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.
We 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.
We 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.
On 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.
As 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.
On 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.
And 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 Koṇāgamana, 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.
History, 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!
Near 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.
The 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.