May 1st, 2005

Pool party failure

The pool party was cancelled-moved, and here is the story behind that.

It was to be at the completed pool, of a house still under construction. The owner had posted signs leading to it, had a soda chips and crushed ice cart, and charges 30B (about $0.75) for admission. When I visited the pool the first time, the water was clear and blue. After an hour or so, I asked the english speaking assistant of the owner, about renting it for a day. I offered 500B to have as many friends as I wanted come and go, and they happily agreed. I told them there would be children from burma, to feel out if there would be any racial sensitivities, they understood and said it would be fine. I didn't know for sure if the orphanage would like the idea, or if my western friends would be willing to come across town, so I didn't go into too many more details.

The next day I asked around, and found enthusatic support from the westerners and the orphanage. I returned to the pool, spoke agin with the owner and his translator-assistant and I gave a head count of 60. They balked, and doubled the price to 1000B to which I happily agreed. They seemed happy to get their asking price and we agreed that the pool would be exclusively our from 9am until 5p, but that the regulars at the pool who arrive in the evening would be welcome to share it from 5p-9pm.

I visited the pool once more with the Paw Ray, who runs the orphanage. She spoke with the wife of the man, who was cleaning the pool. I noticed the water had become a bit more green, but figured with her cleaning it all would be well. We determined that we could not bring much food, fruit and such would be ok, but that drinks would be fine. The woman asked about the religon of the children, and Paw Ray reported that there was a mix - one hindu, several buddhists, but predominantly mixed christian - and this seemed satisfactory to the woman who was clearly hoping for Baptists.

With Paw Ray and her husband we went to local shop and bought a ton of drinks and some cookies. Paw Ray would provide extra chairs, fruit, ice and cups.

I had told several students who spoke good english about the party, and they had spread the word. It seemed to be too far outside of their experience for the children to have any idea what to expect. But two teachers showed particular interest. One asked "the is blue?" indicating that he'd never swam in a pool, but had seen one at the local big hotel. I had planned to have some western food delivered, which we could eat offsite if need be. Another teacher said she'd never eaten pizza, but knew it from movies. I promised we'd have some and that she could try as much as she liked.

On friday we had our gradution ceremony, and on stage I advertised the next day's party formally, inviting all with the help of my translator.

We'd planned to arrive en masse at 9a, but around 8a Paw Ray took a few students to deliver extra chairs, sodas etc. I wasn't arround to know the exact details, but the owner seems to have taken one look at the children and balked. He saw the alcohol, and claimed he didn't allow a party, only swimming. In thai slang he seems to have made some very racist comments to the tranlator, unaware that several of the children who were delivering chairs spoke thai quite passably. He seemed to emphasize the children as dirty, despite our insistance that everyone would be showering in the 4 showers at the pool. And it continued along these lines.

Paw Ray called me, explaining that the alcohol wouldn't be allowed. First and foremost this was for the children, so I said fine. We'd keep the booze here, and maybe have a little after party in the evening. They left some sodas and chairs behind and returned to the school.

I rode to the pool, to see if more money would allow booze, and found the pool a deeper, funkier shade of green. Something back home I'd be very reluctant to swim in, but here it might still be good enough. I had a vague sense of the racism from Paw Ray's phone call, but didn't yet know the full scale. No amount of money seemed to resolve the booze issue, so I let it go. I returned to the school.

A few were suggesting that we go to some waterfalls nearby, where drinking would be ok. I took this to mean that they wanted me to be able to drink, which was the least of my concerns. The waterfalls were a 30 minute drive away, and there would be no way for most of the westerners to get there. Even reaching them before their 20 miunte bike ride, to tell them of the cancellation/change-of-plans would be difficult.

It was here that I learned more about the racist remarks, and discovered that those old enough were now pretty uncomfortable with the man, and the idea of visiting his pool. They became enthusiastic about the waterfalls, but I suspected that this was more of a 'it'll be ok mike' than sincerity. I had made a public promise, and it seemed there would be no way to deliver.

The school is not-quite-legal and many of the children are illegal as well. I had to make sure that whatever I did didn't piss off anyone in a position to make life more difficult for the school. It seemed it would be impossible to take everyone as far as the waterfalls, so paw ray wanted to buy off the youngest children with a case of soda and take the older ones to the waterfalls. But this still left me feeling like I was bait-and-switching.

I called a local hotel (the one where Taki had seen the blue water) to ask about getting their meeting room and using the pool, but hit a dead end on such short notice with so many children. And during this whole process everyone was just sitting and waiting. There were few options, and me in a sour mood wasn't doing any good.

I reluctantly agreed to the waterfalls, as Paw Ray hopped on a scooter to go track down another truck to transport all the children, feeling terrible watching my gift of a relaxing day at a pool a 10 minute walk away, turn into a logistical lightmare requiring great effort for those who I thought most needed the day off.

Mainly I wanted to go kill the racist son of a bitch, and set fire to his home.

I managed to reach some of the key westerns to have the spread the word. I still don't know if anyone biked all that way for naught. If so I hope this will explain why I had to flake.

The waterfalls were actually quite nice. Perhaps a hundred small pools, with drops of about 1 foot each time. Nothing was more than 3 feet deep, but it was great for playing and splashing. We played guitar and sang. Made up games, and gave out some of the candy I'd brought as prizes. I'd picked up an inflatable beach ball, some mini-inner tubes, and an inflatable dolphin. All were a big hit. And the beers flowed openly even with some of the 16+ crowd. Another school was even at the falls, and Paw Ray got to do a bit of networking, and the kids saw some of their friends from across town, or back in the refugee camps. I swang like trazan across the falls, and rough housed in the water. Even taught them my little hand squiting trick (hard to explain, I'd have to show you), which was a big hit.

There is more, but this explanation is already too long. We had a great time, even if it wasn't the one I planned. It was a good reminder for me (and a sad one for them) of the extra challenges they face, even after making it here to relative safety.

Today I will leave. Tomrrow is bangkok. And the next day is the Ukraine. Someday I will bore you as I cry my eyes out with over stories of my time here. But for now, as always, there is too much to do, and too little time. Please make the best of your time as well.

hoooray for lawyers and insurance companies!

If you just want to know about the pool party skip down to 'POOL PARTY'

Unocal has been one of the most high profile US companies to have an investment in Burma. They've done it somewhat indirectly, to avoid official US sanctions, but there has been a long running lawsuit suing them for their involvment in a mini-genocide.

Unocal just settled the case. Which is effectively an admission of guilt. Thats good. What's better is that Unocal felt the settlement should have been covered by their insurance, but the insurance company refused to pay.

While these two battle it out, the actual outcome will benefit human rights in either case. Up until now, there has been no price on human rights. You can say that there could be no price high enough, but up until now the lack of one has meant that infinity was the same as zero. There was no reason for a company to care about human rights, becuase it cost nothing, and was of no cost or benfit to share holders.

The ideal outcome would be for the courts to decide that the insurance company must pay. That would mean that insurance companies would have to go into the buisness of doing do diligence to determine if a company is endangering human rights. And if so, how much. The insurance company will put a price tag on it, and raise the company's preimums accordingly. Companies that are flagrantly violating human rights will be uninsurable. And those that doing it only little will have to pay through the nose to do so. Because the settlements are likely to be so high, it will stop being cost effective to violate human rights. This in turn means that doing business in burma is just too expensive. And this will pull companies out of this and other regions. The domino effect on this one is tremendous.