Myanmar: The Buddhist Life

A bell tolls from a nearby temple, welcoming the rising sun as it seeps through the valleys, illuminating one pagoda at a time. Dawn marks the hours of alms for the novices that inhabit the hundreds of monasteries and nunneries of Sagaing, the holy center of Myanmar. I watched through the bamboo thatches of my hut as the novices at the IBEC (International Buddhist Education Center) descended the hill with their bowls, some balanced on their head, others falling into their hands. The younger novices struggled to keep their robes tied properly around their shoulders as they ran to keep up with the monks. They were heading to the town to ask the villagers to contribute “alms”, gifts to the monastery. It is these alms and contributions that the holy centers survive on.

kids at Buddhist monastary in Burma

I had been living and teaching at the IBEC for two weeks now, participating in the daily rituals of the novices and learning about the pillars of Buddhism. As one of two westerners, and the only woman at the monastery, there is a lot to learn quickly. The principal, a highly respected monk, welcomes me and thanks me for coming. When addressing the principal, one must sit lower than him, with their feet tucked in, as a sign of respect. When he walks through the monastery grounds, people bow on the ground to him. Every morning the monks and nuns come to pay their respect from neighboring monasteries. They kneel before him and bow their heads three times.

International Buddhist Education Center in Burma

The IBEC gives free education to children from all over Myanmar. A lot of poorer families will send their children to become monks because it is the only education they can receive. Walking around the monastery, the children hang out of the windows exclaiming, “hello teacher, hello!” The novices range in age from three to eighteen. They wake up every morning at 4am for their morning chants and alms, go to school until 5pm, study from 5-9pm and pray until bedtime. It’s a tight schedule with little playtime. Teachers are highly respected and the young novices are extremely eager to learn. At the end of every class, they repeat, “thank you teacher, see you tomorrow teacher, thank you teacher.” The nuns also attend various classes at the monasteries. These bashful girls always sit in the back of the classroom and are easily identifiable with their bright pink robes and shaved heads. The boys and girls move in and out of the classroom separately. Gender roles become increasingly apparent when you go into town. Only men are seen eating at the restaurants and women are assumed to be home working.

The local teachers are mostly women and eager to practice their English. Each day they rub thanaka on my cheeks, a white paste made from a tree root, used to protect skin from the sun. In town, the villagers welcome the teachers with open arms. During a “food festival”, each house cooks an enormous meal and participants wander from house to house as a way to socialize with the village. When someone shares a meal with the Burmese, they are considered part of the family. I join over 30 families during my time in Myanmar.

volunteering with kids in Burma

The Burmese culture is infamous for their warm smiles and generosity. A once isolated country; its borders have now been opened to businesses and tourists alike. Aside from teaching novices, I help Burmese immigration officers improve their spoken English. They are required by the government to learn English to prepare for the influx of foreigners. At the end of my two weeks there, I am showered with gifts from my students. I leave the center feeling that I had received much more than I had given to them. This is quite common in Buddhist and Burmese culture, that is the spirit of giving more then you receive.

~ By Teresa Murphy of Tess Travels. Murphy spent three weeks living and teaching at a Buddhist monastery in the holy capital of Sagaing, Myanmar.

Read more about volunteering abroad. 

Burmese Days

A country in the midst of a political transition and geographically placed along the Himalayas, sharing borders with India and Bangladesh and linking a “Golden Triangle” with Thailand and Laos, Burma, now Myanmar, is a fascinating country with the friendliest people in Asia.

Yangon

I stay near the Sule Paya, a golden pagoda set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. The first thing I do upon landing is head to the bank to exchange my uncreased, unmarked US $100 bills that originated after 2006. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in the country and the banks and black market are extremely particular about foreign currencies. After this extraneous process, I wander Yangon, weaving my way through the activity on the sidewalk; the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Men use wooden crates to make their “cheroot”, betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves. I continue on to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their English and one spread his arms and said, “I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar!” That would be the beginning of many welcoming gestures from the Burmese people.

Two men coating the Mahamundi Buddha with gold

Bagan

We pull into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We are greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I feel as if I have found the wild wild west.  At 5am, we take bikes and flashlights and set out to the city of temples, finding one, in time to see the sky change from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly a golden orange, as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It is calming, majestic, and even spiritual. After a day of biking through the temples, I hop on a bus to Inle Lake.

Bagun at sunrise
Bagun at sunrise

Inle Lake

Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a life source. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats take children to school each morning and businesses moving goods, ship their items over water. It’s a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a town center, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen’s stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. Each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by, doing their evening chants. I fall so in love with Inle that I choose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants.

Daily commuters on Inle Lake
Daily commuters on Inle Lake

Mandalay

North of Inle, lies the busy, noisy, congested, dusty city of Mandalay. The city’s grid system is set up around the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. I visit the Mahamundi Buddha, a large Buddha painted in gold every day, and the historic teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery. On the way, my taxi driver is eager to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is at a crossroads and, as the US lifts some economic sanctions, tourists continue to flow in. This transition is seen in Mandalay’s financial distract, as men go to work wearing a dress shirt and tie, with a longyi, the traditional cloth wrap, on the bottom.

Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake
Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake

Although the country is undergoing rapid changes, it’s essential to preserve the centuries old customs and traditions that make Myanmar such a unique cultural gem.

~ By guest blogger, Tess Murphy. Tess has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Australia, keeping a travel blog everywhere she went.

Welcome to The Iguana Station

During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.

volunteer in Honduras

The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.

wishy willy

The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.

Iguana station

The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.

I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.

cleaning up Utila

Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”

At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.

Iguana lunch

Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.

The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.

beach in Utila

 

The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.

As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.

 ~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit. 

Twelve year old teacher goes to India

Teaching is one of my passions. My name is Manika Bhatia. I am a 12 year old girl, studying in 7th grade at North Gwinnett middle school in suburbs of Atlanta. I enjoy playing basketball, swimming, volunteering with kids, and spending time with friends and family. When I grow up, I would like to be a corporate lawyer.  But in the meantime, I am enjoying teaching.

Continue reading “Twelve year old teacher goes to India”

The Spaniards need us too!

When you think of volunteering internationally, generally Europe doesn’t come to mind. I always thought it is the orphanages and schools in third world countries, or the villages and communities in a disaster hit area that really need us, but I was wrong. Continue reading “The Spaniards need us too!”