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.