In Myanmar: Feeling vulnerable, being helped
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Sometimes trips don’t start well
My outbound plane to Myanmar left 15 minutes late. Then we circled for nearly an hour over fogged-in Yangon Airport. A French woman pushed at me in the immigration queue. At the foreign exchange counters, they wouldn’t let me change more than one $100 bill. Lining up to get my bags through the Custom’s Department’s xray machine, I kept getting jumped by more aggressive local people.
I was really and truly in chaotic, underdeveloped, over-bureaucratic Myanmar. And I wasn’t doing well.
It was nearly two hours past my scheduled arrival time when I finally emerged from the baggage claim area. I scanned the longyi-clad men and women holding up name-cards. Had I missed my guide? Would I be stranded?
But thanks to synchronicity or a higher power …
Thankfully, M. was waiting for me with a broad smile on his face. Older than most of the other guides and educated by Italian missionaries, M. had lived in Italy and the Philippines while “in formation” and later spent time in Malaysia, our neighbouring country. He was the perfect person to guide me through my two days in rural Mon and Karen state. Mr. K, the driver, was my guardian angel on the road. He could drive anything, he said, not boasting but with simple certainty. Yes, he nodded, even a tank. He’d learnt it all in the army.
I didn’t probe the both of them about why they were no longer in the religious or fighting life. I was simply grateful. An ex-soldier and a half-done priest. What better protection could synchronicity and a higher power have provided for me?
And helping hands in Mandalay
In Mandalay, I was greeted by 3 groups of well-wishers who almost drowned me with flowers. But the morning of the Literary Festival saw me apprehensive again.
The front desk at the hotel had no idea where the shuttle meant to ferry us to the festival was. As for when … they laughed uncomfortably and could not reply.
“Is she a writer going to the festival,” an almost Aung San Suu Kyi look-alike in purple silk asked the receptionist. And when the girl nodded, she simply took my hand, tucked it under her arm and said, “You can come with us.”
We introduced ourselves in the bus, a ramshackle bright pink beast with tiny plastic stools for extra-seats. She introduced me to everyone else. And they told me about their books. Slowly, in rudimentary English, we connected.
Later, in the craziness of the not-happening-here and maybe-might-happen-there opening ceremonies, they shepherded me from one venue to another. And at the end of the day, they made sure I didn’t get left.
An outstretched hand – we all need one
Me, with all my first world advantages, my much-travelled passport. Not much of that counted in Myanmar, where things didn’t start on time, where the words made almost no sense.
What I needed was an outstretched hand – to ask for help. What I needed were outstretched hands, open in giving.
Have you ever been somewhere where all your competencies can’t help you? How were you supported? Who helped you?