When I arrived in Yangon, the hustle and bustle of Myanmar’s biggest city was immediately apparent. I had been hoping for something new and something different than the travels I had experienced thus far, and boy was I not disappointed. From beautiful parks to people in traditional dress, billboards to orderly-but-insane traffic circles, Yangon was bumping and I could already tell I was going to love this place.
I settled into my hostel after the hour taxi from the airport, aaaaaand … immediately went to bed. I had been up late the few nights before celebrating my birthday (a week of celebrations is appropriate, amirite?), and I was due for a crash day. Traveling can be exhausting, especially if you’re at it for months at a time, and if you don’t allow yourself a break you simply cannot sustain it.
When I came out of my travel coma, I wandered sleepily into the common area where I met a few other travellers, two of which were talking adamantly about a volunteer centre nearby that they were going to the following morning. I had been planning on sightseeing in Yangon for the day, but the more they talked about volunteering and the centre, the more my gut told me I needed to go with them.
So the next morning there I was, at the front of a public bus with two new friends from Ella from England and Erin from America, also making fast friends with the bus driver who spoke zero English and was unfamiliar with foreigners but who still cranked today’s hits on the stereo for us (and even danced, a little).
The bus dropped us off about an hour and a half later, and left us in front of a sign that said, “Welcome to Tha Bar Wa“.
Thabarwa is unlike any place I’ve ever encountered – self-described as a “sanctuary for persons from all regions of Myanmar who seek refuge for care and attention and desire to practice meditation,” the center cares for more than 2,400 yogis who require aid in one form or another (more on that below and in tomorrow’s Part 2 post). It also houses and trains several Buddhist monks and nuns, all of whom help to teach meditation and provide food to the yogis who live there. They aim to change the world and help others through generosity and selflessness.
You volunteer anywhere volunteers are needed. In exchange, Thabarwa provides you with free basic accommodation and food (think bucket showers, fans, mosquito nets, and rice), as well as teachings in Buddhist meditation. It’s a self-directed type of place, so you use your skills wherever they may be most applicable. I found things to help out with anywhere and everywhere – mostly by walking around the village and being pulled in by local yogis. The Burmese are unbelievably friendly and welcome you with ease into their circles.
In the end, I private tutored a nun in English at her home, taught village kids English, played and entertained orphans in the mornings, visited 100 year old grandma’s, washed rice for dinner (so hard), prepared meals, did dishes, cleaned rooms … the list was varied and long that I was thoroughly used up by the end of each day. It didn’t matter what I was intending to do that day, I always ended up doing something else that was inspiring and soul-filling and took all of my energy.
All of the activities were optional for volunteers, but generally speaking this is what most of us got up to on a daily basis:
5am: morning guided meditation. When you finish, you can catch the tail end of the sunrise. I’d always wanted to learn more about meditation (in an authentic way, not necessarily the privileged yoga-versions we have in Canada) and so I made efforts to attend as many of these as possible. Not going to lie, though, 5am was hard for me.
6am: Put on your long sleeves and long skirt or pants and get to breakfast. Trust me, it didn’t matter if it was 6am, you were already drenched in sweat. Generally breakfast consisted of rice, fruit, and some form of noodle. If you miss this, you don’t eat again until lunch at 11am.
7am: Alms walk. All the monks and nuns jump barefoot into a series of trucks and drive to neighbourhoods in the region where they walk around chanting and accepting food donations for the centre. The Burmese people come out when they hear the chanting and give whatever food they can; even people who have very little give as much as they possible can. They know the people at the centre need the food, and the monks usually return with enough food to feed 200-400 people per day. It’s jaw dropping to see how much food they come back with.
11am: lunch. Typically rice, a delicious mixture of meats and potatoes, tea, and a jackfruit dessert. The monks and nuns do not eat after noon, so lunch was always the busiest time of the day. Volunteers were asked not to linger and chat (very Western, as it turns out) because the volume was so high. It’s also not part of the Burmese culture for people to linger in large groups and chat – it makes you look lazy, and generally speaking, the Burmese think trouble is brewing when more than 3 people are standing around talking. It was very rare that we did this in public settings.
12pm – 3pm: volunteer where you’re needed. Take people out in wheelchairs. Clean roads. Take a break. Whatever you need. At 1:30pm there was guided walking meditation you could participate in as well, but I was always kept so darn busy that I never got a chance to test it out.
3pm – 5pm: teach English at the local school.
5pm: wash rice for the following day. Usually this is collected the same morning in the alms walk. Hardest labour I did while I was away.
6pm: dinner. It was made and served by one nun and her apprentice, who I became quite close to. The only people who eat dinner are the foreigners, so we made haste and didn’t linger. It was still the best opportunity to share experiences with fellow volunteers and to discuss what still needed doing that evening or the next day.
7:00pm: teaching English to monks and nuns, either privately in their homes or, if you were a long-term volunteer, in their school.
8pm: Buddhism class for foreigners.
9pm: Guided evening meditation. We meditated on love and kindness, or own deaths, and self-actualization.
10pm: pass out in bed under your mosquito net, resting up for the next day. The work is continuous and purposeful from 5am to 10pm, and if you don’t rest, you can’t help. Period.
11pm: the crazy wild pack of dogs that live in the area start howling and marking their territories. There are different gangs, and the first night it actually really scared me to hear them fighting each other in the street. You’re not in Canada, anymore, that’s for sure. I usually fell asleep thinking maybe I should’ve gotten that rabies shot after all …
The people who come to live at Thabarwa have nothing. They live in sheds, or large rooms with 29 other roommates. Or in the multifloored, open-air hospital. Their roads are muddied, orange clay. The school is a shambles of bamboo fixed together into a large enough box to house 30-40 kids, and it only opens if the volunteers show up to open it. The water is shit – literally. There is one large filtration tank next to the foreigners building that serves clean water to all (I didn’t get sick once, so that means it must be a good one) but the people bathe in still-standing pools that are filled with the unimaginable. Or, they don’t bathe – and in 33 degree, 75% humidity – that ain’t good. Below are a few pics of the area.
Despite all that, the people are the most generous and kind I’ve ever known. I didn’t know such a people could exist on this planet (and I thought Canadians were pretty darn nice!). The Burmese would give you anything they had if it meant you would be happier than you were five minutes ago. If you were lost, they would walk with you until you were found. If you were hungry, they would find you food (I once ended up holding 9 mangos, given to me by 4 different people for no reason other than the fact that they knew I loved mangos). I was so impacted by their generosity that I couldn’t process it all at once.
It was such a big experience that I simply cannot do it all justice in only two blog posts, but, I will try. Be sure to check-in to the blog tomorrow for a more detailed post on the locals I met and became fast friends with, and take a gander at the Thabarwa website to learn more about what they do for the locals in the area and how they continue to help others with the simple premise of spreading love and kindness.