Out Of The Comfort Zone
With refugees on the Burma border, a refreshing bath and fresh perspective
After sunrise aerobics in the parched rice fields, cistern water feels so refreshing. In the women's cinderblock washroom, surrounded by refugee friends, I'd dip a plastic bowl into the deep pool, pour it over my grimy body, then lather with a sliver of soap — all while still modestly wrapped in a Burmese longyi per local custom.
So ethereal, this bathing experience. Sunlight reflecting off the slippery cement floor, a glimpse of green fronds above the clinic's rusty tin roof, the slap of wet washcloths against stone, everyone's hair twisted up at the nape of the neck, everyone's soap slivers wedged into chinks in the concrete.
Dawn is my favorite time of day at Dr. Cynthia's refugee clinic on the Thailand-Burma border, where my pediatrician husband, Tao, and I have volunteered annually during vacations since 1996.
Daybreak is when young monks pad barefoot down the street with their alms bowls, accepting rice and giving blessings, a ritual at the heart of Buddhist society.
Early mornings, it's not so hot, and you don't yet know what's going to happen the rest of the day.
Of course, there are the scheduled activities. Over the years, Tao has treated patients, taught pediatrics, helped with a land-mine rehab program and written the clinic's annual report. I've drafted grant applications, packaged birthing kits, peeled garlic, crafted sock puppets, visited filthy floating ghettos, and taught photography, aerobics and English to refugee medics.
That sounds overly official. We started volunteering a dozen years ago because we wanted perspective on our comfortable lives, hoped to help somewhere somehow and the civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) is among the worst humanitarian crises on the planet.
Maybe you saw the stream of saffron-robed monks leading a peaceful march of 100,000 protesters in the streets of Yangon last month, and a couple days later, the photo of a bloody monk floating, face down, in the river. At least 10 and maybe hundreds were killed during a military crackdown that continues as the junta rounds up thousands and "disappears" even more. Already, some have fled across the porous border into Thailand. Undoubtedly others will follow, the sick and wounded headed for Dr. Cynthia's Mae Tao Clinic, where we volunteer.
To learn more about the clinic and refugeesTo read a special project about Dr. Cynthia, Burma and the Orchid Girls, go to www.seattletimes.com/burma.
Dr. Cynthia's Mae Tao Clinic, go to www.maetaoclinic.org.
Over the years, Dr. Cynthia has become famous for her compassion, a refugee and physician often likened to Mother Teresa. She trains medics, takes in orphans and sends health-care workers into war zones, their backpacks loaded with medicine. Families displaced by war come to her clinic seeking care for malaria, tuberculosis, reproductive health, land-mine injuries, flu, HIV, sexual violence. More come each year.
The military has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma, according to a recent United Nations report, forcing 1.5 million people from their homes. The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently documented damage in this area using high-resolution satellite imagery. What gets me is that burning villages and raping women wasn't enough. Reports say the soldiers rammed bayonets through cooking pots so any survivors couldn't use them.
How could we not go back? The war hasn't gone away, and neither have all the skinny kids who need clean water, schoolbooks and vitamins. I'll also admit to motives not entirely selfless: tropical sunshine during Seattle's rainy winters, fresh mangosteens, my favorite noodle stand. And there's something else, hard to explain.
I once read that 80 percent of being a good friend is just showing up. Maybe that's the difference between being a donor, a doctor, a do-gooder . . . and a friend. The former show up to do good. The friend shows up just because.
You do projects, hope to reduce suffering, but you never really know. Like the time I gave my lunch to a grandma who'd crossed the Dawna mountain range fleeing the military, shredding the soles of her feet. How I wanted my rice to nourish her!
Instead, she vomited.
A reminder that helping is complex. Over time, you make mistakes; you learn. You learn to provide what's really needed, not just what you want to give. You learn fulfillment can't come solely from checking off items on a do-good list.
What if you help rebuild a library in a refugee camp that was burned to the ground — and it all gets torched again? Do you erase the check mark? Abandon your altruistic agenda? Spend your next holiday on a Maui beach? (Tried that, felt hollow, sat by pool with computer plotting next volunteer visit.)
You learn to find joy in the unexpected. Stray moments. Momentous events.
On our first, months-long volunteer stint, I spent afternoons stringing jasmine leis with children in a hill-tribe village in rebel-controlled Burma. Dr. Cynthia had set up a clinic there and installed squat toilets and a simple water system. After we returned to Seattle, Chogali village fell to the military. Several children escaped and found safety and school at Dr. Cynthia's main clinic near Mae Sot, Thailand. Others were missing.
I worried about two little orchid girls, Shu Wah and Oh Mu, and tried to search for them. They were trapped in Chogali with enemy soldiers — not the most brutal of regiments, but still, young men with guns. I wanted to believe the girls were safe, but knew they were not, especially as time passed and they matured from cute to lovely.
Every day I thought about them. Every year, my worry accumulated.
Longing. You have longing, my friend Maung Maung Tinn told me during one of our visits. Maung Maung Tinn is an artist and refugee medic who indulges my addiction to words.
In Burmese, the word "longing" has gravitas; it's like having a serious disease. Naming the affliction, knowing others have suffered from it throughout history, oddly, gave me hope.
Momentous? Six years ago, Shu Wah safely crossed the border into Thailand. Two years later, Oh Mu joined her. They are living with other orphans and unaccompanied minors in boarding schools run by Dr. Cynthia.
Unexpected joy! The children grew up. They live.
Here, in the land of abundance, we presume children will survive. We turn on a faucet, water gushes.
Early every morning, I indulge in a long, hot shower. It's my favorite time of day, before I find out what has happened on the streets, in the villages, at the clinic. Anything's possible. I always hope for peace.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett is a medical epidemiologist for Public Health-Seattle & King County. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.