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The mountain and the mission

I did not expect what was ahead of me just shortly after my last post. We began our last day in Hpa’An with a casual trip to an internet cafe but ended up “casually” hiking up a mountain for our silent meditation retreat. What our local Karen instructor described as an easy, hour-long walk was in fact a three hour trek through slippery waterfalls, rocks, and cliffs. For some god forsaken reason I decided at the beginning of the hike to count how many steps there were from the base to the top. Quite frankly, I don’t think I had ever counted to that high of a number. I remember after about 100 steps guessing that the number wouldn’t exceed 1,000, and for some reason, when the number reached 1,000, I thought the end was near. The truth is that if I had thought to look up more often than just to see the most beautiful views in the world I would have noticed that the top of the mountain remained a mystery, still blocked by the dense Hpa’An clouds. We reached 1,312 and I remeber breaking my vow of silence to inform Charlotte that we were almost there. Again too concentrated to look up, and mislead by the numerous false peaks that this mountain had to offer, I assumed we were reaching our destination. I continued up the uneven, slippery steps, too concentrated to notice how far I’d gone and too determined to notice how far I still had to go. Only after 2,363 steps was I able to enjoy some eating, walking, and sitting meditation. We were given about 20 minutes to wander off by ourselves, find a good spot, and write about what we were feeling. The hike back was pretty indescribable, but I’ll do my best. While earlier the clouds hid the peaks of the mountain, the heavy rain clouds that appeared on the way down hid everything but the sporadic mountain peaks in the distance. For some reason the song “Skyfall” was stuck in my head- probably because we watched the movie on the tin can bus that took us from Inle Lake to Mandalay last week- and I was quietly singing it the whole way down. I think the song didn’t go away because the sky was literally falling. It was pouring rain the whole time and the stairs turned into slippery waterfalls. Our longyis weren’t even tied, but they were so wet that they stuck to our bodies. Despite the steepness of the thousands of steps, we didn’t stop once and made it down in one hour. To be honest the reason why I’m remembering all of this now, while sitting in my room at a guest house in Mawlamyine, is because the “peak of soreness” comes 48 hours after a workout.

Our family of 12 just split off into three groups for three different service projects. 4 poeple went to Thembuziat, 4 went to a monastery a few hours away from Mawlamyine, and i stayed in Mawlamyine with Charlotte, Becka, Nathan, and our instructors, Jess and Okka. I think it’s safe to say that the project ended up being more emotionally heavy than we had expected. Today was our fourth day at the Leprosy mission; yes, Leprosy is still a thing here in Myanmar. At first it was really hard. We walked through a lot of rooms with a lot of beds and a lot of patients staring at us. I think I speak for all of us when I say that seeing so many people with deformed limbs or amputations in just a few hours is truly challenging. The wards are stuffy and it’s clear that the patients don’t have much to do. The walls are either pale green or rotted gray, and there’s a distinct smell that characterizes the wards. There’s an understandibly low amount of energy throughout the hospital, and perhaps the only infusion of creativity is through a few small televisions that seem to play nothing but MRTV. The walls of the wards are lined with wooden beds that Charlotte describes as “rotting dining room tables with mats over them”. On each of those tables sits a person who has had to deal with more than any of us could ever imagine. It seems to me that the walls lack colors and decorations not so much because the hospital staff don’t want it but rather because people here tend to lack a sense of creativity. When we told the head of the nurse department about our idea to paint pictures and hang up posters we realized that she wasn’t against it – in fact, she loved the idea- but that it had simply never occured to her before. I really think that these decorations, although a really small gift, will help open up a creative space for the patients and, hopefully, bring them some joy.

The gloomy, depressing setting of the mission juxtaposes all the volunteers, doctors, staff, and patients involved with it and the amazing community that they form. We realized that each patient is different from the next and, after talking to them with the help of translators, found out that they have really interesting life stories. I talked to some patients who had lived there thirty or forty years without ever getting a visit from their family and friends, yet they were genuinely happy to be there and excited that we were taking the time to talk to them. The patients were delighted to see us return (unlike most foreigners who visit the mission), and excited for their turn to share their stories. I would say one of the harder parts of this trip, for me at least, was listening to some of the more depressed patients. One elderly woman told us that there is no happiness in her life, and that she is waiting to die. It was really tough to listen to something so negative, but hopefully we’ve brought her some joy in the past few days. This leprosy mission is such an amazing place. They’re one of the only hospitals in the country that accept patients who can’t pay, but it’s clear that this is a hard task to accomplish. The mission is in desperate need of funding; they’re putting in a lot of work to create a rambutan plantation in order to raise money. I really wish there was more I could do to help besides hanging up paintings and chatting with the patients.


We’re leaving tomorrow morning for a 10 hour train ride to Yangon. I can’t believe how quickly the past three weeks went by.