A visit to the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Myitkyina, currently home to almost refugees fleeing the fighting between Kachin rebels and the central Myanmar government
I hadn’t been looking for an intern. Not that I don’t like interns—there is little to object to about someone who is willing to work for nothing or close to nothing, especially for a plucky new thing like Roads and Kingdoms. It’s just that Myitkyina seemed like a highly unlikely place to find one.
The Myanmar government has just announced a "crucial cease-fire" with the Karen people, but the war with the Kachin continues. This child and her mother were chased out of their village in the north of Myanmar and are living in the St. John refugee camp.
[Photo credit: Nathan Thornburgh / Roads and Kingdoms]
Mass on a December Sunday in a Kachin refugee camp. The war in the north continues, despite peace talks. The latest from the Irrawaddy:
Burmese government troops this week mounted an aggressive assault to overrun another strategic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base in Lwaigyai near the Sino-Burma border.
According to the KIA, more than 90 battles or clashes have broken out since the president ordered his commanders to put an end to hostilities in the northern region.
More than 160 clashes between government forces and Kachin troops were recorded by the KIA for the month of December—more than 90 of which broke out after the presidential order on Dec. 10, said La Nan, the spokesman for the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
[Credit: Nathan Thornburgh / Roads and Kingdoms]
St. Paul’s refugee camp outside of Myitkyina, Kachin State, northern Burma, in December 2011. Despite orders from President Thein Sein, the Myanmar army has continued its fierce offensive against Kachin irregulars, sending thousands of refugees into the cities.
Moving Day: Inevitably when you travel, no matter how far you go or how different the people, your mind looks for parallels between your life and theirs. It’s not narcissistic, I don’t think, nor does it have to be naive. Sure, it can seem that way sometimes, especially when traveling from the first world to the third, because really, what in my life experience can match up with the experience of this man?
He’s a Kachin refugee cooking breakfast in front of the outhouses at the Saint Paul refugee camp in Myitkyina. I live in an apartment where, like many in New York, the toilet and kitchen occupy very clearly defined and well separated spaces. He’s smoking cheap green tobacco—I’ve smoked some lousy leaf in my day, but I’ve also been able to smoke Cohibas with the Cuban Foreign Minister; Marlboros with the greatest photographers on earth; and purple, purple weed with some of the finest and stoniest Californians ever made.
I could go into more differences. Only one of us speaks the Kachin language, and only one of us wears skirts.
But for some reason I woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and was feeling like this guy looks. The reason? I’m moving.
I would phrase that, “I’m moving, too.” But this guy’s move was really quite different. He was chased out of the hills with his family in front of the advancing Myanmar army. I am moving nine blocks away to a new apartment in the same neighborhood, in part because my kid is allergic to something in our current place, in part to save money. In simpler terms: it’s a whole hell of a lot less coercive than what the Kachin people have been going through.
Yet, here I am, looking at the five dishes and one pot that are left unboxed and which we’ll be cooking and eating with over the next three days or so, and thinking about the refugee camp. Stupid, right?
Maybe not. Not to get to get too far into Lacanian gaze theory, but suffice to say that some theorists think that looking at something, or someone, actually changes whatever or whomever is being looked at. In the context of what we do, I think it means that tourism changes that which is being touristed (nearly over-run Laos would be a hell of an contemporary example of that). Also, it must mean that reporting changes the lives of the reported. So this guy and I, we made eye contact, shared a couple minutes of silence, said a few words unintelligible to the other, and that was all it took. He’s in my camera, but also in my head, and I’m seeing a couple new angles in life through him and his cigar, and his big boiling pot of outhouse grits he’s so at peace with.
And undoubtedly for him and all the other Kachin at the camp, we must have been a presence not soon forgotten. Large, pale, doughy (or, in the intern’s case, violently ill), attached to cameras, with big relentless smiles.
Their war will be over eventually. They will return to their villages, and then have to figure out how to live the rest of their lives, in an area that, as Thant Myint-U points out, is soon to be crowded with jostling superpowers. Maybe something they saw in their strange visitors will stick with them, can offer them some new belief about their own predicament.
A refugee has bigger things to worry about than what lessons they can fashion out of their encounter with bule? Perhaps. But these dudes also have a TON of time on their hands. No crops any more, just a few bricks to fire and baskets to weave; life in the camp is tedium. So I don’t think it’s narcissism to imagine their thoughts turning to young Zach or myself. The real egotist among travelers is the kind that thinks he just comes and watches people like animals in the zoo, that the people he visits don’t see him every bit as much as they are being seen.
This is the reciprocity of change, whether for good or bad. Travel means being changed, and changing others. That’s why I’m trying not to let my sedentary soul be traumatized by this process of moving, of packing everything in boxes, convincing a five-year-old that the next place will also feel like home. I know the good about going to a new apartment: it requires movement, a little transformation, a bit of acceptance, and that’s all I can wish for in 2012. More roads, more kingdoms, more movida.
Happy New Year. Back at you big first thing in 2012. —NT
[photo credit: Nathan Thornburgh / Roads and Kingdoms]
"Did that have peanuts?"
"Yeah, I am pretty sure that had peanuts. Ok, ok. I’m going to go now. I’ll be back."
With that riff on the cri de noix of the Millenials, who all seem to be fucking allergic to peanuts, Zach stood up from breakfast at the roadside Orient Restaurant in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Northern Burma. He went in search of large bottle of water so that he could 1) try to drink water violently enough that he could 2) vomit before his airway started to close.
Of course, lots of reasonable, wonderful people have nut allergies. I just didn’t know Zach, and didn’t know if he was one of these. I had only met him the night before, and all I knew was that he was 18, that he had been traveling for months through the jungles of southeast Asia—the peanuts-in-every-dish capital of the world—and that he only had one (expired) epinephrine pen to use in case he started to, you know, die.
I hadn’t been looking for an intern. Not that I don’t like interns—there is little to object to about someone who is willing to work for nothing or close to nothing, especially for a plucky new thing like Roads and Kingdoms. It’s just that Myitkyina seemed like a highly unlikely place to find one. When I had taken the the one-stop flight from Rangoon to the Kachin capital, I had noticed how the city of Mandalay had functioned like the 59th Street A Train stop in New York: it’s where the white people get off. Myitkyina is just not a place for tourists, or seekers, or wanderlusters, at this point. It’s surrounded by war, some of it as close as 40 miles from the city, as the Kachin Independence Army fights the central Myanmar government for jade mines and autonomy. I had my share of local contacts set up ahead of time, but was fully expecting to be alone and stay alone during my time in Myitkyina.
And then there were the warnings: a Kachin in London had told me earlier that the town was very unstable. A bomb had killed ten people month before, sending body parts into the boulevard nearby. Everyone told me to stay indoors at night, though the threat seemed to be government checkpoints as much as bombs or guns. A journalist in Rangoon had said I might be able to get to the site of the controversial Myitsone dam (one of the Kachin-Myanmar flashpoints) a couple hours away, but only if the fighting had died down and someone close to the rebels could find a back road to take me on by motorcycle.
So it was with some surprise that just as soon as I set my bag on the concrete floor of the Mytikyina YMCA, I overheard an American voice talking about having just gotten back rom Myitsone. Even more surprising was who the voice belonged to: a rail-thin floppy-haired teenager who, when I asked him about his trip, had seemed just as surprised as me that he had ended up so close to a war zone and then had, out of sheer curiosity, headed even deeper into it.
That’s the good part about Zach Goldman, Roads and Kingdoms’ Intern #2: he does the work without even thinking about it. His current travel binge—over three months and counting—seems pushed by some motor he’s not quite in touch with. He doesn’t want to be a journalist (“I’m more into creative writing”, he told me) and yet he was being very fucking journalistic in my estimation.
The bad part about Zach Goldman is limited, really, to this peanut thing, and also to the Giardia he had picked up in Borneo, and how it all had left him looking quite wan and wasted. Also, he seems to have resources, but had planned poorly in Burma, an ATM-free country, so that he was not only ailing, but also deeply broke. Like Khao-San-Road-after-20-years broke. The first night, minutes after a handshake deal deputized him as intern (actually, I didn’t shake his hand because he was also suffering from a pustulent and very drippy head cold) I brought him to a dinner at the headquarters of one of the religious organizations I had made contact with. The food was good and plentiful. He ate like a wolf, all tooth and tongue and wild yellow eyes.
But all of that even was a plus in the end, because it meant that he was not just willing to pick up a camera and start working with me, but that he would do it at a rate I could afford: all I had to do was pay for his fried rice and his hotel bill, which owing to the communal bathroom and generally homeliness of the YMCA in Myitkyina, was just $8 a night.
But the man does seem to have dodgy luck. A day after I left Myitkyina on an Air KBC turboprop plane back to Rangoon, Zach took the train south. I’ve logged my own rail miles on the hideously slow and rusted Burmese train system, but I’ve only ever been discomforted and delayed. Zach was derailed. Literally. Huge bump in the night, somewhere north of Bhamo, a car ahead of him slipped the track. He was fine, everyone was fine, but still: something about Zach makes me think he might have been voted Most Likely to Be In a Third-World Train Accident in high school.
He is now in Sri Lanka, volunteering for a project connecting water to a school (or elephants to an orphanage, or malaria drugs to a microlender, or something altruistic like that). His big plan, he says, is to go to Pakistan. I wish he wouldn’t.
Zach may not be in school, but he’s a learner. The video and the photographs he took improved hugely over the three days we worked together in Myitkyina. He is also delightfully plan-free in life. He may have smoked big purple mountains of weed back in high school in Los Angeles for all I know, but it’s also clear he’s got enough initiative to get into a college back home if he wanted to. For now, he doesn’t want to. I applaud that.
On the last full day in Myitkyina, he came with me to a HIV Center outside of town. It was a distressing story, all these sick men, women and children—some of the verge of death. But I was working, not emoting. This disturbed him, and he told me so back at the Orient roadside restaurant. What followed was a good conversation about the ethics of journalism, of prying into terrible situations and just watching it all glasseyed. I’m not sure if he bought my line of reasoning/justification. He said he did but I think maybe he didn’t. I’m sure he didn’t. Which is also kind of great.
A half-hour or so after Zach managed to eat peanut noodles for breakfast, we went to the Saint Paul refugee center along the rail line outside of town. It was actually an upbeat and inspiring place, and, with an overcast sky and a brightly festooned mass of humanity who had just been chased out of the hills, it was a good visual story as well. I dove into taking pictures and talking to people, and I gave Zach the video camera (the same one he’s holding in this picture with a Baptist deacon we met—notice his good form, in-ear monitor to check the sound levels and everything).
When I came back twenty minutes later, he was sitting down with a priest in the thatch-roofed shelter and drinking tea. Emesis, it turned out, had visited him after all, and a few minutes prior, Intern #2—the tallest, palest manchild these villagers had likely ever seen—had been throwing up his guts on a patch of grass in the refugee camp.
And yet—no hint of self-pity. Not even an urgency to leave (unlike myself two days later, when my own bout of nausea and food illness chased me sweating from a lovely Kachin wedding among the displaced villagers of Myitsone). Instead, Zach drank a bit of tea, picked up his camera, and headed back into the faces and lives of the Kachin refugees.
The man says he doesn’t want to be a journalist, but he could be. He probably should be.
Preschool at the Geis Child Care Center (named after George J. Geis, an American Baptist Missionary to the Kachin in the late 1800s), on the grounds of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Myitkyina, Burma.
I happened on the school while wandering around the Convention’s large campus—church, several gardens, administrative headquarters, refugee coordinator office, and more—while waiting to be taken to Baptist refugee centers in nearby townships, set up to house Baptists fleeing the war in northern Burma.
The Child Care Center was more ecumenical, sort of. “We have Christians, Hindus, and Muslims in our school, of course,” Headmistress Lagyi Hkawn Tsin told me. “We want everyone to know about the Bible and our Savior Jesus Christ.” [Credit: Nathan Thornburgh / Roads and Kingdoms]