Like trying to protect yourself from lightening with a banana leaf

Whoever said that roosters crow at dawn was full of shit. It is 5:30 in the morning after a night of homesteading in a Chin village and I’ve learned that roosters crow whenever they damn well please. This morning, it seemingly pleased them to crow in unison at 3 in the morning. Hopefully, we’re having roast rooster for breakfast.

Bhikku, a buddhist monk, is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. Traveling with him, a fluent Myanmar and English speaker, has been such a uniquely eye opening experience; I doubt there is another person in Burma who could act as such an enriching guide. As we explore the countryside, hopping from ruined Buddhist temple to traditional Myanmar village, he explains to us the subtleties of life and the complexities of their culture. He is such a dedicated, passionate, talented teacher, that in each village we explore, he beckons the children, and frequently the adults, forward, and begins his lessons as they sit around him. He teaches them buddhist rhymes so that they may better remember his teachings. As he concludes, he passes candy around to them. The respect that he commands, both because of his presence, as well as his robes, is impressive to witness. Despite never meeting him, people of all ages will come and kneel before him, pressing their clasped hands into the ground.

He explains Buddhism and his way of life to me with such an openness and honesty that I invariably spend the next few hours pondering his words. Buddhism is not a religion, it does not promote a belief in God, and while there are mystical elements, Buddhism is an art of living, a philosophy of the mind. His demeanor is so peaceful. My questions are never answered shortly—his responses like a meandering stream. They ripple along, touching upon metaphors and stories, washing over experiences and philosophy. I struggle sometimes to maintain the connections, trying to remember the line of questioning that brought us to this point, until he arrives at his conclusion and I can so clearly see the tapestry he has woven. And I can see the merit in these explanations, as I come to my own answers without him defining them for me. His view of the world is so vastly different than anything I’ve encountered that at times it is a struggle not to laugh—not at him, but at the juxtaposition between him and the Western world. The rules of monk-hood prohibit him from eating after noon. During one of our treks, as noon drew closer and our guides assured us that we were close to our lunch spots, he told me, with his resounding calmness, not to worry. “I have eaten over 60,000 meals in my life. I do not need to eat this one.” In another instance, after removing our sandals to ascend to one of the temples, we returned to find that someone had mistakenly taken his pair. “Someday,” he responded, “the sun will become a red giant and will consume the earth; why should I worry about a pair of sandals?” My collection of Bihhku-isms continues to grow.

The attention that my size and skin color brings me reminds of that of a star in Hollywood. Groups of girls ask for photographs with me. A forty something-year-old woman told me through our translator that she doesn’t have a husband. Bhikku said that it is all because of my karma. When we arrive at our hotels and guesthouses, the staff invariably try to carry our bags. It’s a little embarrassing to watch these tiny Burmese people trying to pick up packs nearly half their weight. Trying to convince them to let us carry them, Abba pointed to me and said “look at him! He’s so big. Let him carry them.” They stared at me, laughed, and willingly obliged.

The fact that Abba is a doctor adds a whole new element to our traveling. Word gets out in each new village that we visit that an American doctor is present. As we passed amongst the ramshackle huts of a small village, a woman sprinted up to us, her son in her arms, desperation on her face. With Bhikku translating, she conveyed that her son has never been mentally the same since he contracted malaria as a baby. Malarial encephalitis. Incurable. As we walked away, I thought that this woman may have just had dashed the only hope she had been harboring for years. It’s not a nice thought. During another instance, during our village homestay, an old woman came into our bedroom. She sat down on the floor and began to rub her foot. Over the following few minutes, we play a ridiculous game of charades as she points to her foot, rubs her foot, points to us, and mimics a needle going into her arm. We have no idea what she wants. I suggest to Abba that perhaps she wants him to massage her feet. Picturing the hilariousness of the potential ensuing situation, I hope beyond hope that he takes my advice. He doesn’t. She begins to laugh at our ignorance and we laugh at the comical interaction. When we finally find a translator, we discover that she has cold feet and hopes that the American doctor can give her an injection to fix them. The ignorance over the potential of Western medicine is astounding. When we speak with a local doctor serving the village, he tells us that he injects glucose into nearly everyone as without such an obvious action, people don’t believe he is curing them.

The stories are innumerable. Every interaction holds some charm, some awkwardness, some hint at the vast cultural chasm separating us. But that is what makes the travel so special. Nothing is ordinary and everything exciting. Tomorrow holds a new adventure.

Some of my favorite moments and Bikkhu-isms:

Bikkhu spoke to us about the Myanmar generals who perpetrated violent censorship and mass executions of dissenters. After these generals retire, in an effort to correct their karma, it is common for them to construct many temples and pagodas across the country. We ask him his opinion of this and what buddhism has to say. He responds, “it is like these generals are standing in a lightening storm, trying to protect themselves from lightening with a banana leaf.”

“I used to set rats and insects on fire when I was young,” Bhikku regretfully states during one of his lessons on karma. “I fully expect, whether in this life or another, to burn to death,” he says frankly, as if it is the most obvious truth in the world.

As Abba barters with a taxi driver, he turns to Bhikku and asks him if he thinks that the agreed upon price is fair. “Aryeh, I am a monk,” he replies laughing. “I’ve been a monk for nine years. I never go to cities. I live in a village. No! Not even a village! I live in a forest!” We all burst out laughing.

As I finish this post, we are on a plane to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. From there we will take a plane to Kyung Tung, the heart of the Golden Triangle. I look forward to the adventures to come.

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