The long road to Naypyitaw, literally and figuratively, just about sums up my trip to Myanmar last December. A myriad of things happened before it, which could have given me plenty of reasons to rethink my plans of going. But I am not one to back off from a challenge once I have set my mind on something.
All of my trips are memorable to me. Myanmar was no exception. It was where some of the craziest things occurred, enough to potentially ruin the entire trip for me. But if there was one thing I learned in the few days I was there, it would be the importance of choice in happiness. Dealing with the unexpected, annoying, or bad things is like traversing at the edge of a slippery slope. The best thing to do is to be mindful of your steps, keep yourself focused in that moment, and hope for the best. That way, you can either get past that particular path unscathed or have the wits to grab on to lifelines that can save you from making things worse.
So here are some of the things I love about the trip:
1. The Southeast Asian Games Volunteers
After over four decades, Myanmar once again opened its doors to its neighbors to host the 27th Southeast Asian Games. Hosting the biennial event is not an easy feat. Having been a part of a SEA Games organizing committee in the past taught me that it is a most challenging job. So I was not daunted by the initial hiccups, especially concerning communication. Emails do tend to get buried by the amount of correspondence organizing committees have to deal with.
My itinerary was a bit tricky because I opted to take the shuttle from Yangon to the new capital city instead of taking the 50-minute flight. This previously caused a lot of concern to my contacts at the rowing organizing committee who pointed out that it is a 6-hour trip. But the prospect of traveling for that long was a non-issue for a nervous flyer like me. I think the hometown-Manila-Kuala Lumpur-Yangon flights were already enough flying time for me. Besides, I enjoy traveling by bus so I quickly assured my hosts that I would be fine on my own.
When I landed in Yangon, I was prepared for anything. I trusted the people I was communicating with have done whatever they could to ensure that I reach Naypyitaw on schedule. I was also on no-expectations mode. Given past experiences in event airport reception, I thought it best not to expect anything.
As I walk to the airport arrival hall, I saw a volunteer wearing a uniform standing at the side near the Visa on Arrival booth. I approached to confirm if I do not need the said visa and showed him my SEAG accreditation card. He welcomed me warmly then led me to the airport reception area where a group of volunteers were manning a long table with computers and all the equipment they need to activate the AD cards. They quickly checked mine, validated it, and put the sticker that now made it an official ID for my entire stay in Myanmar.
Everything was so efficient. I was happy with the thought that I now can proceed to immigration and leave the airport early for my long road trip to Naypyitaw. To my surprise, the lead person from the airport reception walked with me to a special lane in the immigration counters. He waited with me then accompanied me to the baggage carousel. He then grabbed my luggage and walked me out of the airport arrival hall to another building which serves as the SEAG arrival/departure lounge. There he introduced me to the transportation committee and made sure I was taken cared of before going back inside the arrival terminal.
The transportation volunteers were equally welcoming and nice. They settled me in a seat informing me that the bus to Naypyitaw leaves at 6PM. Less than 30 minutes after, a group of them escorted me to a car that would bring me to the bus station. Another volunteer, this time a liaison officer, introduced himself and hopped in the car next to the driver. A group of transportation committee volunteers then waved us goodbye.
As we reached the bus terminal, the liaison officer asked me to sit at the waiting area while he purchase the ticket. He waived off my money saying that the organizing committee will take care of it. We waited a few minutes before we were told to get on the bus.
I was happy to find out that I am on the window seat at the first row. There was a lot of leg room, the bus was huge, and there was no overpowering smell of freshener that usually makes me throw up. The volunteer then sat beside me. By this time I was wondering when he will get off since the bus is about to leave. When I asked, he told me that he would be traveling with me to Naypyitaw. Now THAT was totally unexpected.
I found these first encounters with the volunteers heartwarming and impressive. Being a volunteer at the games is hard. And they have been at it for several days. The mix of efficiency, warmth, and sincerity was one of the best welcomes I have experienced on these trips.
The trip only took less than five hours. Another set of volunteers picked us up at the bus station. As I settled in for the night in my room, I marveled at how there were so many I could be grateful about since I arrived.
2. Rowing at Nga Laik Dam
The host country poured a lot of resources in preparing the venue for the canoe-kayak, rowing, and traditional boat race events. New structures were erected to meet the requirements of the three water sports.
The resort sits next to the dam. This was the first time that us umpires stayed that close to the venue. This meant a later start for us in the mornings since we did not have to leave early to get to the site.
Getting around Naypyitaw is not easy if you do not have a car. There are no buses or subways that tourists can use to navigate the city. I heard that there are motorbikes for hire but I have not ventured far enough on foot from the resort to find any. Thankfully, our hosts arranged a sightseeing trip one afternoon after we were done with our umpiring duties.
5. The unexpected challenges
This was one trip where I had the most health-related issues:
Eye infection. My left eye got infected because of my contact lens. It was a stupid mistake on my part. I usually do not wear my contacts when I travel. But I wore it just before I left for the airport at 3AM and was only able to remove it when I got in my room at Nga Laik Kan Tha at past 11PM. I woke up around 2AM and got scared out of my wits because I could hardly open my left eye. I was alone in my room and in so much pain that I really thought my left eye’s going blind. Since I could no longer sleep, I spent the next few hours crying hoping that the tears would help clean the affected eye. I immediately left my room at 6AM to look for the medical team that I knew would be in the area. The reception staff told me that the doctors were not there yet and promised to call me in my room as soon as they arrive. Someone personally picked me up mid-morning and brought me to the medical area. I was given antibiotics and pain relievers. Despite the pain, I couldn’t help but notice that once again, I was in the hands of able and kind volunteers. My eye got better the next day.
Stomach problem. Just when my left eye was healing, I suddenly had diarrhea. This was not entirely surprising since I have always had a weak stomach. But I could not figure out how I got it since I did not eat much given the previous day’s painful episode with the infected eye. It was probably because I was stressing out on how I could possibly perform my umpiring duties half-blind. Good thing I brought medicines so I only had to endure it for a day.
Throwing up like there was no tomorrow. On the third day, I threw up until there was nothing left to lose in my stomach. This happened soon after I came back to my room after a late dinner. But I saw this one coming since I was inside a hot van with a funny smell the entire afternoon going from one place to another on our sightseeing tour.
These unfortunate episodes were the worst I have had in my travels. It was crazy because accomplishing my duties as umpire hinged on me being in good health. I was grateful that I was able to get through each experience with my optimism intact. And for some reason, each problem lasted only a day. By the time we started doing our work, I was back to my normal self. Once again I get reminded that no matter how bad things seem to be, everything gets better if I just ride the wave without losing enthusiasm and hope.