Sorry it has taken me awhile to write about Myanmar, but here we go!
As most of our friends are aware, Myanmar was highlighted in the 2013 Yearbook (and in the 1979 Yearbook as well). What an encouraging experience! I had the privilege of spending two weeks there with one of my best friends, Joanna. We met so many friends Burmese and foreign. I'll try to provide some of the best highlights.
So we set out on our travels from Washington DC and it took us about 24 hours to get to Myanmar (with 21hrs spent in an airplane). It was the longest series of flights I have ever been on. Anyways, we arrived in Yangon shortly before 11pm on Friday January 3rd. We were a little haggard, but right on the other side of customs was a young sister holding up a Welcome Jehovah's Witnesses sign! She lead us to a welcoming group of friends that lived locally. We met an American sister, Kendra who, with her husband, works at Bethel and an Aussie brother and a group of local friends. We were some of the first delegates to arrive for the convention. They were so excited to have us there. Many times we heard that the local friends had been planning and anticipating the convention for a year and they couldn't believe it was finally here. The greeting parties actually went to class to learn procedure of how to greet us, assist us with any airport issues and transfer us to our hotels. For many of the friends this involved coming to Yangon about 2 weeks before the convention week. What a sacrifice for them to give up their work and time preaching at home. When we finally got to leave the airport for our hotel, I was shocked to see people still walking about, street stalls set up, including food carts and many vehicles racing down the roads. In Myanmar there are many little trucks(tuk tuk) that they use as transportation, the beds are often filled with people and you jump on and off as they drive around the city. The buses are also large, and quite packed with people. Taxis were cheap, so we were suggested to just stick with taxis. Anyways, we got to our hotel, an older hotel with a lot of carved teak wood. Our room was spacious and pleasant.
|The blue signs on the other side of the glass were the welcoming Witnesses|
|Our hotel lobby|
|The side street next to our hotel on Independence Day. The crowd was for street Chinlone.|
|Just a normal street market.|
|Cleaning the trains at the station|
|Shanty town as seen from the train.|
|He hobo'd the train!|
|Just an average downtown street- electrical wires were always crisscrossed and messy.|
|Bro Maurice Raj- greeting visitors.|
|Me, Doris Raj, Rebecca, Jovana|
|With friends from a local congregation at lunch|
|Playing the scarf game at Kandawgyi Lake|
|Shewdagon Pagoda (one of the larger Buddhist Pagodas in Asia)|
|With Sisters from the Myanmar Sign Language Congregation|
|The baptism candidates|
|Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset from Kandawgyi Lake|
|Me and my friend Caiti from Delaware|
|We got to meet and pose with the sisters from the yearbook cover|
|Panorama of Saturday at the convention|
Some interesting things about the convention and Myanmar:
We couldn't tell any of the customs officials or much less anyone else that we were there for a convention. In fact, at the convention, the signs that usually have the theme on them said "Bethel Branch Expansion Celebration" instead of 2013-2014 District Convention. Our name tags just had Jehovah's Witnesses on it. The branch told us that the government was aware of the convention and permitted it, but we were not to advertise it. Myanmar had another Special Convention in 2009 at the same location. In Myanmar the water is not safe to drink and the food is not always bled properly (especially poultry). So we learned to ask if the meat was properly bled and to ask for bottled water. The electric can come and go frequently and doesn't have much power as they are not up to speed with the electrical grids/supply that we have here in the States. I'll have to put up a picture of all the crisscrossing wires that we saw frequently in downtown. The water usually has to be hand pumped and brought into a person's home daily, so we were spoiled in our hotel with running water, constant electricity and wifi that came and went frequently. It is not uncommon to lose your water or electric for several days at a time.
The average income of a Myanmar person is $60 US per month. A teacher makes $100 US per month. Often the level of education gained is based on a family's income. If they can afford to send their children to a better school they will. In Myanmar they only go to school for half the day, either morning class or afternoon class. Most people don't have cars in Yangon, they walk, take a taxi, bus or the little trucks. Drivers are required to have a driving license, but there is no such thing as car insurance. If you wreck and kill someone, you are certainly going to jail. All of this leads up to some crazy driving. The drivers don't seem to mind the lane markings, don't use turn signals, beep frequently and drive quite erratically. One day we packed four sisters across a backseat and we went around a curve, hit a bump and the door flew open and Joanna almost fell out. The taxi driver acted like it was normal, reached back through a window and shut the door and relocked it, all while we were screaming!! :)
On Saturday, Jan 4, we had our first full day in Yangon. Little did we know that it was their Independence Day. We decided to walk the streets around our hotel. We saw many street soccer matches, beer carts, open air food markets (no refrigerated meat). We frequently saw monks(male and female) walking down the streets. We were definitely a little overwhelmed by the amount of people and the fact that we were stared at wherever we went (staring isn't rude there). We eventually wound up at the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Asia. After we walked around we returned to our hotel and sat in the lobby for a little while. We eventually met some Australian friends who were going to be manning the information desk in our hotel and they invited us out with them. What a wonderful evening getting to know everyone and their spiritual heritages. We learned that for our friends that were formerly Buddhists and studied to come into the truth, they faced serious family persecution, even being beaten with sticks because they studied the Bible. Living conditions here are very poor. Shared sleeping quarters, often on the floor, communal bathrooms, poor electric and water supply, infrequent air conditioning, rats and bugs.
One of our favorite things we did was the Yangon Circle Train. It took us on a 3 hour tour (yes I sang the Gilligans Island theme song). It took us out of the city and into the countryside. We really got to see more of daily, average Myanmar life. We saw many villages and shantytowns, farms, pigs, occasional cows, crop fields and the like. Along the way we got to see a large market at one of the train stops. The fresh produce was really beautiful. We took a few other friends from our hotel with us on the train tour. Afterwards we were going to take a taxi back to our hotel. Our taxi driver misunderstood our hotel name and started taking us to the wrong place. Imagine our shock when we were finally able to convince him where we were to go and he pulled a U turn in the middle of 4 lanes of traffic. Not to mention we went over some bumpy parts and the side door flew open on the taxi and Joanna almost fell out!!! Meanwhile the taxi driver nonchalantly reached back, shut the door and locked it, all while we were screaming... lol!
|A tuk tuk|
|When the power went out|
During the week prior to the convention we were able to go on three tour days. They included touring Bethel, Yangon Zoo, Kandawgyi Lake, Bogoye Market, Shwedagon Pagoda and Downtown Yangon tours. Each took place with Myanmar friends, some from great distances away. We got to meet several of the friends that were mentioned when Myanmar was in the 2013 Yearbook. We also got exposed to local culture, foods and practices. One especially enjoyable night was our Evening Gathering night. It was complete with a program of traditional food, dancing, videos about the expansion in NY, and videos about the friends traveling from different parts of the country to come to the convention. We were in mixed company with many different Myanmar friends. They truly know the meaning of hospitality. We were all asked to join their tables. By the end of the night I was crying. One experience that particularly touched me was of an older couple that daily walked 5 hours round trip to their rice fields and then would work there all day, just to try to earn enough money to come to the convention. Through the week we met many other families that traveled for days by foot, car, boat and train.
One of the things you may see in the pictures is the markets. They have no grocery stores like we do at home. The average home also does not have a refrigerator. The electricity is poorly routed and often not enough to supply the demand so outages are not uncommon. The water supply is usually pumped to a tank and has to be hand pumped and brought into a persons home. So many luxuries we are used to are not available there.
One other touching little tidbit from the convention, 213 were baptized at the convention. According to the 2013 Yearbook, that is more than were baptized in the entire previous service year! When we came into the convention center we noticed that there was a long line around the floor seating. It is a tradition there to go around and shake the hand of all the baptismal candidates as a welcome to the organization. What a long line and a wonderful brotherhood!! At the convention the Research Guide was released in Burmese. What a precious gem for our Myanmar brothers. They don't have access to Watchtower Library, the Publications index or Insight Books. So any form of research would be based on when they guess an article came out. You can imagine how frustrating and time consuming that could be. So the Research Guide will greatly help their Family Worship nights, the elders, and personal study. Also on Sunday alone we lost power at the convention 3 times. Miraculously the brothers were prepared. There was a backup generator ready so we may have been in darkness but we still had sound. The translators did a wonderful job translating in the dark! We got to know one of the translation brothers named Thanny. He was 19, a pioneer and spoke English like an Australian! We spent a lot of time with Thanny and an Australian sister named Johanna who serves in Yangon. They took us around, out to a karaoke night and made sure we felt welcome and had fun.
There were so many other things we got to do and see, but I am forgetting them right now. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the last bits of summer! Talk to you soon!