AYA/ATF Conference: 2 days in Phuket
A central component I’ve been told, of the AYA/ATF conference, is the “exposure”—an immersion experience with local migrant and refugee communities in the country where the conference is based.
The approximately 60 conference attendees were split into several immersion groups based on our interests. Some went to rubber plantations, others to schools, others to palm oil plantations. Joe and I headed south to Phuket and to visit the migrants who work at a local fishery.
Our group was split between men and women—with the rest of the women I slept in the Diocesan Center offices, a space shared by several migrant families from Myanmar. The men stayed with the fishing families, in their company housing.
The sleeping arrangements, among other things were a mystery until we got to the diocesan center in Phuket Town. Upon arrival, the woman in charge of the house repeated the rumor we’d heard, that we needed to buy our own mats to sleep on. So off we went to the street market, and found thin mattresses to sleep on for the next two days.
The first night, the girls and I went to a night food market for dinner. We delighted in picking out a variety of food to eat—sticks of barbecued meat, shrimp cakes, curries and fishbowls, fried sweet dough. . . I have had amazing luck eating everything and feeling good, though the food is so spicy I can’t eat too much.
We all found our mat-beds early that first night. In one bedroom 5 girls slept, and in the common room area, I slept with two other girls, “Sweetie” from Myanmar and “Elle” from Vietnam. I had the nicest mat by far, the other two girls slept on practically nothing. I could name a child after Joe for being the first to buy the nicer mat.
The space was airy—and though we shared it with about 10-15 migrants from Myanmar, would walked in and out and about—and were welcoming though we invaded their home. The nights were fun and comfortable and relaxed and thankfully, due to lingering jet lag and zzzquil I slept well both nights.
I was extremely impressed by how relaxed and adaptable all the girls were too. Not one complained or made a big deal out of our make-shift sleeping arrangements. It was a great reminder of how good we have it in the US—we are so removed from poverty that the idea of not sleeping in a bed warrants several paragraphs.
The first night I didn’t love it, and remembered feeling the same way I did when I first saw the room I lived in in Nairobi—it’s almost like a panic, or fear, to see a small bathroom with no toilet seat, a shower on the wall and no toilet paper. But, the bathroom, and everything else in the office was clean. A spray faucet is the bidet-equivalent in Thailand, I just wasn’t quite adventuresome enough to try it.
At the Fishery
The fishery in Phuket Town was striking—the fishing boats seemed out of a movie—they were so aesthetically dramatic they almost didn’t seem real.
Our purpose in the exposure trip was to live and work with migrants. Due to poor planning, it seems few of the groups were able to work, and frankly I’m extremely glad because I think it would have been dangerous and a little invasive. However, we were able to have some good conversations with the workers.
Talking to the workers was fascinating and sad—we spoke with several Myanmar women who were sorting fish. They were all young-21, 22, and a Thai girl who was a tragic 15. They spoke of low wages, hard work, the wish to return home to Cambodia and Myanmar. Men worked on the boats, and were coming in and off, dumping fish for the women to sort.
Across the road, behind the port was the housing for workers at the fishery. It was basically a slum. An aspect of the exposure was interviewing families, but because of several changed and confusing plans, I ended up not going along with the group. While walking through the slum housing—which reeked of fish and was extremely hot, I suddenly felt like a slum tourist, and turned back with my Pakistani friend. It felt invasive, with the lack of explanation from our group I didn’t want to intrude in someone’s home. It is so ridiculous to think of the opposite happening—poor migrants walking around our neighborhoods asking us questions. I guess the thing is—I love interviewing people and visiting homes—but on their terms. When I was invited to a Somali man’s home in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, I was honored and it felt equitable. It didn’t feel that way to me in Phuket.
Since our program’s plan mysteriously went off the rails, our van driver who drives tours offered to take us around Phuket and to go to the beach. Phuket is pretty famous for tourism, and it was a little strange not seeing any until we visited the temples, and then, the notorious Patong Beach. The most notorious sex tourist trap in probably all of Thailand. I believe the Ping Pong show originated there. I was pretty upset when I realized where we were.
Our driver even took us down the most disgusting strip I’ve ever seen—it makes Bourbon St. in NOLA look sweet and gentle. The amount of human trafficking operations most have been astronomical—you literally had to dodge people hawking signs that looked like a menu with a picture of a girl that said “ping pong/sexy show”. Women danced on poles on bars next to the street and middle aged men sat on bar stools next to signs for 200 baht vodka buckets.
Being at a conference studying migration and the exploitation of women into the sex industry made seeing Patong even more powerful. We have seen so many sides of Thailand already.
Nevertheless, since it was probably Joe’s only chance at swimming, he and I and Ashik quickly changed and ran into the sea. The water was glorious. The sand perfect. The cove-beach idyllic. The only negative—I lost my shoes.
Today [yesterday] our trip back to Surat Thani took a few detours, to Phang-Nga national park and a lovely look-out over Phuket Town. The girls are all asleep in the van and the rain is pounding on the windshield. The scenery has changed from misty hilly rocks jutting out, to flat hills of palm and banana trees.
Thailand is a familiar country. The smells to me are of Nairobi and Cochabama, the people are friendlier than anywhere I’ve been. The spicy food blows me away. I’ve loved getting to know the participants too—such quality young people.
The conference begins Sunday. More reports to come.
If you missed the first few blogs, check out: