Any romantic images of travelling to far-flung exotic regions are dashed by travelling with a desperately sick man
in monsoon season,
which is also mosquito/malaria season,
which is also flu season.
Our contact doesn’t turn up at the airport because he’s down with the flu. We don’t speak the language so are left to wander around like brainless sheep. Eventually our contact’s brother comes to pick us up. He tells us that he’s had a nasty stomach bug himself and has eaten nothing but porridge for the last two months. This is not what the travel brochure promised. We arrive at our hotel dripping from the humidity and from the tropical downpour which has suddenly been unleashed. Our rooms are comfortable but the wifi seems to function on morse code. Worse, I’m a notoriously fussy eater. Whatever I end up eating I don’t expect to enjoy.
There’s a reason for all these personal inconveniences which makes this trip not just meaningful but, I’m soon to find out, beautiful. Myanmar is a fascinating country. Rich in history and natural resources, you get the sense that this is a country on the move. After years of political instability, there seem to be infrastructure works going on all around. Neville, my travelling companion and mentor who has been in and out of Myanmar for the last twenty-five years, tells me that he can barely recognise the place. Gone are the days of pot-holed dirt roads, broken down vehicles, unkept hotel reservations and the occasional assassination. He seems disappointed about the changes (except for the assassinations). In Yangon, there is constant noise, constant bustle; the honking of horns, the roar of engines, the sound of construction. The people in their longyis and eingyis are absolutely delightful but their delightfulness is not the reason we’re here.
Kale (Kalay) is our goal. Google Maps kindly advises me it is an 8 day and 2 hour walk from Yangon. We’ll fly there. Kale is in the Chin region in the far northeast of the country, an area coloured yellow on the Australian government advisory map, meaning “use extreme caution”. I mention this advisory to Neville who, having travelled to Kale many times, seems surprised. “Oh really? They’re just a bunch of kind country folk. A little unsophisticated, a few missing teeth. Nothing to worry about.” We arrive at a small airport where the soldiers carry rifles.
I decide to use extreme caution.
Kale is where DMI has it’s school for the deaf. When we arrive, the kids all line up to greet us. I realised shortly after arriving in Yangon that the Australian sign language I learned before coming is next to useless here. Burmese sign language, like the sign language of every other country, is unique. But the sign for ‘hello’ is an easy one and we greet the kids who seem surprisingly happy to see two old white guys. Their welcome is so warm and cheerful and genuine. I’m moved. We sit before the 30 kids in an assembly, where amongst other things, they choose a sign name for me. Several are suggested including ‘bignose’ and ‘baldy’. I’m already loving their candour. They settle on ‘Sydney’ and I thank them for the wisdom of their choice. Over the next several days, I will play with these kids. I will tease them, be teased by them, educate them, interview them, ‘listen’ to them and learn from them. I will also find myself deeply affected by them, more deeply than I ever expected.
We bring provisions for these kids (and their tireless teachers). We bring the rare opportunity for them to be educated in sign, to learn life skills, and to live in a community of kindness. We also bring the gospel, a message of hope. The book of Romans tells us that regardless of our circumstances, Christian hope does not disappoint us because in Christ, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” So we work to improve circumstances which is so needed but we also work to bring hope based on the foundation of this great truth:
Love is their greatest need.
Their hope is modelled in Neville, the desperately sick man in diapers I’m travelling with. He is battling multiple cancers, diabetes and the aftereffects of prostate surgery (hence the diapers). He’s travelling in between bouts of chemo and the tumours in his legs make them swell up like baobab trees. Walking is hard. He has terrible arthritis so is in constant pain. Yet this man is not only the most kind-hearted soul you could ever meet, but one of the most joyful. A man who knows full well that his happiness is not dependent on his circumstances but on who he is and Who his Father is. His chief regret about the affects of chemo isn’t the personal struggle; it’s how it inhibits him from better supporting these kids and fully preaching the gospel.
These stories are amazing. They must be told. Journey with me.
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