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samedi 16 mai 2009

To Myanmar with Love.. Indeed

An Unusual Tale of Love in the time of Cyclones, Monks and Masters

Myanmar is a mysterious country. Politically speaking, which I rather not do, it has been stuck in the 1950s. Once a gem among the emerging Asian countries now relegated to the status of a pariah.

But, Myanmar has also the sweetest, the gentlest and kindest people in all of Asia! Read about this encounter of mine, just last week, in May 2009... I am as full of nostalgia as I sit here in Paris and recollect the events...

A new guide book for the connoisseur has been published by in SF, containing personal stories by veteran travelers to Asia and especially by those who had fallen in love with Myanmar. I have two stories in the book; one is about the Hat Vendors of Chaungtha Beach, in the Ayerawarry Division. Three little girls of the village that I had befriended in October 2005 on my first visit there. They were unsure of their ages or dates of birth. I was with a group of my Burmese friends and all of us had a good time together. I went back in December 2005 and at this time made arrangements for some education from the monastery for the three children. In 2006, a Kayin friend of mine, Nyi, went by bus from Yangon and fetched the three girls, two of the brothers and one of the fathers. This was their first ever visit to Yangon. We went to the Schwedagon Paya, let them experiment with various types of food not easily available in Chaungtha, and took them to the night market to buy clothes. They stayed at the home of a friend of mine in Saunchang Township. The visit lasted about four days. I clearly remember getting into the taxi to go to the airport, in front of a Burmese restaurant in Saunchang Township.

Then came the events of 2007 and the destructive cyclone of 2008. The group of young women I was helping to achieve their careers was all scattered, one to Siem Reap, the others working in various businesses... My contacts with them decreased and it was impossible to get hold of the girls of Chaungtha beach... no telephone connections, of course no internet and the uncertainty of postal services. During my two visits to Chaungtha I had befriended a native of Pathein, Mr. Win Htay, also called William who ran a restaurant in the main street. His own story is remarkable which I hope to record one day.

I thought about the girls, lamented the fact that I cannot reach them, nor could any of my Yangon based friends. The plans to educate them petered out, since the cyclone had wiped out most of the skeletal residences of theirs and the monks had been busy with other things, including travel.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on 4th May 2009, with intention of going to Yangon on the 8th, with absolutely no hope of seeing the children, unless I make the trip to Chaungtha, which is not an easy one do, but doable. Since my time in Yangon would be gulped down by new and old friends, I had given up on the possibility of ever seeing the children from Chaungtha.

On 6th May, a Wednesday, I thought of something, why not try to get in touch with William? I knew he would have a mobile phone, for his business, and fortunately a mutual friend in Cambodia, had recently been to Yangon and had spoken to him. Having armed with his telephone number, I held my breath as I dialed the number... communication with Myanmar is neither easy nor cheap... The phone rang and a voice came over. William, this is the doctor, do you remember me? You told me your story at your restaurant one night about 3 years ago. I am the friend of the three girls and you took me to meet the monk. I released a sigh of relief when he said he remembered me well. Then I asked him for a favour, would it be possible for him to give the girls a message? Please tell them that their friend the Cuban doctor, Aung Khant, the Burmese name they know me by, is coming to Yangon on 8th Friday that is two days from hence. I will pass on the message, he said. What he did not say was that, when he was speaking to me, he was at Mytikla, near Mandalay, a world removed from Chaungtha. For those who know the infrastructure of transportation and communication in Burma, would give up their hands up in frustration if they have to get a message to a village with no phone, water or electricity, hundreds of kilometers away . Now at least there is a possibility that the girls would know that I was thinking of them and Ojala, one day we can be together again.

The flight to Yangon was smooth and the procedures through the Immigration and Customs rather swift, since there were no tourists at all on this flight from KL, mostly indentured Burmese labourers being repatriated from Malaysia and Singapore.

American Indians say that when a journey begins, and something unpleasant happens, it is a sign that the journey augers well. The interaction with the taxi driver from the airport to Yuzana Garden Hotel was ordinary, like it was in any other country. I dismissed it on the faith of what my American Indian friends had said.

It felt good to be back in Yangon. Nothing has changed same scenery, same buildings, and same roadside shops. I started travelling to Myanmar in 2003, six years ago and since then I have been there 13 times (counting the number of Burmese visas on my passport)... have travelled from Mawlemayne in the south east to Mytikyna in the north, Sittwe to the west and on my first visit the usual tourist route of Lake Inle, Bagan and Mandalay. Also have travelled up the river up to Bhamo. I can easily blend in with the population that is truly a blessing in Burma, not to be thought as a foreigner.

During the many visits, one learns many tricks of the travelers. Don’t use the telephones of the hotel (they charge 10 times as much), stock up on goods from the supermarket nearest to you, eschew the hotel breakfast of boring toast and eggs and have some mohingar noodle soup at a shop nearby. Arrange everything through friends at Travel Agencies rather than doing it yourself, and travel with Burmese friends wherever you go…

The day was bright; I knew that just outside the hotel there was a place to use telephone. I sauntered over there. I had a list of people to call: the home of my oldest Yangon connections, the family with whom the girls had stayed, the home of PhyuPhyu and her mother; a doctor who is interested in setting up something in Diabetes Care; William my friend from Chaungtha to enquire about the girls; Su Yee whom I had met in KL; Stellar a new Shan friend from Yangon among others.

I decided to call the home of PhyuPhyu and her mother. I dialed the number. Imagine my surprise when unfamiliar voices came over the phone. I cried out, PhyuPhyu? No answer but some giggles...This is the telephone number in Saunchang township... why these giggles and no answer... a little later, a familiar voice comes over.. Hi Friend, this is William and where are you? I was so taken back, shocked in a sense; I forgot to ask if anyone else were with him. Where are you staying? I told him, Yuzana Garden Hotel, and he said... wait for me there, I will be there within half an hour.

American Indians always say, nothing happens without a reason, everything is connected. I walked back to the hotel with trepidation, are the girls from Chaungtha here? How did they get here? Did William come with them? Where will they stay? How many days? Are they really here?

Within half an hour, to the pristine lounge of the Yuzana Garden Hotel, under the curious eyes of the door men and the receptionists, two taxis disgorged a collection of people.

They all had one thing in common, they looked tired from a long journey, they looked hungry and they badly needed some shower and a rest.

The girls from Chaungtha ran out of the taxis one by one and embraced me and they were ranting in Burmese with tears in their eyes and with smiles so broad that my heart was on the brink of a breakdown. Tin Tin Aye the impish of them all, Eh To the smallest and the sweetest looking and Pa Pa Win, my favourite and with a face and colour so similar to mine that she can easily pass off as my daughter…that is what she would become by the end of this trip!

Two mothers, three siblings... altogether eight of them... and with them was William... everyone was excited, the hotel staff confused but amused...

William is from Pathein and is not that familiar with Yangon, but we were able to ask around and find a hotel for them nearby, within walking distance.

My friend, the girls are very hungry, so let us take care of it. To the Mohingar place in front of the hotel, and for a modest sum they had their fill. They had bags with some clothes and the youngest sibling was busy suckling his mother. They looked truly bedraggled and in need of rest.

After the repast, they composed themselves, still unable to believe, they or me, that they were in Yangon and we were once again together after an absence of three years, almost to the day!

William began explaining. When I called him from KL, he was visiting his wife’s family in Mytikla near Mandalay. How to go about this? He decided to call the Monastery, near where the girls and their families lived. After several tries, he was able to speak to the girls. He told them Aung Khant will be in Yangon, day after tomorrow. They unanimously wanted to come. But there were several problems to be overcome.

First of all, none of the families had the money for bus fare to Yangon. The regular bus that leaves at 0600 hours every day for Yangon arrives in Yangon around 12 30 pm. So if they left on Friday morning, they could reach Yangon around noon on Friday, just about the time my flight would be touching down. That meant that William had to leave his wife, moving her from one hotel to another, on the night of Thursday, so that he can arrive in Yangon to wait for the girls. In fact he arrived 0400 on Friday morning, and waited until noon when the girls wandering around the Yangon bus station could spot him.

He called the bus operator in Chaungtha. He promised them that he would personally pay the bus fare to the driver when they reach Yangon. He called back the girls and told them to get on the bus on Friday Morning and that he will wait for them at the Yangon Bus station, which by the way is way out of the city.

Who among the ordinary people of Burma has enough money to lay out this? What if they couldn’t meet me in Yangon? Where were they going to meet me? Apart from the fact that I may be in Yangon that day, they had no idea how to get in touch with me. The ingenuity of the people who have nothing, but their emotions and love, as I have seen over and over again in Cuba was well demonstrated here.

William arrives from Mytikla, waits and encounters the hungry girls, who have no money and were not able to buy anything during their bus journey, over not so comfortable roads, for those who know Burmese roads.

Where is Aung Khant?

They had no telephone numbers to call, no addresses to search for, that is when Tin Tin Aye chirped in; if we take a taxi to Saunchang Township, I will recognize the shop where we ate lunch and dinner with Aung Khant. A taxi consented and the entourage got in, the three pairs of eyes were hawkishly scrutinizing the surroundings, they recognized the township, they recognized the main road and within minutes they recognized the corner where once stood the restaurant.

It had closed and in its place was a video store. But the ever jolly, efficient William talked to the people around, at the tea shop and they located the address of the owners of the defunct restaurant, who are my friends. They climbed up the five stairs, and you can imagine the surprises on the faces of every one when the door opened and the girls could recognize PhyuPhyu and her mother...

Within minutes of their arrival, the phone rings, and it was me…

I was nearly in tears, at this magnificent gesture of humanity, this great gift these girls and their family and William had given me. Poor give more of themselves than the rich; I had learned that over and over again. I have been given very expensive presents by my patients, once a car, another time Cartier perfumes but none of those come anywhere near just one smile of these girls. Imagine yourself, going on a journey with no money to your name, to a town you have never visited which happens to be the biggest city in your country, with just the knowledge that someone with whom you had bonded three years ago would be or might be arriving in that city!

What TinTin Aye and Eh To Win and Pa pa Win has taught me... not just the humanity, as wide as the sea that they possess, the charity of giving of oneself, the greatest of all charities; the true sense of love and affection and loyalty, even for such tender and young minds, the desire to live the good path as they learned in their Buddhist prayers, and once again, the necessity to sacrifice oneself for the welfare of others..

We spent two days together. What do you want to eat? They all wanted to eat Chinese food, something denied to them in their village, and where do you want to go, unanimously the first answer was, Schwedagon pagoda... and a visit to the night market.

We were all together for two days. They had a comfortable room at Jade Imperial Hotel just a street down from Yuzana Garden Hotel. They were comfortable eating various types of food offered along the street, drinking tea or fruit juice or ice cream when they wanted to. They are all devout Buddhists and to them visiting Schwedagon Pagoda is a dream and worthy of merit. The two mothers were patient, the siblings behaved extremely well. None of this would have been possible if William was not there. He organized their return trip to Chaungtha as he was eager to go back to his wife and family in Mytikla, but he left only a couple of hours before the departure of the girls, who by now were laden down with their purchases.

I was travelling to Yangon with a most appropriate person, a close friend from Malaysia whose heart is as generous as these girls, but in a different direction and it was nice to see the bonding of a humanitarian accountant from KL with those of the hat vendors of Chaungtha Beach...

We had many other appointments: visiting Hwa Shin Jewelry store in Bogyoke Market; visiting my Indian moslem family friends whose children Usman and Aisha and Hazana have become my friends; meeting the doctor, who turned out to be a very kind person; dinner with Su Yee; and nostalgic visit to the House of memories of the Bengali Teak merchant, to retrace the steps of my father. I managed to do all these and a visit to the Botataung Pagoda and the Rangoon river side for sunset...  I was a little disappointed when I arrived just before Shabbat at the Synagogue at the 26th street to find it closed and shuttered…

That possibly was the only disappointment of this trip to Yangon, my 13th or 15th, who keeps count on emotions that outpours like the lava, thick and glutinous and abundant, of Mona Kea (Hawaii).. This was a truly uplifting experience, a spiritual one, given to me my three little girls of the Chaungtha beach. During the month of May just before the monsoons arrived in Myanmar...