Dear friends and family,
A lot of you have asked me what being in Burma was like. Where do I begin? There is so much that I could talk about – the rugged beauty of the city, for one, the photographic experience of shooting by the river, for another. I think one story sums it all up though, so I want to share a part of it with you today.
It’s the story of a Burmese boatman named Khin Maung Than. I first met him on the steps of the Yangon jetty where I was taking photographs. When I first asked him questions through my translator, he would reply with such a blank expression that I mentally concluded that the interview was unsuccessful. But that was before I had heard his answers in English. It turned out that in the 5 minutes or so, he had told my translator stories about Cyclone Nargis – how the pile of rubble next to me were parts of steps that had been destroyed by the cyclone, how he fled when he saw the waves… I knew there was something more to this guy, so I arranged to meet him the next day.
Going on a boat illegally was probably one of the riskier decisions that I made. Foreigners aren’t allowed on them, and when a boatman misses his turn to load passengers, he typically has to pay the company owner the amount he would have earned on that turn. Khin risked his boating license to let me ride his boat for an hour because he wanted to tell us about the lives of people who work on the docks. He has been through an incredible amount. He told me stories about how during Cyclone Nargis, he saw ships fly across the harbor, smashing smaller boats. His own house and boat were destroyed too, forcing him to give up his life as an independent boatman to work for a local company. He recalled rescuing two women, who, upon realizing that the storm had torn off their clothes, were so filled with shame that they dived back into the sea. He didn’t reach them a second time. I asked him about the community of boatmen in the area. He replied with a Burmese saying, which loosely translated means “die not different, live not separate.” Khin is 31 and has been working at the docks since he was 14. He works from 3am to 8pm, almost every day. He said that he would be there until the docks disappear, because it’s the only profession he knew.
That week, I managed to go to his house, a sparsely decorated square hut made out of wood, to visit his family. There was a TV in a corner, a few small Buddhist altars, and pictures of the family on the wall, but not much else. His 3 sons are adorable, of course. One afternoon, they took a bath in the rain, which looked more like a game of leapfrog in the road outside their house than any attempt at getting themselves clean.
It’s Khin’s wife though, that got my attention. She was sick, and had been for the past 4 months. When I first met her, they said she was suffering from a lung disease. At that point, she couldn’t sleep, eat or breathe properly because of the pain. During the interviews, she would periodically crawl over to a hole in the floor, which served as a makeshift trashcan, to vomit. In order to get her medicine from the clinic, Khin had to sell a part of his backyard. Her daily dose of medicine cost more than what he earned in a day, and money was running out. Since Khin’s working hours take up most of the day, he had to pay his neighbor to take care of her. Whenever I visited, I’d find Khin busy cooking, or taking care of the children, or fixing a part of the house. He never stopped. Later, I found out that Khin’s wife had a miscarriage in February. Two months later, she went back to the doctor and they discovered that the miscarriage was not done properly, so bits of the fetus were still in her, rotting. Since then she’s been pretty much immobile and unable to contribute to the family.
When I next visited, I brought some stationery for the children, who were starting school the next day. Khin had mentioned earlier that he would only have enough money to buy school supplies and uniforms that day, so I knew they didn’t have any yet. Khin told my translator, a little indignantly, that he had wanted to take the children shopping, because it was rare that they could have that privilege. I immediately felt ashamed at possibly having insulted him, and quickly apologized. “It’s okay,” he said. There is still so much resilience and dignity in the family. I learned that day that everyone should be treated with love and respect, but no one should be a charity case.
I’ve struggled a lot with writing this post. It’s one thing to read of these stories in the papers, or even take photos with poor children in a Third World country. It’s another to come face to face with a family that is in dire and urgent need. Of course, there is so much more to them than just poverty or illness. It’s unfair to characterize them solely by their circumstance. I could write about their marriage and its intricacies, or about Khin’s love for football and how it’s the only solace he gets, or about how he took part in the 1988 protests and felt a bullet whizz past his ear, and how he gave up all his involvement for the sake of his family. These are people who live for so much more, and yet live for survival, all the same.
It’s been more than a month since I left Burma. Since then, I’ve gotten in touch with a local NGO who has brought them to a proper hospital. It turns out that Khin’s wife is suffering from hepatitis, in addition to other possible ailments. Yes, it is the illness that most of us are vaccinated against. I’m still waiting to hear back about the doctor’s full reports, and I might have to fundraise to pay for her hospital bill, which could add up to a few thousand dollars. I don’t really know how I’m going to do that. All I have are my stories and a few crappy photographs. But I can’t look back.
P.S. A blog post is hardly sufficient, but I knew I had to get something out about Khin. Even if it was in the form of a crappy letter-come-narrative-come-letter with problematic grammar. Sorry about that.