Today was our first day visiting the village that we are hoping to volunteer our services at. After breakfast at Lucky Seven the 3 of us went to the bus stop just one street down from the flat. I just did as I was told and got on a bus that came flying up the street and set off again before we were all fully in and sat down. Its all a big race with the buses. They fly down roads which should really be done at half the speed limit due to the potholes...its no wonder all the buses are jiggered. We all manage to find a seat. Manuel is sat next to the driver! And Lesh is squished in a small seat behind the driver poor thing. We make our way to Thanilyn which is only about 30km outside of Yangon but it takes us over an hour to get there (even with the crazy speeding) since we stop and pick up and drop off every 2 seconds it feels like. We cross 2 bridges as we leave the city and at the 2nd bridge we can look back and see Yangon and it actually looks quite pretty. Swedagon Paya is sat majestically on its hill and it dominates the skyline. We weave our way through the small villages and change buses by a Temple that looks like a mini replica of Swedagon. It even has the tall lift taking worshipers up to the stupa which I wouldn't expect to see in a temple so far out in the middle of nowhere. The 2nd bus ride is only a short one and when we get off the bus Manuel leads up down a path into a field that looks like its going nowhere. A fter a short walk the field opens out and we can see a beautiful brick building with solid concrete foundations and that is the part of the school that survived.
Inside the school building are about 30 children, mainly babies, and a few nursery helpers. This building that survived was always the nursery school but for now since all the other bamboo classrooms were blown away and totally destroyed, some of the other aged children come and spend their day here. They come because their parents go to work in Yangon and its either they sit in the bus stop for 12 hours waiting for them to come back, or they come and get looked after and fed in the school. So its a bit of a baby sitting place right now. When we arrive we find Jyotish sitting down with people discussing what materials are needed to rebuild 3 classrooms. He tells us that things just got a little bit harder today as his interpreter came by early to leave a note which said that he felt he was being followed and that it wasn't safe to come and help for now and please don't call round at his house as they are watching him but to email him is ok! It was a totally paranoid letter and I couldn't quite believe that at a time like this when people need to pull together that someone with such an important role to this village could just dessert his post like that. But Jyotish said that people do get paranoid that someone from the military is following them and s o he will just let the dust settle for a few days and hopefully he will come back. In the meantime Jyotish has to use all the burmese he has learnt over the last 4 years.
So we go and help around where we can around the school. Lesh helps out Manuel who has been making a water collector for the water tank at the top of the hill. The school heavily rel ys on the tank for all their water and recently it has been running low. Since it is the monsoon season, water has been going in when it rains but not enough. So Manuel has started to build a collector using a big tapa u lin sheet and bamboo. The water collects on the ta u palin and runs down into the tank. All that is left to do is errect the sheet so it stands at an angle where the rain water will collect in the tank . Sounds easy enough but not so. The bamboo structure must be very high so it is at the correct angle and there is no ladder. After a long time of precariously balancing on umpteen stools and benches Lesh comes up with the brain wave of attaching it first on the ground and then lifting it up.
All this while I am feeling a bit useless. I am too short to be of any use and too weak to be hammering, sawing etc ect. So for today I am the gopher...I go for the hammer when they ask, I go for the saw when they ask, I go for something that they can stand on when they try and fix the whole thing together. Considering my ankles are better but not that strong I manage quite well going up and down the hill for them. At one point I watch the local guy who is making one of the bamboo classrooms. I want to be able to help but I think I would just slow him down since I have no idea what to do. Its frustrating to want to help but not having a clue where to start. So I go back to helping Lesh and Manuel. The structure is up and in theory it should work but as soon as one solution is solved another problem arises. The sheet is up but since it is on a hill it easily catches the wind and so it acts more as a sail then a water slide. The tapaulin blows inside out when even a small wind blows underneath and no amount of rain will weigh it down. We try to att a ch bricks to the underneath to act as an anchor but when a heavy rain storm comes to test out the whole structure we watch in dismay as the sheet turns inside out and collects nothing. It is plainly evident that none of us have an ounce of civil engineering theory between us and we try to think over how we can make the structure work.
The rain stops all work as it is so heavy and we have to admit that the work can only continue tomorrow. We jump on a bus back to Yangon and the ride is terrible on the way back. The bus is so much older than the one we rode on the way to the school. It is a really badly designed bus where the seats have no leg room a d even for a short person like me my knees are by my ears practically as I squash into a seat. The bus takes every single pothole at high speed and I feel thoroughly exhausted by the time we arrive back in Yanagon. As we get off the bus I announce that I must have a beer to console myself after such a gruelling ride. Manuel has already made plans for the evening, so me, Lesh and another volunteer called Joseph who is from New Zealand go to a small beer station nearby for a beer. Joseph has been in Burma for the last 5 months volunteering on different projects but since the cyclone he has been working with Jyotish on the school. He is a nurse back in new Zealand and so his nursing skills have been invaluable for the people around the school and village. As we drink our beers he tells us ma n y interesting stories about his last 5 months here. Stories about mysterious followings as he trys to help out in a country that is suspicious about any foreign help. You hear of these kinds of tales and I would never have believed them true but the way Joseph told them it made all these scenarios believable. This is a country that does have secrets and where the people do live in fear of speaking of certain things in public. Joseph also told us about the village opposite the school and the poverty that surrounds it. He says he has never before seen since poverty. The people in the village don't even own their bamboo structures, unbelievably they rent these houses which we would not even think to house animals in. Since these have been blown away with the cyclone people now use the bus stop to shelter in when the rains comes. The children had no clothes and ran round naked until they provided some basic clothes for them. And they suffered with constant sickness like diahorreah until some basic medicines were given. Despite all this help only the surface has been touched and a lot more needs to be done. Joseph talks about some basic medication which is to us quite cheap to supply but getting hold of it in Burma is impossible. Medicated soaps which could stop the sores on the childrens legs is such an easy solution and would improve their quality of life so quickly but this soap cannot be bought in Yangon (he has tried so hard to find it) and it is heart breaking to hear these stories when t he solutions sound so simple yet are near impossible to execute. Our 1 beer to console me after the bus ride turns into 5 beers as we talk and talk into the night. After paying the bill (which is ridiculous at less than $8 for 16 beers and some peanuts) we decide to go for dinner nearby. We go to a chettinad restaurant and order some dosai and chappati's w ith mutton curry which is really tasty. Just as we are finishing up who should walk in but Manuel! He is surprised to see us in our loud and happy state! He has been to the cinema with his friend PoPo and coincidentally they chose to come to this restaurant for a snack afterwards.
For once I feel quite at home in Yangon which is a first. This city has not been so welcoming and I have not felt a close connection with it so far. Maybe it is because I have been sick the whole time I have been here and we have not really been out and about and seen much of what is on offer. But when we sat having dinner with Joseph and when Manuel came to join us even though it was by pure accident, I felt like we had made really good friends here and I was starting to warm up to Yangon.
Unfortunately the feeling was short lived as on th e way back from dinner by feet started to swell up like balloons again and the misery of feeling sick overwhelmed that happy feeling I felt at dinner. Perhaps it was too much too soon to be spending so much time on my feet today and both Lesh and Manuel think I should allow myself a whole days rest tomorrow and not do anything strenous at all. That sounds boring as hell to me but perhaps they are right....