Introducing: the Karen People

*Disclaimer, this post is speaking generally and does not reflect the experience of all Karen people in Myanmar. I am by no means an expert, and my knowledge is based almost purely on discussions with refugees in Thailand.

Ever heard of the Karen people? Nope, me neither.

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Beautiful scenery in MRM refugee camp

One of the ways that we try to keep our costs down whilst backpacking is by getting involved in volunteering projects that offer food and lodgings in exchange for a few hours work a week. We stumbled upon Project Kare on Workaway.info and thought that this would be an incredible opportunity to give back and extend our thinking whilst swanning around the world on our ‘gap yeahhr‘. Through Project Kare we organised to spend two weeks volunteering in Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp in Thailand, about 6 hours from Chiang Mai. After a lovely three-way Skype chat with Ron where he filled us in on the real-life practicalities of being in a refugee camp, we officially signed up to teach in Bible School (third-level education, the students are studying to receive a Bachelor’s in Theology). Ron kept in touch in the 6 weeks before we arrived, letting us know all and any steps that we needed to take, and putting us in touch with the other volunteers we would be arriving with as well as some past volunteers who could give us hints and tips.

Quick history lesson for you: the Karen people are one of the largest ethnic tribes in South East Asia – about 5-7 million. They hail from Karen State, (Kawthooli in Karen) in Myanmar and have been at war with the Burmese government since 1949. Yup, it’s one of the longest standing civil wars in history, and most of us have never heard of it. Over 150,000 Karen have left Myanmar and are now in refugee camps in Thailand and further afield. And have been. FOR SIXTY YEARS.

What’s the war about? Well, the Karen People want Karen State to be an independent nation. I have to be fully honest here: I do not understand the full extent of the development of the conflict. Despite all my googling and reading, everything is a little fuzzy. Some of this is due to a lack of reliable information – even when trying to establish the population of Karen people in Myanmar, one link suggested the last reliable census was taken in 1931. We did however have the distinct pleasure of meeting the lovely Steph, a politics major based in Washington University who has spent a lot of time in Mae Ra Moe and was able to help us with a few of the details. What I do know is that the Karen are persecuted in their own country, denied education and jobs. Many of the children in the camps are there with no family in order to receive an education.

 

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Professional Development Centre students preparing debates about the cost of education.

But the Karen people are so much more than their refugee status. They are resilient. Despite everything they have been through in Myanmar, when you speak to them they have a distinct sense of hope, and determination to end the conflict. We taught English in a Bible school to students from 17+ in their first year of further education. These classes were both hysterical and eye-opening in equal measure. Many students were so driven to learn English in order to emigrate to the USA, fuelling our hatred of President Trump as new laws stopped students who previously would have been reunited with their parents and siblings from having this opportunity. Others wanted to return to Karen State to join the KNU (Karen Nationalist Union who also have an armed wing) and fight for their nation, while others still just wanted to join a missionary to share their truth with the world. What about this was hysterical? The conversations we had, the terrible, terrible Scottish ceilidh dancing and teaching the conditional tense through many, many rounds of ‘Would you rather?’ Not a day went by in that classroom where we weren’t in stitches laughing at least once.

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Receiving our gifts on our last day.

They are generous. The Karen in Mae Ra Moe treated myself and Kerry like queens. We were escorted everywhere, students insisting on carrying our bags; cooked for (despite our begging them to please let us help, they were probably well aware we would be far more of a hinderance than a help, having very limited experience cooking over an open flame!) and cleaned up after; if they noticed we bought ourselves something, they would make sure they had it for us the following day as well. It’s not just foreigners that are treated this way; but all guests. Two guest Karen Theology teachers working in the camp for two months received the same generosity and respect.

Their generosity does not just extend to food and hospitality. We met one amazing woman who, as it turns out, did not need to relocate to a refugee camp. Her husband came to work on a church missionary, and they decided as a family that they wanted to do more for their people, despite the obvious upheaval for them and their children. They both work to educate the students, teaching them English and theology and are now unable to freely and safely return home to visit friends and family as they would be persecuted.

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A house in MRM.

They are innovative. So here’s the thing. Typical privileged white girl speaking (or rather, typing) and I have ZERO knowledge of refugee camps. Yes, I have seen the news, the ads for charity and pictures online, but nothing prepared me for this. All we see are starving, dirty children crying next to ramshackle huts. This may be the case in some camps but it is not the case in Mae Ra Moe. Seeing as how the camp has been around for 20+ years and houses 20,000 people (the largest has existed for 60 years and boasts a population of about 60,000), the people have used their skills to build a community. There is a hydroelectric generator for electricity and little wifi huts. The houses are bamboo, but they’re sturdy, and some people have tvs. While Steph was doing her interviews for her thesis one comment stuck out in particular. She asked how the first refugees in MRM build a sense of community, and the man answered ‘There was so much to do. We had to work together to build the village. We didn’t have a choice.’

So, now the scene is set. My English teacher always said that was very important. If you’re reading this Mr. E, let me know how I did. Typed preferably, that handwriting was like cracking a spy’s code…

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Conversation circles at Bible School – a little like pulling teeth at time!

Camp was a HUUUGE culture shock for us. Our contact, Ron (co-founder of Project Kare, a charity to help support the Karen people) had tried to warn us what it would be like. Even after two weeks of backpacking, with our new and significantly lowered standards, it was a shock. We were the lucky owners of a Western toilet! It did still need a pail to be flushed but was very convenient when a certain travel buddy of mine – I won’t name her to try and maintain her dignity- caught a stomach bug. Pail showers were fun. I kept forgetting that due to the painful amount of rain – I swear to God I kept expecting an arc to rock up – the electricity was off and I had to shower in the dark. Refreshing and shocking every time.

We also weren’t quite braced for how religious the Karen people are. While Karen people follow many religions, the majority are Christian. Very Christian. Being asked as a first introduction whether we believed in God and why not, had we read the Bible? never failed to shock us. However it was all well-meaning and led to some very interesting conversations. Interactions between boys and girls are really interesting to watch – even as young adults there is a playful innocence about them. We gave up trying to have male/female partners for ceilidh dancing and there was absolute hysteria when one boy put his arm around our shoulders for a photo on the last day.

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Kerry and I with our Bible School class on our final day.

When we left our students created a beautiful ceremony for us. It involved a speaker announcing in Karen what would be happening (kindly translated by the teacher), songs played on a guitar and sung by individuals and the class, being escorted up and down the room for gifts and speeches – one girl, in tears thanked us for our time and apologised for when they are bad and make us angry, something that never happened! We were given a Karen shirt, necklace and bag, another Karen bag from a different class and one of the girls who took care of us literally hand-weaved a beautiful embroidered traditional shirt for us while we were at work. I can barely even sew a badge on my backpack.

I wish that I could share with you all of the funny stories, experiences and phenomenal characters that we met while in MRM, and maybe over time I will, but for now I will leave you with this:

The Karen people need our help. Those in refugee camps are given provisions by the Thai government but not allowed into Thailand. They cannot even work the field for a few pennies for a local farmer without running the risk of being arrested. And we won’t talk about what happens in Thai prison. Not only are the police dangerous, but the environment. In our time there, three young men went to work at a local farm to earn some money, and took the long route back across the river to avoid being caught. The rain had made the river rapid, and two of them were washed away along with all the money they had worked for. During rainy season, the schools wash away and need repaired, the hospital does not have the provisions it needs and schools struggle to provide even the most basic resources – students must find their own ways to purchase pens and paper. Most staff in the camps are volunteers, working unpaid for their shifts as teachers, doctors and camp management. If you have a few spare minutes please check out Project Kare’s website. If you’ll be in Thailand and would like to volunteer I urge you to – please feel free to hound me with questions via my email or on Instagram if you prefer!

Until next week!

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Why The Flight Instinct?

You know that annoying child sat behind you on a long-haul flight, whining about being bored and kicking your chair? Yeah, that was me.

I’ve been travelling as long as I can remember.

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Ready for our first transatlantic move … some of us blatantly more excited than others.

By the time I was 8, we had lived in 10 houses and I had attended 6 different schools. I wasn’t quite so exotic as those military kids – our travels were based in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. We can all thank Poppa Hepburn and his career for this one.

So picture this, the perfect happy family road-tripping across America (or rather, two very frustrated and fed-up parents trying their best not to just open the car doors and get rid of the two arguing demons in the back seat), visiting beautiful landmarks such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the 4 Corners where 4 states intersect, all the National Parks… and do you think I remember any of this? Nope. Turns out the memory of a 5-year-old is pretty similar to that of a goldfish.

Where did she get it from?” My parents beg each other as they board the plane to relocate to Arizona, their nest finally empty with their two adult children having moved out. “We just don’t understand it!” They say on their 30-mile cycle around Italian lakes. “It must be from your side of the family.” My mother tells my father as they reminisce about their summer inter-railing around Europe as young adults.

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Me and my cousin hanging out at Mount Hood, very impatient to get back in the car so that we could continue reading Harry Potter…

I would argue that travelling is definitely in my blood. No matter what my parents say, they have wandering spirits too – Dad had the option to accept a post in Ireland or to travel to the other side of the world to an arid landscape with his family, which would entail further relocations over the years. His reasoning? ‘We looked at the weather forecast in Arizona, and it was like nothing we’d ever experienced before – 40 degrees Celcius with 0 humidity? We had to go.’ Boom. Traveller. His first realization of what they had done arrived when I was 14 and asked to go to Spain for half a year. ‘Sure,’ he replied naively, ‘if you sort it out yourself.’ You can bet your butt he didn’t expect me to do that. I’m sure my mother gave him quite the row that evening. Moral of the story for all you fathers out there – never underestimate the determination of your teenage daughter.

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Finding out how small I am at the Redwood Forest in San José.

Being exposed to all of this at such a young age has developed in me the sense of being a minute part of such an enormous world, and I want to see it all. It’s also made me a massive commitment-phobe, terrified of the concept of a mortgage and a job contract and not having the freedom to hop on a plane and run away to sunnier climates. It’s gotten to the point where travelling has become almost instinctual for me – hence the blog name The Flight Instinct (See what I did there?)

Trying to fit in with the locals at Saddleback Mountain.

With this in mind, I relocated to Edinburgh 3 years ago to finish my teacher training, and I love being based here and watching my little cousins grow up, going to dinner with my grandparents and settling into the city where my mother bought her first flat… so long as every few months I can run away from it all in search of new adventures. I hope you enjoy following my journey around the world and perhaps are inspired to commence a similar journey! And hey, perhaps if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this you’ll be interested in hopping on over to instagram and giving https://www.instagram.com/theflightinstinct and https://www.instagram.com/flightydaughters a follow for daily updates on my travels!

I’ll just leave this here for you all… working on my instagram poses from a young age!

Finding my good side on Diamond Lake 💎[

Pack It Up!

Since returning from my 10 week trip to South East Asia – my first proper backpacking trip! – I’ve been inundated with messages from friends planning similar trips. One of the messages I get time and time again (and I sent to all my backpacking friends before leaving!) is ‘HELP ME! How the hell do I pack for 3 months in a BACKPACK!’ Well, ladies and gentlemen, your prayers are answered, here lie the contents of my backpack. If you’re already bored, scroll on past the list for my top tips – hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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Ready, set, go! Here is my backpack, fully packed and ready for a map to jump out and send me on an adventure. (Dora the Explorer anyone?)

I have an Osprey 55l in S/M. I’m 5′ 1 1/4″ (the quarter is highly important) and weigh about 50kg so I had to find a backpack the right size for me. I went for the largest possible to fit my frame. My recommendation? Go smaller. 40l is what can be taken as carry-on which will save you a lot if you’re taking flights.

Suits and Boots

  • 10 pairs of pants (I got dragged into my research and invested in moisture-wicking underwear to fend off the sweaty crotch syndrome often suffered in the humid climate of SEA… while I didn’t suffer this humiliation, neither did my travel buddy, who is less susceptible to peer pressure and did not invest.)
  • 1 bra, 2 sports bras and 2 bralettes (I can honestly say the bra maybe got worn once #freethenipple)
  • 3 pairs socks
  • 11 shirts (Way too many, I only wore 5 of these!)
    • 3 sports tops
    • 2 vest tops
    • 2 nice(r) strap tops for going out
    • 1 short sleeved blouse
    • 3 crop tops
    • 1 thick strapped linen shirt.
  • 2 lightweight jumpers to cover up
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 pair of exercise leggings
  • 1 pair of harem trousers (embrace them, you will soon be living in pyjamas)
  • 1 pair of denim shorts
  • 1 pair of sports shorts
  • 2 maxi skirts
  • dungarees
  • 2 bikinis
  • 2 pairs of pyjamas
  • flip flops
  • hiking sandals
  • trainers

Bits and Bobs

  • passport
  • microfibre travel towel
  • travel pillow
  • sleeping bag liner
  • chargers and adaptors (I packed EU, US and UK chargers, you can buy a universal one but I had these lying about)
  • bank card, and back-up bank card, and back-up back-up bank card
  • passport photos for visas
  • USD for visas
  • jewellery
  • hairbrush and hair tyes
  • diaries and pens
  • Kindle Fire (gotta have me my Netflix for those infernal 23-hour bus journeys)
  • pack of cards
  • dry bags (I’ll write more about these later)
  • waterproof cover for my backpack

The Powder Room

  • 2x 400ml Boots Once Factor 50 3hr Protect and Swim (This ginger needs her protection)
  • 2x 50% DEET bug spray
  • 2x deodorant
  • LUSH solid shampoo
  • Soap bar
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush
  • Cleanser and Make-up Remover
  • Basic make-up bag
  • Perfume
  • Moisturiser
  • Basic first aid kit – hand sanitiser, paracetamol, plasters, allergy tablets, rehydration salts and prescribed medication
  • wet wipes and toilet roll
  • small ziplock with washing powder for handwashing underwear.

I need all that…?

As you can see, I packed everything but the kitchen sink. I have always been known as a terrible packer, and recently turned up for a 6 day trip down to Birmingham for a friend’s wedding with the same backpack rammed full. However, this does mean I feel fully qualified to tell you what is worth bringing, and what just to leave behind.

My first tip is DRY BAGS. These were recommended to us, and I can honestly tell you they were a life-saver. Or at least a comfort saver.
‘Why were these so great???’
Well, my faithful readers, you may have heard about the humidity in SEA. In the UK we do have 98% humidity but IT IS NOT THE SAME. We found that the air was so hot and damp that anything left out of the dry bags got damp and would not dry. The other handy thing about dry bags is they also double as those infamous packing cubes you’ve been reading about on other travel blogs, and when you pack them and squeeze out the air they’re like little vacuum packs. Having everything categorised makes packing up at the end of your stay much faster as even when you’ve pulled everything out in search of that dress that will look just perfect for your Instagram feed; you’ve only actually disturbed a small portion of your bag.

 

As for toiletries, if you’re fairly confident in your appearance, ditch the make-up. I dragged mine all around SEA for 10 weeks and hardly wore it; backpackers don’t glam up. I did, however, get my eyelashes dyed (ginger eyelashes make you look like an alien; it’s highly attractive). The same goes for jewellery, straighteners, hair dryers etc. That hair is gonna be a frizzball no matter what you do, so own it girl. Solid shampoo, conditioner and soap were also a huge convenience. They take up next to no space, and no plastic means you’re doing good for the environment. If you have sensitive skin like me, it’s an idea to bring your suncream etc out with you, but realistically you can get everything you need there and it is mainly the same brands. Dry skin sufferers, take moisturiser unless you enjoy bleaching your skin cuz these cultures hate a tan. You’ll be swapping your Dove Golden Glow for Pearly White.

 

Logistics. Not sexy but very important. I would definitely recommend bringing USD as it’s cheaper than paying for VISAs in local currency. Having passport photos ready also speeds up the process and avoids a cheeky unofficial fee from the guards.

 

My final tip is to take whatever you want to pack, and half it. Get your staples (denim shorts etc) and plan your outfits around that. Research where you’re going and pack appropriately for there – make sure you have cover-ups for going into temples.
So there you have it, advice from the front line. If you have any questions about what I packed let me know down below!
...and so the adventure begins!
…and so the adventure begins! Kerry and I on the 5am bus to the airport on a surprisingly sunny day in Edinburgh.