Sunday, October 5, 2014

See You Next Year!

On Sunday morning I made one last visit to Bethel Children's Home, to spend more time with the kids, and give Jun Khaing Htoo his new sandals. Jun Khaing has a club foot, and can't wear flip flops like every other person in Burma. We found some Teva like sandals in the market for him for only $1, and he couldn't be more pleased (they are replacing a pair of Wellington boots which are very hot). Before coming to the orphanage, he never had shoes and walked barefoot on the side of his foot.  I am working on raising funds to take him to an orthopedic surgeon to see if he is a candidate for corrective surgery.

It was a little sad to say goodbye, but it was only "See you next year!", one of the phrases they have learned in English.  It was harder to say goodbye to Virginia.  But I call her once a month for 45 minutes (via Skype) to check in and see how they are all doing, and of course I promised to come back next year.  After this visit I feel more connected to the place, and it feels less foreign. I think this time I left a little piece of me there.

On the long, hot bus ride back to Yangon, I marinated in my own sweat and was poached well in that steam shower on wheels. Yangon was equally stifling and even a little rain in the evening could not break it.  I hope the SoCal heat wave breaks by the time I get home, I've had enough!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mango Pickles

Today Virginia and I went to the pharmacy for the kids’ medicine, and did a little more shopping before retiring for lunch in the home of Jonathan’s sister. She lives in the middle of town, in her husband’s family’s old electrical shop.  The shop no longer operates but she has a business making mango pickles. They are sold all over town.  I think mango pickles are a uniquely Burmese thing, but I can’t be sure. It is different than mango chutney from India: tart and tangy and sweet.  I was the first foreigner to her house and she was nervous, but she is a great cook and she was delighted that I scarfed down everything, including my fair share of mango pickles!

During my visit I learned more about the backgrounds of Jonathan and Virginia. Like my father, they come from a mixed background. Virginia’s father was ½ Shan and ½ British – just like my father. Her mother was ½ Karen (another Burmese tribe) and ½ Sinolese.  Jonathan’s father was Burmese, English and Indian and his mother was ½ Shan and ½ English. The stories about War World II (just “the war”) are fascinating.  I think in sharing our stories we felt an affinity – even though we grew up in different worlds, we do have something in common (besides our love for orphans!)

On my way back to the hotel we stopped to load up on dahl fritters and Burmese-style eggrolls for the kids’ special dinner treat. 60 pieces for $3.60 – you can’t beat it. So some things are the same here – cheap, excellent food. But I got the shock of my life today when I actually pulled money out of an ATM.  Virginia was laughing at me because I was absolutely flabbergasted. This is new since February.  Gone are the days of carrying in all the money you need in crisp $100 bills. Even a small fold on the corner would cause a money changer to reject the bill (still does). It’s a pain, and I always feared not having enough so I would bring heaps of cash – not the best practice for third world traveling. But that’s done.  Another one of the quirks of entering Myanmar is gone.

I had already been a bit shocked this trip when I turned on my cell phone and had 4 bars.  It didn’t work in February here.  But in the far west, delta region of the country I was receiving text messages on my birthday over the cell network.   A far cry from 2008 when entering the country equated radio silence until you emerged.  (I didn’t even mention that in February we discovered wi-fi everywhere, in cafes, guesthouses and public spaces.  Also, I was able to use Mastercard many places I couldn’t before).

So the roads are still lousy – even the new one linking Yangon and Mandalay – and the traffic in Yangon has gone from bad to standstill, but it is getting easier.  

Time for the rest of you to visit!

Friday, October 3, 2014

It's About the Kids

It has been a couple busy days.  Thursday was going over the children’s records and preparing for the meeting of the management committee of the orphanage. I brought a portable printer so the Type A in me was able to print an agenda for the meeting. I was fortunate to have the participation of David Causkill from ICC Australia, an NGO that has been operating in Myanmar for many years. He was just visiting the school adjacent to the orphanage but when he visited Bethel Children’s Home and met Virginia and Jonathan, he was impressed and wanted to help.
The girls' dorm. It desperately needs weather proofing improvements , a project for February
With David’s guidance and suggestions, we decided to prepare a memorandum of understanding between the school and Bethel Children’s Home regarding a number of matters related to access, boundaries, water, electricity, and other important operational matters. I worked on the MOU through dinner and then drove to town to meet with the representatives from the school.  From a legal standpoint I don’t think any of it is binding. But here, that doesn’t matter (there is no effective legal system to speak of).  We have the school’s written statement that they will do certain things to benefit and protect the orphanage and when we visit next we can hold it up and say “you agreed.”  Honor does mean something here.

In between, we took the 4 kids to the clinic, but all that happened was that tests were ordered for 3 and we had to bring them back the next day. The two blood tests and one chest x-ray cost less than $15, amazing. We then had to drag the kids back to the clinic in the evening for the results and prescriptions.  
The doctor at the clinic didn’t charge us for the visits when she found that the kids were orphans, even though I was there (with bulging American pockets).  The final upshot: two girls positive for Hepatitis B and no TB in the boys. I will be arranging for the remainder of the children to be vaccinated for Hepatitis B.  David tells me that Hep B is very common in orphanages in Asia, so without vaccination it is inevitable that more would succumb.

Lu Bwe Do and Jun Khaing Htoo, happy BCH kids
After the final doctor visit with results, I treated the kids to ice cream at a shop in Toungoo. I think a couple of them had never had it before.  Our driver, Virginia, and Jonathan also had some, savoring it as a rare treat (the rest of the kids were at chapel, so the house parents were able to come along to the doctor).  Sometimes, it’s the small things…

The older girls, helping Virginia prepare dinner
The rest of Friday was going over the financial reports with Jonathan and re-doing the budget now that Virginia and Jonathan have been operating for the place for 6 months.  Next up: with the kids at church, Virginia is coming to town to spend the day with me going to the market and buying some things for the kids (we need to fill prescriptions and buy underwear, so exciting!) 

A number of the new children came directly from the jungle with only the clothes on their backs and no underwear or hygiene.  One of Virginia’s many roles is to each them about cleanliness and hygiene (in addition to cooking, health care, record keeping, food preparation – although with more girls now she has help, shopping). She and Jonathan do all this without pay, and even donated some of their savings to the orphanage.  She is a mama hen with 24 chicks, doting on each one.  Even David from ICC, who is completely jaded by his experience in Myanmar, described Virginia and Jonathan as “gold.”  I am glad to be here so that they know that we (Myanmar Children’s Hope Fund and the Willes family) have their backs.
Olivia knows how to cook over an open fire, as most of the girls do, coming from the jungle.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bethel Children's Home

After being waylaid by a 24 hour debilitating stomach virus in Yangon, I finally made it to Toungoo, and to Bethel Children’s Home, the orphanage we have been supporting for the last year.  I found it to be in pretty good shape, thanks to the amazing volunteers with hearts of gold, Virginia and Jonathan (a retired Burmese couple).  There are now 24 children, up from the 17 that were here in February, and ½ of them are now girls.  They seem happier, and I think the stable and calm influence of Virginia and Jonathan (who were new in February) has made a tremendous difference to these kids whose short lives have been so unstable.

I brought up for the (very long) day, Dr. Htwe Lay, a medical doctor and long time friend of our family. She did health screenings and created medical records for each of the children. We discovered than 2 brothers may have TB (their mother died from it) so I am taking them to the clinic today.  Two others may have Hep B, and I will get them tested at the clinic today too. Apparently TB and Hep B are very common in orphanages in SE Asia. I am also going to work on getting the remainder of the kids vaccinated for Hep B, something Dr. Htwe Lay will help coordinate. Luckily (and amazingly), the government here actually provides free treatment for TB, so we will be taking advantage of that. This is a benefit to being relatively close to a busy town like Toungoo where there is a government hospital.  Dr. Htwe Lay said she would come back next year with me to do annual check ups.
The kids playing dodgeball with an Australian volunteer from ICC

Already this trip has been very rewarding, and I feel like we (Myanmar Children’s Hope Fund) are making a big difference in the kids’ lives.