Brigit and Bret lived in a modest house on Grand Canyon Avenue. A few bicycles accented the front porch, which overlooked the street and a front garden filled with mint, strawberries, lemongrass, and a peach tree. Brigit was the most fashionable of all of the scientists at work, always looking like she’d just stepped out of a scene in The Great Gatsby before ducking into the lab to analyze compounds in the mass spectrometer. Sometimes I’d swing by the house on my way to work to pick her up on our vintage Vespa wearing the leather shoes I bought in Italy. She wore a scarf to fend off the morning chill, and we’d zip away in a Euro-inspired carpool to work in the lumberjack mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Bret had a friendly smile, a firm handshake, and a knack for crafting lemon squares that could change your life; confections that made you question everything you ever knew about food, joy, religion, and the universe. Brigit and Bret comprised twenty two percent of our weekly dinner club. It was filled out by the Helders, the Franklins, and Josh.
Drifting through the mountains along the Burmese border in northern Thailand, Sheena and I were lost in a reverie. Sometimes when we drive it’s nice to let our minds wander, and when they wander they often go back home. We might pass someone riding a Vespa with their scarf whipping in the wind, and I wonder what Brigit and Bret must be doing at that particular instant. With our windows down, the mountain air wafted through the van just like it did back in Flagstaff. Mumford & Sons flowed from the stereo speakers, drowning out the low moan of our engine. A banjo riff brought me back two years in an instant to our beloved group of friends with whom we had shared our weekly dinners. It was Josh who had played the banjo.
Curtis, Mike and Josh were roommates. Curtis and Mike were brothers, hailing from Michigan. The first things you noticed about them were their maniacal smiles, and the fact that despite being two years apart, they look just like twins. Josh was from Maryland, had a compact frame and great posture, red hair. He played the banjo with reckless abandon and was in love with Tammy. We were all engineers at W. L. Gore & Associates, better known for their magical expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membrane called Gore-Tex. That’s how we came to know Curtis and Mike and Josh.
After a couple of days spent exploring the small border town of Mae Sot, Sheena and I pointed Nacho northward and began snaking through the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma. For the first time since reaching Southeast Asia the air was fresh and cool. I held my arm out the window and let the breeze wash over it. As we rounded a bend we began to see indigenous people lining the roadside. Some carried baskets, while others pushed bicycles or walked with their children. In the meadow to the left of the road the jungle gave way to a thick tangle of makeshift wooden huts built on stilts with roofs made out of leaves. Food was being unloaded from a large truck. We peered through the trees and into the tangle of muddy paths between the homes, clothes drying on lines, women in vibrant sarongs tending to their children or cooking. A small boy rode his bicycle in circles in a clearing carrying his little brother on the back, and when he noticed I was watching he laughed and rode faster. This was a Burmese refugee camp.
When Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the hill tribes attempted to break away to form their own independent country. When the military took control of Burma they violently quelled these attempts, burning over 3,000 villages and attacking the minority tribespeople. Since then, over 700,000 indigenous minorities have fled the country, and many live in a series of nine refugee camps in northern Thailand. This was one of them. Many of the people living at this camp had been here for twenty years, and a new generation is being born in the camp, never having known a normal life.
In America, you don’t have to throw the stone very far to hit someone angrily ranting about some unthinkable atrocity being carried out beneath our very noses. The Republicans are killing health care! The Democrats want to take our guns! Marriage is between a man and a woman! The President is a Muslim! Breastfeeding in public is a crime against humanity! Driving through the refugee camp made us think about how embarrassingly frivolous most of our problems are.
The previous day while talking to a Burmese man, the topic of health care had come up. He had described how expensive procedures are relative to the income of the population, and how most low income Burmese don’t even understand the concept of health insurance. I found myself getting ready to say, “Oh yes, it’s similar in the United States…” but then I caught myself. Truthfully, I have no business complaining about health care to a Burmese refugee. In fact, very few of us have any business complaining about much of anything at all. Sometimes you just have to talk to someone who has fled their homeland due to legitimate fear of personal harm to put things into perspective.
In the late afternoon we turned off of the main road in search of a camping place. Our Garmin showed a winding appendage of a road taking off into the mountains and coming to a dead end, so we took it. The road pitched up at around a 25% grade, testing Nacho’s climbing legs. At the top of the mountain, the road turned downward and descended the far side through the jungle with equal steepness, whereupon we were deposited into a small indigenous village. We wove our way slowly past wooden huts built on stilts with roofs thatched in dry leaves, just like the refugee camp. Indigenous women walked along the road in tribal clothing, corncob pipes hanging from the corners of their mouths. We followed the road a few hundred meters to its end, where a meandering stream emerged from the wide, dark mouth of an enormous limestone cavern.
We crossed the river on foot and entered the cave. As daylight disappeared behind us we passed a group of local teens sitting in a circle in the sand next to the river in the dark. We explored for a half an hour, and reemerged from the cave into a torrential rainstorm. The view from the mouth of the cave and the rain against a jungle and river backdrop was unreal. Night settled on our camp as the bugs and frogs bellowed out a symphony from the natural amphitheater surrounding our van and heavy rain drops tapped out a rhythm on Nacho’s roof.
Sheena never had rhythm. We all intrinsically knew it, but had never spoken about it or assigned a label to it. It had been right there before our eyes the whole time, but it was Josh who had finally brought it to light. One evening after dinner at Curtis and Mike and Josh’s house, already having eaten dessert but not wanting to leave, our hosts broke out their instruments. Josh was already well versed in the banjo, while Mike and Curtis were learning to play the guitar and bass, respectively. They frequently played songs for us, and we took to calling them “The House Band”. Mostly because they all lived in a house, and they were a band.
On this occasion, The House Band wanted audience interaction, and as we settled onto the couches in the living room, Mike handed out the auxiliary instruments. Sheena and I were to play the egg shakers: basically little plastic eggs full of beads. Mike showed us an example of how to keep the background rhythm going with the shakers, and then picked up his guitar. The House Band began its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and Sheena and I began shaking our eggs.
“Whoa, whoa,” Josh said, stopping mid-verse. His voice had a gentle frankness. “What was that?” He was looking at Sheena.
“Umm…I’m shaking the egg,” Sheena said.
“Sheena, look. When we play the song, you go ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, got it? Easy, just a simple up and down motion.”
“Okay, I’ll make the egg go ‘chick-a-chak‘,” Sheena said.
The House Band restarted its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and on our cue we began shaking. Sheena might as well have started the couch on fire.
“Okay, everybody stop. Wait, wait, wait – stop. Now Sheena, you’re supposed to be going ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, but instead you’re going ‘chick-chick-chick-ch-ch-ch-ch-chak’, do you see?” He was speaking with the kind tone that a father might use to address his disappointment of a child.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any rhythm,” she said, and then surrendered her weapon of musical destruction.
Shortly before we left on our trip, The House Band dissolved. Curtis and Mike traded Flagstaff for Denver, moving there within a few months of one another. Brigit and Bret left a short time later for the chill and fog and high culture of San Francisco. Josh had decided to move back East to study infectious diseases and to marry Tammy. We gave him a stethoscope as a going away present on his very last dinner club night. We didn’t want him to leave, even though we knew that we, ourselves, would be leaving in due time.
In the morning, Sheena and I were startled awake. The sun peeked through the window of Nacho’s pop top tent, and when my eyes focused I could see a herd of water buffalo right outside of our van rolling around in the mud puddles left by the previous night’s storm. Two or three buffaloes would roll around, legs in the air, radiating pure bovine joy as the muddy water coated their skin, and then they would move aside and make way for the next bathers. It occurred to me that it was a Thursday morning, and that most of my friends would be waking up to a very different agenda on this day. I rolled onto my back, inhaled the fragrant morning air, and thought about how lucky we were to be able to go to sleep near an indigenous village at the mouth of a cave, to wake up to bathing water buffaloes, to drive through refugee camps and freely drive out of them.
We packed up our camp, fired up the engine and made our way back toward the small village. Cool air filled the van, indigenous ladies smoked their pipes, a banjo riff floated from our stereo, and I thought to myself, I wonder what Josh is doing?
[grooveshark width=”580″ height=”50″ id=”38828935″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons on Grooveshark[/grooveshark]