Monday, November 1, 2010

life is a highway...

I’m a writer. That means I’m disorganized, messy, scatterbrained, and perpetually late. Okay, that’s a stereotype but at least that describes me. What this means is without deadlines, I’m bound to fall behind. Never mind the fact I’ve been attempting to write articles for other sources and have accumulated a large group of friends which has left little free time to myself, neither of which I can complain about. All I can use it for is explanation as to why my blogs are so late. And let’s be honest, they probably never will be anything else.

When I last left off in my journey, I was in love with Pai, the small hippie mountain town in the north of Thailand. Motor scooters were cheap and fun, so I rented one for a few days to get out on the open road. I headed toward Mae Hung Son because the journey was a winding, mountainous, and thusly scenic one, but also because the long neck Karen tribe was something I had been fascinated in seeing for many years.

Visiting this tribe is most commonly done with a tour group; the lone wanderer is rare and I was proud to be able to make it there on my own. The long neck Karen is a group of hill tribe people from the north of Burma who have escaped because of prejudice and genocide. They’re not technically granted legal refugee status in Thailand, and thusly are confined to tiny areas where tourists are ushered through so they can have some financial income. While strolling through, one is inundated with “saleswomen” offering the same same crap, yet knowing their story and taking a million pictures dictates I buy some things.

What makes this tribe unique is the tradition of wrapping the women’s necks with thick gold wire, starting when they are just young girls. Over time, the band becomes longer and as they reach their elder years, their coiled necks appear elongated and giraffe-like. In reality, the heavy metal is pushing down their shoulders and breaking those bones. After years of wearing these bands, the women become unable to take them off without having to hold their own head up. While this practice seems barbaric, it’s no different from the aesthetic surgery we do today in the western world: purposefully causing harm to one’s body under the assumption what they’re doing will make them more beautiful. And remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth is this tradition need not be continued, particularly since its main purpose now is to attract tourists, as that is their sole income. Oddly enough, I was both apart of the problem and solution (income they need vs. perpetuating the dilemma). What these people really need is refugee status, a home to call their own, and a return to “normal” life. One focused on family, community, and agriculture, namely, an ability to create their own wealth and responsibility for it. Regardless of all of the politics though, it was a life dream of mine to meet them in person and learn more about this unique culture.

Mae Hung Son has much more to offer though; scenic rolling roads, natural hot springs, mud baths, and picturesque waterfalls. And the best gems are the hidden ones. If there’s no sign in English, and it’s seems to be something, then it must be good. After taking some chances, I finally abandoned the beaten path in lieu of adventure. And I discovered an amazing hidden waterfall that coincided perfectly with the timing of my reading ‘The Beach’. (For those who have only seen the movie and haven’t read the book, you’re missing out.)

What was normally a climb I would have never attempted, I was filled with drive and desire to seek out the untouched and selfishly soak in the beauty for myself. I stripped down to my bathing suit, abandoned my shoes and bag, and began to climb up the slippery slope to the middle pool of the double waterfall. I’m not going to lie, I struggled. But with effort comes reward and I not only didn’t die, but I finally discovered an amazing off the beaten path spot that I could call my own. Am I the only foreigner ever to discover this spot? Probably not. But for that moment, I was the only one and that’s something to be appreciated.

The best part about my entire motorcycle journey was being so free. Without anyone else’s opinion but my own, I turned down dirt paths when I wanted, ate when and where I desired, and drove wherever my spirit called me. Nothing is quite as freeing as having the wind in your hair, the open road at your feet, and nobody but your own mind to corrupt you. In these few days I began to concoct my plan to buy motorcycle and travel the entirety of Central America. (This fantasy will become a reality….one day.)

My return to Pai was sad but enjoyable. Even though I was certain everyone I knew had left, somehow some returned, some stayed longer than expected, and then of course the locals and ex-pats are always around. I decided to spend my last day checking out an organic farm just outside of town I had only recently found out about. I took a bamboo course in which I made several kitchen items out of bamboo with a machete. It’s hard work but made much easier when your Thai teacher just shakes their head, laughs at you, and does a much better job himself and then gives you the near finished product. Nonetheless, it was the experience I appreciated.

The farm itself was a shining example of what a collaborative organic farm should be. The owner had the land in his family for many generations and he thought it necessary to preserve it the best way possible. Everything was used, nothing wasted, with purpose and appreciation behind it all. He welcomes help with open arms and offers super cheap accommodation and food in exchange for whatever work you wanted to offer. From gardening to teaching English, the hours and effort is up to you, yet a community of laid-back helpful people has grown. That night was filled with positive energy, wonderful people, and more stars than I’ve seen in far too long. It was the perfect end to Pai, and the perfect beginning of a new adventure.

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