Travel Journal: Burma – May 2013


May 5th, 2013 Burma

Assignment:  To document successful Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria projects.

Last night I landed in Rangoon, Burma after 37 hours of travel. Walking out of the climate controlled airport I was enveloped by the hot, humid, incensed air.  Twenty-nine years ago on my honeymoon (was married at 14) I walked into the same space with my wife Leigh and was never the same. I was anxious to see how Burma had changed.  First off I was in Yangon, Myanmar not Rangoon, Burma.

May 5th  Evening Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill in the middle of Yangon and has been there for 2600 years making it the oldest pagoda in the world. It is stunning. Yangon has grown up but the Great Dragon Pagoda has remained the same since the Lord of the White Elephant fixed it up in 1788.

May 6th – 8th Off to Heho

Yup- everyone likes to torture the photographer- 4am back to the airport to fly to Heho.  I am traveling with Rosie Vanek and Nancy Chin of the GF and Dr Aung from the Ministry of Health who will make sure we (mostly I) behave ourselves. The first section of the mission will concentrate on HIV.  We are to visit a rural health center where free HIV services are provided then off to two households of beneficiaries of the projects live.

Aside: Driving out of the airport Dr Aung pointed out the plane that crashed short of the runway last month- an inspiring vision and reminder to carpe diem.

Prostitutes in GF sponsored seminar learn how to protect themselves from HIV.

Home visit to a house of child whose family is HIV positive.

We arrive at the local hospital and are greeted by the entire staff.  I am always worried about the patients when everyone working at the hospital including the janitors is waiting for us to pull up but these meet and greets usually only last a few minutes.  This time, however, we are met by the local drum and dance squad and it takes a bit longer.

Here we meet Ma Khin Htwe who is the midwife for the area.  She is wonderful and has an easy manner with the patients.  The clinic is supporting the involvement of the fathers in maternity care and Ma Khin is good with the dad.

We go with Ma Khin to visit another new born at home.

May 9th-11th


Burma is stupid with Stupas and Pagodas.  Every time you turn around there is another wonderful, beautiful, vision of the Burmese commitment to their religion.  This complex named Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda was on our way to Pyin Oo Lwin. In 10 miles to the next town I count at least 18 Temples.  Top speed- 12mph.

Next we are to visit an outdoor shooting gallery for heroin. Aung Ko Soe is the outreach worker and our guide. He told us that his father was a drug user.  His Dad brought the virus back to the family and infected his mother.  When his mother became pregnant she passed the virus onto his younger brother.  Aung had a decent job in the local government ministry but as his brother got sicker and his father passed away he decided that he needed to do something.  Aung quit his job and began working on the front lines of the HIV epidemic so that fewer families would be devastated by the virus.

Aung’s story is not atypical of outreach workers and the truly inspiring people I meet during these assignments who work with very limited resources on the front lines of health care all over the world.

Then, just when you are ready to become overwhelmed, humanity overwhelms you again.  Behold the Dragon Lady.

The next day we had traveled to Maw Aut, a small village outside of Kutkai to visit a malaria project and the Dragon Lady appeared.  She was coming to visit a sick baby water buffalo next door.  The Dragon Lady became a dragon lady about 3 years ago when she had a dream that she had been chosen to be a dragon lady by the Dragon Spirit.  When she awoke from the dream she found the crystal she is holding on her bedside table.  The rest is history.  The baby water buffalo is doing fine.  And so are the villagers who have seen the rate of malaria infection drop significantly since the introduction of the program in the village.  Bed nets have been distributed, and a community outreach worker has been trained to detect malaria and dispense medicine.  She even saved the life of her mother who came down with malaria last year.

May 12th

Lashio- Yangon by air.

Back past the crashed plane for the quick hop back to Yangon.  On the last day and a half we are back to work with 2 HIV programs.  The first works with Commercial Sex Workers to educate them on the transmission of HIV, distribute harm reduction materials, and provide avenues out of prostitution via income generating activities.  Often the outreach workers for these programs are ex-prostitutes. Hnin Hnin Yu meets us at her house and we follow her on her rounds.

The next morning we are off to the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) HIV clinic in Yangon. Nancy, being the GF rep for Myanmar, is greeted at the door with an appropriately aggressive MSF doctor who immediately begins grilling her about a hiccup in the supply chain for ARV (Antiretroviral) drugs.  Turns out that the shortage is complicated and should be rectified soon.  The Doctor reminds Nancy that in the greater picture the need for the drugs far outpaces the supply.  Nancy knows and is working on it.  Myanmar is a difficult country to work in though the political situation seems to be turning a corner.

This young girl has lost both parents to HIV and is in the care of her Grandmother.

We wrap up at the clinic and after working for 7 hours in a sauna it’s straight to the plane for 37 hours.  I pity the fool who has to sit next to me.