Darkness

I grew up in New Jersey, a place where there isn’t much darkness. Growing up in an environment where it’s hard to escape the constant glow of street lights, car lights, and backlights, I’ve always tried to make it a point to get away to places where it actually gets dark when the sun sets.

The first and only time I’ve ever experienced real darkness though, was on a hiking trip in northern Myanmar. When I say real darkness, I mean the type of darkness that your eyes never adjust to, no matter how long you wait or how much you blink. The type of darkness that, I imagine, simulates blindness. The type of darkness that only lives in remote corners of the world.  This is the type of darkness you get in the monsoon season in Myanmar.

It’s astonishing how difficult simple tasks become when you can’t see a damn thing. Let me share an anecdote from the hiking trip I mentioned above:

After a long day of hiking, I settle myself into the cozy sleeping quarters my hosts graciously provided. Just as I blow out the candle so I can pass out till sunrise, I realize that I’ve got to relieve the symptoms of a few too many cups of tea. Unfortunately for me, the monsoon season is in full effect. Coupled with a new moon, not only is it pissing rain, but the intensity of the darkness keeps me from seeing even my hand inches in front of my face. Luckily, the matches aren’t too far away.

I’m able to get the candle lit again, but when I find my flashlight the only thing it’s good for is killing mosquitoes. It looks like the candle is coming with me to the outhouse. Armed with a shoddy umbrella, I navigate my way through the walkways of clay which have been turned into orange sludge by the torrential rain. With each  step the sludge seeps between my feet and the soles of my hard leather sandals upping the difficulty level in the game of Donkey Kong the candle is playing with the rain drops. Managing to sludge-skate my way up the clay ramp that used to be stairs and past the pig pen, I have finally reached my destination. The outhouse somehow smells worse than the pigs, but it is overshadowed by the thrill of my tiny victory.

A similar trip back to my sleeping quarters leaves me relatively unscathed. Back where I started, I feel like I’ve been through a war, but luckily my only scar is the mud covering my feet.

The point: Simple tasks become much more difficult in complete darkness.

You’ve heard my story, but now imagine there’s no hut. Your village has just been destroyed overnight, you may have lost a loved one, and it’s still monsoon season. You’ve got to some how pull yourself together and figure out how you are going to get yourself and your family some shelter before the sun sets, or else you’re sleeping in a pile of orange sludge.

This is exactly the situation many survivors of the Cyclone Nargis have been in. They’re left picking up the scraps of their former dwellings, somehow trying to feed themselves and their families.

Donate

As of today’s posting we’ve made it up to $1100 for Doctors Without Borders. If you haven’t had a chance to donate, please do. It’s now estimated that 84,500 people died in the cyclone with over 53,000 still missing. There is still a desperate need for funds. Even $20 will go a long way to providing medical care and food supplies for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Click here to donate.

UN Issues Urgent Plea

A short, but important post. The relief effort in Myanmar is in desperate need:

The United Nations warned Friday that it will be forced to ground helicopters that have been ferrying critical aid to Myanmar’s cyclone survivors unless the international community urgently provides more funding.

A Recent AP Article

Although, apparently this quote should cost me $12.50, I hope maybe the Associated Press gods will see this and donate. Seriously though, help is desperately needed. Please do your part.

Thanks

Not even one week into the fundraising effort and there’s already been a wonderful response. $975 has been donated so far, and I’d like to thank everyone who took a moment to help. A special thanks goes out to Rohun Gholkar for writing up a great post and making a generous donation.

Even though Myanmar has dropped out of the news lately, there’s still an urgent need for help:

When you approach a community you can see the level of loss mirrored in people’s faces and responses

Myanmar: Critical Needs Remain for a Traumatized People

For those who haven’t gotten a chance to donate yet, it only takes a minute. Please donate whatever you can to Doctors Without Borders. Even $10 will make a difference.

Relief Effort Drastically Short of Aid

The following is a quote from a Bloomberg article that came out yesterday:

An international appeal to aid 2.4 million survivors of last month’s cyclone disaster in Myanmar is only 40 percent funded, the United Nations said

The tsunami in South Asia four years ago managed to raise $7 billion from around the world. Obviously, there some debate about how a number like this is calculated, but that is 83x more than the figured quoted in the above article.

“Funding is urgently needed to sustain the pipeline for food assistance,” Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in Bangkok yesterday. “The overall concern is to continue to try to get systematic assistance to those most in need.”

To date Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has distributed 1,250 tons of rice, 410 tons of beans, 190,000 liters of cooking oil in Myanmar. Please help them do more by donating anything you can. Even the smallest donation will help.

Blogging for Burma

Since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar last month, I am reminded daily of the country that left an indelible impression on a twenty-two year old me. Today I’m rechristening my personal blog with the first post of a series I’m calling “Blogging for Burma”. My purpose is threefold:

  1. Context – I spent most of the month of August 2005 in Myanmar. While this in no way qualifies me as an expert on this country, I feel that my experiences can help add some context to the discussion on Myanmar in the wake of the disaster.
  2. Catharsis – It’s been three years and I think it’s long overdue that I solidify an experience that has undeniably shaped the way I perceive the world today.
  3. Charity – To balance the selfishness of #2, I’ve decided that I am going take this opportunity to help raise money for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post anecdotes about my travels in Burma and relate those back to lessons I’ve learned. I’m not sure exactly how many there will be, but right now I’ve got five or so cooking.

You may be thinking I’m a little late, right? I can’t deny that this post was supposed to go out weeks ago, but I think this is still a good time. Just as the tragedy is slipping off the front page, I hope I can do my part to reinvigorate the conversation.

A disclaimer: Most of the time I spent in Myanmar was not in the region affected by cyclone Nargis. Travel in Myanmar is highly restricted. I did spend some time in Yangon, but the Irrawady Delta, the area hardest hit by the cyclone, was completely off limits, so I can merely speak from the few parts I was able to visit.

Without further ado, the first lesson…

Orange Sludge

I was lucky enough to go on a three day hike through the foothills near Kalaw in northern Myanmar. Guided by Mr. Kaye (pronounced “key”), I hiked through a jungle densley interwoven with sunflowers, rice paddies, mango fields, and small villages, all connected by the worst roads I’ve ever seen.

Mr. Kaye lead the way on a road near Kalaw

The most vivid image burnt into the back of my brain is that of orange tinted clay that covers most of the ground in Myanmar and a large part of Southeast Asia. It’s pictureque against the backdrop of lush jungle and neatly laid rows of rice paddies, but in monsoon season (May to October) this stuff turns into orange sludge, simultaneously combining the two worst characteristics in a surface that is meant to be traveled on — sticky like tar and slippery like ice. Walking is battle, not to mention walking with a pot of water or bucket full of rice.

To the left is a picture of a pretty typical back country road that I saw on my travels. You can see why the situation is so desperate in the Irrawaddy Delta. When you combine one of the worst infrastructures in the world with a natural disaster like Cyclcone Nargis, you end up with a logistical nightmare.

Here are a few more roads I came across:


Road near Kalaw#2

Road near Kalaw #3

Nicer Road near Inle Lake

Road Near Yangon

The point: Infrastructure is tremendously important.

I took that for granted for a long time, spoiled by Route 80. Now I stop and marvel that I can take that one highway clear across the country from my new home in San Francisco to Exit 37 in New Jersey.

Donate

I know it’s difficult to relate to a far off tragedy, but I believe that a little bit of money can literally save hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Please donate to the relief effort and help me reach my goal of $5000. I’ve kicked it off with a personal donation of $500.

To donate just click “donate” on the sidebar or click here. All donations go to Doctors Without Borders, a fantastic non-profit. You can read about their effort in Myanmar here.

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