It’s been five weeks now since I uprooted my life from cushy, comfortable, café-filled Sydney to the small compound of Dokita. As mentioned in an earlier post, Dokita offers little in terms of Western comforts, conveniences, and choice. Yet, with each day spent, comes a stronger sense of belonging and an even deeper realisation that Western material comforts are exactly that – comforts, not necessities for life nor for happiness. Even with this understanding I cannot escape the fact that I am Western-raised with hidden Western ideas of the kinds of thoughts, the kinds of words, and of the kinds of life that one should lead. When I become actively aware of the contradictions to these ideas, I find myself amused and intrigued by them.
It was Songkran the other week, the Thai festival of water to welcome the new year. Wild and conservative Thai’s alike put on their daisy dukes and spaghetti straps to party on the streets and throw water at passerby’s and motorcyclists – sometimes rather aggressively and without compassion. Most often though, people are respectful of your desire to stay dry and simply wet your hands and feet. The wetting and washing is meant to signify the washing away of sins from the past year. It is a festival of cleansing that allows one to start anew.
On Monday I relished in my ability to blend into the local community (as an Asian woman) and sneak unseen into the Karenni refugee camp. It was an exhilarating motorcycle ride through dusty, mountainous paths, the width of a ruler. Death dominated my thoughts – better than amputation or brain injury – as neither the driver nor I, wore a helmet. The mountain path eventually, and rather gloriously, weaved into a zen-like canopy of bamboo that glided us in the direction of the gates.
My initial impressions of the camp were favourable. In the organised chaos that often describes situations and locals in low income countries, stood hundreds of cubed bamboo huts on stilts; raised from the dusty road that wound its way over littered streams and mud shaped hills.
Buckets of water line the footpaths to the verandas of huts where owners and visitors alike partake in a ritual of hand and feet washing; keeping the huts and the living quarters clean. Virtually every house has a veranda with the sole purpose of welcoming guests over sweet Karenni rice wine. It is a social culture, with everyone spending a few hours per day visiting relatives and fellow displaced villagers.
Life does not seem so bad in this place. It certainly is not like the often touted stories of starving, dehydrated children living amongst stressed and trauma-stricken adults. It is happy. There is wine to relieve stress and there is music to help the time pass.
There are a number of donor funded schools, community centres, and psychosocial/medical clinics run by the multilateral institutions and organisations that work within a refugee framework – UNHCR, ACTED, IOM, IRC. I have never seen so many stickers and patches of the US flag plastered on wooden buildings, cars, clothing, blankets, and mats. This serves to me as the main distinguishing factor between this refugee camp and a slum. At least here, there is food ration and material hand-outs.
By 11am on Tuesday, my thoughts on camp life began to take a dramatic shift. A fire had broken out in a section not far from us. As hurriedly as the smoke filled the sky, so did the women fill their sacks with their belongings; abandoning their homes for safety.
8am on a Friday morning, and I find myself sitting in front of a half finished cemented building in the small compound of ‘Dokhita’. With barely a few wooden huts and semi-finished office buildings, Dokhita is not a common place one would find themselves in. It’s uninhabited, rustic, overgrown, and surrounded by fields of garlic.
A series of events have brought me here, the most significant of which is my desire to jump start a career in development. Development however, is quite a touchy subject, and the deeper I delve into the topic, the more I am finding that it is not quite what I envisioned the field to be. Being young, idealistic, and prioritising aspects of life with immediate gratification, I once found living in a foreign country exhilarating. The language is different, the food is interesting, the people are curious, and an aura of novelty, distinction, and to some degree arrogance surrounds the experience.