I would say that these 2 days in the ThaBarWa center have led me to the most intense experience so far on my travels. Marloes and Alli have both been to the center and told me that the activities are great. Alli was not able to spend more than 5 days since there was an apparent “bed bug infestation” going on.
With a little bit concern remaining in my head, I packed my stuff including a light sleeping bag that my friends back in Switzerland gave me and headed to the center with a grab taxi.
At the registration center, a girl from HongKong helped me settle in. I even quickly had a quick glance at the founder monk who came out for a walk (even journalists were there to shoot a video). A bit background information on the center (taken from their website):
Thabarwa Center was established with unlimited access for general benefit and is fulfilling the most crucial needs continually and persistently step by step. […] It is the sanctuary for persons from all regions of Myanmar who seek refuge for care and attention and desire to practice meditation
The community is like a small village with different houses for people to stay in. I stayed at the dorm of the international volunteers. Tom, a mid aged bald man, who is the manager of the dorm introduced me to the setup, which was very basic.
Later, there was a welcome tour to introduce the village to us. Loic, who wrote me a couple of emails already, gave the tour. He is French, stayed here for more than 11 months already, appeared with the container of a mixer and bare footed. Based on what other people mentioned, he seemed to be the leader of the international volunteers. Beside the different functions of the houses, he explained us how the volunteers are organized. Every day at 7 pm, there is a meeting to see what everyone wants to do the next day. Everybody can pick the task/activity that he or she desires. Of course, there might be sometimes too many people for the same task so some comprises have to be made. One day is basically made of one activity in the morning, one activity in the afternoon, the volunteer meeting and then the last meditation session / lesson is from 8 to 9. Together with me, there is a German hippie guy, one Polish girl called Kasia, 2 Danish girls and a French girl.
First meeting … Israel guy, more french guys (turned out to be swiss romand),
First meditation session guided by an Indian monk with a very strong accent. I have no prior experiences and the guided session is more or less like the audio guide that I possess. It was quite hard since my ass is starting to hurt after a while and I really needed to move myself to feel comfortable.
The first thing I chose to do the next morning was the alms walk, which Loic strongly recommended. An Alms walk is how monks collect the donations to them by walking bare feet. Every monk is holding a container, which is mainly thought for rice. The first monk is the most senior and would say a prayer before receiving any donations. The donation itself is regarded as a good deed and hence, the people are willing to donate (sometimes a lot) to show that they are doing good deeds. After the early breakfast in the morning at 6:45, we got into a truck together with the monks to go to Yangon for the walk. There are other helping people as well who prepared other materials like some big tin containers which will hold all the rices that the monks receive (yes they receive a looot, but since the size of the ThaBarWa center is huge, they need quite some food to support everyone). We were the last ones getting into the truck and with the little space we had, we were squeezed together back to back.
After arriving in a local area in Yangon, I got a tin bowl in my hand which is thought for the money donations. In the beginning I was not sure what I am supposed to do. Usually, the local people hand the donations to the head monk and the head monk would say a prayer and then let the donates put the stuff either in the bowl he holds or the money directly into my bowl. Sometimes, some people sticked the money into the rice and another non beside the head monk (teenage girl actually who has a very cute face despite being bald) would take the note and put it directly into my bowl. I was not sure whether I am supposed to touch the money or not, hence, I was not doing much in the beginning.
The first impression I had was that almost every household was donating. Some people live in very shabby houses which would almost fall together. Some other people lived in a bigger concrete house with multiple SUVs even. Proportionally speaking, poor people donate more than the rich people. The rich might give a sack of rice which cost him almost nothing, but the poor might have donated their food of tomorrow which is only a small bowl of rice. After an hour, the sun started to rise and the street is getting hot. In addition, the last streets are not very walkable on bare feet. The street is spiky with a lot of stones and as a city child my sensitive feet almost couldn’t take it anymore. One of the helpers even offered me to sit back in the car but I refused and want to push my boundaries. If the monks can do it, I can do it too. Some monks were also laughing at me when I made some painful faces. In the end, my bowl was full of Kyats and I think that we at least collected a million. That somehow explains why certain monk have a DSLR camera … (I saw one in Cambodia)
On the road back, one thing that I realized was that, one of the helpers did not even have the half of his one leg left and was using a prothese. It is indeed true that within the community, people help each other in any way they can.
In the afternoon, I chose to do some gardening which involves only cleaning the trash from a designated garden area somewhere in the village. This area is supposed to be used to plant and grow some stuff but a few years ago, people started to throw garbage into that area. There was a digged hole in the ground and we don’t even know how much more waste is there in the hole. Together, there were Pierre, Martin who are actually from Martigny, a portuguese guy and someone from Israel. In the hot and burning afternoon sun, we started digging and putting the trashes into big plastic bags so that the trash car can pick them all up at once. I am not being very productive since I am not used to the dirt and was very careful in picking up trashes. My sweat started to flow my face very quickly after a few minutes and it got onto my glasses, condensed and left a mark of salt. I knew I had to keep going to push myself more. Also, when looking at others, they don’t really seem to care how dirty it is and would grad a lot of the garbage by hand put them directly in to the bigger plastic bags.
After 1 or 2 hours, other girls came by who were helping at a local school with the kids. The kids came along as well and wanted to help us as well. But it is getting increasingly difficult to dig and we also found a lot of sharp objects such as broken glasses and even some needles so we didn’t let them help. But what surprised me most was the Swiss girl when she would jump into the hole without even worrying about whatever would get dirty with her cloths or shoes. … At 5, we concluded our digging and went back.
After a quick shower, it is time again for the meeting. this time another non was there and there was a discussion about helping the local family and the dynamics was quite weird … she seemed to insist that she can should be able to tell the whole story and let other（especially new） people decide whether they want to help or not, but loic would cut her off and i think because she told the story a lot of times already and he assumes nobody wants to help so that she is not wasting everyone’s time here.
The next meditation lesson consisted also a bit of talking. With the monk’s indian accent, it was difficult to understand him even though I had training for 2 years… Main points were Buddhist economy, Buddhist psychology, something called engagement for me to research on later. What helped me was the question I asked, what is the purpose of meditation? It is mainly thought as an exercise for concentration. For me, this makes sense now. I always thought meditation is something that will help you to reach some sort of enlightenment but during the process, I reckon it is difficult to reach anything if you are not supposed to think.
The next day, since I wanted to try out all the activities here, I chose patient caring in the morning and patient washing in the afternoon. Patient caring means simply that you will clean some wounds of the patients. It includes taking off the old dirty bandage, washing the wound with salt water, apply some antibiotics, and put on some fresh bandages. There are different patients with different problems. One almost cut a toe off, one had operation of breast cancer, and the worst one has a cancer growing out of his face and we are supposed to clean that bulk. Pierre said that for the patients in ICU, it is really tough. Sometimes you do somethings that contributes nothing to their healing, but they think you are doing something useful and it is rather meant as a soothing on their minds. And after maybe a few days of treatment, you come in one day and you suddenly find the patient dead in his/her bed.
That Friday was actually the first day of the water festival (Buddhist new year where you wash off the past and fresh yourself for the new). Below is our dorm dog Jessi watching all the craziness outside.
The last thing I did was patient washing. It was in the Josephine hall where most of the lady patients were staying. We brought some wheelchairs to wash those who were not able to move by themselves. Me and another German were carrying the patients onto the wheelchairs and out to the special chairs where they either can wash by themselves or other helping girls can wash them. Some really do stink a lot and you can smell from miles away that they desperately need washing. Many of them have adult diapers as well and this makes some particularly smelly. Since they are not able to move by themselves, some literally sit in their own piss and shit for 2 or 3 days until someone washes them.
This was particularly tough to watch when for some, the only thing they could do was hopelessly sitting there and sort of desperately looking at you to carry them out of the beds. And sometimes, the smell was so strong that you were not able to breathe normally and will get dizzy afterwards. Some have such a strong infection in their private parts that make you think that such hygiene standards are really not acceptable. And once I sat down again, I started to even appreciate the fact that I am able to manage myself and do everything without others help. And for me personally, ever since I was young, I never wanted to let anyone help me and wanted to do everything myself.
Expanding this further, with society (especially the Chinese one because of the one child policy) growing older, the physical health care is where a lot of demand is going to be created. When we take care of the patients, we get emotionally involved as well. The care taker in Josephine hall helped a bit as well, but you can see that she is so sick and tired of it that she does not really care about where they bump the patients into some corners or not.
It was a short 2 days but I truly was overwhelmed with what was going on and made me thinking more about all other things that we have …
Me, in Medellín, learning Spanish for a week before continuing on further in South America for the last 2 months that I have …
Edit: actually I just remembered about the cab driver that drove me to ThaBarWa. He has been driving for 20 years and knows all the streets. He spoke well English and told me about different meditation centers as well. He mentioned that during the water festivals he would need to work otherwise he wouldnt have money for the next day … and when we arrived he was very kind to help me to get to the reception of the meditation center.