The Next Generation

February 21, 2017


It’s always fun to visit Safe Passage.  My first trip was back in 2005; back then I felt like a johney-come-lately because I didn’t know the program in its earliest days, but now I realize I am sort of looked at with awe by the staff because I knew Hanley Denning, Safe Passage’s founder who died in 2007. In fact, at one point yesterday I was sharing history with one of the staff who works with the volunteers and is often called upon to fill in the gaps.

It’s also fun — sometimes painful but always fun — to watch the progress of “our” sponsor students.

We started sponsoring Juan Carlos when he was about 12 and in first year basico (7th grade).  When we found out that his older brother Jose didn’t have a sponsor we began sponsoring him as well, and when an adult literacy class was opened and  their godmother Angela was one of the first to enroll, we decided to become sponsors of the whole family.

We first met Juan Carlos in 2007.  That was 10 years ago.  Angela died three years ago, but not before she could read and write a little, not before she saw Juan Carlos graduate from diversificado (high school) with Jose well on his way to that goal as well.  Jose graduated in November 2015, with his degree in accounting/interest in IT. The brothers live together with their older brother, girl friends, and three babies under the age of three.

Juan Carlos was selling insurance over the phone, which sounds just dreadful to me, but apparently he was enjoying it.  And, of course, it’s a job in the formal sector, which is a big deal. Unfortunately, he recently got fired — no, I don’t know the story — so he is currently looking for a job.  His lady, Brenda, is also a Safe Passage graduate, with a degree in secretarial work and a good command of English. The baby, Genesis, is now at two years old in Safe Passage’s preschool, so now Brenda can look for a job as well.

As for Jose, well, he has his accounting degree, but not his license, and he can’t get a license without a street address, and since the family are officially squatters, there’s no address.  It’s a real Catch 22 – he can’t afford a place to live until he has a job, and he can’t get a job until he has an address.  But actually, he does have a job — janatorial work in a public school.  It doesn’t pay much, and it’s below his educational level, but it is also in the formal job sector, and it’s something until something better comes along. Which I hope is soon.

And then there’s the next generation of sponsorship kids.

After Jose graduated, Safe Passage asked us if we would consider sponsorship of another student.  We asked for a “hard to place” student — it’s easy to find sponsors for cute little kids, after all, and that’s how we met Josua.  Yesterday was the first time I met him.  I met his older brother Jesus as well, and it was deja vu all over again when I learned that Jesus didn’t have a sponsor as well.  So once again, I spoke for Frank and said that we couldn’t well sponsor one boy and ignore his brother, and I signed the paperwork on the new sponsorship on the spot.

The father of Josua and Jesus is out of the picture, and their mother died several years ago.  They are living with an older brother or half brother or some such relationship, but they are really on their own.  They are approx. 12 and 14, just about the ages of Juan Carlos and Jose when we first met them, and they are both in Basico 2, or 8th grade. Jesus is retaking the grade; I asked him what course he had trouble with last year, and he said that it wasn’t academics that had been the problem, but his attitude.  And he said he had now conquered that.  I was impressed that a 14-year-old kid was able to take responsibility for his own failings so readily, and I am assuming that it was his family issues that led to his attitudinal problems.

Maybe a sponsor family is what the boys need.  I told them that Frank and I hoped to return in September.  By that time, it will be clear whether or not they will be passing their courses, and I said I looked forward to good news.

We shall see.

Many sponsor families want their sponsor children to be, you know, incredibly hardworking, intelligent, A students and the like. But they are not.  They are regular kids, with more problems than most courtesy of their environment, and prone to mistakes.  And they need caring and understanding, not a bar held to some impossible level.  So I look forward to getting to know Josua and Jesus, and maybe, to be able to help grow them into responsible adults, whatever their academic success.




Continental Crossing

February 21, 2017


“Doing” the Panama Canal has been on my bucket list for some years, and in theory it has always made sense to go to Panama in conjunction with one of our many trips to Guatemala, but in practice it hasn’t worked out .. until now! So off my sister and I went on an embarrassingly short (three night, two day) trip to Panama.

On a trip of this length, everything needs to be pre-packaged.  And indeed, we were picked up by our guide, Luis, and taken to the hotel.  The next day, we met the other five members of our tour and the plan was to see the old colonial city and the Miraflores locks.  All of which happened, but then …

It’s always disconcerting to be stopped at a police barricade in a foreign country, but usually, as soon as they see gringos/muzungos, the van is waved right on.  This time was different.  We were pulled over, Luis got out to speak to the policeman, and when he returned he did not look happy.  Several hours later, the story became clear:  It seems that the van was not licensed to carry paying passengers, and also, that this was not the first time Luis had been stopped for this infraction.

Both his license and the van were impounded.

Now, Luis gets points for carrying on, maintaining his smile (and the schedule) and calling on various friends/relations with both licenses and legal vans to continue the tour. And if you have to be stopped by the police in Latin America, Panama is a reasonably benign country for it to happen.  Even so …

The next day, the real excitement began. The morning started early — partly because Luis’ cousin had a small car and had to make two trips to pick up the seven of us — and also because we were, after all, crossing a continent.  I don’t know what I really expected, but once again, it turned out to be so much more!

I had no idea, for example, that the doors on the locks are the original, dating from 1914.  Riveted, not welded steel.  Or that the locks work 24/7, with somebody in charge of logistics and to make sure that as many ships as possible pass through the locks.  I had never thought about the fact that the Calubra Cut is the only place in the world where the continental divide can be crossed by boat. Or how much tonnage is actually shipped through Panama.

Three locks up, Lake Gatun, and three locks down.  All day on our boat, with almost constant meals and a really good guide.  And then we docked in Colon, on the Atlantic side.  We transferred to a bus and were back in Panama City in 90 minutes. Just like that.

Do it.  You won’t be disappointed.





And Now for Something Completely Different

February 13, 2017


I write this from home.  The last two days in Yangon went by in a blur of activity — interviewing Rotary Peace Fellows, making connections — and then came the long trip home.  As luck would have it, I arrived between two blizzards, and so all is well.

Except that my Myanmar story is unfinished.

I grew up so eager to get to Europe. And I finally was able to finagle it when I was in college — in fact, I got to Europe three times in four years of college — not bad, eh?

And it was wonderful.  But somehow, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum all looked just like the postcards.  It was only in the early ’90s, when Frank and I went to Prague, that we discovered what was to us — to most Americans — an undiscovered Europe.  From the moment we got off the train, as we walked through the streets with an inch of snow on the ground and hundreds of years of history around us, all was magical.  Later, Prague has been “westernized” with tourists and corporate names, but when we were there, all was undiscovered country.

That’s how I felt about Myanmar.  Where else can you find a country in which the men (not just the women but the men) wear traditional costumes?  Where Buddhism is “real,” not the touristic version? Where what you see on the ground is so much more than the guidebook anticipates, and much more confounding?  A country where my guides were sharing their Buddhist teachings with me rather than  what they thought would be entertaining and definitely not what the guidebook and historians might better suggest?  And a place where people are actually pleased to see Americans?

I asked Ashley what message I should give to Americans, and her answer was unequivocal:  Ask them to come to Myanmar and see for themselves, she said.  And here is what they will see:

A country moving with difficulty into democracy.  Yes, the elections were remarkably untainted (thanks in good measure to Ashley’s hard work).  But still:  Myanmar has the same constitution it had under the military, a constitution that sets aside 25% of seats in the parliament for the military.  The man who was writing a new constitution was gunned down two weeks ago at the airport.  At the airport, in the middle of the day! With him died the best hope for a new constitution, and the best successor for the Lady, Aung San Sui Kyi, whose health is not good.

Note that with the existing constitution, it is still illegal to discuss things like the Lady’s health.  Freedom of assembly is also still illegal.  So when the expats came together on January 21 to witness against the new American administration, they were breaking the law.  Around 100 people showed up, carrying signs and demonstrating quietly, but when the police showed up, they quickly disbursed and ran off.

Myanmar’s democracy is fragile.  Recent events are teaching us that even after almost 250 years, a leader without scruples can push our democracy to a breaking point.  How much more so in a country where democracy is brand-new, and voters don’t know what it means to vote; elected representatives don’t know what it is to represent; et cetera?

Plus, the current government is living with the evils of the old.  The West refused to trade with Myanmar under the military government.  This was probably the right call, but of course it hurt the people before it hurt the military. And with no one else to do business with, the military did business with China, their oversized neighbor to the north.  As a result, a pipeline of oil runs through Myanmar to enrich China — and the new government has no clout to rewrite the terms of the agreement.  That’s just one example of many, we were told, that are hampering the new government, and causing consternation among a population that wants change.

Change.  Where have we heard that before?

And so I’m home.For now.









Yangon Rotary Club

February 8, 2017


Ashley Pritchard, a former Rotary Ambassadorial scholar, made arrangements for Dave and me to visit the Yangon RC, even though we will not be here on Thursday, their regular meeting day.

Myanmar is the newest country to reenter the Rotary world.  There had been Rotary in Burma, but when the military government took over, that was the end of that. Now, the Yangon club is reestablished, and plans are under way for another club in Mandalay, and then maybe, just maybe, a Rotaract club in Yangon.

It’s not easy being a new club and the only club in the country.  The District leadership is in Bangkok, close enough for PETS, but not really for day-to-day learning about what Rotary is.  So, for example, the club had been asked if it would become an all Paul Harris Fellow club in honor of the centenary of the Foundation.  It’s all well and good to ask Rotarians to donate $1000, but to ask that of a new club filled iwth new Rotarians who don’t yet grasp the essence of Rotary is asking a lot.  Dave was smart enough to suggest that the club leadership start by trying to become an all-sustaining member club at $100 per year, and after we explained what that meant, the suggestion was clearly met with relief and gratitude.

Similarly, every westerner who visits Myanmar apparently has the same idea — to get in touch with the Yangon club — and the club can’t keep up with demand of well-meaning Rotarians who want to deliver  300 wheelchairs and how come the Yangon club can’t drop everything and deliver them? and so on.  The club is involved in its fourth Alliance of Smiles (cleft lip/palette) mission, at $5000 a pop.  You get the idea.  I tried to emphasize that the club needs to develop its own agenda and let the international clubs know that they will be happy to accept support for the projects important to the Yangon RC, not vice versa.  But clearly it’s hard.



Democracy is Complicated

February 8, 2017


Democracy is complicated, as we are learning right now in the States, and should never be taken for granted.

Here in Myanmar, the military regime is a thing of the past, and The Lady  and her party are in charge, but democracy is new and not firmly established.  For example, many of the repressive laws against what we consider basic rights — including freedom of assembly — are still on the books.  We learned that a group of expats gathered on January 21, the same day as anti-Inaugural protests around the world — and they carried banners but the group was broken up by the police.  And so it goes.

Burma once had the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia, and certainly, it has the natural resources — semi precious stones, gold, a breadbasket — to get that way again.  But after the west embargoed the country, the military government cut long-term deals with China, deals that were favorable to China and which the new government cannot erase. So Myanmar’s economic problems continue.

Myanmar’s return to democracy has not been perfect but it has been peaceful.  While that’s good, it also means that lands and goods that were stolen have, for the most part, not been returned nor compensated.  So there is much work to be done.

We interviewed a former student activist, who eventually was caught and sentenced to prison for his activities.  Starvation and hard labor was the norm, for more than six years.  When asked how we maintained his sanity, he said by his determination to study English.  This he did at night, drawing letters in the sand on the floor iwth his fingers, and when he was caught (multiple times, it sounded like) he was tortured. Eventually he was released and he crossed the border (illegally) to Thailand.  There he lived underground, but eventually he was able to go (legally) to New Zealand.  It was there that he learned about the Rotary Peace Centers, and he earned his master’s at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Today he is finishing his Ph.D., married to another Ph.D. candidate, and working for the new government, along side generals including one who once oversaw the prisons where he was held. The colleague who was assassinated last week at the airport was a close personal friend, and when we saw him he was wearing black in his memory.

Democracy is complicated.



The Change-Maker

February 7, 2017


Dave Forward arrived late last night from the US — unfortunately, his luggage did not.  The next Air China flight doesn’t come in until tomorrow, so after a leisurely breakfast he bit the bullet and we went to a nearby shopping mall to see what was available in American men’s sizes.

By the time we returned, our 11:00 interview had arrived.  N.K. Ko is a Ph.D candidate whose dissertation is on Burmese corruption as a political force.  Dave turned on the tape recorder, and N.K. shared his story.

He is now in his early 40s.  He became a student activist  when he was still in high school, and he was eventually arrested for his activities and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. In telling the story, N.K. shared the exact dates of his detention and sentencing, and also his eventual release.  He was tortured — he says both mentally and physically — in prison, and he says he kept his sanity because he had set out for himself an (illegal) course of study — to learn English and to learn about democracy from others in prison.

When he was released, he fled across the border to Thailand.  He continued to be arrested in Thailand, this time for living without proper papers in the country.  He traveled to raise awareness of the situation with the military government back in Myanmar.  He said he once spent three weeks in the Bangkok airport, unable to reenter the country because he didn’t have the right papers, but unable to be sent back to Myanmar because he had requested asylum.  Eventually he ended up in New Zealand, and he still carries a NZ passport.  Somewhere along the way he found time to meet his future wife, who is also a Ph.D. candidate interested in clean water programs.

N.K. was introduced to Rotary in NZ, and recommended for the Rotary Peace program; he eventually went to the Peace Center in Australia.  Today, in addition to working on his Ph.D., he is working in one of the ministries that govern Myanmar.  He said that he works closely with a general who once controlled the prisons and the guards who abused him.  He is in frequent contact with The Lady, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and when asked what he hopes to be doing in five or 10 years, the answer is unequivocal:  Being in a senior position to help run the country.

Any questions?

The Bubble Bursts

February 6, 2017


So far, I’ve been in the tourist bubble — met at every step by a guide and driver to negotiate every move and protect me from the hoards of folks who want to do this, that and the other, all for a tip.

All that ended this morning. But first, some perspective.

The plan was for me to travel from Bagan to Yangon by overnight bus. This sounded remarkably uncomfortable, but I had been advised, time and again, that it was better than it sounded.

It wasn’t.

We started off from Bagan bus station at 8:00 p.m.  The bus was well equipped (although no toilet) including a “flight attendant,” if you will, in costume and complete with clipboard of passenger names and assigned seats.  The problem was that as soon as we got underway, the bus shimmied.  It was more than the potholes in the road, it was the shimmy.  I was bounced across the seat and back again, and sleep was impossible.  So was reading.  After an hour or so, the attendant got on the mike, the lights went up, and we were told we were entering our first rest stop and chance to use the toilet, and that we would be leaving again in an hour or so.  It was interminable, and you get the general picture.

It turned out that there were four stops in Yangon.  I held on until the bus station, where my itinerary said I would be met, but by now you are gathering correctly that I was not.  Various arguments later with various people who wanted to carry my luggage, get me to my hotel, et cetera, I gave up waiting and accepted a taxi and a ride to my hotel at 15,000 kyat.  To put that in perspective, that’s about twice what I’ve been paying for dinner in a tourist restaurant.  There was also the principal of the thing.

It didn’t help that when I got to the hotel, they didn’t seem to know my name. Or, after 90 minutes of this sillyness and now 6:30 in the morning, they said it was too early for me to check in.  But by simply refusing to lose my temper and making it the hotel’s problem, I prevailed … my reservation was under my first name (Chinese style) and had been paid for the previous evening which meant that I not only got into my room, I got breakfast covered as well.

I emailed the travel company and, fast forward, the guide appeared around 9:00 (after a nap and a shower on my part).  Many apologies later on his part, I am convinced that the mistake was not his fault; the bus station is a big place.  So I concentrated on suggesting to the tour company that they find more congenial ways to get their clients to Yangon, and that is that.  I hope.

All in all, it was hardly a big deal. In my student travel days I certainly got myself in and out of a lot worse situations.  But these days, I’m happy to have a bubble.