Mawlamyine, Myanmar/Sandusky, OH: Leaving Myanmar
18 March, 2020 – Mawlamyine, Myanmar — I look at the monk and say, quietly so that others in the room don’t hear, “do you actually believe that?” The teachers in the room talking again – prayers being said by monks across Myanmar, Buddha words. The monks are circling cities, regions, the country saying Buddha words to keep covid-19 out. It is working. It is working, say the lovely people I spend my days with, because we can see there are no cases in Myanmar. And it is hot in Myanmar. The disease cannot survive hot. This conversation has happened many times in the past weeks. I nod, say ahh, hmm… I don’t say “but it is ravaging other countries that are equally hot” or “religious leaders in other countries are no doubt praying just as hard as our monks but people are getting sick regardless.”
The monk is, I think, taken aback at best; I may have offended him. He thinks I haven’t understood. It is the Buddha words. They are being chanted, dispersed, dropped like a huge safety net over the country by its most important and revered pongyi. Of course this is “working.”
21 March, 2020 – Yangon, Bangkok, Tokyo – About half the airport staff and travelers wear facemasks. I am haphazard in my own use of the one I grabbed from the hotel as I was leaving. One of the other Peace Corps volunteers says she’s not wearing one, “they look stupid”. Only once is a fever gun pointed at my forehead – I think it was in Bangkok. Another time – Tokyo maybe – people leaving planes were funneled through what appeared to be a fever gauntlet – some kind of mass reader that would show, I suppose, abnormally high temps in the bodies moving through.
25 March, 2020, Sandusky Bay, Ohio – 3nd day of quarantine. Sound of the bay waters in rough weather sloshing against the rocks 50 feet from where I sit in a friend’s cottage. Every morning Kyi Hla Myat calls – we video chat for 10 minutes or so. It is amazing to see her, hear her. She tells me that teachers now go to school “half by half”. Each teacher every other day. I remind her, like an annoying parent, that food and utensil sharing – the core of Myanmar food culture, the site from which so much good feeling emanates – has to stop. She says “yes yes”.
26 March, 2020, Sandusky Bay, Ohio – I am home where I should be and will be with my family soon. Yet I am bereft at having had to leave Myanmar. Heartbroken that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to students, and that goodbyes with teachers and neighbors were so rushed, so inadequate.
20 March, 2020 – Mawlamyine, Myanmar – Kyi Hla comes by at 5:30am – it’s best to start early, so we are done before the traffic and the day’s heat start up. We know this is our last walk, the evacuation orders from Peace Corps arrived 3 days ago. We walk up past the flickering lights of the fancy pagodas on the hill, and I take a picture of her in front of the old Mon monastery. It was her parent’s monastery; they came every week for their whole lives. There are 1200 small buddha statues behind glass. On our way back down the hill Kyi Hla insists we stop at the Bamboo Thread pagoda, as she knows I haven’t been to this one. In the main hall there is a monk on a scaffold refreshing the paint on the open grillwork. The bamboo buddha looks to be made of the same material as wicker furniture at Lowes. It is shiny and has darkened with age, an interesting effect I think. Kyi Hla asks the painting monk if there are English materials I can be given that explain the teachings of this monastery’s Seyadaw. He disappears and returns 20 minutes later with the head monk, who then disappears into an adjacent building. Kyi Hla follows a few minutes later, and finally I go over as well. There are 3 monks, and Kyi Hla, scouring a wall of bookshelves, looking for English. None can be found.
28 March, 2020 – Sandusky Bay, Ohio – News reports that covid is now in Myanmar, several confirmed cases and many suspected. The medical infrastructure is nowhere near able to cope with a serious outbreak. On our video call this morning Kyi Hla is smiling, all teachers “remember J—” – this is a way of expressing missing someone. I say I remember them too. And remember her. And we’ll talk again tomorrow.
J. Grim was a Peace Corps volunteer in Myanmar until 3 weeks ago when she was evacuated. She lives in Ohio.
Images are by the author.