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  • Joseph Polack

YOSHIMI: SURVIVING PACIFIC BEACHES & GOLDEN TRIANGLE’S JUNGLE (4-Parts)

Before my blind friend Yoshimi joined our HGSC rough water team, she had risked her life among jungle tribes in the Thai-Myanmar-Laos border zone. Running an educational charity for tribal kids in the mountains inhabited by cobras, spiders, and other venomous animals, made Yoshimi Horiuchi used to danger for the past twelve years.

 

PART-1 YOSHIMI’S DIVING SKILLS

 


 

As Yoshimi and I have been friends for over a decade, we decided to celebrate our latest Japanese reunion with a charity swim and a potluck picnic alongside Fujisawa beaches.

 


 

As lifeguarding season was already over, we were joined by my fellow off duty Shonan lifesavers & members of the Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC): Jun, Guillermo and Atsuko.

  

 

Guillermo, who had together with me worked for the Tokyo Olympics Water Sports Security Team remained onshore with his mobile phone ready for any emergency.

Both Jun and Atsuko who were around the year veteran rough water swimmers accompanied Yoshimi offshore.

Many lives were lost during the past season...” I cautioned Yoshimi about the local undercurrents.

As long as there are no deadly jellyfish around, I should manage it,” Yoshimi assured us while following Jun further offshore.



 The shifting southern winds made our attempts to protect Yoshimi from dozens of surfers slaloming among bathers increasingly unpredictable.

Several years ago an inexperienced surfer had killed a female swimmer by crashing his board into the side of her head on a protected Shonan beach.

 

When I cautioned Yoshimi again about our tricky undercurrents, she said she would be extra careful. “The waters are too shallow for sharks, aren’t they,” she said.

Yes, that’s why occasionally hammerhead sharks are being stranded on our Shonan beaches. When a large shark preying on the swimmers was spotted along the bay, all our Kanagawa beaches were immediately closed for the summer...” Before I finished my shark warnings, Yoshimi had already disappeared between the waves. Though I shouted to a speeding towards us surfer to keep away, my warnings were drowned by the wind.

  

Some local surfers who realized she was blind, kept a protective distance; the others, didn’t pay attention to her. Encountering a blind swimmer in a colourful bikini enjoying off season rough waves wasn’t common on this side of the beach.

 


 Yoshimi seemed to sense an approaching danger faster than we. Whenever a sudden shift of wind would approach us from behind, she would dive. My fellow lifesavers were astonished by her fast reactions.

 

When Atsuko asked her to be more cautious, she said “I am careful! That’s why I had dived before being hit by that speeding board behind you.”

How did you know that the board was approaching us from behind?” I asked.

Because I am blind!” She smiled, “We blind folks can often sense what the seeing people may miss...” Yoshimi released my hand and suddenly dived again. I instinctively followed her.

Wow! You are learning fast!” She laughed when we bumped into each other on the surface. “It was close, wasn’t it?” She pointed at the passing by surfer. “I could feel him with my hands.”

What?”

You could learn to catch up underwater vibrations with your fingertips even if you can’t see what is happening behind your head. No magic! Just a bit of training!”

 


Shall we get back to our picnicking friends?” Jun suggested.

Couldn’t we enjoy the waves a bit longer?” Yoshimi spitted water out of her mouth. “I have been missing the salty taste of our Japanese sea since leaving my childhood’s island of Shikoku...”

 


 We rejoined our picnic table gathering Fujisawa residents from South America, Asia, and Europe. Guillermo & Patricia treated Yoshimi to 3 types of chilies from their Peruvian Andes and creamy dishes combining olives, avocados and walnuts. The homemade food was attracting more guests who were following Yoshimi’s memories of her journeys across four continents.

 

Her self depreciating humour and jokes about advantages of being blind made us forget that she actually couldn’t see since birth. And yet during the past two decades Yoshimi has traveled on her own to over 25 countries. Her captivating stories about touching water in such far away places as African lakes and Baltic Sea coast made us forget we were listening to her on this side of Pacific.

 

When our Polish friend Monika offered Yoshimi a homemade Polish-Japanese dip, Yoshimi responded with “Dziekuje” (‘thanksin Polish). Our conversation switched to Yoshimi’s memories of attending an international seminar for blind community in a Polish coastal town of Gdańsk “Your Baltic Sea was very cold, but my Polish hosts were warmhearted... ‘Na zdrowie!That’s all my Polish!” Yoshimi saluted Monika with a sip of Guillermo’s sangria, but refused my offer of local Japanese beer.

 “Don’t try to get me too tipsy. I have another meeting this afternoon and online work to finish in the evening.”

 

We ended our picnic with a little prize award ceremony. As a farewell gift, the winners of our HGSC Fujisawa Charity Swim Event handed Yoshimi a traditional illustrated children’s book that we had bought for her mobile library in Northern Thailand. 



 

You are always welcome to visit our children whenever your life journey may bring you closer to our Thai base at Phrao district and the highlands. Thank you from my heart.”

Instead of bowing in a Japanese way, Yoshimi expressed her gratitude in a traditional Thai manner of wai. She pressed her palms together, then placed them close to her chest in a praying-like-gesture.

 

That afternoon Yoshimi was invited to stay overnight at my daughter’s home that was located just a few minutes drive away from the beach.

  

PART-2: DORMANT MEMORIES & YOSHIMI’S JOY OF LIFE

 


During our follow up family party attended by our elderly neighbors, we had learned more about Yoshimi’s risky life choices that brought her in touch with the nomadic stateless tribesmen living in the mountains of the once infamous opium growing Golden Triangle. 



 

When my daughter Akane Liv, who was Yoshimi’s age, asked her if she was ever scared living so faraway from home, Yoshimi said that her life was made of lucky chance encounters with good people everywhere.

 

One of them was her American host mother Patricia Hooey. As a teenager Yoshimi spent with Patty’s family nine months while attending a High School in Minnesota.

“How did you manage to find an overseas scholarship when you couldn’t see?” An elderly diner wondered in Japanese.

“Oh, if there is a will, there is always a way,” Yoshimi smiled. “Could you pass me a napkin…”

Watching her fast moving hands among the dishes while freely chatting with other guests made me forget she couldn’t see.



 

I was still trying to figure out how people who were unable to see from birth,  could still imagine the world described in the books, when I overheard Yoshimi’s joyful chatting about magical dots of Braille alphabet.

“You don’t need to see as long as you could feel... in Braille or audiobooks, or whatever communication tool you were able to access...”

Is Braille a language?” Another elderly guest wondered.

Yes, we blind folks have our secret language made of dots that we could feel with our finger tips...” Yoshimi said.

As our home party gathered eight curious listeners between 5 and 76 years old, Yoshimi was frequently interrupted by the most unexpected questions about her field project in the Thai highlands.

Isn’t it difficult for visually-impaired people to work with the strangers faraway from home?”

Common!” Yoshimi’s sparkling laughter filled up the room. “I am not visually impaired! I am blind!” Her refusal to follow my political correctness in public seemed to amuse her.

Yoshimi tried to change the topic to a lighter one, but my Japanese neighbors continued to bombard her with questions about her international education and overseas work.

 

The guests were astonished to learn that upon graduation from the same International Christian University ICU where I had taught intercultural relations then, Yoshimi was invited to join the Communication Section of the IT Department at the prestigious Mizuho Securities in Tokyo.

 

Though she was then in her twenties, Yoshimi managed to graduate from India’s International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs and then set up her own organization in Thailand in 2010. Already at the age of 27, Yoshimi had become a founder-director of an educational charity that had evolved to Bookworm Foundation BWF. Thirteen years later, in 2023, she was still directing the fast expanding BWF activities and traveling the world.

 


 What made you to leave your secure Tokyo-job in the financial sector for Southern India and then Northern Thailand’s highland?” I asked.

Love!” Yoshimi replied.

“Love?”

“Yes, love for books. Since my early childhood in our family farm in Shikoku, I loved to imagine the magic world hidden in the books my grandparents used to read for me. That’s why I wanted the other kids living in the isolated places to discover the pleasure of reading...”

I got many books in my room upstairs,” Yoshimi was interrupted by my five year old granddaughter Sara. “Do you want to see them?”

I can’t see them, Sara. But I can maybe touch them later.”

Yoshimi who realized that languages were frequently shifting in our multicultural family had naturally navigated between Sara’s questions in either English or Japanese.

 

While listening to Yoshimi in Japanese, I reactivated my mobile phone’s google again. With every googling and change of languages, a line between the present and the past was getting increasingly blurred. My mind kept automatically switching between English, Japanese and my native Polish.

 

Yoshimi’s stories about her work among disadvantaged children in the faraway mountains were mingling with my own re-emerging childhood memories. And like a magic, the once forgotten sounds of my native language were coming back to life and turning to the fast moving pictures.

 

I could see the memories.

 

Then my childhood pictures of a little boy stranded in an orphanage in the Polish Tatra mountains faded away as suddenly as they had emerged. In an odd way, the Japanese sounds continued to overlap my long time ago forgotten Polish memories.

 

The odd mixture of old and new memories kept bringing me back to a Fujisawa living room ten thousand kilometres away from my birthplace. The place that the blind Japanese young woman sitting next to me had visited earlier during her trip to Poland in 2016.

 

Why did our path keep crossing?

Why were Yoshimi’s stories about children reviving my past emotions?

 

My memories were overlapped by my granddaughter’s voice again.

My dad can show you my books that can talk in many languages and even sing songs.” Sara turned to her musician father Kohki “Could we invite Yoshimi upstairs to touch my books, Dad?”

Mochiron, Sara” her father responded in his native Japanese and then repeated in English “Sure, Sara!”



 “Our Kodomo-no-Kuni library is so big that I and my cousin Mia must climb to get our manga… Can you climb with us, Yoshimi? We…” Sara’s chatting about our neighborhood  library was cut short by her grandmother.

 




 

After Sara joined her father to look for the talking-books, my Swedish-born daughter continued asking Yoshimi about Thai kids while massaging her shoulders. “You got stiff shoulders...”




 

Our conversation switched to English again.

But why did you start a mobile library?”

Unlike Japanese kids, the children in rural Thailand hardly have access to the  library ... the library must come to them. That’s why I had founded a mobile library.”

How did you get money to buy the children’s books?” I kept asking Yoshimi.

 “I never bought any new book. I was lucky to discover that there were children’s books gathering dust in my Thai friendsbookshelves... And the rest had just naturally unfolded...”

Unfolded without a library bus?”

We were lucky again. With the help of local friends we acquired an old van and turned it into a mobile library. Then we began bringing the books to impoverished kids living in isolated villages. Soon I learned that their relatives living higher in the mountains needed more clothing for their kids than just books.”

Wasn’t it tough to get to the mountains?”

Sometimes tough, other times tougher. The nature in the tribal lands is unpredictable. That’s how I realized that I needed more volunteers who could dig up plenty of clay and mud so we could make enough bricks before the rainy season. We needed sun...”



What?” One of my elderly neighbours was getting confused.

The tribal kids couldn’t read. We needed to build them a safe place to learn how to enjoy books away from the changing winds and poisonous snakes.

In eight years our little hut made of mud by the overseas volunteers in 2015 has become the most beloved preschool for Akha and Lahu tribal kids. You’re welcome to join our field team in the mountains and see it with your own eyes...”

 




 The next morning my daughter Akane accompanied Yoshimi to the same Fujisawa JR Station that I had picked her up a day earlier. The friendly JR staff helped to catch a Haneda Airport-bound train. She was on her way back home to her mobile library in the Phrao district.

 

The following day Yoshimi sent me an email from Northern Thailand with an invitation to join her field team of volunteers in the Thailand-Laos-Myanmar border zone.

  

PART-3: SURVIVING GOLDEN TRIANGLE IN THAILAND-LAOS-MYANMAR BORDERS 



 

Three weeks after Yoshimi left our Fujisawa neighborhood, my granddaughter handed me her little savings made of several coins for Yoshimi’s children charity. Then after Sara’s father Kohki added a 30.000 yen donation, and my son Ken presented me with his airline mileage, I packed my old rucksack and was on my way to the Golden Triangle. The risky decision of a fieldwork that I was going to regret just a few days later when I had twice narrowly escaped death in the tribal highlands in the Thai-Myanmar-Laos border zone.



 The place that I had only known from the online reports compiled by my fellow-anthropologists in seclusion of their campus offices, looked very different offline.

The way to the passport control was crowded with uniformed officers and wall posters warning about death penalty for drugs trafficking. The Chiang Mai airport’s immigration officer questioned me about a purpose of my visit and after screening my passport chip asked me if I had ever visited Thailand before.

“Yes,” I coughed nervously. “In 1977.”

The memories of my first trip to Thailand forty five years ago flashed through my mind. I was then an exiled from communist Poland junior anthropologist traveling on a stateless refugee passport.

The officer rechecked something in his computer and his voice turned suspicious. “There is no record… Why is your permanent residency in Japan, your birth country is Poland, and your passport is Swedish?”

“I am a travel writer,” I coughed again and showed him my Swedish Writers’ Union weathered ID card. 



 

Before stamping my passport, he cautioned me, “You can’t earn money here without having a work permit.” Then he gestured to a woman wearing a traditional hijab scarf. “Next!”



 After Yoshimi and her assistant Mrs. Mae Lek with her husband picked me up at the arrival hall, we traveled in their old car overloaded with donated clothing through the deserted countryside towards the Phrao District.

 

The villages around Phrao are inhabited by families belonging to Akha, Lahu, Lisu, and Karen tribal settlers.” Yoshimi briefed me during our drive.

Are they related to the nomadic mountain tribes that had migrated from China, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar?” I asked.

Yes, many of these tribal families used to move across the borders. Now when borders are more tightly controlled by soldiers, they continue to remain stateless from generation to generation. Their legal situation is as difficult as their basic human rights are frequently unprotected. They used to marry within their tribes, but currently the inter-marriages between the different nomadic tribes are becoming more frequent.”

Why?”

Because for the Thai majority being married to someone from the highlands may negatively affect their children’s future. That’s why the marginalized people marry other minorities.”

Do you mean they feel safer together in the cobra-infested mountains rather than settling down in the towns?”

You may ask them by yourself tomorrow.”

 

Before we parted, I handed Yoshimi an envelope containing 30.000 yen that was donated by my son in-law for covering of my volunteering expenses in the field.



 The following day Yoshimi guided me around shelves loaded with over ten thousand volumes and hundreds of videos. Then she introduced me to a visiting tribal couple and her local library staffers. Some were paid employees. The others, like myself, were self-financed volunteers.



 If there wouldn’t be any rainstorms, you could help us to bring more books and children’s clothes to the mountains.”

When?” I asked Yoshimi.

Whenever you finish your mobile library touring among the handicapped families and bedridden kids. Our staff librarian Mrs. Nok and her English speaking daughter Miss Ice will help you to choose the right children’s books,” Yoshimi handed me a dozen paper bags “Please pack separately for each household.”

How old are your youngest book borrowers?” I asked the librarian.

Depends on the day,” she turned to her teenage daughter who was volunteering as a library assistant.

Whom will we visit today?” 

Instead of replying, the mother-daughter librarian team helped me to sort out the row of paper bags filled with the donated books. The books that another assistant Ms. Nooknik had prepared according to the age categories and medical backgrounds of the families.

 

You should start loading books to the car before the rain will catch up with us,” Yoshimi advised me in Japanese.

Then she responded to her mobile phone and instructed someone at the other end in Northern Thai dialect first, and ended her conversation in English.

I guessed she was coordinating several field projects and fund-gathering events online, while simultaneously helping us to load the real books offline.

 

We were already on the road when her mobile phone came to life again. From the speed she operated several software programs of her phone at the same time, I guessed Yoshimi’s device was using the latest software technologies for blind people.

 

I made a mental note to explore further Yoshimi’s access to the latest Japanese inventions that have been affecting her lifework among marginalized people.

 

I wondered how many of these software tools were invented by a blind IBM Fellow Dr. Chieko Asakawa. Before I could ask Yoshimi if she was in touch with Dr. Asakawa, or with a Toshiba Fellow Dr. Shiro Saito who was following my field reports, our car was surrounded by the happily barking dogs.

The dogs seem to know the sound of your children’s books delivery faster than your junior readers. How old is the youngest reader?” I asked.

Instead of a reply, Yoshimi hurried through the mud to the entrance door. She didn’t need to use her white support stick. She knew the place by heart.

How old is the youngest reader?” Yoshimi repeated my question. “Some of them cannot read, but still love the books...”



 Only after delivering the books to the first seven households, I realized the naivety of my question. The teenage boy suffering a muscular disorder could hardly keep control of his falling head. Though he couldn’t follow the letters, he tried to enjoy the illustrated pages that I was turning over for him.



 An hour later a little girl who embraced me at her home entrance, didn’t let me go. She was holding a dolly in her arms saying it’s our baby. She wanted me to become her husband.

 

After I offered her a set of plastic jewelries for the baby-doll as a gift from my oldest granddaughter Mia’s collection, she gave me another kiss on the cheek and ran away. A few minutes later she brought a pile of her  drawings.

She wants you to choose a drawing for Mia,” Yoshimi interpreted for me. “And if you like, she said, she could also draw a new one for your brother.”

 

Instead of saying that I don’t have a brother, I tried to thank her in Thai, by using the only world I had learned from Yoshimi. Then the little girl drew more pictures and made sure I packed them carefully in my backpack.

 




  “I will put your beautiful drawings on our family Christmas tree in Japan,” I promised the little girl.

Though she didn’t seem to understand that I will bring her pictures to some faraway place called Japan, she gave me a hug.

Thirty minutes later the girl walked me out to our library car and gave me another kiss on a cheek. My attempts to express my gratitude in Thai language made the girl and her friends laugh.

Why did they laugh?” I asked Yoshimi in the car.

Because you are a man but you expressed your thanks like a woman. Didn’t I teach you that only a female could say ‘Khoob-khun-ka’... the man should say Khoob-khun-krab’... “You are a slow learner,” Yoshimi patiently explained to me differences in use of Thai language depending on gender and age of a listener.

During our drive to another household, Yoshimi explained to me that the little girl’s biological age was around twenty four, but she stopped growing two decades ago.

Though she has remained a happy child living in an adult body...” Yoshimi paused, “Our society isn’t ready yet to take care of the kids like her...”



 The following night the heavy rain turned into a storm. Yoshimi wasn’t certain about the safety of our next book-delivery to the highlands. It all depended on the specially hired local driver’s willingness to undertake a risky assignment of driving along the muddy narrow path over the rocky abysses.

But when around ten o’clock the morning turned sunny, we loaded together with Yoshimi’s team our old SUV with books, secondhand clothes, and fresh grapes for the tribal kids.



 Only a few hours after joining Yoshimi’s expedition to the tribal lands in the Golden Triangle’s mountains, I was regretting my decision to volunteer. I have never been so scared during my over five decades long work as a field anthropologist.

 

The contracted driver was a jolly, bear-like fellow in his late forties. Along the first part of the trip, Mrs. Mae Lek who was sitting next to him, was increasingly getting nervous. She could see that the road ahead of us was getting narrower. Though our driver who used to be a military guard at Thai- Myanmar border was skillfully navigating among fallen rocks, the SUVengine was losing power.

No worries, we will soon clear the muddy holes,” he assured us after we passed the Lisu tribe’s mountain-settlement near the abyss. While driving uphill he was recalling his prison time in Myanmar.

Was he arrested for dealing with drugs?” I asked Yoshimi who was translating my questions. “No he was employed as a prison guard by Myanmar’s authorities.”

But he said earlier that he was a Thai military guard at the Myanmar-boarder,” I was getting confused.

Yes, but because he spoke several local languages he was contracted to guard the jailed drug traffickers.”

 

 Our conversation was interrupted by his self-activating walkie talkie. The driver reported something to a person at the other end, and then changed the topic.

Long before this narrow mountain path was constructed, I used to make my living by transporting basic household goods on my shoulders...”

Suddenly our car began sliding closer towards a several hundred meters deep abyss. “The front wheelsengine doesn’t work!” Yoshimi calmly translated his words. “Why are you so nervous?!” She almost scolded me.

Ask him to stop pushing on the gas pedal. The car is getting out of control! Don’t you see... we are just a meter away from the cliff!”

I don’t see! Sometimes being blind can keep a person calm! Calm down!”

Though Yoshimi was trying to put me at ease with her usual cheerfulness, I was getting even more nervous watching Mrs. Mae Lek shaking in her front seat.

We were already half a meter from the cliff, but the driver kept accelerating the back wheels trying to control the dancing car.

When the car finally slowed, I wanted to get out, but was afraid to move.

Next to the left-side door was sitting Yoshimi surrounded by our bags. While she was trying to activate her silent phone, I was checking the door on my right side, but I didn’t dare to push it open. Some fifty centimetres behind the door, I could see the abyss hidden behind the bushes.

 

Suddenly a man, dressed in a military camouflage appeared from behind the trees. He was holding a machete in one hand, and a walkie talkie in the other one. He was transmitting our car’s position to someone at the other end. The hand break of our SUV didn’t seem strong enough to stop our car from moving down. Then the back wheels were caught by a big muddy hole and we stopped.

 

I  reactivated my mobile phone to write another field update but my hand was too shaky. It was then I realized that by trying to just chronically record my journey with Yoshimi wasn’t going to bring me closer to understanding of her life experiences. Being an emotionally detached field anthropologist didn’t work anymore in the Golden Triangle’s mountains.

 

Twenty minutes later a much larger SUV rolled slowly down the hill. The rescuers seemed to have known Yoshimi for years.


 

We are invited to stay overnight in Salam’s house,” Yoshimi pointed at the man in the military camouflage. His wife, Salama, has been running the Sunshine Kids Centre that our Charity had set up in the little hut. The hut we had built from mud eight years ago.”

And who is that other rescuer who arrived in this large SUV?”

Oh, he is a father of one of my kids.”

I didn’t know you got kids, Yoshimi”

Yes. Twelve Sunshine Kids between three and six... they were enrolled this year to our little Sunshine Center. The tribal folks have prepared plenty of welcoming surprises for you.”




 Soon after arriving at the Siplang Mountain Village that was inhabited by twenty five tribal families, our rescuer Salam and his wife Salama introduced me to a little group of the neighborhood kids. 


 

Gradually more kids who had joined our group and guided me towards a small hut made of dried mud.



 Though the school was made from mud, it’s interior was upgraded with help of the colourful classroom items that Yoshimi’s BWF volunteers had acquired at the bazaars and transported to the mountains.



 Yoshimi asked me to use the grapes I had bought for the kids in a Phrao market to encourage children to play language games with me. The grapes were used to teach children how to count.

 




 

For each correctly pronounced number in English, the winner was awarded a grape. In no time all the grapes were eaten and the kids were ready to switch from counting the numbers to play with words.



 

Some kids soon realized that though I could count in English, but they were better than I in counting in their home language. In a playful way the kids tried to become my teachers by teasing me to repeat English words in their tribal home language.

 


 The most astonishing was for me that their English was far more advanced than the English of Japanese Primary schoolers.

Though in addition to their native tribal languages that they had acquired at home, and Thai language that they learned at the Center, the kids enjoyed their third language. Their curiosity to communicate with strangers was as  infectious as their laughter.

 

Watching these tribal kids’ oversized and mismatched second hand clothing had brought back memories of my five years in a postwar orphanage in the Polish mountains. The memories of the donated clothes that were resurfacing against my will. And yet I didn’t feel sad anymore. Being with these kids helped me to heal my own childhood pain.


 

How did you achieve such a learning progress with such small kids?” I asked

Yoshimi on our way outdoors.

Oh, come on! Anything that is fun, is easy to learn. I had fun playing games in our farm at Shikoku island and discovering new adventures in the books that I couldn’t read at first, but I could listen to. It’s easy!”

Easy?” I doubted.

Sure! Ask Mrs. Salama, whom I have been employing as the teacher for several years.”

 


At the dinner that Salam and Salama had prepared for four of us at their house, I asked them how many languages they spoke.

As I was born in the tribe that arrived to Thailand from China,” Salama served me a vegetarian stew spiced with mountain herbs, “and my husband Salam’s family migrated from Myanmar, we had learned from each other two tribal languages first, then the Northern Thai dialect, and now with the help of Yoshimi’s games and books I can even read English for our children. Isn’t it amazing to learn English in the mountain village so faraway from America?”



 I didn’t know how to switch to another topic and ask them how many people living in their Wiang Pa Pao District are stateless refugees.

 

Before we went to sleep, I asked Salama’s husband Salam how often their relatives living in the lowlands visit their mountain families.

 

 “Since the latest deadly accident, fewer and fewer people take the risk to visit in groups their mountain families,” Salam sighed. “So many innocent kids and their parents vanished not so long time ago.”

What happened?”

Not so faraway from the place your SUV got entrapped, another truck loaded with dozen of kids and adults ran over the cliff into a hundred meters deep abyss.”

Did anyone survive?”

They are no survivors in the mountains. It takes a long time for police to learn who lost the life.” Salam waited for Yoshimi’s translation.

Many people here have no ID, no passports, no health insurance,” Yoshimi added. “You could find many refugees here who may tell you more tomorrow. Let’s get some sleep as Salama and Salam have plenty of other community duties tomorrow ...and be careful in night. The stairs to the outdoor toilet are steep and it may rain...”

 

That night I couldn’t sleep well. The memories of my own refugee past flashing through my mind had kept me awake. I traveled fifty years back in time. Though I closed my eyes I could clearly see my past-self: a young stateless refugee from communist Poland trying to survive as a penniless field anthropologist in the foreign lands.

 

The line between the past and the present had blurred again.

 

I recalled the time when I was crossing cultural and state borders with the other stateless tribesmen whose ancestors had migrated from India to Europe ages ago. The memories of my early Eurasian fieldwork among nomadic Roma-tribes were slowly being overlapped by Salam’s dog barking under the slippery staircase. Then everything faded away. I fell asleep in the shaking mountain house that Salam and Salama had built for their cross-cultural kids on the wooden pols deep in the jungle.

 




 

The next morning I was waken up by the furiously barking dogs. The first person I noticed under the window was Salam. He was holding a machete. Below him was a bloody mass. Yoshimi was kneeling searching with her hands for something moving on the ground.

What’s happened, Yoshimi?”

 


 

Oh, just Salam killed a cobra that was trying to get into the house. Do you want to touch it?”

But it’s still moving,” I looked with dismay at our host lifting up a poisonous cobra and trying to hand it over to me.

Don’t be afraid, even a killed cobra without a head will continue to move its body.”

 


 It took me a few minutes before I realized that during this night we were just a couple of meters from death without even knowing it.

 


 

The rest of the day I spent walking with Yoshimi’s Sunshine Kids along the village.

 

The fields that not so many decades ago were used for cultivation of opium poppies, were now growing avocados and coffee trees.



 I bought from Salam two packets of his freshly roasted coffee to bring to Japan for my children’s families.

Salama arranged with a father of one of her pupils to lend us a SUV with a strong engine and new tires.



 Leaving behind these beautiful little souls filled with big dreams that Yoshimi’s books had brought to their school hut made of mud, didn’t feel like a real farewell.

“Are you not feeling well?” I heard Yoshimi’s voice.

“I feel fine,” I said.

“But since playing with our kids I have become more silent. Didn’t you catch a cold, or some local virus that one of my foreign volunteers years ago…”

 

I wanted to share with Yoshimi some of my childhood memories that kept re-emerging during our journey. “Yoshimi may I…

“Yes!? Is there anything wrong with your mobile phone’s range? We never know how long the connection can last here, and I have still many scheduling and fundraising details to fix…”

 Yoshimi seemed too focused on details of her upcoming charity fundraising application deadlines to hear what I was trying to share with her.

 

Salama’s husband Salam drove us safely downhill back to Yoshimi’s Library in the Pharo District.

 

For the remainder of the day Yoshimi and I spent training in the little village pool. 

 

PART-4 BEYOND YOSHIMI’S ON/OFFLINE JOURNEY

 

 

For a while I enjoyed watching Yoshimi’s speedy crawling along the Thai poolside. Then I closed my eyes and tried to follow the sound of her hands rhythmically moving across the water surface. Then the rhythm slowed and increased again. Thought I couldn’t see her, I guessed she had made U-turn.



 The pictures from our joint swimming and diving among Japanese surfers had re-emerged from my memory. I recalled our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club’s HGSC Ocean Charity Event and the home party in Fujisawa. Though it was just just five weeks earlier, it felt so far away in time.

 

We spent our last evening in Phrao chatting about her future plans in the local BBQ eatery. After our second glass of beer, Yoshimi became more talkative. A returning topic of my chats with Yoshimi was frequently circulating around her need for more money.

 “I need more money to keep our charity work moving forward, she sighed.

 “But your library building is one of the most comfortable field libraries I had seen during my field-working in South Asia, and your pool of cars is growing.”

 “Well, glad you can see it.” This time Yoshimi didn’t crack a joke about being blind. “Our building lease is soon ending and we either buy it, or try our luck to find another short term lease to house our growing book collection… yes, our carpool is growing too, and so are our repairing expenses to make them safer… Anyhow, this time you made it safely back from the mountains, lucky you…”

 

Yoshimi waited for my response, and when I remained silent, she added, “Someday another fieldworker may be less lucky. That’s how life goes on here. Some folks survive their uphill trips, the others, don’t… “Na zdrowie,” Yoshimi toasted me in my native Polish.

Kampai,” I responded in Japanese and tried to order a second bottle of Thai beer, but Yoshimi preferred to talk about money rather than relax over a glass of beer.



 At first she tried to share with me details of people and organizations who had through years been contributing to her Bookworm Foundation BWF, then she stopped abruptly.

 “It’s almost impossible to give you right away a full account of all these good folks whose initial book donations were sometimes followed by children’s clothing, and even substantial monetary gifts from their children’s family savings…”

 “Children’s family savings?”

 “Yes, five members of a generous Takagaki family from Kamakura had donated 20.000 yen each. So we were blessed with 100,000 yen from just a single family. And we also got two private cars from our Japanese donors. One from a president of a food delivery Asahi company from my hometown Kochi where my mother used to work as an office clerk. An the other car from a Japanese official working overseas. All these little and bigger contributions have helped our foundation to grow internationally…”

 “Internationally?” I took another sip of a local Thai beer. “Are you expanding your charity work to the other countries?”

 “Though our BWF is legally registered in Thailand, our donors and volunteers are coming from many different countries… like you!”

 “Yes, but I have learned to know you personally, and since our meeting in the Aspen conference we have been in touch for over a decade. But how did the others learn about you?”

 “Facebook, Instagram, and the other social media where our visibility is steadily increasing… you can easily get in touch. If your guesthouse’s internet access is working better than in the mountains, you can just google more about us… Sorry, it’s getting late and we need to pick you up before six o’clock in the morning.”

 

While Yoshimi was being driven back to her library-base by the guesthouse’s owner, I returned to my room. After packing my half-dried swimming trunks to my old anthropological rucksack, I switched my Japanese mobile on googling:

 

Yoshimi Horiuchi

 

The number and variety of interconnected internet links kept me awaken all night long. I was getting both overwhelmed and increasingly confused. I kept moving between my unedited field video recordings from my latest journey with Yoshimi to the stateless people living in the Golden Triangle, and back to to Yoshimi’s images living online.

 

Yoshimi online and Yoshimi offline seemed for some people like two very different personalities:

 

One was patiently fitting her online responses to the agenda of governmental officials or national television’s film producers who were managing Japan’s image for global audience.

The other one was more freely reacting offline to unscripted situations in the field by defusing danger with genuine concern for safety of people under her BWF care.

 

 

The young woman cracking jokes about benefits of being blind to calm me down while our broken SUV was dangerously close to the mountain abyss, and the woman presented by the Japanese Government’s official page as the Grassroots Ambassador felt different. And so differently felt the spontaneous young woman, who had lightheartedly taught me how to confront my fear of a moving cobra in the Golden Triangle’s mountains where hardly a rescue helicopter could land safely.

 

 

The woman presented by the Japanese national television NHK in its English global broadcast, as well as by the other international media, seemed for some of the researchers to match the expectations of the online audience. Almost if we all have waited for appearance of a superhero able to turn our collective weaknesses and vulnerabilities into collective strength of shared compassion.

 

Then the media came upon someone matching the role. The young Japanese woman from Shikoku island who had discovered during her guest-studies in Thailand that in many isolated Thai villages there were kids dreaming about books. After moving from Bangkok to Northern Thailand and starting her organization ‘Always Reading Caravan’ (ARC) in 2010, a largely unknown Japanese volunteer began to attract attention of social platforms and mainstream media.

 

 

Though her Facebook profile has been chronologically listing  a wealth of Yoshimi’s achievements and increasingly important appointments, there seemed to have been something missing in her life journey.

 

Regardless of her growing skills in attracting media attention, it felt that she was projecting different sides of her charismatic personality to different people without even being fully aware of her impact.

 

For some of her anonymous admirers who have been following her through the social media, Yoshimi’s outgoing personality might have been increasingly difficult to categorize. She had evolved to a shrewd social entrepreneur and a skilled fundraiser, yet at the same time she remained cautious to protect her emotional vulnerability.

 


 For some other people, Yoshimi might have projected an image of a professionally successful fundraiser, but at the same time a lonely career woman trying to turn her physical vulnerability to her financial advantage as a Founder-Director of BWF and the Grassroots Ambassador. 

“And yet only her closest coworkers and local friends had known that since moving to Pharo, Yoshimi have for years been sleeping on the futon on her library’s floor. The futon she would unfold every day after the BWF library would close for the day. The library has become her home.”


I could hear morning birds and approaching dawn but I still couldn’t figure out why I was getting so strongly impacted by Yoshimi’s charisma. With just a few words or gestures, she could evoke memories of my own life journey.


Even when I had closed my eyes shut, I could clearly see the pictures flashing through my mind. In contrast to me, Yoshimi couldn’t open her eyes and see offline the world around her. Yet, she continued searching online for the ways of improving her own and the other people’s life.


 

I followed another link that connected me to a blind inventor Dr. Chieko Asakawa. It was Chieko’s IBM invention of a self-voicing Home Page Reader (Hpr) that has has changed Yoshimi’s life forever.

 

My online search to trace a Real Yoshimi hiding behind a media savvy Fundraiser Yoshimi by only using anthropological tools of analyzing recorded field interviews conducted by others, didn’t bring me closer to her.

 

The only time I could understand her life journey was whenever I was closing my eyes and letting my writer’s imagination to take over my anthropological training.

 

My online searching was interrupted by a knock to my door. It was 6 a.m. and Yoshimi’s Thai assistant and personal driver Mrs. Mae Lek reported that Yoshimi was awaiting me in the car.

 

I accompanied Yoshimi to the Provincial Immigration Office that was several hours drive away. We spent our time chatting about her Bookworm Foundation BWF’s growing needs for more efficient fundraisers. There was hardly enough time to switch from the BWF’s finances to the impact of Dr. Asakawa’s invention on Yoshimi’s career.

 

Yoshimi plans to invest in building her foundation’s new head office consisting of library and staff rooms depended on her residency permit. She was having problems to get an extension of her Thai visa even though she has been living in Thailand for over a decade. The problem was that though her BWF organization expanded from zero to five paid employees, it wasn’t enough to extend Yoshimi’s visa.

 

The main legal obstacle for Thai Immigration Authorities was that Yoshimi didn’t get any wages from her own foundation. Yoshimi has remained a volunteer while earning her income by working as a simultaneous contract interpreter from Thai, Japanese and English. Between her interpreting and speaking assignments, Yoshimi continued her risky field trips to the stateless folks living in the Golden Triangle.



 On our way to the airport, I handed Yoshimi a token 100 dollar bill that I had received from my old friend Dr. Natalia Kanem. Natalia during her visit to Kamakura beach many years ago had given me a couple of hundred dollar bills to pass over to anyone I feel may need a little encouragement before the holiday season.

 


 Most of Natalia’s bills I had shared with homeless and other socially marginalized people living in the urban jungle. This time her little bill has found a way to Yoshimi’s Sunshine Kids who found refuge for their dreams in the school made of clay in the Golden Triangle’s jungle.

 


 Natalia, Yoshimi, and I had met for the first time at the Aspen Conference on Cross-cultural Diplomacy  in Tokyo in 2011. In December of 2023, Yoshimi continues with her children’s charity at Northern Thailand; Natalia continues to work as the Undersecretary General of the United Nations; and I continue as an around-the-year-volunteer-lifesaver along Japanese side of Pacific.



 Meanwhile we are already playing with an idea of another reunion during the Dragon Year of 2024.

 

The New Year Day that we have celebrated with hope that good people will stop their ongoing senseless wars and the mobile libraries would replace the mobile arms race.

 

 

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