Friday, 21 April 2017

Last day of Gifts of Sight on April 2017 Visit

 Thanks to all our ‘sponsors’ I brought 245 pairs of glasses to Myanmar this time. The sponsors included: Sheila Allum of Langkawi, The Hive in Bangsar, Jordan Gill, St Peter’s Church in UK, Reliance Optical Centre in Bangsar, MANZA, MCG, ABWM, Rotary Langkawi, The list is not in order, it is just to show how widely we are trying to receive Gifts of Sight, the no-longer used glasses that just hang about in cupboards and drawers.  
This time I travelled with Sebastian Andrei who was making a film about Gifts of Sight solely for the purpose of showing people what an easy thing it is to do and how much it can help people who have otherwise no financial hope of ever buying a pair of glasses for themselves.
As always, Win San is the driver, translator, photographer (I have a shake, even when I don’t put gin on my cornflakes). This time, very sadly, Saya Htay could not travel with us. Only one week after the important and happy ceremony of Shin Pyu, where Saya Htay’s nephew was being inducted into the monastery as a novice, Saya Htay’s mother became seriously ill and died. Saya Htay went back to the village to do all that needed to be done. I took her place giving out the glasses as best I could, but Saya Htay has worked out a system of e.g. only giving to those over 70. I found it difficult to guess who was over 70 because their lives are so hard many look well over 70 when they are only about 50. Win San and I were a team of two me getting out the glasses and polishing them (a la Saya Htay) handing them to Win San. He gave back to me all that were not helpful. When I heard him say: Yea s\he got it! I knew we had made a match. In some villages there was clapping and cheering, in others it seemed a more professional accomplishment.
Of the 245 pairs there were many sunglasses, which gave us the opportunity to reward anyone who helped us - as they did in various ways. For instance, one man, not necessarily the headman, organized the people into a ‘queue’, and explained that we were not here to sell them anything. Another man might stand hooking one side of a pair of glasses over the ear of a 90-year old. Another might shout in her\his ear explaining what we are doing (or trying to do). The enthusiasm of these helpers has to be experienced to be believed and they were thrilled when they were given a pair of sunglasses as a thank you present!
Today we covered just two villages, have two pairs of glasses left and, totally exhausted, are each back in his\her room at the Royal Palace Hotel in Pakokku (it is only 4.00 p.m.) - never wanting to see a pair of glasses ever again. This last statement can only be applied to me, I can’t speak for the two men.
The two villages we visited were growing cotton rather than rice – which made for a nice change in scenery. Apparently nearby Pakokku is Myanmar’s blanket weaving hub. Of course they also grew their own food. The first village La Ba Gan had 125 houses and 175 people. Two or three of the people were ‘workers’ Win San almost whispered to me. Perhaps it is a pejorative term by which people would rather not be known. It means that they do not own land in the village so cannot live inside the village and, having no land, they can’t feed themselves and therefore must take any job that comes their way just to eat.
This village must be a very healthy one as it had many, many more people over 70 years of age. Some were in their eighties and one or two were 90! Daw O Myi received glasses and we were not surprised to hear that as she was 90 she was retired! Many people in this village compared to other villages had one eye that was sunken and a cloudy blue colour. I wondered if there had been an illness epidemic some time in the past. One woman said that for the last couple years her eyes were so bad that when she saw people she could not make out which were men and which were women. Daw Dye Gye had a plaster cast on her arm and told us she had broken her arm because she could not see where she was going. One man stayed in the shade all the time it was light, because if he went into sunlight his eyes poured with water. U Tin Aung was pleased when he found glasses to help him as he is a weaver and wants to teach the children of the village how to weave. Another man needed glasses because he made furniture and bullock cart wheels. 
Our last village to visit this time was Kung Da Kan. There were 40 houses and 300 people. Like La Ba Gan this village grew cotton instead of rice and the usual beans, peanuts and sesame. U Min Swe was the first man to come forward. He had only one working eye because as a child he had played a game of throwing stones. He was very happy with one of our bifocals. In this village we came across the first person, U Pow Kong, who wanted a pair of the anigyi glasses so that he can read in Sanskrit the teachings of the Buddha.
With just two pairs of glasses left we returned to Pakokku considering that our Gifts of Sight project was at an end for this visit. We did not have the heart to go to the Mount Popa Ceremony as Saya Htay’s mother’s death meant we did not feel like celebrating in any way.
Today we will drive back to Mandalay a journey of five or six hours.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

From Gangaw on Chin Border

We left Gangaw on the border of Chin State early as we had two villages to visit on our way to Pakokku followed the next day by the Popa Ceremony at Mount Popa, which I would like to write up. We visited two villages on the way: Je Pout Village with 88 houses and 450 people and Pa Ma Sa Village. Both are subsistent farming villages growing rice, beans, sesame and peanuts and they also had many coconut palms. One boy shinned up a palm and threw down six for us as lesong: presents!  Later that day we came across a troop of women making up the road – in the full heat and glare of sun – by hand. Young women generally make up the roads in Myanmar the only piece of machinery is a steamroller that a man operates. We gave the coconuts and some rice crackers that we had also been given to the young women. Our gifts produced lots of smiles.
Still at Je Pout Village we are giving away glasses generously donated by Sheila Allum of Langkawi and Claire Sancelot of the Hive at Bansar.
At the villages, we kept to our ‘rule’ of giving only to 70 year old people, but invariably one or two younger people managed to get in the ‘queue’. One, in particular, was Ma We Ma who was only 30 but she was a seamstress. She told us that three years ago she had too many orders and had worked too long in bad light and that was when her eyesight started to become poor. In both villages we heard the familiar story of people going to the doctor because they could not see and the doctor giving them sunglasses.
The word suitcase took on a different meaning. Several times Win San asked me to put a pair of glasses back in the suitcase. He had muddled the word with glasses case or glasses pouch. Of course we now use the word suitcase all the time!
Our first customer of the day was Daw Twe Ken who was 76 and had one eye that had gone blind and degenerated into a blue-grey blob. U Sa La aged 78 told us he was happy we had come because he had no time to go to Gangaw to have his eyes checked! U Aung Tin 75 found the right glasses the first pair he tried on! Several people found that in this village and of course it is marvelous for us as it gives more time for another village.
There were some comments today that made us very happy. U Aung Tin aged 75 looked around him and said YES I can see far away now. U Ba O told us he was AMAZED at the difference the glasses made. Daw Ma Gyi aged 70 told us she knew her sight was going about two years ago. It is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT when I put on the glasses.
Daw My Kyi who was 81 had to be helped to walk into the house because her head and hands shook so much. We were very happy when she found glasses to help her.
Cont on
Daw Mon Tay couldn’t remember her age, but thought it might be 65! (Of course we don’t stick to the 70 year old rule all the time!) U Kan Ley 72, was in army uniform. We asked if he used to be in the army. No, came the reply but I like the uniform!
We moved on to our second (and last) village of the day. Last because we still had about a six-hour journey ahead of us. Sebastian and I also noticed that Win San was very quiet and withdrawn which was not surprising given the news that Saya Htay’s mother had died.
The first house in Pa Ma Sar was owned by 85 year old Daw Gyi Li Sue. I am not yet 85, but the small, round branches that comprised the ladder that was the only way of getting into the house almost finished me off. I felt much sympathy for about eight other women who labored up that ladder that morning. For cultural reasons we could not have our ‘meeting’ under the house downstairs (which would have suited some of us much better!) Daw Mya Lise was 80 and it was about two years since she has seen  anything. We were delighted when, against our expectations, she could see quite a bit with a pair of Gifts of Sight. A woman with very deformed bow legs arrived. (My heart as in my mouth when I saw her going down the steps at the end of the morning)
We heard a very familiar story again today. A few people who managed to get the bus fare into town and could afford to visit a doctor, were given sunglasses. Trying not be judgemental I wonder if they are cheating the eye patients or are they just doing the best they can, bearing in mind the patients probably did not have enough money for ‘real’ glasses.
The visit ended with lots of happy chattering people and remarks like that of Daw Se Yea who found a complete difference BETWEEN not having glasses and now she has.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Gifts of Sight to Chin State

The second village we visited was Laing Chung, which had 47 houses, accommodating 269 people. In Myanmar there are 135 races. The Bamar are the most numerous, followed by the Chin who have 53 races. On our way into the town of Gangaw, I noticed a hotel called Yaw Hotel and thought it to be a play on spelling until I learned that the people around here are called the Yaw Chin!
Most Chin are Christian, and as all the inhabitants of Laing Chung were, it was appropriate to give away the glasses that had been donated by St Peters Church in the UK. When it came to villagers trying out anigyi glasses for reading, they chose the bible as their text. Thank you to the St Peter’s congregation for sending the glasses to me.
Almost all the villagers were farming. Most grew rice, sesame and peanuts. Others grew beans.
We sat down under the house and, as word got around, people came to see what we were up to. U Zaung Maung couldn’t decide whether he wanted anigyi for close up or awegyi  for distance viewing. Sebastian walked a little way away and raised four fingers and asked him how many? Yes, he could tell us how many, so he opted for anigyi to be able to read his bible. Ma Tan Zan Zoo was a weaver and therefore needed anigyi to help her work. Tun Hla Aung proudly told us he had three acres of rice and peanuts, but the next person, Daw Shwe Mi, was a worker – meaning that she didn’t own any land and must work at any job given to her to be able to feed herself. Some people, like Daw Thein Ya who was 73 had retired because her children were farming and could support her.
In this village we gave away 17 pairs of glasses.

With ABWM glasses to Pa Tawn Kung Village, Chin State

Today we hoped to have good news of Saya Htay’s mother and to visit three villages to give away the glasses. Unfortunately the news was not good and they were all returning to the village from Mandalay as nothing could be done.
We set off in a sombre mood to give away the glasses.
We were advised that Pa Tawn Kung was a poor village and so it turned out to be, but we were surprised that although water was relatively nearby, they relied on occasional trucks to deliver it. Win San suggested the Headman should organize his villagers to drill holes to get water!
Pa Tawn Kung is a village of 95 houses and 200 people. Some of the women were weavers, making longyis which is the shorthand saying for both male and female ‘sarongs’ and some wove tamein which are the women’s longyis. The majority of both men and women are farmers cultivating rice, beans and sesame. There were a few buffalo hanging around, some bullocks pulling carts, chickens doing what chickens do and pigs doing likewise. We noticed under the house two six foot high by about five foot in diameter bamboo and dried mud containers. They turned out to be holding rice. So that gave us an idea of how much they must produce.
At Pa Tawn Kung we gave away glasses kindly donated by ABWM. Thank you to you all from the villagers (and us of course) and special thanks to Cynthia who makes little pouches for the glasses. We needed lots of these today as, wonderfully, some of the ‘snappy’ boxes contained two or even three pairs of glasses! Therefore one or two pairs needed a pouch. Win San, on my behalf, took all the photos today, but in the melee that ensues at all these wonderful give-aways, it is not possible for me to match photos with donors. However, I know he did take one or two or three ladies holding up their pouches for you to see, Cynthia.
We sat in the shade under the house. Yes, even here in the mountains it is hot. I sat on a chair (luxury) with the person who was trying on the glasses beside me. Win San sat opposite me and we did a double act, one taking the glasses out of their cases, polishing them, giving it to the other who gave it to the ‘client’! I then recorded all names, ages and occupations with which I will not bore you but we want to know if we can discover any trends!
We gave away nine or ten pairs of glasses at Pa Tawn Kung because only a few people came to try on glasses. The following two villages were larger and villagers were rounded up by other villagers to come and meet us!

Monday, 17 April 2017

On the way to Chin State

We have all had a worrying time. Win San came alone from Nyaung Pin Zauk to pick us up from the Royal Palace Hotel in Pakokku. Where was Saya Htay? She was back in the village with her mother who was very ill. They couldn’t decide whether to bring her to Pakokku hospital or wait and see if she recovered. Win San asked me to go back to the village to help them make up their minds. Fortunately Sue Winn the diesel-oil village has an ambulance, which was already on its way. We arrived in Pakokku Hospital to learn that Daw Myoi Twe was too ill to be treated there, she needed an operation which had to be done in Mandalay – five hours distant. Saya Htay obviously had to stay to look after her mother, so Win San, Sebastian and I set out alone for Chin State, the next planned stop on our itinerary.
Chin State is bounded on the west by Bangladesh and the north by India and we aim to give away the glasses in as many remote villages as possible. Without the very capable Saya Htay I will be giving out the glasses fortunately with Win San’s help. Sebastian will be filming.
We drove west through Pale, Mintaingbin, Kyaw and Yemyetme where we turned north climbing several mountain ranges. On the whole the road was good. We had to leave it occasionally where a bridge was in course of construction or where they were widening it. This entailed dropping down onto a temporary road, which was partly under water. We learned that there was a cyclone affecting Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe Divisions and we were receiving some of its rain. As we had come here in April specifically to miss the rainy season this was not good news. These mountain roads are impassable in the wet.
We pulled in to several villages to ensure we were on track and the way was open ahead. In Myanmar visitors can only stay at guesthouses or hotels that have a permit. Our destination was Gangaw, which has a hotel, and we will branch out into villages from there.