On Wednesday we connected with Tui, a Director of UHDP, and he took us to a Palaung village near Chiang Dao. We donated $600 to the UHDP micro-loan program and some of that money went to support this village's savings and loan.
We drove on a rut filled dirt road for about five miles, passing elephants, crossing creeks and adding new scars to the bottom of our Toyota truck. We pulled up into the village and I was feeling self-conscious. On the drive Tui told us about the exploitation of the indigenous people by adventure travel outfits that arrange for people to visit and even sleep in the villages. This could be a good opportunity for the villagers but the agencies typically give the village less than a dollar for a visit and charge the guests large amounts of money. I could go on and on describing the challenges these people face, but suffice it to say there are powerful forces of injustice at work in their lives. I felt like we would be seen as just another group of "farang" coming to look at the people and take pictures.
Pictured above is the "head man", wearing a jacket with a badge that reads, "New York Constable." He is in charge. To the left is the bank, where the women are making deposits in their account. This is where we sat down with the town council for a discussion. I'll describe the rest of our story when I get back tonight, and explain how bubble gum can be a powerful diplomatic tool...
...So when we arrived Tui took us up to the head man's house. The room was full of about a dozen men sitting around the room with stern looks on their faces. We asked questions and made small talk while Tui translated. They kindly served us all a glass of water and we awkwardly let it sit in front of us, knowing that it would likely make us sick if we drank it. Lily was getting a little antsy and accidentally spilled the water all over the floor. In the midst of the tension Nancy remembered we had 800 pieces of Dubble Bubble bubble gum in the car. The girls and I fetched a package of the gum and started handing it out to all the kids in the village. We climbed back into the hut and Lily innocently walked around and handed all of the men a piece of gum. One by one they popped the pink cube in their mouth and started chewing. In a few moments the small dark room was filled with the smacking and slurping of fresh Dubble Bubble, and maybe because everyone knew this was a ridiculous scene, we all relaxed and warmed up to each other. We also gave out some hats from the hat drive at Pasadena Park Elementary. See pictures below.
I'm so glad that Tui explained that we made a donation to their bank. The head man wanted to give us a receipt for the money so that they could pay it back, but we told him we didn't want it back. Because it was the last day of the month, all of the women were bringing their money in plastic bags to deposit in their savings accounts and make payments on their loans. It was a beautiful thing to see people who barely have a written language empowered with the ability to save money and build a better life. Go here for information on this joint project of UHDP and Floresta. To get more information go here. Below are a few scenes from the village.