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Sisterhood of the Travelling Fisherman Pants
About Me
The Mae Sot Education Project, based in the Eastern Townships in Quebec, sends a group of volunteers over to the Thailand-Burma border every year to teach to Burmese refugee and migrant children.

http://www.ubishops.ca/maesot/

Here is a blog that hopes to capture just a bit of what this project is really all about and my experiences in Mae Sot, with teaching and traveling in general. Here we go, in the spirit of adventure!

I’ve thought about for a couple of days what my last entry on this blog would be. For a while I was going to end it in a sad and bitter way, talking about my breakdown in a supermarket next to a frozen pork loin my second day back in New York. I do miss Mae Sot every day, but I have to learn how to take all the joy and optimism those kids filled me with while I was over there and keep it going, keep spreading the light, just like they taught me to do. So I thought I’d share this story instead.

As I was waiting in the airport in Bangkok for my flight back home I walked into a shop to buy a magazine for the plane. My eyes trailed across the racks trying to spot the National Geographic I was looking for when suddenly there was Aung San Suu Kyi staring me down. I was taken aback for a second before reaching out and taking down the Time Magazine from the shelf, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s unblinking face on the cover, the title Brave New Burma tucked under her ear like a lock of hair.

I started to laugh as I headed for the register, hardly able to believe this coincidence.

Okay, so I was in Asia and it was big news that Secretary of State Clinton had visited Burma only days before and yes, maybe it wasn’t that big of a coincidence, but at the time it felt like just the nudge I needed.

I had left Mae Sot in a flurry, hurrying my goodbyes because I couldn’t bear to prolong them, couldn’t linger in doorways or hold on to embraces, because I knew I would never be able to leave if I had. And so I left Mae Sot the same way I came in, like a tornado, half smiling, half crying, cracking jokes and dancing my way out of rooms that I could only hope I’d see again soon. It was the hardest thing I’d had to do…

I remember riding away from BH sobbing. I had held it in as well as I could but the sight of everyone waving as I drove away broke me and I just drove and drove and until I couldn’t see the pale blue walls of my home anymore and I stopped and just wept. It didn’t seem fair. Why did I have to say goodbye? Why did I have to leave this place which had brought me so much joy?

And that was just one goodbye of many. They all stung in their own way and I’m still not over them, probably never will be. But that day at the airport everything felt especially hard. I was still in Thailand, still in Bangkok, even, I could just leave, get on a bus and go back. Make the drive out to BHSOH, pull up and smile and wave at those who had been outside already and saw my arrival. Walk over to the girl’s dormitory to drop off my overnight bag, say hello to grandpa and talk about the latest news, have my bucket shower before dinner and then prepare for study hours with Kyaw Min Tun before cuddling up with the girls to go to bed afterward.

It was all still possible. But then Aung San Suu Kyi reminded me of some things.

Great changes have been happening in Burma, but it still has a really long way to go, and so do I. Mae Sot, I’m convinced, was never supposed to be a permanent place. At the beginning, many of the people living there didn’t think it would be. They thought things would get better, and soon, and that they’d be able to return to their homes because how long could such injustices and cruelties really last?

But they did last, and they’re still going on, despite the medias portrayal of the new Burmese government. There are people dying every day in the ethnic states of Burma especially, widespread fighting still going on, rape and forced relocation happening all the time. So while everyone is hopeful that the wheels of change have indeed started to turn, it’s not over just yet. The fight for justice and the very most basic rights of humanity is still underway. Burma must continue to fight, and so must I.

No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t stay in Mae Sot forever. In the end it’s not my home because it’s not really anyone’s home, or at least not the real home of any of the Burmese people I grew to know and love there. It’s a place that grew out of necessity, and so it draws in people to service those needs, teachers, NGO workers, humanitarians… but it’s not somewhere I can make my life, at least not yet.

My six months in Mae Sot has changed me in ways I didn’t couldn’t even imagine it would. I know that I’ve come out of this experience a better and more conscious person but also one that has a new drive. I’m certain of what it is I want to do now. And while Mae Sot has helped me grow into this woman I’m becoming, I’m not there yet and I can’t stop until I get there, until the fight is won.

   

The next day I saw a rainbow in the clouds somewhere over the frost-tipped mountains of Japan. I thought, what would my kids think if they were able to see this right now? I pulled the Time magazine out of my bag and gave Aung San Suu Kyi a smile before settling into my seat to read.


I woke up today not knowing how I got here. It’s December 5th, I have to leave Mae Sot in less than a week and I feel short of breath, as if the calendar’s blaring number 5 punched me in the gut this morning. 

I don’t know what it is about Mae Sot — maybe it’s something in the air, or the fact that it’s so easy to lose yourself in life here, or maybe even the weather, constantly hot, that deters you from feeling the passage of time. But finally the leaves have started to fall off the trees here, too, only not from winter moving in but from baking in the hot midday sun. 

And with leaves spiraling down to the ground on both sides of the world, I have to say goodbye to one home, to one family, and reunite with another. Only now the home I left behind seems like the foreign, strange one, filled with things I think to be so trivial and superficial, now. I think about the simplicity of life, the beauty of the people and the distant mountains both, the sadness and happiness I’ve encountered here and my heart starts to break already. Leaving here, saying goodbye, will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. 

And then as soon as I realize that, I also realize just how lucky I am that this is the biggest trial I’ve had to face in my (short) life. None of this would be so hard if it wasn’t for all of the amazing and beautiful experiences I’ve had here, the kind that have changed my perspective and my life forever. Or the wonderful students and teachers and community members I’ve gotten to know and really, truly love. It’s because of the incredible happiness that I’ve felt here that it will be so hard to say goodbye and for that, I am eternally grateful. 

And I try to tell myself that everyday. To remind myself that yes, this goodbye will hurt like nothing I’ve ever felt before, but man, am I lucky to have it and all of the things that led up to it.  


Adding Light

 

During the Thai lantern festival many people send up their dreams and secret wishes into the sky, using paper lanterns as messengers, or lighting candles on boats that they send out into the water, whispering their hopes into the waves instead. 

 

It’s a beautiful time, the full moon shining brighter, as if smiling at all the new orange constellations that are forming in the sky and water. 

 

When it came time to light lanterns with my kids at school I didn’t know what to wish for. For myself, well, I have everything I could ever possibly want right here in front of me. And then I thought of my students, and all of my hopes and dreams for them. All the things I wish they would believe me when I tell them, like how smart and beautiful they are. All the things I wish they had the opportunity to do in life, like go to university and become doctors and artists and teachers. I thought about how I worry about them and what their uncertain futures hold. 

 

And then I remembered a striking conversation I had just the day before with a teacher at school. I had just confessed to him that I would be going back home in December and seeing how visibly upset I was he asked me, “What are you worried about? What worries you?” I had to think about it for a moment because I am lucky enough to have so few worries in my own life — I am healthy, have a wonderfully supportive and loving family, I have the chance to go to university, to live and teach in this most beautiful of places. But I do worry some of the time, so I told him, I worry about my family and my friends, about their health and happiness; I worry about my students and their futures. And then he asked me, “Why?” Well, because I love them and I want the best for them. “It’s because,” he said, “you think they’re yours.” And of course my first instinct was to say, well, of course they’re mine, but I think he saw in my eyes what I wanted to blurt out and he stopped me and told me something that both broke my heart but also calmed my mind.

 

He went on to tell me that no, these kids aren’t mine. That as much as I love them and want the best for them that each persons life always runs on its own track. No matter how hard we try, they will go their way and I will go mine, the way it is meant to be, the way it is destined. And so there is no sense in worrying, in feeling so sad, because all one can do is be there while they can. Although my path in life might run parallel to some of my students’ and one or two might even intersect from time to time, each is our own and letting go of that ownership and responsibility is half the battle. You have to do what you can when your paths are crossed and trust that you’ve done enough, that life will treat them kindly, that they’ll know how to handle the bumps and sharp turns, that they’ll be okay.

 

Hearing that made the tears come on faster and stronger and sting a bit more. Letting go is never easy, after all. But that night as we lit the lanterns I didn’t wish for anything for myself or for my students. I just wished for light.

 

The next day a cold, foggy morning dawned on us, the light coming up from the horizon in one of the most beautiful sunrises I’d ever seen.


Burmese Days — Mandalay & Mingun

Mandalay in one word? Dusty.

 

It was so hot and dry in Burma heat lightning lit our way to Mandalay from Yangon. But what would await us in Mandalay was something I was not prepared for. The dust absolutely seeps into your pores. You breathe it in, and try to blink it out of your eyes to no avail, it stains your skin and hair and leaves you as dry as the Sahara.

 

The wide streets of Mandalay allow the dust to swirl around and give the whole place a strange colonial-meets-American-western feel. The pace is slower than in Yangon, more motorbikes, less cars, even a horse drawn buggy or two, everything looking even older… another step back in time. 


Burmese Days — Yangon

 

The flight was short and sweet and peaceful, a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle and general craziness of Bangkok. A slowly setting sun over beautifully still water and deltas was the view as the voice over the speaker crackled in to tell us that we were only 25 minutes away from Yangon International Airport. As we got closer and closer and sped inland towards our final destination there was such a lush landscape in view, the only thing breaking up the green being a snake of a river winding its way from the deltas we had just passed. There was nothing in sight, no houses nor farms nor roads… The time machine had worked, we had arrived in Burma.

 

The airport was small and the immigration lines were long, but as soon as we stepped out into the heat of the Yangon night it finally felt real. Old taxi cars were jamming into the lane in front of the exit of the airport, trying to get costumers, dust and exhaust mixed in the air as we piled into this mini-bus that would take us to our guesthouse. The crumbling streets of the city made for a bumpy ride as we raced passed cars that looked like they were going to fall apart at the very next pothole, houses that crumbled as you watched, and countless people walking along the dark streets, only really lit up by the headlights of cars. We passed Shwedagon Pagoda, so impressive in the darkness, lighting up the whole sky, immense and beautiful.

 

And that’s where we decided to go that first night. Drawn to it like moths to a flame we trekked out to the pagoda after we had settled ourselves in the guesthouse, (a simple room – two beds, wooden windows, a fan to blow around the hot air).

 

It was thrilling just to walk the streets of Yangon, to hop in our first taxi, to see how people really lived in this city that is at the very heart of Burma. Many things struck me even that first night – the state of the roads and the buildings, the amounts of beetle nut that have permanently stained the streets red and left a smell like Vicks vapor rub lingering, the amount of people that speak English, (i.e. everyone), the lights and the fireworks that stood out all the more because of the darkness that hugged the streets.

 

We came to Yangon at a lively time – the full moon was only days away and the celebrations had already started, fireworks going off every few minutes. The streets were still full of people, even at the late hour, and many people were still lingering around the entrance to the pagoda. There is where we met the first of many Burmese people who would approach us, eager to start conversation, to practice their English, to learn about the outside world. A young man, around our age, came up to us and started to speak, a huge smile on his face as if seeing us was the best part of his day. We made conversation as best as we could, a little bit of English, and little bit of Burmese and some body language thrown in as well. He seemed just so thrilled to practice English and invited us to come to his school, this monastery nearby, to meet his uncle who was a monk there. We agreed that we would come the next morning and parted ways, dumbfounded by the exchange that had just occurred. But it was only the beginning, a great peek into how our time in Burma would turn out.    

 

And that night, our very first in Yangon, ended with lighting sparklers with a family that owned a tea shop near the pagoda.


"Add your light to the sum of light."

What does reality hitting sound like? I’ve always thought that was a funny expression, when reality hits. 

 

Is it always a dull thud? A sharp intake of breath? Silence?

 

I’ve come to find that when reality hits me here it sounds differently each time, distinct notes reverberating like little exclamation points in my soul.

Often when reality crashes it comes down in a wave of voices, a beautiful cacophony of sounds. Maybe it’s the voice of a student telling me that all he wants is to be able to speak his own language, live in his own country. Or the voice of a woman telling us the only thing she isn’t afraid of is guns and bullets because she’s grown up with them flying over her head. Or how about the man who reveals that he has a daughter back in Burma whom he wouldn’t recognize if he passed in the street because he was imprisoned for almost a decade when she was only a little baby and then forced to flee Burma afterward, not having seen her since. 

 

It’s stories like that that give one pause. That bring me back to the fact that yes, my life here is full of love and beauty, but the reason I’m here is because life has not been kind to many of the people living here in Mae Sot. And maybe the biggest blow comes when one realizes that these stories are commonplace here. Stories of villages getting burned down, of the loss of family and friends, of the frustration of seeing Burma, their beloved country, struggle for democracy for so long without success. 

 

And that is always where it comes back to. All the stories, all the blips of reality, are reminders of this bigger picture. Of a country and a people’s struggle for democracy, for freedom, for good education and healthcare, for a normal life. 

 

And that’s what most people I’ve met want. Just some normalcy, some simplicity. One man I was talking to said that he wishes his life wasn’t so complicated, that he could just be with his wife and live and teach and not have any stories to tell.

 

And when reality hits, whether it is the sound of a voice or the sound of a whimper of a man laying in a hospital bed, face and hands charred black, eyes covered with gauze, pains coming from now ghost fingers that touched upon that land mine, that is what one thinks about — that bigger picture, those big, daunting problems that seem too vast to conquer. 

And one has to wonder, what then must we do? Going to the refugee camp, seeing the miles and miles of makeshift huts built on top of one another, of little children flying kites made of of sticks and plastic bags… what then must we do? 

 

I think about all of the sad things I’ve seen and heard about since coming to Mae Sot, about the sad reality of life here and in Burma for so many people, about famine and drought and war going on all over the world, and it’s sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed. And then reality hits again, but this time it’s in the sound of the laughter of school children, and in the thwack of a football going across a pitch as the young girls at one school run after it, thrilled that they get the chance to play, and the sweet notes of one of the boys practicing the guitar. 

 

And when that reality hits I think about this project and what it is exactly trying to do. What then must we do? We must add our light to the sum of light. We have to simply try and help those we can, those we see right in front of us, because what else can we do? 

 

By teaching at these schools we’re not overthrowing the junta, or freeing Burma, or taking away all the suffering in these people’s lives. But we’re doing what we can with what is right in front of us. We’re adding light to the lives of at least a few children, a few people, a few communities, in hopes that others are doing the same and that one day the light we make will be strong enough to reach even the darkest corners of suffering. 



A Letter from a Student

"Love You Teacher"

 

The two persons although they were in the same earth but lived in a very far place respectively have met because of destiny. Those two persons are teacher and pupil. Teacher and pupil are always together like good and bad things. If the teacher is the sky, pupil will be a cloud. Because the clouds can’t become anywhere except the sky.

 

I’ve received not only knowledge but also warmly love from you. So, I wanna request to you ‘Please accept my respect’. Moreover, thanks for your cool shadow. You are also a guide for me who teach the way to get success. I think I’ve never forgotten your words, your care and so on. As we know, it is so difficult to decorate a thing to be beautiful. But all teachers are always decorating their pupils’ lives to be successful. So, we can’t live without paying respect to our warm and hospitable teachers. 

 

If the teacher is the sea, the pupil will be a wave. Because the sea always accept the big waves or the strong waves. Anyway, I love you so much “teacher”.

 

Khaing Swallo

  

And when I read that, I felt like I could have died happy. 

The past few days have been nothing short of incredible and as I write this I wonder why it’s some big surprise that they were. You’d think I’d have gotten used to Mae Sot dazzling me by now, but no.

 

And I know that it’s just things that people here take for granted that maybe give me so much joy, just as things that I take for granted back home would certainly make one of my students happy, but that doesn’t change the fact that my heart feels like it’s literally bursting these days.

 

On Sunday I went to a sort of Buddhist Sunday school at Knowledge Zone and it just blew my mind. The students listen to Buddhist preaching in the morning, then break for lunch, and then walk over to a nearby monastery to wash this massive reclining Buddha and the surrounding area for the monks. They take out at least two hours of their day every single Sunday to clean the monastery. It was like seeing something out of a movie, (maybe like Sound of Music), where there was a man scaling the top of this giant Buddha in order to wash it’s head while smaller boys carried buckets of water to and fro, and some of the girls were sweeping the floor around the pagoda and you could see puppies playing in the background and there was music playing from the monastery and it was all just incredible. And getting the privilege to participate in this was just so meaningful to me. And afterward getting to listen to more preaching on the roof of the school and meditating with the students… it may be something that they do every Sunday, (which I think is incredibly kind of them), but for me it felt like one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. 

 

And then from the Sunday school to the usual Burmese tea shop with the loveliest company. And just the fact that I can call this tea shop the “usual one!” Not to mention what amazing people I’ve come to know and am lucky enough to frequent it with. 

 

And I don’t know, since Sunday my week has just been getting better and better. Another crazy flood on Monday, so no school, but plenty of eel catching in the street. And Tuesday another, (surprise), rain day from school, but getting to spend the whole day with my students — taking two of them to Mae Sot to get them out of Mae Pa for a little, hanging out with the girls in the dorm and listening to music, spending reading hours at night with Mg Soe translating poetry from Burmese to English, having the boys teach my funny phrases in Burmese and laughing harder than I have in weeks with them, going to sleep with Jar Su Li next to me looking over and saying, “Goodnight, teacher,” with one of those congestion-clearing nasal sprays stuck up her nose and laughing about how ridiculous it looked for 10 minutes, (and then her subconsciously getting me back in the middle of the night by swinging her arm right into my face).

 

Even the little things really brighten up my days like then going to the tea shop with some students the next morning and just starting off the day right. And then getting that letter from my student, it just put me over the top! How could I not feel like the most blessed woman on the planet?! And after school on Wednesday I played football with the girls, (we’re finally starting a girls team), and afterward one of the younger girls told me that she was so, so happy, (and you could tell she meant it), because she never gets to play, and really, she’s quite good. And then helping La Sam pull out the nets from his mini catfish farm and helping the boys count his fish… what is this life that I lead?!? It’s an absolutely jam-packed, crazy one that I can’t get enough of. 

 

And that’s just things at BH and Knowledge Zone. The kids at Hle Bee get cuter every time I see them. Last week I had sprained my ankle and when one little boy saw he literally jumped a wall in the classroom, took off into the jungle behind and came back with a fist full of weeds that he told me to mash up to put on my “wounded” foot. 

  

…. I live in Mae Sot, Thailand and I am the luckiest girl in the world. 



Two little girls in the KG-A class at BH came up to me yesterday and gave me a belated birthday present that consisted of a drawing they did, a little worn out handbag, a new, sharpened pencil and some Snoopy dog figurines. They write with little stubs of pencils because their parents can’t afford to buy them new ones and they don’t get tons of little handbags or toys for their birthdays. Essentially, they gave me everything they had, all that they could possibly give. How absolutely and genuinely beautiful and selfless and kind are these children? I know they don’t have much, but I’ve never encountered richer people in my life. Makes me feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world.