Three days. 72 hours makes it sound a little longer. 4,320 minutes makes it sound a lot longer. But in reality they are all equal. It’s like a trick question that my dad used to ask me. He would say, what weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold? The first time he asked me I almost immediately replied saying a pound of gold. But the answer is in the question — they are both a pound. Three days. That is the time I have left before I leave Myanmar and begin my journey back home to New York City. Before eating rice at least three times a day is not a societal norm. Before walking down the street and having people actually smile at you. Before I return to my family, a mattress, AC and facebook. Three days before our group of sixteen will break up into sixteen smaller pieces that may never be put back together again. 72 hours, and I don’t want to waste a single second of it. While I am living in the present and making the best of the little time I have left, I do feel the need to look back and reflect, but also to look ahead.
I cannot begin to fathom the fact that I am leaving this country. I don’t think I ever even accepted the fact that I am here, in Myanmar, on the other side of the world, miles and miles away from everyone and everything I know. The fact that I left my own little world and everything I’ve ever known to come here. To forget about my world and learn about our world. I distinctly remember how I felt before leaving for this adventure — I was scared, terrified in fact, hesitant, reluctant, and doubtful. Doubtful whether or not I could do it, mentally or physically. Doubtful whether or not a girl who has lived in New York City her whole life could survive with only two pairs of pants for an entire month. Doubtful if I could live without a phone or computer, without being in constant communication. Doubtful whether I could leave everything I’ve ever known and travel to a country that I barely knew anything about with people I had never met. But with a mere 72 hours left I can say that I haven’t just survived but that I am more alive than I have ever been.
I can say confidently that this trip has been an unforgettable experience. It has changed me in ways that I am not sure I could put into words. I remember packing for the trip, sitting on the floor of my room with my mom and the packing list, making sure we had it all, that there were would be no last minute runs to get anything that we were missing. I remember how my mom asked me what books I was planning on bringing. I laughed at the thought of even packing a book — it had been years since I ever actually read one that wasn’t for a class. But with three days left and plenty of witnesses I can say that I have gone through everyone else’s books on this trip and have no idea what I am going to do without something to read for the few days ahead. But that is just one tiny change. One tiny little insignificant change compared to the rest.
It feels like a lifetime has passed since I’ve been home in the chaotic and bustling city of New York. But on the contrary it feels like a day has passed since we arrived here in Myanmar. And if that were to be true — that it has only been a day — I would say that it has been the best day of my life. I don’t think I could have gotten luckier with the group of people that I have spent the past month with. We have all grown to love one another and appreciate each other despite any differences in opinion or beliefs. I don’t want to have to think about saying goodbye to any of them but more importantly, I don’t want to have to think about saying goodbye to all of them as a group. One by one we will say goodbye to each other and we will all go back home whether home be the US, France, Belgium, China, Taiwan or Japan, and the chances of all of us seeing each other again as a group is slim to none. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter where you are — you could be anywhere in this world — but it is about who you’re with that will make something an incredible experience. People have the power to do that, to make something an unforgettable experience. An unbelievable experience. An experience that few in this world can speak about personally, an experience that only the sixteen of us will ever be able to understand.
It’s more than the dragons group as well, it is the people of Myanmar that made this trip so special and unique. It is the Pre-College Program students from the Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School, the students from the Theik Khar Institute, the people from the village of Sin Le, and the students from the Golden Lion Monestary in Shwebo. These are the people who’s faces have grown familiar. The people who’s faces have become like family. Who’s smiles and laughs have become contagious. Who’s qualities of optimism, gratefulness, hospitality, curiosity and aptitude to learn have been contagious as well and become qualities of my own. Qualities that I hope to pass on to others when I return home, the way that the people of Myanmar passed them onto me.
I have spent all sixteen years of my life in New York, disregarding the family vacations and trips to summer camp each year. Sixteen years without too much change. If one does the simple arithmetic they will know that sixteen years is 192 months. Who knew that one month would have such a great impact out of those 192. That one month has not only changed me as a person but it will have an effect on my future and the person whom I aspire to be. One month that has provided me with more knowledge than I could ever imagine. Knowledge that cannot be taught out of a textbook. One month spent with fifteen others with whom I shared every minute and can relate to the experience with. One month of eating rice, of longyi showers, of playing charades because of the language barrier. One month of trekking through monsoons, of meeting new people, of hearing new stories, and so much more.
When I return home. I have begun to associate a lot of contradicting emotions with those four words. When I return home. I am excited. Excited to share my experience and stories with my friends and family. Excited to tell them all about watching sunsets from the ancient pagodas in Bagan. About the people of Sin Le and how they taught me how to plant rice and properly ride a water buffalo. About Inle Lake and how the people there paddle their boats with their feet and travel by canals and waterways instead of highways or streets. Or about the kids at the monastery in Shwebo, of whom many are suffering from HIV, but about how they will do anything for a laugh or a smile. About the little three year-old boy who can climb up a coconut tree like a koala, or the fountain I helped build, or the adobe mud house I helped create bricks for. But despite all of my excitement to share those stories, I can’t help but feel saddened by having to say goodbye to the country where I experienced all of them. Where all of those memories were made. I am fearful of losing the new qualities I have obtained, fearful of reverting back to my old self. I am fearful of forgetting the people, the faces that have become so familiar, the children that I have learned so much from. I am fearful of forgetting the details, the small things that I wouldn’t even think to think about on a day-to-day basis. But like everything else, fears must be overcomed. And maybe, if I am lucky enough, I will be able to come back someday.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Last week we spent several days in Cotzal, a beautiful community in the western highlands of Guatemala. We spent most of our time in Cotzal working with women in a weaving cooperative who graciously welcomed us into their lives and homes. These women were all survivors of and widowed by the devastating Guatemalan civil war that dominated three decades of the nation’s history starting in the 1960′s. Towards the end of the armed conflict, five widowed women decided to band together and sell their weavings to forge a future for themselves in the wake of such profound loss and desolation. 20 years later, the co-op uses a strong and sustainable business model to support 45 women and their families.
Several of the women in the cooperative shared their survival stories with us one night as we squeezed in the conference room and huddled away from the rain. Their stories blew me away. The strength, grace and poise that Doña Caterina displayed while sharing her incredily devastating story was truly remarkable. I was able to really appreciate the beauty of the courage that these women display in every step that they take and every row that they weave with their weathered fingers.
While hearing Doña Caterina’s story I took rough notes so I would be able to remember the experience later. Afterwards, I decided to transcribe my notes into another journal and now I find myself writing about her words again. The practice of repetition and storytelling is a concept that fascinates me. Storytelling is not only an important source of amusement and catalyst for creativity, but I believe it is also an immense and powerful tool (or weapon) in shaping society. After all, we learn from the words that have been chosen carefully for our ears, and we act based on judgements formed from those words.
As important as words are, I believe silence can be equally impactful on society. If people like Doña Caterina chose to remain silent about the horrific crimes that occurred during the civil war, the situation would continue to worsen and tragedies would continue to occur. Memory is a beautiful and powerful tool in shaping society, and I greatly admire people who choose to remind the world of problems that go unnoticed and forgotten. I will continue to remember the dignity and strength with which the women of Cotzal carry out their daily lives, and the courage with which they chose to break the silence.
If smiles are the universal language, then laughter extrudes fluency. There is nothing like laughter to bring together people, families, nations. And so here, in the small fishing village of Niodior, smiles and laughter are key to center the cacophony of languages misunderstood.
In the vibrant whirlwind that is our home, at least for a handful of days more, every individual has been able to grab on to wisps of all that Senegal has to offer. For some it is language or music or new friendships. Others have learned about culture, religion, or even themselves. But we all, without fail, have perfected the “I don’t know what you’re saying but I hope it’s not a question” smile and laugh.
These moments are horribly confusing at their worst and just plain awkward at their best. Fortunately for us, young and old Senegalese are at the very least understanding and so often willing to help. Be it an answer prompt and then a chance to repeat the interaction or the use of animated gestures to express points, if both parties are determined, conversations will occur. And occur they have. Even on such a small island, interesting people and conversations are abundant if you just look. And yet, perhaps my most meaningful conversations have not been the ones with my host brother on interesting global issues or the quiet interactions with the elders in my host family, but the ones based purely on laughter.
On Niodior I live in a compound full of families not even all related. I have ten host moms. Yes ten. Between them they speak French, Wolof, and Sereer. I speak English and some French. Conversations are always choppy. But honestly, that’s probably for the best. It makes even simple requests difficult, but provides so many hilarious misunderstandings.
Take the day I fasted with my family. As night fell, an older man handed me a few dates. Without thinking, I took a bite. The man starts laughing, as does my host brother. Slowly everyone in the compound is at least giggling. Someone pulls out his phone. Sept minutes he says. Seven minutes. There is nothing to do but laugh. I pretend to be mad at the man who handed me dates. The grandfather of the compound hands me a mint as a joke. In fractured French I thank him, then jokingly ask if he has any more food I can eat before the sun goes down. When it is truly time to break fast, the same man hands me another date. Chaotic peace falls over the compound. I am at home.
Ahlan Friends and Family!
Here are a few snapshots from our desert trek in Wadi Rum. In short, our time in the desert was incredible, although it feels like a separate trip altogether right now. Tonight, the air in Amman is cool. I’m sitting in Jabal al-Lweibdeh, a neighborhood just outside of downtown Amman, and the call to prayer is reverberating off our hillside (jabal) for the fourth time this evening. I’ve never spent time in the Middle East during Ramadan, and the repeated recitation of Quranic scripts always draws me back; it grounds me, and reminds me how lucky we are to be in Jordan during this ‘pause’; an intentional time to prioritize faith, family and extremely rich food.
We’ve had an action packed few days in Amman; the type that became intimidating as soon as I acknowledged the date of this post. It’s now July 14th, and the title of this Yak is “Snapshots from our Desert Trek” … so let me re-cap…
When we first arrived in Jordan, we flew into Amman and immediately boarded a mini-bus down to a desert camp outside of Disa Village; a village on the outskirts of the largest natural preserve in Jordan, Wadi Rum. After two days of Orientation, we piled our belongings into a pick-up truck and hopped atop a caravan of camels, everything glowing in the late afternoon sun.
Our week in the desert settled into a rhythm. We woke up with the sun each morning and wandered into the desert, skirting the edge of huge sandstone cliffs to stay out of the sun. After two hours of walking, we’d settle down for the heat of the day and study Arabic, feast on piles of pita, drink glass after glass of sweet tea, and play cesja, a form of Bedouin chess that our guide Suleiman kindly taught us. Britt and Angie embraced the competition, although Suleiman showed absolutely no signs of mercy, and repeatedly beat both Britt and Angie, taunting them almost continuously along the way; the corners of his eyes folded in triumphant glee. In the evening, we’d walk again, set up camp, and then settle in for family-style dinner; the night sky crushed velvet and stars above us.
Writing about this week feels nostalgic already. Something about the vastness of the sand and the blanket of the sky seemed to cradle our experience, drawing us together to find meaning in the empty space. I grew up along a river in New Hampshire, and the absence of trees, water, and vibrant life in the desert always strikes me; the vacuous space offering time for reflection.
Ok, more soon.