July 2020, Mandalay mapping with Claire.
It’s 5 am, I’m shivering, puffy eyed and groggy from the long ride (Buses here tend to use air con in a completely irrational way!). The bus just came to a stop and as the doors open, the hot air rushes in, along with about 50 desperate tuktuk drivers. “Where you go miss? Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”. I’m not ready for this. Fortunately, Sister Felix who will be our host for the coming weeks, sent a driver and we are really glad to spot Sister Rosie in the red tuktuk. As we reach the Rose Virginie Women Empowerment center, which will be our home for the coming weeks, we let all our worries evaporate! We will not have to sleep on a wooden plank under a crucifix and will not need to go to the back of the garden to use the bathroom in the end. The premises are modern, and we’ll even have our own rooms! What a luxury!
So, let me introduce you to Sister Felix, Sister Rosie and Sister Regina, our hosts, and friends. They are Catholic nuns who dedicate their lives to helping their fellow citizens. They are members of the Good Shepherd Sisters international congregation, and they run a women Empowerment program in Mandalay along with other Nuns.
Now imagine it’s dinner time (6pm). It’s been a long day, walking around the city, meeting many people and talking about LP4Y and the Green Village project. You arrive “home” and sister Rosie says: “dinner is ready, will you join us?” Well, sure! Just in time to help set the table and here we are enjoying a lively conversation and laughing together. Sister Rosie and some of the young women who participate in their training program (most of them had to leave the center during COVID, but a few stayed), cook all the meals. And because we love trying new food, they excitedly prepare something different every day! We are so spoiled, trying specialties from all around the country! At the dinner table, Rosie, who really loves spicy food, adds a spoonful of homemade chili sauce, and laughs at how hot it is! She has a lot of self-derision and laughs at how much of a gourmet eater she is! We all like to tease her when she insists that we finish a plate, she reminds us of an Italian Mama who worries about her guests not liking her food! In the meantime, Sister Felix and Sister Regina tell us anecdotes about their lives. And they have many! It’s almost a competition about who has the funniest story! These conversations are the highlight of our days! May it be over breakfast or dinner, we wouldn’t want to miss them!
After almost 3 weeks working hard on our project and spending quality time with the Sisters and the Young Women from the program, it is almost time for us to leave and go back to Yangon. As a thank you, we invited the 12 women and the sisters for a surprise outing.
The night before, the buzzing and excitement of the day to come is palpable. They run up and down the stairs, deciding what outfits to wear and bring, preparing the feast picnic, chit chatting and laughing. As morning comes, we all embark at the back of a pick-up truck and are on our way to the blue lagoon Dee Dote waterfall. The short hike to the top of the waterfall is a total adventure as the selected outfits are more adapted for a photo-shoot than for a walk in the forest. Each viewpoint is an excuse for a shooting session! The view at the top is mesmerizing! As the trail reaches a peak, your eyes are caught by the milky turquoise blue pool bellow. You only get to glimpse at the waterfall when you walk down the trail. For most of the young women, this is the first time that they see such a thing, let alone swim. They come from remote villages in the mountains, where rivers are nowhere near. As we all change into our swimming outfits (no bikinis allowed 😉), many show their concern as to stepping into the water. They are shy and demure, one foot at a time, scared to enter the water completely. But this doesn’t last long, the nervous screams and laughter soon transform into the pleasant sound of joy, water splashing and giggling. Claire and I soon become swimming instructors and encourage their every effort as we give them advise on how to float and trust the water. Throughout the day, the mood is high and the smiles and sparkles in their eyes are worth all the gold in the world.
This is the kind of day that makes my mission so fulfilling and rewarding. Everyday we (all the volunteers of LP4Y) work to support young adults to change their lives and give them opportunities. Today, as we showed them how to swim, we could see their motivation to achieve their goals and to never give up, no matter how many times their heads went underwater! Their dedication is so inspiring and humbling! My eyes filled with tears of joy as they commented: “We will remember this day for ever!”. Well, I can only imagine how they feel, because honestly, can you remember the day when you swam for the first time? If I did, I’m sure it would be one of my best memories as well! Coming to Asia to work for an NGO, I thought I would support young adults and help them find a path towards their future. As I reflect on it now, I understand that they teach me so much more than I teach them. They all show me how to appreciate what I have rather than dwell on what I want. These lessons of humility, and resilience are best learned on the field, among the people who have the least but who are so rich in experience and generosity.