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Trekking to Myanmar's Clinics: Diary of a Medical Missionary -- A Day On Inle Lake 04/05/14

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Friday, 25th April ,2014

Early in the morning, we woke up to a sumptuous breakfast on a terrace overlooking the beautiful grounds of the Pristine Lotus Hotel.  I could see a glimpse of the Inle Lake from a distance.  This is where we will take a boat ride to see the town and the area around Inle Lake. The breakfast was among the best we’ve had in Myanmar and most, if not all, the guests we saw at the hotel were westerners.  I had a bowl of Monh Hnin Kha, a spicy noodle dish and considered one of Myanmar’s “national” dishes.  The broth was tasty and had all kinds of vegetables and fish in it.  Wherever I travel, I always like to eat like a local even for breakfast.  You can’t completely absorb the essence of an area without trying the locals’ foods.  You might wonder, “Having curry in Tanzania for breakfast?”  Yes, I did it every morning while I was there and couldn’t have enough of it.  I thought it was one of the best curry dishes I have had outside of the U.S. 

I have a fairly strong stomach for spicy food, my favorite kind.  The times I have been on different Greek Islands, however, I found the plain locally made yogurt with honey, together with the sweetest cherry tomatoes to be so satisfying!  I realize you have to try all kinds of tastes to experience how amazing foods around the world can be.  Do not stick to bacon and eggs, or oatmeal and pancakes when you travel, as you do not want to miss at least 50% of the areas’ essence.  Do I use the term “essence” too much in my writing?  It is because I really believe in its importance. 

After breakfast, we rode in groups of five -six on colorful wooden boats to the Inle Lake area.  Inle Lake is 900 meters above the sea.  It is reported to be among the most significant and productive ecological systems supporting an incredible variety of plants and animals.  It plays a significant part in the economy of Myanmar.  The tourist industry here is thriving as compared to other areas. 

The water on Inle Lake reminded me of the color of the Mekong delta in Vietnam, a reddish hue of mud and water mixed together.  The soil probably is extremely rich in minerals, and the fish are abundant.  However, the pollution probably is quite bad too, as I noted that people bathed and washed in the lake and probably discarded things they should not have in the lake.  This is the water of their life in Myanmar, as the Mekong Delta is to the South Vietnamese.  Water, in my opinion, equates with life.

We got off the boats at one point to visit a large temple on Inle Lake.  Again, the “ladies” were not allowed past a certain point to sit and pray.  I started rationalizing to myself, maybe men need to sit closer to the Buddha to learn his lessons since they are less mature than women?  Maybe we women are smart enough and have good enough hearing to allow us to remain a little farther away from the Buddha.  I kept my thoughts to myself, as I knew how those in Myanmar might not like to see an Asian Gloria Steinem making fun of their culture.  At least they spelled the word “prohibited” correctly in this temple, unlike the one in Nyaung Shwe where the word was spelled “Prohibit.”

The highlight of the day was a trip to the factory where scarf and clothing items were made from lotus fibers.  It was fascinating for me, an ardent arts and crafts lover, to watch a young woman meticulously taking fiber filaments off a lotus stem.  I realized it would take so much time and so many lotus stems to make a scarf.  In the Washington area, I have gone yearly to the Smithsonian Craft show and the American Counsel Craft Show in Baltimore where I watched the best of the artisans making jackets and skirts from bamboo fabric, necklaces using beads made from paper mache, earrings made of “lint” pulled from washing machines, or exquisite embroidery paintings which were as beautiful as those I saw in Chengdu, China.  These craft items were, however, very expensive and most people went to the shows as a festival to their eyes, not to shop.  I always bought a few items from each show to support the artisans.  After all, without this support, their creative arts will disappear.  The world is more balanced when there are as many artists as scientists.  The truth is, these artists are truly the best scientists in their fields.  To listen to how they made their crafts is as interesting as looking at the crafts themselves.

It didn’t take me long to buy the only lavender lotus and silk scarf on display, the only expensive item I bought in Myanmar.  It will be a special present for a friend at home who had a significant birthday.  Like me, lavender is her favorite color for clothing.  I listened to Dr. Ko Ko Maw, the Burmese dentist who followed us on the trip, and bargained.  I am never a good bargainer, as I often fear of being considered a “cut-throat capitalist.”  Besides, I have learned not to walk away from something unique that you might never see again.  I was happy for my friend.  Knowing her, she will treasure this unique scarf.  I didn’t get anything for myself, as my closet at home is full of unique scarves either given by my patients, or ones I bought at the craft shows.  The funny thing is, I rarely wear scarves!

The afternoon was very tough, as after lunch, we were back in the bus for a long ride to the new capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw.  The day was hot with the temperature rising above 100F (similar to most of our days in Myanmar).  Every few hours, we got off the bus for restroom breaks.  By now, we all had become experts in squatting.  Actually, I preferred the austere toilets over the “modern” ones with the flushing system, as most of the modern ones did not flush!  The first time I walked into an “austere” toilet on the way to Taunggyi, I was all confused.  Should I face the back wall or should I face the door? What was this bucket with a bowl for?  I was too intellectual for this toilet.  I had brought a small bottle of perfume from one of my mother’s collections but kept forgetting it in the backpack I left behind in the bus.  I only remembered to tear off some toilet paper from the roll I kept in my backpack, and to bring some alcohol wipes on top of the Castile  soap hand wipes brought to Myanmar from my office.  I had a compulsive system all figured out to keep my hands clean in Myanmar.

As I was in this toilet pondering which way to face, a little voice was screaming inside of me:

“You are NOT in a cinema looking for a seat.  Get it over with before you are overcome with the scent of this austere toilet.”

You should be proud of me.  Unlike what I prepared to do before I left for Myanmar, I never once put on my surgical shoe covers, nor my yellow soft masks.  I used the austere toilet like a local.  I got that “essence” of their life too.  The water bucket, as you guess, was an efficient way to clean the toilet after yourself.  Enough about the austere toilets of Myanmar! 

Our restroom breaks always took place in areas with street vendors.  They were like rest areas in the U.S. where you can buy fast foods and coffee or soda all in one stop.  There were no fast food stands there in Myanmar, not that I could see.  We got deliciously sweet but chewy steamed corn, bags of roasted fava beans, spicy potato chips, spicy tamarind or dried plums each for less than a dollar.  I wondered if the locals would have paid even less since there was no price tag on the items.  In Vietnam, the vendors blatantly charged the tourists more than the locals.  Even in the theaters, they had a different price for the “foreigners” as compared to their locals.  Somehow, I am fine with that system.  After all, I make much more money than the locals, and do not really pay any tax in these impoverished countries.  Another dollar or more while I travel, what’s the worry?  One more dollar in some areas I travelled in Vietnam could feed the whole family for a day.  Doesn’t it make you feel good knowing you have fed a whole family somewhere for just a dollar?

The hardest part of this trip was the last few hours, when an older Vietnamese dentist decided to play his CD on the loudspeaker.  His music was the kind I desperately avoided when I was a little girl growing up in Vietnam.  It was the kind of music my parents used to listen to and it was too “whiny” for my tastes.  There were no metaphors or poetic words in the lyrics, just plain whining over some lost love.  Worse in this case, there were only a few songs and the CD was played over and over during the ride.  The way that guy was languishing over his girlfriend, she was lucky she had left him, I said to myself.

I jotted down a few more items on my diary and started blogging on my iPhone to distract myself from the awful songs.  I started thinking about the songs I like.  I started humming to myself, hoping that nobody could hear me from my seat.  The lone training of three marathons had “engraved” in my mind many of the songs from my iPod.  I had listened to the same songs, those that would distract me away from my feet for at least three hours during the long runs before dawn.  I am such an activist at heart and most songs I listened to were from the era of the Vietnam war, from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones.  I was in Myanmar.  It would have been so appropriate for me to listen to George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.  In fact, ironically, that album was the last one I heard the morning I left the U.S. for Myanmar.  I woke up early that morning to get on my elliptical machine, knowing how I might not be able to exercise much in Myanmar.  George Harrison was loud and passionate about Bangladesh during that concert. “Hare Krishna” he hollered to the crowd at the concert.  He championed against hunger and injustice despising the inequality.  I have always felt the same way, saddened that some lack the most basic needs for the human race.  He, like me, walked through this world fully aware of its darkness, created not by elusive evil, but by often a small group of very real humans.

“Watch out now, take care

Beware of falling swingers

Dropping all around you

The pain that often mingles

In your fingertips

Beware of darkness.

 

Watch out now, take care,

Beware of the thoughts that linger,

Winding up inside your head

In the dead of the night

Beware of sadness

It can hit you

It can hurt you

Make you sore and what is more

That is not what you are here for.


Watch out now, take care,

Beware of shoe shufflers

Dancing down the sidewalks

As each unconscious sufferer

Wander aimlessly

Beware of Maya.


Watch out now, take care

Beware of greedy leaders

They take you where you should not go

While weeping Atlas Cedars

They just want to grow, grow and grow

Beware of darkness.”

 

I never had thought songs from those long runs alone on the roads someday would help me survive long bus rides in a foreign country, and I intentionally left my iPod at home. I was paranoid about “somebody” checking my playlist in Myanmar and seeing all the songs I listened to. I am a cautious activist.

We reached Naypyidaw before I knew it.  We will be staying in the beautiful Amara Hotel for four nights.  Tomorrow, we will be in the best hospital of Myanmar.  I can’t wait to see how the best hospital in Myanmar operates.

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