“I’m nothing but I’m something” uttered the tour guide on my first day in Myanmar.
That spirit of resilience marked my experience in Myanmar, and continues to reorient my perception as this voyage continues.
I visited a gamut of beautiful spiritual, cultural, and historical sites throughout my time in Yangon. From the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda, to a tiny monastery on the outskirts of the city, each site represented a history of endurance complemented by a current breath of optimism.
Democracy has yet to lose its freshness in Myanmar, and the beauty within the country took a backseat for me. On my first bus ride into town, my tour guide, whose real name I’ll leave off of the internet for concern of retribution, told us a story of his participation in recent civil uprisings. Let’s call him Richard. Beautifully, I saw a lot of myself in Richard’s narrative. He explained how when community protests erupted in support of new government, his mom didn’t want him to attend. She was fearful, but he went anyway.
I actually ran into my first protest coincidentally. It was on Noel Night in Detroit a few years ago, fueled by passion from the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin. My friends, Paul and Brendan, and I were walking through the streets of downtown, enjoying the festivities of the winter season when we ran into my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Kim Redigan. Mrs. Redigan, or Auntie Kim as we affectionately called her, has been a passionate advocate for justice around water access in Detroit and around the world. The group Auntie Kim was with actually had a set of “carols” that took traditional Christmas tunes and turned them into water advocacy medleys. After caroling, the demonstration joined a larger call and turned into a procession up and down Woodward Ave. We marched.
When I finally returned home from what I felt was an exhiliarting, fulfilling, and inspiring experience, I couldn’t wait to tell my mom about it. I was shocked, however, to see that she was actually rather upset about my participation in the event.
Richard and I’s experience was different in many ways. He said that he got home with blood on his back, but he didn’t notice until he got back. “The shock of the moment made me feel invincible” he asserted. I didn’t come home that Noel Night with blood on my body, but I came back with a soul charged up and ready to pursue righteousness.
The honesty and willingness to share truth Richard exhibited humbled me. “We are one of the poorest countries but we’re improving,” he said. That honesty accompanied a fear that I’d personal never experienced. I, at times, take for granted many freedoms granted to me as an American, most obvious in this case was freedom of speech. While as a U.S. citizen I’m rather free to criticize the government both publicly or privately, the same ability was not afforded to Richard. In the middle of his speech to us, Richard asked that we “Please only talk about these things inside the bus, not outside, because the walls have ears.” This was a real fear, and one that we were briefed on at our ship-wide logistical pre-port meeting. We were warned of the potential consequences that could come from speaking about politics or the government.
Outside of politics, Myanmar offered lessons in hope, humility, and how to be a responsible traveler. I went on my first IMPACT program in Yangon. Semester at Sea markets IMPACT programs as service-learning oriented programs with an emphasis on community and justice. I’d always been wary of Semester at Sea programs and had traveled solely independently until this program. It was no surprise, then, when the IMPACT program I participated in turned out to be just another moment of poverty tourism.
We briefly visited a monastery, gave a donation (in a self-praising fashion, and while filming), stared at children for a while, toured the facilities, and left for a nice lunch. I was rather irritated to say the least. The situation represented the epitome of how not to experience other communities while traveling. However, in this rather upsetting display, I had a moment of sobriety.
The kids at the monastery were celebrating their last day of school before summer. To celebrate, they were all given a small plastic bag containing a coloring book, some coloring utensils, and a juice box. While I was standing by the entrance waiting for our van to leave, one of the kids approached me. He, while clearly being too nervous to speak, gestured and offered me his bag.
I was left stale.
These kids were all at this orphanage because they had no parents or one parent who couldn’t support them. Materially, they didn’t have much. All year they looked forward to these gift bags, and this kid was ready to give his up to me? A stranger? That moment continues to impact my view of wealth and poverty both materially and otherwise.
Towards the end of his monologue, Richard left us with a piece of advice that I think will stick with me forever.
“Look for your heaven inside.”