So, Chinua and I just went through this crazy ordeal, and in the middle, I was thinking of how to write about it.
I had a lot of thoughts.
I'll describe the jungle, I thought. How the trees leaned in on each side. How I sat in the back with the kids and we waved at other people in the backs of trucks, who stared and stared because they had never seen anyone like us before.
I'll describe the giant refugee camp we saw. It was singularly the most beautiful and saddest thing we have ever seen. It was ringed by towering mountains, and there were hills upon hills of bamboo houses with leafed roofs. It went on and on.
I'll describe how we persevered, but we succeeded in the end. How it was so hard, but at least we got what we needed.
I did have success in mind, when I was thinking of how to write this. But then we didn't succeed, and I was left wondering how I would write about it at all.
It was a string of bad information. A loooong string of bad information. It began with advice about how it was possible to get a two month Thai visa on arrival (not true) and continued with the Thai immigration officer at the airport assuring us that there was nothing at all difficult in getting our visa extended by immigration for one, two, three, months. "Five years!" he said. "No problem."
So on Monday I left the house to do some research about a visa extension. Imagine my consternation when people were telling us we'd have to go to the Burmese border, which was an eight-hour drive away. But I talked to a police officer (unreliable information giver number three) and he told us our best bet was to go to immigration in Mae Hong Son, a two hour drive away.
We were too late to take the bus and get back the same day, so we all hopped on our scooters and rode off into the mountains, toward Mae Hong Son. It was a long, beautiful drive. I got toasted, since I don't usually sit in the midday sun for three hours.
We pulled up into the immigration office, feeling quite tired after so long on the bikes with the family.
And we were told that actually, we would only be able to get seven more days, and it would cost us almost four hundred dollars. Better to go to Mae Sai, at the Burmese border.
We sat in that Immigration office for about an hour, trying to figure out what to do next. We would have to drive back to Pai and rent a truck, but we felt too tired to drive back to Pai this late in the afternoon. We didn't want to be on the scooters after dark.
So we went to a truck rental place and talked to the very nice lady who told us there was another town, Mae Sot, where we could extend our visas. We rented the truck, a big huge truck that seemed like overkill, and were on our way. A bonus was that the Charis Project's children's house is very near to that area. Maybe we could stop in, we thought. And renting a truck would be cheaper than all of us getting on the bus. We were pleased with our solution.
We drove for four hours that night, and stayed in a guest house. Remember that we left the house thinking we were returning the next day. We didn't have a change of clothes, or toothbrushes, or anything. (I bought some toothbrushes.)
We continued driving early the next morning, making it to Mae Sot at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Finally, we were there! And we skipped on up to the border, where the immigration officer told us that the border had been closed for a year. Only Burmese can come and go.
That's when I started to cry.
The border officials felt terrible. They started giving us water and crackers and guavas. I pushed some. In India, you often meet with initial resistance from officials, and you always have to push some to get to the place where you need to be. It's the way things work. Resistance, push. Come on, you must have a stamp! All you need to do is stamp our passport! Please, we brought our children all this way.
But it is not that way in Thailand. This was no early resistance. There was no way for us to get a stamp.
We sat there for a long time as well. We had no idea what to do. We pored over the map. Every solution involved more driving, more money, more time.
Chinua and I had already been brought nearly to the breaking point, because at every turn we were making choices that weren't working out. We found out that it was still quite a far distance to the children's home, we still didn't have clothes and the batteries on our cameras were dead. We had friends arriving in two days, and we had been planning our time together for months.
We turned around and went home.
We drove for thirteen more hours, with yet another night in a guesthouse, and ended up back where we had started from, precious money spent that we couldn't afford to spend, with nothing to show for it.
We feel a bit rocked by this experience. The road was really bad in one section of the drive, really really bad, and there was a point on the way back when it was raining really hard, and the truck was skidding a bit, and I had to take big breaths to keep from panic. Fishtailing in mud is too reminiscent of snow and accidents for me. We became very grateful for the big truck which had seemed like overkill in the beginning. This has been the wettest rainy season in seven years, and there were landslides and boulders everywhere.
We realized, somewhere along the way, that we had been the recipients of true Thai culture shock. Initially, everything seemed so easy, so convenient here, compared to India. And it is! But we hit that major difference, where being nice and obliging is more important than good information. The border officer at the airport had NO idea what he was talking about. But he was being nice. The lady in Mae Hong Son at the truck rental place hadn't checked her facts about the Mae Sot border. But she was being nice. (By the way, it was also listed in my current Lonely Planet as a place for border runs, so I had no reason to doubt her.)
In India, that initial resistance is key to everything. You are also pushing against people who say that nothing is possible. "Not possible," is a common response, to which you reply, there must be a way, and over time, there often is.
Here, too much was given as possible, which really was impossible. Everyone gave information that they "thought" was reasonable, but it was stuff that should have been double checked. Now we know that we can't take things on face value, just like we can't in India, when it is said to be impossible.
This year, we always seem to be on the steepest slope of the learning curve. It's what happens when you rapidly change from place to place. We need to find our home.
The positive points?
The kids were amazing. There was very little fuss, they were patient and kind. They got a bit squirrely in the truck, but that was to be expected. The straw that broke the camel's back was a three hour scooter ride at the end, in the rain, in the mountains. They huddled in their ponchos like angels, and within ten minutes of arriving home, were skipping around like monkeys. Kids.
Chinua and I didn't fight. There was no blame, no squabbling. We stuck together, which is always the best way to face stuff. We're coming up swiftly on our ten year anniversary, and it's nice to know that we have learned some things about how to face challenges together. (It wasn't always that way.)
We had food, and clothes. And I thought a lot about our story. We left the house with nothing and stayed away for three days, but we always had the thought that we would be able to go back. When I saw that huge Karen refugee camp I thought a lot about what it means to leave your house and know you can never return.
Our plan... soon we'll rent a truck again, and drive up to Mae Sai, where we will get our fifteen day extension. Then we'll go again, fifteen days later, and on that trip we'll turn around and head south, to see the kids at the Charis Children's home. We'll make it through. Now we know what we have to do. We're a little farther up on the learning curve, almost where we can see to the other side.
(For more information on the Mae La Refugee Village, check out this amazing blog. You can click through and see the photography of the individual people featured.)