One of my closest and dearest friends is currently in Burma working for an NGO in the south of the country. After weeks of silence, a letter from her just arrived by email. Her descriptions have touched me so that I’ve decided, with her permission, to share her experiences here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
“It’s only three weeks now since I arrived to Myanmar, down to the south and deep inside the Delta region where Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, spills into hundreds of streams. Slim boats and ancient-looking barks are the only means of transportation; I have not seen a car out here. Our small teams are traveling on water routes only, visiting remote villages, following the mysterious schedules of tides only the boatmen understand.
I don‘t know where to begin my story, with the people, the team here, the project… Perhaps with the mornings, glancing across the river from our little porch to the other shore where to milky fog over a cup of coffee before we head to the office to start our day. 150,000 people lost their lives here last year, mostly elderly and children. You will find villages where there are almost no children left and the grief is still seen in people’s eyes. The water supply has become precarious here. All the ponds are contaminated with salty water from the cyclone Nargis and we fear an outbreak of diseases. Nevertheless, one can almost forget about that, sliding along the rivers, visiting the villages and the kindest people I have ever met.
I just got back from the edge of the world, three days on the boat. In the evening, the water of the river was flat as a mirror and the sky was reflecting in it. It seemed like heaven all around us. I was out with two colleagues and two boatmen who cooked the nicest Myanmar food for us right on the boat. We slept in one of the villages in a schoolhouse, had fresh coconut juice and the whole village came to see us. By the way, even though I managed to stop smoking, I see women smiling at us brightly while they’re holding slim cigars in their hands. Yes, women smoke, and so once in a blue moon, to the delight of everyone, I do the same.
I am very happy here, despite all the trauma people have gone through, despite all the conditions of Myanmar. The national staff is full of great people, we laugh a lot and are working hard, learning from each other. I am the tall, crazy big sister of my colleagues, who are all half my age… motivated, eager to learn. Language is the main issue and on Sundays we do conversational English…me with my funny American-Swiss accent… you will hear it no in Myanmar.
Since we spend our life on the boats and most of my colleagues from the capital Yangon are non-swimmers, we go to the monks’ monastery on Sundays, just up the river, to take swimming lessons. That’s my joy, of course… swimming. The monasteries are all along the rivers, golden pagodas indicating their location. I am especially fond of the young monks, who are curious and shy and come to see us diving. One has to take their shoes off once at their quarters. By the way, what a great feeling, a life in flip flops.
We all work hard and long hours here and I will certainly tell you more about it. Just let me tell you there’s no other place I want to be right now. I am learning my first words and make everyone laugh, but, hell, I’ll be getting there.”