Two weeks after arriving in Myanmar, I wrote this:

 

Everyday, I’ve asked myself Why.
Why did you come here?
Why did you agree to stay?
Why didn’t you research beyond pagodas and prancing monks?
Why did you break away from a life of constant travel?

For this?
Today, my questions were answered.

I left work at 5pm.
I typically stay late, but five seemed extremely late even when compared to my own standards. I was tired and hungry. Two popular noodle shops are situated across the street from one another, and I pass by both twice daily. I’d decided to go to the less popular one. Its chicken is more meaty and its staff more friendly.
As I approached, I met and quickly diverted eye contact with a woman sitting on the sidewalk at my feet. Despite pocketing the least amount of any Southeast Asian community, Myanmar people rarely beg, and are instead known to do quite the opposite. They have been to known to be some of the most charitable persons in the world, as recognized in Gallup’s 2016 Global Civic Engagement Report.

The woman at my feet took me by surprise, and as soon as my eyes had the opportunity to dance from her to bald baby and back to her, I looked away. I kept walking, and immediately found my mind racing. How could I ignore her? I walked to the next block and turned left. In a small ABC Convenience Store I picked up a few items. Steamed buns, mixed nuts, water, and milk. Nervous, I returned to the woman and child, set the bag next to her, nodded and offered a small smile before calmly walking away.

I stopped writing there, most likely due to a blackout or tired eyes.

 

Click on an image below to view photos from Yangon Myanmar’s streets up-close:

The very next day, I found something out from a friend which is haunting.

I asked her, a local well-educated young woman, about safety in Myanmar. Unrelated to the previous night’s event, I was wondering whether she felt it was safe to walk after dark. The short answer was yes, and the long answer led to a troubling discovery.

As she told me: Myanmar has always been safe. Low crime, few killings or theft. Things are changing now. You hear about it more, but it’s still safe. The police are more active now.

This was all understandable. Their new ruling was allowing the world to become more available. Internet, cell phones, free(er) press. These were all bringing new thoughts and ideas into motion. With new thoughts comes good. And bad. Consequently, an increase in crime is one of the bad that is inevitable with such newfound knowledge.
She continued:  Have you ever seen the women with sleeping babies on the street?
I nodded, preparing to tell her about the previous night’s experience.

Before I could, she continued to tell me something that would change my behavior and thoughts from then on.  Those are not their babies. They are rented. Sometimes from families in town, sometimes from families in villages. If you watch carefully, you’ll see the babies change. From one day to the next, a mother may have a girl, then a boy. One day twins, the next day just one. Maybe the mom will have the same child for several months, and you’ll watch him grow. You’ll notice he’s begun to crawl. He’s ready to walk. Then overnight he will turn back into an infant, suddenly swaddled in a dirty rag.
Also, do you notice that the babies are almost always sleeping? That’s not incidental. That’s thanks to drugs.

A few weeks after I learned of this, I was walking home from the cinema when I saw a woman and child, much older than most sleeping babies.
I remember exactly where they were and what the little girl was wearing. Roughly four years old, she was dressed in a champagne colored dress with a lace color, stained by dirt and life’s hardships. Her hair was cut just below the ears, bangs chunky, the hairs sticking together from salty sweat. I slowed to move aside while someone passed me and I met her eyes.

The power of her look nearly caused me to collapse. It was the only time I’ve witnessed pure horror. Her eyes were dilated, simultaneously forced open from pain and pulled closed by intoxication. Her mouth was wide, the corners of her mouth turned down and upper lip stretched tightly, as if she was screaming a silent scream.
In fact, that is exactly what she was doing.
As I paused, the woman took her ‘daughter’s’ arms and pulled them tightly together, awkwardly arranging them. It was evident the girl had no self control, seeming to be coming out of a drugged state and slowly regaining consciousness.
I’ve never seen anything like it before and even now as I write this feel incredibly guilty at walking away. I wish I would have stopped, scooped her up, and ran away.

I didn’t. Where would I have gone with the information, or with her? The police could see just as well, and know better than I. I feel stupid to say I felt there was nothing I could have done then and don’t know what to do now to stop this.
Sadly, this is not the only instance of mistreatment of children.

 

Click on an image below to view photos from Yangon Myanmar’s streets up-close:

 

 

As a Year Four teacher, I educated my students about the Victorian Age in England. A large portion of our time was spent directed by a textbook, which spoke of developments during this crucial time in history. From housing to transportation to rights of women and children, we found many similarities between life in England 150 years ago and life in Myanmar today.

Often I would initially ignore these similarities, allowing students to discover them without persuasion. When they realized the likenesses, we would have a further discussion and would empower each other with ideas as to how they can refashion their own futures and the future of Myanmar.
In the Victorian Age, privileged wealthy children were able to go to school, to eat balanced meals, and to live in sanitary conditions. Those who were born into less fortunate families were forced to live in cramped, filthy conditions, to work dangerous jobs for little pay. To eat gruel, sleep on dirty floors, and forgo an education for the sake of their family.
In Myanmar today, these stories are the same. Children are sent from villages to cities, employed in tea shops and factories, and allowed to visit home only once a year – more if they’re lucky. They work every day, and are given few breaks. They’re given food and a place to stay, and money is sent home to their families. At night when the shops are closed, they’re locked inside, pulling together tables and chairs and laying down mats to sleep.

These are the children we interacted with every week when going to the tea shops for lunch or beer station for a Friday night happy hour. We’d joke with them and they’d smile shamelessly, in the midst of what most would consider a nightmare, they’d find self-worth and dignity.To pay, we’d pool our money, rounding up to the nearest 100, 1000, 5000 kyat. When our young waiters brought change, we’d often resist. With soft gestures, we’d encourage him to slide the remainders inside his pocket, saving it for himself. Sometimes we’d sneak out candy, other times small toys. Then we’d point. Index finger extended, we’d shake it several times. If we could, we’d have someone translate in Myanmar what we intended for him to do with the belongings.
“You” we tried to say, “This is for you. Not your boss. Not anyone but you.”

 

Click on an image below to view photos from Yangon Myanmar’s streets up-close:

 

Life on the streets is not all poorly. In fact, many aspects are just the opposite. Life on the streets of Yangon is colorful, tasty, loud, vivacious, charming, and an experience like none other.

There were several locals who I connected with daily.
The woman selling flowers who’d wrap up 10 cent roses in newspapers with Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un;
The woman offering bird seed who’d share a smile each morning and who pulled out a clean tissue to wipe a smearing of white dropped which had dropped from the hind side of one of her winged companions to my curly locks, and who graciously accepted a carefully wrapped gathering of flowers as a way to say “Kyei zu tin ba de”, thank you;
The man seated each afternoon on a stool not 10 centimeters from the ground,  with a steel container of yogurt, a ladle, and plastic bags to offer children and adults alike a sweet treat on their way to or from home;
The police officers at the corner of Bogyoke and Shwedagon Pagoda Road who watch stubborn traffic levels to decide precisely when to push the button, manually changing overhead stoplights from green to red and back again;

The streets of Yangon offer a mixture of street food, bakeries, produce stands, tea stalls, and beer stations, families, children, dogs, rats, Colonial-era buildings, modern apartments, wooden shacks, Muslim Mosques, Hindu Temples, Catholic Churches and Buddhist Pagodas. There are some ugly corners and some horrid treatments of children. There are also some of the most lovely, most caring persons I’ve met. The students I taught and people I interacted with daily have hopes of a brighter future. The proof is on the streets, and the population in general is gifted in the power of positivity and the strength of their smiles. And for this, I was privileged to live amongst them.

I have high hopes for Myanmar. It is a fast-changing country trying to adjust to new direction, new freedoms, and new ways of life. I desperately wish to make a greater difference one day for these people. I’ll start here by sharing this information, and hope you will be as inspired as I to brainstorm how the streets of Yangon might become spectacular not just for tourists and street vendors, but for the children and their families as well.

6 Comments

  1. Have so enjoyed hearing of your travels and adventures through your writings. You and your mother both have an uncanny way with words. By the by, I am really going to miss your mother as a neighbor. I was going to say I will miss her as a friend but this friendship will never end.

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    1. Thank you Joan! I’m so happy to know you and Mom is lucky to have you as a friend. You’re right as well – that friendship is there for live! Big hugs to you, and maybe we’ll see each other in Florida some day 😉

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  2. How hard to witness, yet life goes on. I understand the feeling, ” what could I do?” Love you, gloria

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    1. Absolutely, you are so right. It’s difficult to see and understand, and that feeling isn’t the best one- but you definitely can be assured you’ve made a big difference in many lives – and I think that’s what we all need to remember. xox

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