Finally sitting in our new home in Sittwe, Myanmar, listening to the many sounds of the evening, monks chanting, students reciting homework and of course the blow-up bouncy castle in our neighbor’s yard blasting bouncy Myanmar hip-hop to attract the kids. We found an old house and scrubbed and fixed it up, pleased with our efforts. It got rewired, the holes in the water tank fixed, 30 years of accumulated dirt were washed away and it finally feels like we have a home. It’s a two-story, white house with a balcony sporting a gaudy railing of twisted balusters overlooking our tiny front yard with a well and the neighborhood dump. It’s quite a lively scene there. It’s the hang-out lunch spot for pigs, dogs, cows and of course dozens of crows. Then there are also the street kids who pick through it. The monster gecko family who lives in the house, behind an old closet in our bedroom, is said to bring good luck. We hope that this move is a turn of a leaf for us. Having been inundated since May not only by torrential monsoon rains, but also by work, stress and the stark reality of a conflict zone, we are finding our way through this emotional maze. In November we finally took a break to visit the other face of Myanmar together with Sarah, Rainbow’s sister — the fertile, peaceful hills in Shan State were literally a breath of fresh air, the broad open sky above Inle Lake lifted our spirits and the ancient ruins of Bagan made us aware of how incredibly short the current moment is. Each moment appears and disappears.
Being also inundated by a new culture, we experience the many faces of Buddhism. The monk meditating in perfect stillness in the noisy Shwedagon pagoda; young monks playing with plastic machine guns; the gift economy on which thousands of monks survive; the huge industry of Buddhism with stores full of shiny gold and silver statues and trinkets and offerings; the monk pausing in the frame of the door pulling out and lighting his cigarette; the child monks laughing and bouncing on the inflatable castle singing along with the rap tune: “What do you tell the DJ? Fuck you!” Then there are the monks who organize demonstrations against us humanitarian workers and other monks who support us with kindness, while the nuns in their light pink robes skirt along the edges of life, barely seen. And then there is the monk who proudly calls himself the Buddhist Bin Laden. In the few months we’ve been here, we have seen thousands and thousands of Buddha images. The beauty of them is that there are rarely two that are alike — a reminder that Buddha is not one person.
The inundation of work consists of running an office of 80 staff, an office that didn’t have even basic procedures set up to implement an emergency project which is providing basic health services and building water and sanitation facilities for thousands of displaced people. At the same time we are continuing the previous development project to build community-based skills to cope with natural disasters, like the two recent cyclones Giri and Nargis that hit Myanmar. Every step along the way is obstructed by complications, problems and negative spirits that create havoc whenever given a chance.
We are stunned by the nazi t-shirts people wear and swastikas on replicas of German helmets.
This is all balanced by the warmth and friendliness of the neighborhood we live in, the gang of kids who run up with big smiles on their faces shouting “Rainbow.” Then there is the magic of those evenings when Rainbow takes out his guitar and plays a couple of tunes, with the teenage girls in the neighboring houses opening their window shutters and giggling or dreamy-eyed sit on the sill to listen. The houses are so open and close to each other, that one cannot help but know each other’s business. Like today, as we are setting up for a Christmas brunch, an elderly neighbor just came right up and walked into the house to check out what we are doing.
The learning is not coming from absorbing Buddhism by being inundated by its culture, surrounded by all the prayers and images and monks and incense. It comes in spite of all these outward gaudy plethora of pagodas and robes, which in the end are just glitter. These things force us to look inside to find guidance for our way through this maze of life.
To be seen how long we will continue wandering here and when we will see each other again.
Until then, may your wanderings, even if in the back yard, be joyful and fruitful.
Sending much love, Rainbow & Yvonne