Where is the road calling you?
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When I was younger and a little but dumber, waking up on the floor usually meant I had consumed enough alcohol to last me for an entire week. The morning I woke to the final day of our three day trek however, there was no hangover or bass drums pounding in my head. Instead, roosters signaled bright and early it was time to start the day. The women living in the home we slept in had already been preparing food for nearly two hours, and the laughter of neighborhood children couldn’t be ignored. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the most comfortable night sleep I’d had in days, but the sight of simplicity surrounding me as soon as I stepped down the stairs of that stilted village home instantly surpassed any amount of fatigue.
A group of children peering through a bamboo fence from the yard across from us presented us with the perfect morning activity while waiting for breakfast to be prepared on the open fire back inside. With friendly smiles we stepped over the dirt path winding between the homes, entering the yard and handing out pencils to each of them. Tiny fists clenched tight and waived them around for everyone to see accompanied by small bouts of laughter and contagious smiles. We turned around to find a group of mothers looking on with adoration, quite obviously happy to see their children so excited. Hugs were exchanged with each of them before we began wandering down one of the few paths through the village, casually interrupted by the feeling of a small hand sliding into each of ours.
One of the little girls we had been playing charades with took it upon herself to lead us to her home, a short walk down a hill to another small cluster of homes. Her mother watched us approach with a bit of confusion, wondering who her daughter had decided to bring home. The little girl shouted in the local dialect and hoisted her cartoon decorated pencil up for display, immediately drawing a warm reaction from the woman. If not for being provided with tea and breakfast shortly at our homestay, we most definitely would have accepted her kind offer to join her and her family inside for a cup of tea.
Little did we know the kids weren’t the only ones in need of simple tools we’ve taken for granted so many times before. Even the grandmother who helped prepare breakfast asked if she could have one of the pens we had brought with to hand out to the teachers at local schools. The last of the stuffed animals we had brought with for the trek seemed the perfect give for her granddaughter, barely able to walk on her own. Yet with boxes of pencils still to hand out, we began wondering if we would find a school in need after learning many of the students in the schools we had seen along the way were actually on break at the moment. Only a ten minute ride out of town to another village, we would find what we were looking for.
Our guide led us to the entrance of a school packed with young students, many of them staring in shock at the sight of us. We entered slowly, our smiles as wide as we could stretch them to ensure our tiny spectators wouldn’t be intimidated. A burst of joy and fulfillment ran through every cell in my body as I handed out pencil after pencil to the large group of incredibly patient children. Within minutes those still waiting began learning the reason for our visit, watching us intently with eager anticipation. At times my hand began shaking when pulling pencils from the box. It was hard not to notice I may have been even more excited than they were.
After confirming each of them had been attended to, it was time to begin interacting. Some might find it nearly impossible to communicate with those who don’t speak English, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned through our travels; it’s that kids are easy. Charades, slowly spoken basic sentences and never ending smiles can be nearly as effective as clear communication. We crouched down below eye level of our adorable audience, pairs of innocent brown eyes observing our every move. Curiosity began compelling them to inspect us a bit closer, taking notice of not only my piercings but the real scorpion bracelet on my wrist. Tiny finger after finger ran over the glossy casing while those standing further back stood to their tallest potential, causing a small ring of onlookers to close in on me.
Jessie began capturing the moments on camera, quickly showing the kids in the photo what they looked like on the screen. Anyone who’s ever had experience with children knows how much they love repetition. Soon we were snapping selfies more frequently than a teenage girl craving attention on the latest social media platform. Every image displayed to our young crowd inspired outbursts of laughter and high pitched giggles. Heads began ducking into the screen as we flipped it away from the camera and faced it towards ourselves to see who would fit in the shot. I tend to believe we could have stayed there for hours basking in the happiness and delight building in the large open room.
Walking away from the school with our heads turned back and hands waiving in response to those stretching from the windows of the old building, a natural high was felt by all. It was hard to imagine any other experience surpassing the one we had just enjoyed throughout the rest of our time in Myanmar. Even hours later after an afternoon filled with scenic views and a leisurely ride back to town I couldn’t stop thinking about the young, beaming faces surrounding me with wide eyes of curiosity, but the universe wasn’t quite finished with us for the day.
During our trek our guide had explained the severity of the situation hours from where we had been hiking, forcing about three thousand people to flee from their homes to avoid violent eruptions of fighting and gunfire. They arrived in Kyaukme by the hundreds, seeking refuge in monasteries in hopes they could find a safe haven to survive the conflicts swarming their simple homes. We knew instantly we wanted to do whatever we could to help. Having already witnessed so many incredibly sincere, genuinely kind hearted people wanting nothing more than to live in peace, it was impossible for us to imagine walking away from those in such dire need with a clear conscience.
Moved by our eagerness to help, our guide insisted he would pay for the transportation to take us to a local store where we could buy large bags of rice to donate to the monasteries around town. Little did we know at the time, we were about to have one of the greatest impacts of our lives. With three, 70 kilogram (154 lbs) bags of rice on the floor of our hired thoun bein (a three wheeled method of local transportation having the front end of a motorcycle powering a small pickup style bed with two small benches lining either side) we cruised through the streets, our driver stopping sporadically to inform people he knew on the streets of what we were intending to do. Each local he spoke to gazed back at us with warming looks of approval before continuing on our quest.
We pulled into the first monastery to looks of confusion from groups of local people standing around or sitting along the edges of the buildings on the property. I was unsure what to expect but exchanged smiles with Jessie before hopping out onto the ground and following our guide who had accompanied us on his motorbike. He led me up a short staircase to a folding table where three women sat behind with binders in front of them. Our driver and another volunteer unloaded one of the large rice sacks while I leaned down to sign my name in the space I was instructed, fortunately advised considering Burmese writing is nothing short of impossible to read for those of us accustomed to an English alphabet.
Having learned of our donation the women began smiling instantly, shocked at the size of the donation we had made to help people we had never before met in our lives. A man who we assumed was part of the local media gathered us in front of the large sack of rice resting next to the main building with and audience of fleeing villagers gathering to witness the sight of us posing for a photo. Word spread throughout the crowd, each person learning of our purpose for visiting looking on us with new eyes and praise. It was nearly impossible to find a face in the crowd not harboring a gleaming smile before heading out to our next stop and waiving to the people as we sped away. Our second stop however, would be the most rewarding of all.
Not unlike the first monastery we visited we entered to a multitude of bewilderment, though the amount of those focusing their attention on us as I once again climbed a short flight of stairs to fill in my name on the donations page heavily outweighed our previous stop. We couldn’t have been more grateful for our guide in that moment, and he served as the perfect person to help us gift what we could to people who truly needed it. He began explaining to various locals gathering in greater numbers why we had chosen to visit their temporary home. Once again, wide-eyed smiles began spreading through the crowd accompanied by numerous gestures and heartfelt thanking in the local dialect. Quickly people fortunate enough to have a camera phone began approaching us to take photos with us, including a monk who I couldn’t have denied in a million lifetimes.
It was the action of a specific, gracious old woman however that captured our attention. She began motioning for us to follow her, her kind eyes and years of stories written in the wrinkles on her face compelling us to agree without hesitation. As only the sweetest of grandmothers could do, she led us slowly around the grounds of the monastery, showing us the rooms full of refugees filling all available spaces. Looks of despair were cast in our direction upon noticing our presence only to be replaced with expressions of gratitude and relief after listening to the woman explain to them the reason for our pleasant intrusion. Old, dirty recycled rice sacks housed all each person possessed during their time of crisis. Every new discovery of an open area utilized to provide safety and shelter to those forced from their homes squeezed our hearts tighter as it became more and more difficult to suppress the tears welling in our eyes.
Even the underground basement storage facilities had been converted to open area allowing for the overflow of refugees to find the slightest bit of comfort. Our brief tour ended with a stop inside one such area where the woman’s extended family, complete with grandchildren, had attempted to create a home between the pylons supporting the floor above them. No words were necessary in that moment, fully understanding she had only sought to show us all of the people we were helping to feed. If not for a timely provided inner strength from a much higher power, we most definitely would have broken down in tears shedding a mix of emotions from gratitude to the most intense empathy we’d ever felt.
Our final stop would be filled with more of the same curious looks and gatherings of people with home sickness written on their faces. Again our hearts sunk deep inside of us, feeling the uncertainty and restlessness emanating from the crowd. Upon completing the last registration form, we were motioned towards a small group of people. Having already sat back with a never ending smile on his face as he had done at our previous stops, our guide approached us on our request to translate what the two old women we were standing with were saying. We quickly learned that neither of them had seen white skin or light eyes before! What a sight it must have been for them to be looking at Jessie with her blonde hair and light blue eyes along with our lighter complexion. Their gaze could not be broken. Rarely have we ever noticed such fondness in the eyes of another outside of our own families. One of the women began speaking to us with her hand in the air, our guide luckily still at our sides to explain she was offering up blessings to us for our donations.
Countless travelers we’ve met during our time away have searched high and low for the same unique experience of meeting the same people we met, desperate to get away from places around the world already tainted and at times ruined by mass tourism. We too had traveled off the typical tourist trail on numerous occasions in hopes of finding the same thing. In the end, all we had to do for the most authentic and rewarding experience of all was open our hearts and give. We could have never known what to expect or how great of an impact it would have us, but our time spent helping those in need will be forever cherished.
How we didn’t completely lose all control of our emotions and burst into sobbing fits on our return is nothing short of a miracle. It has long since been a dream of ours to be able to give to people in the exact way we had just experienced, and there we were…on ground level seeing exactly where every penny of our assistance was being spent, feeding the truly needy. I couldn’t help thinking about the new ambitious energy surrounding the desire to find the perfect literary agent to publish the book I’ve completely recently. Visualizations of helping mass amounts of people in countries around the world with not only our own gifts but the hopeful donations of others in the future created a sensation within me I’d never dreamed possible.
I found it nearly impossible to sleep that night while lying in our own room with more than enough money to support the rest of our travels. The fact that we were by no means even slightly close to being rich monetarily had not escaped me, but wealth is not always measured in dollars and cents. We had received more than anyone could ever give us. Not only could our hearts not have been fuller of love and compassion after such and unforgettable, rewarding experience, but we had been reminded of how mankind was originally designed. We had been in the company of people capable of turning the toughest of men into the most gentle, the most hardened of people into the softest and most caring. Never before had I connected with so many people capable of peering directly into my soul and not only seeing who I am inside, but sharing who they are as well without ever uttering a single word.
I learned something new that day, something I’ll never forget and will cherish for the rest of my life…something I thought I knew but never completely appreciated until now. To inspire and touch the lives of others is one of the greatest gifts you can give.