick.  I pressed on and finally insisted that she be brought to the bridge so that I could see her since she lived on the Burma side.  Finally they relented and she was brought to the bridge and her abdomen was grossly distended and her whole body in fever.  Her belly was as though filled with water.  I asked them to come to the guest house as I had one Akha woman at the guesthouse who could translate for us, so they came.  I explained very carefully that if Anna didn't get to a hospital, she would not live long.  The translator would not directly translate this bad news until I continued to insist at which point the family consented.  They went with me to the Maesai Hospital where they told us she had to go  to Chiangrai.
I got the paperwork done and since the mother could not go I had to go with her by myself.  I only had a motorbike so I tied her to my back with a cloth and took her down, and got her checked into the children's ward. Mosquitos buzzed like they raise them there. Conditions were very hard for people taking care to someone. 
In the morning they diagnosed her with TB of the abdomen, and she began treatment.  They made a small incision and began draining fluid and removed some cysts.
After a few days her father came down, and took my place.  An adult had to stay with the child and I had no blankets and had to sleep on the floor without even a mat until someone gave me one of those.  I also had to keep the bugs and mosquitos off Anna and a few chicken lice.
Then I came back to check on the family.  The nurses gave me enough medication to take care of the followup treatment and then released her to me.  Daily she came to the house for injections until her treatment was finished.
This was one of my first experiences with the hospitals. There were many events packed into that week, and many reflections of what was to come and who some of the players were.  Little did I know that the situation spoke much of missions and medical care in Thailand for the Akha.

 

Atturs two brothers dead
The Akha girl Attur had three brothers, one died in prison, the other died of fever and then the last one died also I was told.  Attur married a Burmese man and got an ID card for Thailand and lived in Chiangmai where she had two children.  But later while traveling in Thailand I found the widow of one of the brothers and then at a festival I met the youngest brother who had not died after all.
Attur's mother would go down to help with the children, and then come back again.  I knew her mother for many years, a short tiny woman.

 

Naha
Naha was an Akha woman who sometimes came to the guesthouse, but mostly had a shop at the bridge.  She was related to a half Akha Lahu man in Burma at a village called Malipaco.  She could speak english very well but we seldom talked over the years.  Many times people chose to be private in this part of the world.  What I saw her doing and going on in her life I did not comment on, nor stop by and talk to her about, though I might very well have done so. One morning as I left room 61 and was walking down the walk, I heard the door of room 62 open behind me and turned in time to see Naha leaving the room with a foreigner. Good bucks?  She was from the strict Baptist camp and was down on the traditional Akha people. Malipaco was a village Paul Lewis had been much involved in.

 

Hom Dwan's House Burns
She was a girl from the bridge, and the Wang Tong massage later, and she went to Hatyai, and in the end I don't think that she or her family got much at all.  Always wondered where she went. Marvin Hatfield would have gladly married her. Her sister went to Hatyai and so she had to go too.  Mom and Dad wanted the money that her labors would bring in.  She wouldn't marry my friend and I always wondered about  this.
Later her family's house burned down there near the bypass road and the market lane where Akha alley was.  If you could call it a house. I went for a visit.  The family was very poor.  They were Shans. The father was very eager to sell this next daughter in line.  People liked to accuse the hill tribe of selling their daughters, but it was in fact very direct in the Shan community. Not actually selling, they would  borrow large sums of money on the girls values.  She might be working down the street for years, a few blocks from home.  Many times the money was spent like fools, in the end they were all robbed by the grief of it.

 

Rich
Rich, he always got angry at people, his kids were going to sell his farm in Australia, so he went home and we never saw him again. He did live up next to Tom's place for a while.  He was retired. One would see him, fat, red faced, walking the hot street with his baseball hat on.  Maybe he had a motorbike once, I think so and then a bycycle, but hadn't seen him in years, wonder where all that anger goes when there is no point in it any more, maybe just an old bed you can't get out of?

 

Bus rolls over beggars boys leg
The Akha boy sat down behind the bus to the side on the curb.  But the bus didn't see him and had to back up, and rolled right over his leg.  It didn't break the bone but split the whole side of his leg open below the knee.  He was soon stitched up and on a crutch.  I think it mostly healed, but not sure, and I lost track of him after that.  This was the story here so often, people moved, people died, but often you didn't know which one.  Ten years later and I probably never will. That was when all the buses came to the bridge and turned around, we called those green busses to Chiangrai the "Green Weenies" and they went very slow all the way, the woman hanging from the rear door, calling out to would be riders, calling out to the driver to slow down and drop someone off or pick someone up, it was very much a team and a lot of fun to ride in a sleepy kind of way down the warbled blacktop road before the highway came.  The road really wasn't big enough then and to keep the ride sort of smoothe the bus had to run right down the center when there wasn't traffic coming.  There were big trees on either side of the road, but when they built the big highway they cut them all down.
Life is so sad if you are a tree.
In those days to go to Chiangrai on the bus, small tiny Thai style seats, was a commitment.  I mean like all day.  Exhausting.  Yet it was a quaint road, and these people had been here for timeless ever, going south, coming back north to the border. Mountains close to the west. All the farms, and seasons. Life going on forever before tinsel town came.  They had survived the Burmese, the Chinese, the Japanese, and they still went on.  The stories were legion.  When the rainy season came, it was like driving down a plantation road, to Chiangrai, one might feel the sides of the road would grow into the bus if the bus went any slower. 
The woman would finally walk down the row of the bus, holding a long metal container in her hand, like a round cylinder, the cover lifting up, showing rows of various price tickets, and she would give you one and take a few baht coins.  Last I checked it was 26 baht to Chiangrai or something like that.

 

The Palong
The Paluang dressed in red skirts and wore rings around the waste, some gold,  or some silver, and thus they were called red or silver Paluang. The men wore baggy short trousers and liked turquoise rubber boots, they got somewhere and had big ear rings as did the woman. They were mostly flat land farmers living near the Shan, lived in long wood houses built above the ground on stilts and raised pigs and other livestock.
Once I went to a village in Keng Tung with a rented truck and some friends.  We were wandering around their village and then suddenly heard roars of excitement and shouting and laughter from the children.  We hurried to the truck to see what it was and there the kids all were, fighting for turns, lined up behind the truck.  They had wiped all the mud off the chrome bumper and were busy making faces at their distorted reflections in its curved chrome surfaces.

 

Card playing Attur
Attur often played cards at the bridge, she did so till lots of her money was gone and her business went down and then she finally quit playing.  She became better at business and got married later on.  While she was distracted playing cards the others would steal money or other things from her.  I remember one woman who stole from her.  I saw her over many years. She was somehow very poor in spirit, frail. I never held it against her as I had at first, cause I saw how hard life was on the bunch of these people.  With tragedy all around, who could want payback?

 

Sales and the jade hair test
A jade bracelet, hair and cigarette lighter. These were the saleswoman's tools.  She was trying to sell one of these fake jade bracelets made of some chemically died white stone.  To help her sales pitch she would pull one of her hairs, then wrap it around the bracelet and try to burn it with a cigarrette lighter.  But the stone pulled all the heat out of the flame and the hair would not burn through, thus the customer thinking that some how this proved that the bracelet was real jade.
This reminded me of the Pakistani man Edward who said people want to be given permission to buy something, if you can give their mind permission to buy it they will.  They have little guards, like a "permission to buy" button, the buy side, the no buy side, and you just got to switch the item from one side to the other side in their mind, doesn't matter how you do it.  And when this happens, they will buy it.  The true reasons why they should buy this item over that one are really quite non existent he felt.

 

One baht fight, Meeyer, Meesmm and Dolo
This was big, pulling hair, crying and the whole likes and I asked what it was about and they said "One baht".  The smallest girl felt that she had been cheated one baht and in their lottery system of division, it might as well have been one thousand.  These were the rules.  And over the years, I found that the Akha honor system in this regard did not waiver much.

 

Japanese photo man with pictures of girls on bridge
One man from Japan came and took many pictures of the girls at the bridge while they worked selling photos.  Some people claimed he was up to no good.  I never saw any proof of that though it might have been the case.  Another man claimed the Germans had a similar racket going.

 

Dead Child
The woman with the scabies, her baby died.  One month old girl.  She had come to my house for scabie medicine.  The scabies were gone.  I wondered why the baby died and how.  Many of the people with scabies came from really poor situations.  Poor households, poor nutrition, no running water.  Once scabies got in a house it was hard to get them out, and Benzyl Benzoate was the only common medicine for getting rid of them, and it was of course expensive. Scabies were like raising the water temperature on a frog.  The worse they got, the more you had them, you couldn't focus in your mind where they were, but your skin began to creep, and the low level chronic pain became so bad that someone could beat you with a stick and you couldn't feel it other than to think it felt good. Scabies also caused kidney problems, an immune response, the body confusing the scabies with the kidneys.  At least this was what I was told. But it looked like misery and infection got to people before this ever could.  I had never known how the locals got rid of scabies, though some obviously did.  But once I got a supply of Benzyl Benzoate which I kept with me for years, replenishing it, I had a steady stream of people seeking this free medicine to relieve their grief.  I never once charged for medicine to the Akha. I didn't want "Thank You", I didn't want anything, but to help them.  This was in contrast to those people who seemed to have the most, blessed by God, and in return felt that everything you did for people must have some price, some cost, lest they should think they got it for free and then took it for granted.  I got the sunlight free every day.  I wonder what they got free, ending up with all that money?

 

Twin Babies
The Acher people were said to be one half Akha and one half Shan.  I really didn’t know but I knew quite a few of them.  The women wore distinctly wrapped black cloth head turbans some of the time.  The women all seemed to smoke long pipes.
On this one particular occasion there was this opium smoking Acher woman who was pregnant and tremendously huge.  Then she gave birth to twins and word was that she was ill.
She ended up at my house with her twin boys and her aunt.
A friend of mine bought medicine and infant milk for them as she wasn’t nursing well enough.
The smaller one was less favored.  After a few days she had ginaed her strength and they left to go back to Burma.  Shortly after that I saw her using her older daughter to beg the two twins on the bridge.  They often lay on the bridge in the dust and motor exhaust of all the passing cycles and trucks.  I talked to the mother repeatedly about the health of her two babies and the harm she was doing them by making them breathe that filthy air but she would not listen, needing any money she could get for survival. But the children would likely die. This was always the high stakes gamble of their desperation.  So finally I told her that if she came back with them to the bridge I would have the police catch them.  Despite the fact that I didn't think the police cared about such things she believed me and did not come back. The babies were healthy and quite grown up when I next saw them again.
   I could not say how many infants died on that bridge, nor if it was more than if the families had not had the valuable income in real coins that they got from people walking to and fro in much better lives.
  One amazing thing about the bridge was to stop and listen. To all the stories that the children could tell you, because they knew everything.

 

Thumb Woman
Nov 91
One of the first Akha women who brought me a first aid problem was this Akha woman with a huge thumb.  She had got a piece of wood sliver stuck in it and then it had infected and gotten very big and had a hole in one side and out the other.  I kept it dressed and cleaned every day until it healed.  I saw her many years later selling vegetables in Doi Mae Salong.  She said her daughter was nearby.  She held up her still slightly enlarged thumb in a sign of victory. 

 

Jan 92
Then a man came to me under the bridge with three very large groin abcesses that he wanted me to drain for him which I did.  Never knew what you were going to run into and mostly it was cleaning wounds or helping things drain and then cleaning them, and bandaging them properly and then doing it all again the next day.  Care was the chief ingredient one used.  Many times in those days I took special care because I knew that the most unkept or weakest Akha would never make it to the hospital which was set so far back from the border due to concerns about security with Burma. There had been wars here many times, along the border.  The police would usually turn back the Akha trying to make it to the hospital, so if someone needed to go, I had to physically take them, pay for the taxi which was a hefty sum in itself.

 

Natalie and her beating
As I mentioned, Natalie was quite the actor, and sometimes to get sympathy from tourists for money, and because of her small size for her age, she would go to crying very loud on the bridge and then when all the other kids came (and tourists of course) to see what happened, the girls would talk loudly that her father was no good and had beaten her because she failed to gather any money in the day, being so small and it was nearly time to go home and she had nothing and was crying in anticipation of the beating which she would get.  Then the tears all went away as soon as a coin made its appearance. 

 

Boober
Boober's sister is shot through hand while they are living in Thailand.  Her husband was working on some job and gone, so some drunk Thais tried to break in and rape her. Her and her mother held the door shut best they could and then the Thai men shot a gun through the door and the bullet went right through Boober's sister's hand.
Boober worked at the hardware, where they make carts, down at the south end of town, not far from the dirty theatre.
Boobers house was near the creek on the Burma side, set apart from all the other houses, except for one.  I wondered why?  Was there politics to that? Then if you went a little further, you would come to where the protestant Akha lived.
Boober and I were friends for a while. This was before I could speak Akha very much at all.  I was madly in love with her.  At any rate someone can catch ahold of  your heart and your heart won't let go no matter how many times they walk out of your life.  In the case of Boober I just didn't know enough of Akha and what was going on with the culture to know how to hold the relationship together and get married.
And I also didn't know what was going on behind my back but it appeared as though something was.
In the end Boober got married to someone in Chiang Saen and I didn't see her again though I did see her sister once or twice on the main street in Maesai.
Then years later, when I could speak Akha quite well and also knew more of how the communities worked, I met her father and mother somewhere in Thailand.  I asked them why things hadn't worked out.  They replied that they didn't know me, they just knew "falangs" and they thought that I would get married to their daughter and take her to America and they would never see her again, because that is what happened around they thought.  And of course, in many cases it was true,  not just about Akha but others also.

 

Burned fingers girl
Her fingers were all fused together.  Her mother called me to see her in the market.  I very much wanted to fix those hands but after many years still could not afford to do it. Later she was in school according to her mother. Down by Mae Chan. That would have been about 2000. Due to my tiny budget, it was very difficult for me to fund any extensive hospital work.  Matter of fact, the hospital at Overbrook got so demanding about rapid payment that I could no longer take the Akha there at all, not knowing ahead of time how expensive it was going to be.  And then they would hold patients hostage until they paid, the bill going up every day to perposterous levels.

 

Cheri the school teacher
Cheri was a girl from Malipaco who was a school teacher for  me during one of the half day schools that I ran for beggar children.  We were all super poor.  I bought whatever food I could and cooked it up in the morning, all the kids pitching in. 

 

I meet Paul Lewis With Naha
He is a tall man, somewhat rude to me.  This was before I knew much of his history, and certainly there was no apparent cause that he should be rude, unless it was more fear than rudeness at the perchance that I should stay around and find out too much.  He heard that I was working on the Akha language, and seeing himself as the expert on this, he became upset.  Course later there were rumors that he was CIA and that there was STILL a heroin connection in Burma.  The Burmese government had accused all the old missionary CIA types of political rather than religious activities.  People had talked of the US wanting Eastern Shan state as a proxy state to fight China from, but everyone got kicked out and the Shan got beat up pretty bad, much of their identity wiped out. Course the Shan hadn't treated the Akha very well, and the Akha took note of this.

 

Lagaw
He worked for Leo on books in Chiangmai.
But these books were never made available.
He went to Taiwan for two years, but I don't know if he made much money there. He was content to come back.
Seemed there was a Taiwan connection eager to take Akha girls too like the one at the Police Box junction on the way to Doi Mae Salong on the Thatong Maechan Highway. As time went by we heard more and more about incidents with the Taiwanese missionaries and girls gone missing.

 

Little Akha Mamma Sahn In The Alley
She was always behind the Wang Tong trying to call people into the brothel there.  She also helped get them up the back door to the hotel.
Saw her many years later at the Chiangrai River Elephant Camp. She had lost her other job. And now life was going down that much faster.  I had always wondered about her job and what she thought about it but we never got to talk much.  There were a lot of unanswered questions.

 

Man with three wives
This Akha man was from the upper christian village, murdered, found out behind the flat village. Ah Zeh saw the hacked corpse. Killed with a machette.
He had been dealing in pills they said. Who wasn't?.  The situation in the upper village with the Taiwanese mission there was really messed up. There were lots of suicides and things like that. People with very serious health problems but no one would assit them from the mission.
Then there was their village headman, Ah Seh, who was over to visit a friend at another hut and someone came to that hut and blew him with a gun from outside the hut very close up, it tore the whole of his face and jaw off.  He had been the man who fought us about burying the dead Akha man from our village in their cemetary up on the mountain. They didn't want any Akha from the low village buried there. But this particular man was Christian, but they didn't care, they didn't want him anyway.

 

Meeh Smm's father
The bird man dies, 2000.
I saw him one time.  Mom was running a little store, they had this new little boy, and the father was perched in there on the shelf near the front of the littel wooden and tin shop like a bird, he was that small. But Akha women didn't mind. Men kept the house, the Akha women needed them to help make kids.

 

Mita Green Shoes
I remember Meeh Dtah once got these new green shoes, they stuck out in my mind, they were so green.  I saw her alive long years after she left Maesai and came back.  Funny how that was, you remembered this kid or that kid, and then someone would grab you by the arm years later in Maesai and say "Machu". And I would pause and try to remember who they were, and then be overjoyed that yes, another one was still making it, still alive.  That was making it around here.

 

Meeh Looh, Ah leh 
   These two girls, one day I saw them having a big fight.  Not like angry, but like what young people do when they are contesting something, friends.  Well it turned out they were contesting an Akha boy named Aih Aih.  Seems that an accusation or a reputation was at stake, in this competition for this boy.  But Aih Aih as mentioned died when he was 19.  Does anyone remember?  Aih Aih was the son of one of Attur's brother's. He probably got buried there in the rugged cemetary the Catholics owned near the village, a great assortment of crosses of the "rich" and poor, buried in such poverty.  Death like this, seemed like such a great humiliation.  In the west we hide the humiliation of death in mortuaries, forest lawns as we like to call them, and some how the termporary status of our very important stay here is covered over.  A look at an impoverished cemetary will tell you the tragedy that got the people there, nothing is hidden, nor was it, for those whot took the time to pay notice.

 

Meeh Smm
Bala Akha

Bala Akha was just over the border into Burma. I stayed there after my motorcycle wreck, he was a dear old boy, smoked opium, hung around, like they had been doing for years, raising kids.  The hut was tiny. they had two daughters, one name Meeh Smm, who was mostly deaf in one ear. His wife had the sweetest tail there was he said as she was giving me a massage for my rather smashed up body.  I liked the Akha villages on the Burma side better than on the Thai side. Not because of the Akha being different so much in one place versus the other, but because the Thais so profaned what it meant to be Akha, and the missionries of course.  If you weren't some slant eyed Chinaman, you weren't nobody. First you had to become Chinese, then you could become christian, in that order. Course, wasn't near so good as being white protestant.

 

Meeh Yer
She was the second sister after Meeh Dtah.  I heard rumored there was an older sister went to Japan.  I don't know if they ever heard from her again. That was so many years before one could only guess about the conditions of that situation.  I always wondered about this, families seperated, this was a significant event in life, an unreconciled seperation, where the family didn't even know what became of their child, never heard of them again, so very very tragic.  The years closed in over all of it like water, the hope of even seeing their child or knowing the truth just a wisp of time.
Meeh Yer married and went to Chiang Mai. She had two kids there. She said her husband got drunk. Take a look at the poverty and the kind of jobs and it was no wonder.

 

Meeh Dtah
Had a kid and then asked for it back, they gave it to her, she held her life together and here that is a miracle.  We must look, we must see these miracles, not what should be but what is in spite of everything and be very thankful to God for it.  That is how severe this place is.  In the later years I saw her often going to the market in Maesai.

 

Meh kohng
Meh Khong was this Akha girl and her mother, they were super poor, like everyone, but  more so. Her Sister was hooking and died of  AIDS. She called me to go look at her on the Burma side before this. She must have been 19 or 20 by this time. Her face was covered with herpes blisters.  She died not too long after that.
I didn't see Meh Khong around for years. She and her mother went somewhere. But then later the kids said she came back and then went to Bangkok.  One felt few people came back from Bangkok.
It was because so many of these people went out into "nothing" that I didn't quit, how could I possibly have it as difficult as they, so often they were so without hope.

 

Mr. joes akha cook, bawdy stories
She laughed a lot while talking about all the positions and ways that sex could be had. Not exactly what you wanted to overhear at breakfast. I wondered what all the laughter was in the kitchen.
   She told how the women were always asking her how much sex she had and what it was like, some guys big, some guys small? I guess she had been in that job before.
   She was the cook for a while at Mr. Joe's guest house. 
   When the bridge closed they all went home to Burma. 

 

Nati attemp rape by security guy from across street
   Nati was this Lahu girl who worked at the Guest House. The Shan boy across the street was one of the security guards and broke into her room and tried to rape her, but she got out of there in a hurry. The catechist came over but the owner tried to hush the whole thing up.
   Later almost the entire family in that house died of AIDS.

 

Nati gets pregnant?
Then they say that she was pregnant while she was taking gold from the Hawaiian who broke the police station clock, but at the same time was the mistress of an Akha or Lahu headman in a nearby village.
I was always on speaking terms with her and it was really her matter.  I suggested she keep it to a low roar.  But she went away for a few months and the others said she went and had an abortion and hid out in Burma for a while. One never knew, and seldom asked questions about such things. 

 

Girl in Keng tung band
There was an Akha Band Master at the Keng Tung Festival who was a girl. She was said to be an orphan and "opted" to become a nun.  This was part of my first investigations into the church and how they funneled a lot of so called orphans into mission service without ever giving them a chance to get away from the church in Keng Tung and having a life.  The Keng Tung Mission had big stone halls. I used to go and visit father Ah Pah when he was alive, he liked to smoke cigars, the rank Burmese green ones, and have some whiskey.  Sometimes the hill tribe women would cook us lunch, but I was often arriing just after all the priests had lunch. Father Norman, and others. Father Ah Pah, his lower lip was thick from smoking so many years. He struggled to make an Akha book but it didn't get done.  He finally got to go to Rome, but wanted to go on to Florida and see an old friend he had known for many years.  It was impressive how well he knew and was known by people, the first Akha priest, but the Bishop wouldn't let him continue to Florida and he came home only to die that summer.  I met him when he had moved out of the mission building and was in the old man's house as I called it.  A seperated and lonely place. They said that he had a stroke, but it was more than this, I think that after so many years in the mission building his heart broke when he left it, and he should have been allowed to stay there and pass away at will, as he had been so faithful to that room, to that building and to the Akha. He had spoken up to bring back more of the culture, to not destroy it all, that they Akha kids didn't know much of their language any more. But Bishop Abraham would hear nothing of it.  I couldn't imagine the shock of going to Florida, or even thinking about Florida, a place where it was warm and tropical and many people retired, and one had hope, one thought hope, one felt things could get done. But living in Keng Tung compared to that was like living on Mars.  Not bad, but about as far away from the world as one could get, particularly the world where you could make changes in your poverty in a hurry.
I will miss him, he was one of the main reasons I slipped in the end door of the great mission building time and again.  Coming up from town in the cold evenings.  Seeing a dim light on in this room or that, getting the big gates open.  After Father Ah Pah died I came back and saw Father Norman. The place didn't change much, which is a different story.
   Like  him, the mission would not be there forever. 
   There was a library up stairs they would not let anyone see.
   The Burmese came and built a huge Buddah next to the mission. I sort of figured out why.

 

The missing baby boy, phillip
   Phillip was a visitor here and he said that he investigated where this Akha woman took her child to the hospital, and then they told her that her son was sick and that she should go home and come back in a couple of days and then when she came back they said that the boy had died and been cremated already.  When Phillip went and talked to the doctor, the doctor claimed that the records had been destroyed when the hospital basement flooded.
Som Pah Sak village had a similar case around 1997.
The mother and father were very angry but there was nothing that anyone would do about it for them at the time.  I only heard about it three years later.
Phillip was from New Zealand. He was making a video he said.  It became clear that making a video about how bad the Akha had it was more important than the fact that they had it bad.  Exploitive journalism I called it.  Journalism being some kind of holy grail, that if you labeled yourself as a journalist, an artist, that somehow there was a kind of purity, an acceptableness about the exploitation.

 

Huckleberry Finn
This is what we called her because of her happy go lucky attitude and the look on her face.  She was one of the older Akha girls in town. Years later, now pregnant by a Thai, as his second wife, running a small shop near the bridge.  Not much future.
   She had a brain, a lot of western guys had wanted to marry her but she was deep in the hooker system of 01 Karaoke in Maesai.  She too was from the mission in Keng Tung.

 

The English Speaker
There was this one guy who lived in the Akha village, who could speak broken english. He would tell me cases for years.  He looked pretty sick the last time I saw him. He was a heroin addict, always scruffy, from the catholic village of Attur. But he knew a lot.  Funny how this is, that some of those who by western standards are the most visually broken people, are the best people, that they have time for people, that they know facts and grief and that it ain't easy.  They don't spend a lot of time hiding their humanity, their failures.
   There was a thin Muslim man, extremly black skin, thin as a rail, lots of kids, sold wares on the bridge for years feeding his family. He had a very nice wife.  One of his last kids was born with a birth defect. I asked him about what chemicals she worked with because it was similar to a birth defect showing up in the Akha villages in Thailand where the babies were born without an anus.  Required immediate surgery and made big headaches for years.

 

Agaw
Agaw was a protestant Akha man. He knew about the old Akha language. He had seen a man use it once to make the leaves turn yellow and fall off a tree.  He said that they could also use the old language to make a girl fall in love with you.
He said that a person could get an old man to make these things happen for you by paying him, but he thought it bad, said it came out bad. I wondered if this was in fact the case or if he was mugging the facts because he was supposed to be "christian" now.  This interpretation of the culture was very bad.  But he said that he did sit and see this Akha man make the leaves dance and a the leaves on a tree turn all yellow.
Agaw had told of many of the Akha women who Lewis sterilized and how they were dead now.
He knew about it, but I also got the impression he had gotten roped into helping gather up the women.  Paul Lewis had used the pastors in this way, to gather up Akha women for sterilizations for his project, a new kind of gospel.  He had said that there were these tents set up where Lewis had trained Akha's or others to do sterilizations in the communities, and that they weren't done well and some women died of this too.
Running a religion was business here, churches, traveling salesmen, snake oil. Churches would give money for this and Agaw worked very hard to stay in this position.  They all did, one never knew what truth they were telling.  Agaw was unique in that he was a kind of orthodox christian, he lived a very ordred life, and tried to teach those around him in an orthodox kind of way, about living and health. But I couldn't live in Burma, so it was hard to see close up. I went to his house under the military hill, and saw things he had written up on the wall to teach people.  He built another house and church eventually, the same building, not sure how it developed after that.  Churches here were dime a dozen, including on the Burma side where he was.  Study of the Bible and finding a sponsor to become a preacher, all you needed was the sponsor and go at it.  No one ever asked about substance, just long as you made people change some aspect of their lives to be more "white".  Some people took it seriously, others I didn't know.  Agaw seemed to take it more to heart to live a good life.  But his sister said his wife was very unkind to her.  His wife sold flowers in the market, they never quit working, that family. His sister went away to Bible school in Rangoon. People here were always going to Bible school. Others went to the Phillipines, really was a big business with rather a vague outcome.  No one would sponsor you to be a scientist or doctor, but would spend untold fortune to help you be a "evangelizer". 
Agaw said he was working in seven or so villages.  He used to be a catholic catechist I think, but later quit. His brother Andrew was a cultural leader at Malipacco the Paul Lewis camp.  I wondered about what he was really up to.  Andrew said that the Malipacco people didn't want him to help me on the script, to stop.  I think Noel was the author of that problem, he was paid a lot to do the old testament for the Lewis camp. I think that was done now, and he had gotten himself in somewhere at Chiangmai, maybe Chiangmai or Payup university. He was also called Nowin.  There were several efforts on the Bible, but not much willingness to cooperate. SIL was involved in the matter too.  I asked the SIL man about all the divisiveness and why it wasn't a more transparent process.  He got mad at me, sad he didn't like the tone of my voice, rather than answering to the questions and their validity, which I was conveying for the people in the Akha community who were concerned about it.
There was a conneection to a Gum Shay who was a Burmese man with a wife in the US. He was at Payup, and he went back and forth.  He supposedly checked Noel's translation work. Then the Australian man with the Jesus film knew about that project too.

 

Attur
Attur got married to Moo Moo's son. The got pregnant. An opium man told how she decided to get an abortion on the advice of someone. The opium man, this addict, who still was very powerful in the village, told how the mother of Attur came and asked him to help stop the abortion, but it happened anyway.  The mother said she went and buried the baby in the yard after Attur brought it back to the house wrapped in a towel.

 

Attur's Sister
Attur’s sister got sticks under the skin in arm when she decided she didn't want any more kids. Depo Pravera I think it was. Something that people are against in the west, but it gets used on lots of people in the third world.

 

Attur's Fat Boss
Attur's boss at the shop along the road was a big fat Chinese woman. She had made money on opium and heroin was the word.  But she, like all the other pinched owners near the bridge slaved all the Akha and Burmese boys and girls she could to be little servants at the shop, selling this and that, going home, washing clothes, cleaning the house and then up early to cook the rice, years of this for maybe $10 a month. The fat boss had a daughter who fell in love with this guy but the boss wouldn't let her marry him and she took a bunch of pills and tried to kill herself.  In the end she didn't marry the guy, but a certain hope was gone from her eyes after that. In Akha culture the parents can not forbid a marriage.
   One guy, not an Akha, some other group, wanted to marry this girl really bad, so her family killed him, invited him to their house and then tied him up in a chair and shot him up with a big dose of heroin.
   Attur got a sewing machine but didn't much care to use it. I think she sold it eventually.  Being a seamstress was not what it was cracked up to be. Matter of fact, the Thai women would split their dress making enterprises. They were so afraid to allow the employees to learn, that they had one house where they made the sleaves, another where they made the rest, another where they sewed on the collars and another where they sewed on the sleaves, so that no body would know the whole process and then go do their own business, this was how desperate and exploitive the whole process was.  So why your servant girls from Burma slaved, you carefully parked and locked up your mercedes each night.  That was the dream. That was the reality.

 

Lahu Elvis
This fellow came to the bridge as a guide. He brought tourists, and he looked intentionally like Elvis, long bushy side burns, that is what we then called him. Elvis. He was from Doi Maselong.  An ok guy. "The Lahu are a little quicker on their feet to gaining knowledge than the "slow Akha" he says.  The Akha can do it the same way 100 times and loose the money each time and they will keep doing it that way he figured. So much for Lahu Akha relations Then years later I saw him again in Laos.

 

Ah meeh marries AI who later dies
Ah Meeh was this chubby Akha girl who was always happy. She grew up and married to Aih Aih. But then at 19 Aih Aih died of Aids they said. And then later Ah Meeh died.
In 2001 I saw Ah Meeh's now grizzled mother, with the grand daughter, I was very happy she was still alive.  The fragments of the village.  Very sad that all these things happened this way.  I felt so sad because there was so much that I would have done, that I dearly wanted to do if I had but the resources to do it.
I wrote all that I could remember down on paper, the people, tried to remember the faces.  What they looked like, there were so many, and we remember friends again by seeing them, but at the bridge the people died so fast and so many, that one had a hard time remembering them all.  To tell about who they were in words, what their lives were worth, their importance, is somehow far short of who they really were and the credit they deserve.

 

Ah Zeeh
Ah Zeeh was a commander of the Akha militia on the Burma side. Sometimes we crossed the brdige and went to see him.  He built a market for the Akha and many of them sold vegetables there, it was a little out from the town on the road to Keng Tung.

 

The drug and jail transaction regarding Bah Lah Akha
One time a man from Burma tried to sell some drugs in Thailand.  The police were trying to steal the pills, and got caught, cause you don't go to the source of all the drugs and try to do law enforcement there. One policeman died and another got shot through the arm. The Akha translator they brought along they threw in prison because they thought he was double crossing them. And they captured other men returning home to the village that had nothing to do with it.  So the Akha chieftan told Ah Zeeh to write a letter that said that the man who sold the drugs had to pay money for lawyers to the family who's son was arrested to get him out of jail.  Quite a large amount of cash changed hands to get this done.  Hard feelings kept to a limited amount.  The  negotiations were done from one house, a house where I later found out the one young man died of fever.  It was down towards the bottom of the village. The girl there had a scarred lip. Later she ended up working in Huai Krai at a feed store that the Akha owned.

Other Bridge Personalities
There was this  man on the bridge, Burmese. His wife died, he had a little girl. He sold soda pop in small cups, back in the good ole days when we hung out on the bridge itself.  And he brought his daughter with him, she sat on the motorcycle seat under the umbrella that he had on his cart.  He had soda pop and then a chest of ice.  We were always friends, from about 1991 on. Then I didn't see him so often, when the bridge became more formal.  Later years later, I saw him working in a welding shop near the river east side.  He was working in a welding shop. Arc welding. He didn't have any goggles, he worked without them. He was welding together metal gates.

 

Meeh Juuh
She was from Chiang Mai.  A slight woman.  She worked on ID card issues for many Akha villages.  She was overwhelmed obviously with work and with awareness of the difficulties in the lives of the village Akha.  She however had a real hard time delegating her work load to others and I think that this made her job more impossible.
She did not yet know how to speak english and I think it made her skills to network on behalf of the Akha handicapped.

 

Booti
Booti was a thin girl of about ten years old who came to the school sometimes. She was rather high strung, and didn't always get along with the other kids because of this, not because she was difficult but was just very reactive to everything.  Booti's mother was an opium adict.  But then one day Booti said that her mother was having a baby and died. But the child lived.  Her mother was very tiny, not much left of her, it was something I could imagine.  Opium addicts often got vrey small and stayed that way for many years.  Some days later I asked Booti if her baby brother was doing Ok..  Then Booti replied that now the child was dead also.  And it was the way she said it, as off handedly as saying "it rained". They didn't figure there was much anyone could do.  I asked her why she hadn't come over and the reply was that it had just happened, life was that way, some people die.  Their community was very poor, and life was very matter of fact over the hardest things. 
After she left the school I never saw Booti again.  Some of the children went south to work, very young, into Thailand, Chiangmai, some grew into unsavory jobs, and others died, but I might not hear about it for years.  Or sometimes I would be going down the street and someone would grab at me, and it would take me the longest time to remember who, and then I would be really amazed that they were doing ok.

 

Ah Meeh
She is one of the girls who takes photos at the bridge.  She is different from the other girls, more proper and more respectful than the rest who are generally ill mannered and fight and quarrel among themselves like dogs and a bone.  Then at 14 she mixed it up with a chinese fellow and got married, didn't see her much after that. He wanted her to start a karaoke girly bar, don't know what came of that, her mother didn't like the man or so claimed, but it was all sort of hard for me to figure.  Then after a while she was working in the Wang Tong massage so that her mother could sport more gold and busy body around all day. Her older sister was there too, but after two years or more got married. 
Ah Meeh's husband was still a going event, so after doing a little prostitution she was still together with him from what her mother said, but I never saw any of the family in town to know one way or the other, if they had kids or not.
While their mother worked for me they both got sent to school, and also language classes.  I offered them to keep going to classes as well, but they were not interested in that, so in the end they went their own way at the direction of their mother.  It is difficult to see people make that decision.  I had spent considerable money trying to keep them in the education process.  Quite battered by life, I did see them years later.  Tired. Worn. A child or to, lives that were very very hard. Some of them were staying in Thailand with no ID cards.

 

Mita
I didn’t notice her first as I walked down the lane in the market but she called out to me as I came by.  Then it took a minute for me to remember who she was.
Oh yes, she had been one of the photo girsl on the bridge in years gone by and then  I had lost track of her.
I sat down beside her on the bamboo mat where she sold her goods and was comforted that something in her life was not disjointed and torn apart.
I wondered if she had any idea what my life was like.  Most villagers thought all western people were rich, and for the most part they were right.  Yet the complexity of western problems were far greater. Visas and all of that.
She said she was poor, not like the photo days.  He understood.  It meant way poor.  Now she was married and pregnant.  They didn’t have much money between them.
She said too many people come to the market to sell and things don’t sell well.  She scratched betwen her fingers and asked him if he had any medicine for mites.  Her hands were scrabbly with cuts and scratches from working in the jungle where she took her basket on her back and gathered bamboo shoots and other plants.
   Despite what she said, and her poor clothes he was made to feel that she was still strong, still carrying on.  The hardness of her life accented the beauty of her face.  Whatever she held in her heart came out in a soothing voice that I found comforting.  I was always amazed when people with so many brutal experiences in their lives, came out with statements of contentment or joy where one would think none could grow.
I didn’t have much to offer her beyond words and promised that I would bring some medicine the next day which I did.

 

My Friend From The Keng Tung Ride
Life goes on, parts company with you and then hooks back up again later on.
There was this one woman whom I offered a ride back from Keng Tung many years ago now.
She always sold vegetables in the market.  She was short and small and packed this amazing huge basket on her back, sometimes full of bannana leaves which were sold for wrapping food to the Thai women, or she got a whole lot of lychee fruit to sell.  Either way it was heavy. WhenI was in Keng Tung I saw her. I was riding in one truck, but I got her a lift back in another truck because she had a small baby with her.  She was sitting in the back of an open truck at the water station just up the mountain south of Keng Tung and she would soon be covered with dust along with the baby.  The truck was packed with people standing up, sitting on freight. She would be able to sit inside on the way back to Maesai.
But I didn’t see her for  many years and then one day way down in Thailand I ran into her on a Thai farm, with a daughter. 
Her baby at the time when I gave her the ride, had caught fever and died. This is so common here. I have photos still of that moment, at the truck, her baby boy.  So sad when the children don't make it, and usually they die of simple things. This always causes me to feel that these people are abandoned, that they suffer and die so often in silence and no one hears their voice or comes to help them.  One need only to hear a mother in a village wailing over the loss of her small baby to have this etched in the mind.
Nothing about life is very long or permament here in these parts.  And the frequency of the loss was stunning to the mind.  I wondered how I came from a land where there was so often hope, where people hoped for it and fed it, but here it was like people dared not think of hope, but just wanted to slip by the dark side of fate unnoticed.  Death of children was not the exception, it was the rule.  Mothers saw nearly half their children die.  Sometimes more.

 

Ellen and I to village
I met this woman named Ellen Burno who worked with the Tibetan nuns.  She thought the Akha looked Tibetan. She stopped by in Maesai and asked about the Akha so I took her over to the Burma side. She ended up making a video called žSacraficeÓ about prostitute’s lives here.

 

Boomer
There was this other woman, she had two small girls and a boy.  One girls name was Booma and the other's naem was Meeh Dtah.  Meeh Dtah was serious, Booh Mah was laughing and funny. But what made you notice her, was that she tried not to be funny. She would think something was funny and try to hold onto it for the longest time, fighting to keep her face serious, and then finally let out laughing. Which of course everyone thought was funny too. The group of them sat there for long hours each day selling vegetables in the Maesai market.

 

Atturs mother
She was a very short woman.  She was in her sixties now so I could imagine the stories that she had to tell about this region of the world.  My father in law was only 45 and he had plenty of stories.  She smoked a pipe, had a round happy face, and like many other mothers saw most of her children die.  She lived in a tiny hut on the uphill side of the trail in the village. It was so small.  Attur's father was dead. I had seen a picture of him when he was very old, before I came to these parts of the world. A very tiny picture, stained and tattered.  Akha houses had clothes, pictures, a broken mirror. Always there were pictures to pull out. When I first knew the Akha I had less context in which to mount the pictures but in time I realized that these photos, so recent a phenomenom to the Akha, were the only grasp they had on the past, memories. And soon enough the humidity and the rain changed the color as mold and stains crawled across the memories.

Vaccinations of children by the Burmese nurses
On one of my trips across the bridge in those early years, when it was a chore to get any kind of permit to go through the gate, I went up to the catholic Akha village and saw some Burmese Nurses with a stainless steel thing of ice and little vaccines down in each one that they were giving to the children.  What a contrast, trying to do this amidst all the poverty, with very little back up.  And with all the controversy about vaccines as well.

 

Later Days
   Later on, the Thais and then the Burmese, built massive buildings atop each end of the bridge, ugly as hell, totally destroyed the view up the street and into Burma.  But that was so typical, ugly for the sake of ego.  "My bridge house is bigger than yours!"
   In the end, the bridge part of Maesai was horribly congested, the huge building that fell from space on top of the road. There wasn't adequate parking, but a thousand and one events and people going on.  Buses going to the Wong Tong, pedestrians, a busy border point as in any other country.
   I knew most of the immigration people, some were friendly, some were dark and grumbling. 
   But the area was so conjested that one could hardly see any of the hawkers, only the trained eye could pick them out, the regulars.  Gathered in little groups here and there.  The faces fewer and fewer.
   A new bridge was near completion east of town. But somehow the quaintness of the place was gone for ever.  I had seen photos where there were only a few huts on the Maesai side and almost all the buildings were on the Burma side.  And that was not so long ago.

 

The End Chapter 2.

Have a comment or question? Like to know more? Send me an email at akha@akha.org
Copyright 2004, by Matthew McDaniel