Michael and I decided we'd cross into Burma by land at Mai Sai — Thailand's northernmost town. This in and of itself is trivial — the question was whether we could travel onward from that region of Burma to the central regions of the country; to Mandalay.
Travel in Burma has opened up a lot since I first visited the country in 1987 but it's still restricted with special permits required for some regions and other regions strictly off-limits — often because they are war zones.
Travel agents in Chiang Mai said this couldn't be done. One told us of a traveler who had been arrested trying and had to pay a hefty fine to get out of jail and out of the country. Some stories have a way of being told and retold over quite some time and I suspected this was one of them; the travel agent admitted the story was a few years old. I knew from recent posts online from other travelers that our plan was now doable.
We told the travel agent to go ahead with the expedited order for visas from the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and as soon as they arrived we were off.
All went well, and after a few days in Kyaing Tong (northeast Burma) we reached Mandalay.
My main interest in returning to Burma just two years after my last visit was to go to Mandalay. I had visited in January 2003 somewhat hesitantly. For years I had respected Aung San Suu Kyi and others' request not to visit the country until the military junta changed their tune. Ultimately I decided to go. But it was very important to me to feel that my visit was justified; that my presence in the country had a positive net effect.
During that visit, I met a 17 year old girl named Hay Mar Soe. She was living illegally on the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy River in an improvised shelter with her mother. Her mother was doing back breaking work to survive and was ill. Hay Mar Soe had been forced to drop out of school. Despite all this, Hay Mar Soe was one of the most positive, personable, engaging people I've ever met.
We spent just a day and a half together but I left determined to stay engaged in her life. After all, one night's worth of beer money for me could make all the difference for her.
Easier said than done; over the next several months, the only way I could find to get money to her was when I knew someone going to Mandalay who was willing to go ask around for her by the river. (To my pleasant surprise, this actually happened — not once, but twice.)
Further, communication was tough. I wasn't comfortable just throwing money at the problem — I needed to be more engaged than that. So I decided to go back.
I wasn't sure what I would find. Word had reached me that Hay Mar Soe had been obliged to take a job in a restaurant — a place where men get drunk and sing karaoke; the kind of job that can be the first step towards prostitution. (I found out later the job paid her 3000 kyat — just over US$3 — per month!)
Upon arrival in Mandalay, Michael and I asked for her at the river bank and the first guy we asked knew her. He led us across the road and down a side street. Suddenly I heard my name called and turned to see Hay Mar Soe running towards us sporting a wide grin.
The reunion was sweet and the news generally good — the best I could have hoped for. She and her mom have stable, if somewhat inadequate, shelter underneath a house. Not quite a basement even, but much better than squatting on the riverbank where police would come occasionally in the middle of the night and anyone caught "living" there would "disappear".
The folks who own the house have become like family and, in the rainy season, when the space underneath floods, Hay Mar Soe and her mom can sleep upstairs. In return they pay a small amount each month and Hay Mar Soe helps out with the family's small shop.
More importantly, I learned that Hay Mar Soe had quit the job at the restaurant. She had recognized herself that this was not a good situation — not a place she wanted to be — and was able to get out of it.
The third significant thing for me that first day was to hear how much Hay Mar Soe's English had improved. Without classes and with few books, she had nonetheless made incredible progress.
* * * * *
It may come as a surprise that in Burma you rarely see soldiers or police on the streets of the cities. This doesn't mean people don't live in fear. Under brutal military rule the regimentation of society becomes self-fulfilling. Hay Mar Soe is afraid to go around town with me because here I'm seen as a tourist and seen with me she'd be taken for a guide. Or so she thinks. In this view of things she says guides would be angry and give her trouble because she doesn't have a guide's license. "Dangerous for me", she says. "I go to prison." And then she laughs — for that is what people do in Burma when discussing the restrictions and dangers in their lives. The absurdities and injustices of the government are often described as "funny" (with tongue presumably well lodged in cheek).
So I spent a lot of time in Hay Mar Soe's neighborhood — amongst friends. Hay Mar Soe is well loved by all and because she has spoken of me, everyone wants to meet me. Occasionally we do go elsewhere in the city but it must be in a group. We must tell people you're my foster father, she says. Then adds, and Kate Winslet is my mother!
And with the telling, that's what I became — her foster father.
I was able to accomplish a lot during that week in Mandalay. We got Hay Mar Soe enrolled in an English class and made arrangements for computer classes after that. I bought her a bicycle so she could get to the classes. Most importantly though I met some folks who were in a position to help me get money to Hay Mar Soe on a regular basis — American missionaries living there who can get cash advances on their credit card via their hotel (they had to bring cash dollars for all expenses other than their room for their entire 23 month stay).
Other highlights for me that week included introducing Hay Mar Soe and her friends to the web (it's fairly accessible in Burma now, but heavily restricted), teaching a couple classes at the English language school, and spending time with the students.
* * * * *
A couple weeks after leaving Burma I received my first email message from Hay Mar Soe — the first email message she'd ever sent. One of the American missionaries was letting Hay Mar Soe use her account. As a result of the subsequent exchange we expanded Hay Mar Soe's academic undertakings to include a second, intermediate, English class.
Even more significantly the details of sending money were worked out and I now have a reliable channel — at least for the next 16 months.
* * * * *
Why help Hay Mar Soe? Why her when so many are in need and surely many are equally deserving. That's the way things go I guess — when we're engaged in the world around us, we play favorites.
I'm fortunate enough to have the extra resources to help an individual. But there's a greater need. If I were to have an extra $1000 I would give it to the English language school that Hay Mar Soe attends for a scholarship fund. Despite the fact that classes cost just US$20 for 3 months, there are many who cannot afford this.
Life is difficult in Burma. Someday this will change but the ramifications of a populace being kept down for so long by their government will be long-lasting indeed. Young people who manage to eek out an education now will be much needed by their country once change comes.