Merrymaking in Myanmar

 

IMG_0005We pulled into the Yangon Central train station at 5:45am. We were just in time to see the majestic sun waking up. We’d come from Bagan on an overnight bus and were quite the sight. We still hadn’t solidified logistics with our host in Yangon, so were feeling a little unsettled.
While at that train station we began to take in our surroundings, noting that the main hall of the train station was filling up with local travelers, many of them wearing the traditional longyis, and yellow paint of their faces. There were many side rooms in the station, full of people, sleeping on floor mats, just rising from a long night sleep.  We went to the bathroom to try to refresh. There were two ladies sitting outside of the bathroom waiting for me to pay them a few coins to use the facilities. Once in the bathroom, I thought it unusual that one of the stalls was converted into a sleeping room and realized that it probably belonged the ladies manning the door, that this was actually their house. So, we decided to wait until we got to our host home to really clean up.

IMG_0010We were hungry and found a local vender selling these delicious pastries that you dipped in a coffee like substance and eventually the four of us reunited back in the main hall. Craig had already negotiated our tickets and we had finally connected with our host and boarded our train.

As we boarded the train a few things caught our eye. First, the train car we boarded said “Ordinary Class” on the side of the car. We thought that was pretty funny that we were riding the ordinary car. Second, we were fascinated by the many riders with unusually red mouths. They were chewing something and would spit long streams of red dye out of the window of the train car. When they would smile we could see a twinkle in their eye, however, seeing their teeth was another story as most them were missing. There was one man who strolled through our car with a round metal tray filled with all sort of nuts, white powder stuff, leaves, and little bowls to crush stuff in. We later learned that he was selling a sort of chewing tobacco,  called Betle. We learned it was quite addicting and besides the loss of teeth, it’s also a leading cause of mouth cancer. The tradition runs 2000 years deep, so even with the new health information it will probably take a long while before it’s looked down upon in the common land.

IMG_0018We finally found our way to our host home and stumbled in about 9am. We were exhausted but excited to meet our new friends and hear about their journey from Phoenix AZ to Yangon, Myanmar. Mother/Daughter duo, Brenda and Nola, founders of the organization R.A.T (Run against Trafficking)  based out of Phoenix AZ, have worked for the past three years and raised thousands of dollars advocating for programs that assist victims of human trafficking. Through a series of events including a visit to Myanmar in 2013, they solidified their desire to come over and implement a similar strategy to raise awareness through their 5K R.A.T race. Three weeks prior to our visit they had facilitated their first run, which we learned was the first non-profit run in the history of Myanmar. It was a huge success and opened many doors with local leaders. We enjoyed hearing their stories of near misses and moments of divine orchestration at exactly the right time.

One afternoon, Brenda and Nola introduced us to their friend Rick Chase, who told us his story of working in refuge camps back in Canada and hearing the tragic stories of the people of Myanmar. He said, these stories inspired he and his family to give up everything in Vancouver to try to make a change. After doing a bit of research, Rick found that helping to meet a nutritional need was one ways he have a major impact. He decided to take a risk and start a local soy milk business called Snowball Soy. He shared his struggles of starting a business in a foreign country but his vision to feed one million people, orphans especially, across Myanmar, seemed to rise above the struggles. He’s brought over a Canadian invention called a Vitagoat soy food processing machine. The machines are inexpensive to set up and can be run without any electricity, which means a Vitagoat can be used not just in urban areas, but in refugee camps and the middle of the jungle.

While at lunch with Rick, we made note of his language skills and he said that it was a necessity to learn the language and learn it well. He said he felt that it was a major contributing factor in the success of his business. We concurred and enjoyed the benefit of having someone with us that could communicate in the native tongue as our food seemed to taste better and arrive quicker than normal.

IMG_9036On another occasion, in our little neighborhood, we were invited by Mai, the owner of the condo apartments we were staying at, to perform a concert for the locals on her front porch. As we set up our instruments, people from up and down the street began to gather around. Music is a universal language and for that one hour we all spoke that same language and sang our hearts out. Merrymaking on the streets of Yangon was a highlight to be sure and meeting sweet Mai, her family and all of her neighbors was a sheer delight.

As the week progressed, I found myself ill and in bed but Craig and the kids continued to explore. Craig was quite popular on the streets of Yangon and found welcome in most places with his huge mustache and bright smile.

IMG_9087As he wandered the streets, he was especially fascinated with the construction process, tools and crews. At one point, he was watching in wonderment as a crew build a three-story building. One of the workers noticed him and waved him up to the third floor take a closer look. Language was a barrier but the smiles and hand gestures were enough to understand the process. The manual labor component was intense as they would mix the concrete by hand below and then take turns carrying the loads in metal bowls, on their heads, up to the third floor, in flip flops on uneven surfaces. Craig was especially in awe of the women on the crew who would carry the same weight on their heads as the men.

Then, on one occasion, Craig popped into a convenience store looking for a calendar of the infamous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. As he entered, the young man behind the counter quickly ran to the back of the shop to hide behind a curtain. Soon a few heads were peaking around the corner at Craig, hands to their faces to hold in their giggles. Eventually, they pushed a young girl forward and she slowly walked to the counter, eying Craig up and down with a big smile on her face, making a gesture with her hands above her lip clearly communicating that he was quite the sight. He got a kick out of their playfulness but didn’t find his calendar there. However, later, Mai from the condo, handed Craig a gift and it had a lovely calendar for him.

IMG_0019On another occasion, Craig was walking near the train tracks and saw an old-fashioned train control center. He began to poke in and around the building and was eventually invited by the two fella’s manning the booth, to come in.

He was excited to able to get up close and have a good look at the vintage mechanics of using levers to change train tracks. He walked in with his shoes on, which was a no no but the fella’s graciously gestured for him to remove them. Once again, despite the language barrier, these fella’s seemed quite happy to have Craig’s company for a little while; they admiring his big red mustache and he admiring their lever system.

 

IMG_9032And of course, you can’t go to Yangon without stopping by the ancient billion dollar pagoda in the city center. Craig and the kid went to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, known as the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. It apparently contains relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. These relics include the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koáč‡Ägamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Out of respect, no one can wear any clothing that shows their knees, so our son, who had gone in shorts, had to purchase a traditional longyis and wear that throughout the grounds. He rocked it out.

IMG_9030History, traditions and legends aside, it was the immense amount of gold and jewels in the temple that really made an impact on the kids. When they returned they told me of the grandness  of the pagoda, exclaiming that it’s worth was upwards near US$4 billion dollars. My mind couldn’t grasp what $4billion dollars in a constructed building would look like but they described it well telling of the half a tonne of gold in Shwedagon’s umbrella alone. Then there was the 5500 diamonds – the largest of which is similar in size to one that Sotheby’s auctioned for $10-12 million, and gems galore, including 2300 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, in the main spire and 4000 golden bells. Then there was the gold, jewels, and 21st-century LED displays that swirls around many of the Buddhas. Actually, it was quite overwhelming to even think about. With all the jewels abounding, we could imagine a hilarious Pink Panther movie being filmed here!

IMG_9045Near the end of our stay in Yangon we met Polly, a shop owner across the street from where we were staying. Her little sewing shop was called Gold Rose Design and Creation and she had about eight young ladies working for her. I decided to pop my head in and see about having my pants altered before we flew to Singapore the next day. She assured me they would be finished by evening and asked me to stop back then. I went back to our host home to pack and prepare for the journey ahead. We shared our last meal with Brenda and Nola at a local joint across the way and then went back to get my pants from the Gold Rose. It was about 10pm when I arrived and some of the girls were working on a beautiful beaded piece, others were cleaning up for the day. I sat down on one of the stools and began to chat with Polly, who spoke english fairly well. She shared a little bit of her story stating that she, her husband and little daughter owned the humble little sewing shop.

IMG_9069The more I listened, asked questions and navigated language, I realized Polly’s business was a creative way of caring for her community. She was providing a safe environment for her students and workers to learn and grow. Her sewing shop was a wonderful beckon of light and offered Polly and opportunity to nurture and train up young women by equipping them not only with a skill set but with a beautiful understanding of self-worth.  As I went to pay for her service, she waved her hand and said, no, this is a gift for you. Then she handed both my daughter and myself beautiful scarves as a gift as well. I was in tears by this point feeling the love that comes when we are showered with gifts. It’s meeting people like Polly that gives us hope. And, that’s what I would say about the most of the Myanmar people we had the delight to encounter. They were authentic in their interactions and genuinely hospitable people. They cared for us in their kind looks/gestures, guided us across busy streets, smiled at us with friendly amusement, and they blessed us with radical hospitality.

What a joy to be able to catch a glimpse of all the inner makings of the local people in places far off and lands of wonder. I hope that one day, we will be invited back and that when we come that we can bless our friends in Myanmar as much as we’ve felt blessed by them.

IMG_0026

 

Advertisements

A Little Taste Of Home in Cambodia

 We love stumbling upon a good foodie restaurant, especially one that has options for all of us (we have two vegiterians and two meat eaters in our family). So, when we were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia longing for a good burger and found Restore One Cafe we were stoked! I know, I know how do you go to Cambodia thinking your going to find a good burger but actually “the burger” has a pretty big presence in Phnom Penh, probably because of all of the western NGO’s. None the less, after 5 weeks in SE Asia we were ecstatic to find a little taste of home. And then, to learn about the bigger picture behind Restore One made our burger find even more satisfying.

While at Restore One Cafe we met the manager and local resident, Sopheavy. She shared the vision behind the cafe explaining that it’s main purpose is to be a training ground for young people at risk and that they offer a 12-month traineeship at the cafe which equips the young people for a successful career in the hospitality and tourism industry. The proceeds made by the cafe are used to support the many other offers that Restore One Charity offers, from building projects, schools, and training and equipping locals to start micro-businesses.

We ended up popping in on more than one occasion which allowed up to get to know the staff and story behind the cafe as well as try a number of dishes, establishing our favorites. We all agreed that the fresh mint and lime smoothy and the homemade ginger beer were the best drinks on the menu, although their cappuccinos and mango smoothies were fantastic too! Hand cut fries and the spring rolls were our favorite appetizers and we tried all but two of their gourmet burger choices and found the vegetarian burgers just as delightful as their grass fed beef burgers.

PS. We highly recommend street vender/local fare as well, one because it’s cheaper but mostly because it was delicious. However, if your looking for a taste of home and have a few extra bucks to spare stop in to Restore One Cafe. Tell ’em The Hollands! sent you their way.

Pushing Past The Obvious

When we seek to learn from those we do not yet understand, something shifts, we move from “us vs. them” to one body.

imageWe’ve been in Manila for a week. The emotions have spanned the gamut. It has been tempting to want to be the fixer, the foreign fixer, especially when we have seen the enormous discrepancies between those who have great wealth and power to those immersed in extreme poverty.

Initially we saw a gray film all over everything. We wondered why those in power didn’t seem to notice the film or maybe they did notice but were fine with it. Either way, we knew we had to push beyond the obvious observations, feelings of anger and frustration to find deeper understanding and purpose.

We began to seek the heart of the people, any who were willing to help us to see a bigger picture. We began asking “why” questions, and finding that there were many amongst all of the mess, who are faithfully living a life incarnate.

imageWe met Rameil on top of Smokey Mountain, one of the poorest areas in Manila. The mountain is actually a trash dump and any vegetation there grows on contaminated soil. The main source of commerce on Smokey Mountain is recycling and the second, making charcoal for cooking. It’s all hands on deck, with children as young as 4 yrs old working and digging through the trash, make fires, etc… 

Rameil, who was just diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, pastors the local parish and his job is 24/7. He grew up in the area and after an encounter with the living God, he has dedicated his life to not only being a spiritual mentor to this community but practically, he helps on a daily basis caring for the overwhelming physical needs of hunger and poor health.

imageIn fact, while we were with Rameil, we met a woman with eight children, her youngest in need of immediate medical attention. And so, we all escorted her and the precious little boy, named Romeo, to the hospital. For us, it was an extremely emotional experience. For Rameil and this mother, I’m sure it was emotional too, but it is every day for them. The opportunity to come alongside these kinfolk was a privilege and an honor and they will forever be in our hearts and prayers.

imageWe also met the Long family, through a mutual friend, Brian Hommel with UPI. He takes a crew from the US to serve alongside the Longs once a year and we tagged along this time around. We learned that the Longs moved to Manila, from the US, in 1991 with their five children. They started out as teachers in a local private school and in 2004, one of their children, Jannel, asked her dad why they couldn’t do more for the street children in their neighborhood. (We love “why” questions!) From that moment on, they began to dialog about what it would look like to do more. They went home to the states for a year furlow and returned with a vision to open a group home (orphanage) and that was the beginning of what is now the multi-dimensional, Kids International Ministries.

imageWe stayed at their guest house and from our birds eye view we saw that they have had and continue to have an amazing impact in their local community, as well as, centers in Mindanao and Leyte, Visayas and have a new facility in the works that will be more agriculturally driven in Palawan. While with them, we were invited to plug into local endeavours in and around Manila including feedings, singing at the school, and spending time with the kids at the Children’s home. There is always more than enough to do and the work can sometimes seem overwhelming but the Longs take it all in stride, and like Rameil, trust God to bring them just what they need each day.

imageNear the end of the week, we visited with friends at Lilok Foundation, whose main objective is to train leaders of urban poor communities to become change makers in their respective communities. We heard about these kinfolk from our Cambodian connection, who we will visit with in a few weeks. Adam, their community coordinator, met us in the city and guided us by Jeepney (local transport) to their office in Quezon City.

imageWe met Carol, the director, Kay and Conrad. They shared a local dish called Pato, took us to a local Philippino restaurant. They also taught us a traditional worship dance. They told us their personal stories and then told us about the imbalance of power and shared that those in poverty who have no means to be trained in the faith and their passion and vision was to provide an alternative training institution which would embrace those society deems unworthy.  In 1993, through the guidance and help of some progressive academician friends from the University of the Philippines and two theological seminaries the Lilok Foundation’s vision became reality and they now provide education that builds up the Saints, all of the Saints. It was encouraging to hear their story of building a bridge between those who have and those who have not.

Finally, on our last day, actually while I was finishing this blog, we were invited to sit out on the veranda to hear about Children’s Garden from founder Sharon Gersava Wark. Manila has over 1.5 million homeless, with a solid percentage of those being street children, who live every day vulnerable to trafficking, gang induction and exploitation. Children’s Garden exists to give these children a home.

imageSitting at the table with Sharon was Michael and his wife Ruth, both in their early twenties. Michael shared about his life on the streets starting at age five. He openly and honestly gave us insight into the mind of that little child he once was. He talked about the bitterness and anger that boiled in him at the age of four, after seeing his sister raped. He shared the feeling of betrayal he felt by relatives and by a wealthy American man who preyed on him at the age of 10. He shared about the fracturing in his own heart and at the age of 11, his part in an attempted murder. His story was raw but through it all, he referenced a knowing deep in the back of his conciseness, of the destruction in his own soul and that something wasn’t right.

He talked about the significance of drugs on the street and how they were used as numbing agents to soothe his rumbling belly.  He ended up in a drug rehabilitation facility, that had its own set of injustices, but while there met a man who came to speak about another option, about a possibility of knowing God and in that knowing trusting that God had a plan for his life. However, this just pissed Michael off because he though, where was God during all of these hardships on his life!

After being released from the drug rehab, Michael had intentions of joining the military with hopes of avenging his sister. However, God had other plans and his path collided with Sharons at the Children’s Garden. It was over the next few years that Michael saw a consistent faith played out both by Sharon and her staff. During his time there he had a few hard conversations with God about his past and through it all, his heart was healed and his mind renewed. He shared about the trials that came even after his commitment to God but that his faith is only strengthened by those trials rather than squashed.

It was an honor to hear his story, to see this strong and courageous man, willing to humble himself before God and to become the man he was created to be. And to top it off, it was sheer joy to be able to see Sharon, his spiritual mother, delight in her child.

What did we see in the Philippines? Both foreigners and locals, committed to love the God of all gods, understanding that they are the hands and feet and taking that love further than themselves. They understand when Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Knowing that whenever they do one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that it is to Jesus himself. Knowing that by these acts they are called faithful.

It is through their lens that we saw the gray film lift and hope arise. And, that is the most beautiful part of Manila. That is what we will take with us.