Don't spend (just) one night in Thabarwa Center
Thabarwa Center is known as a meditation center, in the outskirts of Yangon. But if you take the time to dig a little bit, you understand that it is also a care center with several hospitals, filled with patients suffering from dementia to old age, with a few missing limbs or backache here and there. And it is open to volunteers from all over the world, with or without medical training, to help in the hospitals' daily tasks.
I decided to take the 2-hours bus ride and 10 minutes walk to spend a night in the Center, to understand how it works, and to check if the stories I heard are true. Is it really dirty and poor? Is it really filled with dying people no-one else takes care of? Is it really welcoming foreigners with no clue about what to do to help sick and elderly people?
After one evening and one day there, the answer to these three questions is yes. But in a good way.
Thabarwa Center works with donations only. They don't communicate much, so they mostly rely on daily alms and on generous donations from foreign visitors or devoted Buddhists. With that, they manage to organize themselves into a dedicated task force who comes every day to assists the regular doctors, the best they can.
Each evening, the volunteers gather in their own meeting room to decide who wants to do what the next day. Patient washing, clinic taxi (you get to carry people around in wheelchairs to bring them to the physiotherapy workshop, to the pagoda, or wherever they want to go), basic care (you help people more suited than you change bandages and stuff), or even language classes - every activity suggested comes as a bonus activity they get to offer to the patients. If one day, all the volunteers disappear, the hospitals will go on.
Of course, you can meditate all you want. Guided with a volunteer or on your own - after all, that's what your visa says you're here for. Meditation visas go for as long as 3 months, but most volunteers stay for a week.
Some volunteers have been here longer - up to more than a year. Like Michelle, with a bold head and a longgyi, who speaks Myanmar language and knows every patient in the hospitals. "We can manage. But these people need medical supplies, and fruits - it's hard to feed them a proper diet", she says.
The volunteers buy and cook their own food, except in the mornings, when they get the same breakfast as the inhabitants after the alms - donated food mostly consists in rice cooked in oil, and a few vegetables when you're lucky. The appearance of not-so-fresh fruits on the table when I was there made all of my housemates happy.
And of course, it is dirty. When I met Marion, a french volunteer, in downtown Yangon to go soap-shopping together, she said it has been a long time since she found herself in such a clean place. You won't find the same hygiene standards in Thabarwa than in France or America - but that's true of all of Myanmar.
After a night there, I finally understood all the testimonies I have been hearing from disappointed tourists after their experience in the Center. Yes, it is dirty. Yes, it is poor. No, the patients don't have great living conditions. For some of them, it's even hard to look at - I will always remember this old man, wearing a dirty t-shirt and a longgyi with nothing underneath, frantically banging his head on his metal bed frame, repeating the same sentence over and over again. No doctors were on sight, his water bottle was empty, his bed had no mattress, he didn't even have a mosquito net. While we were doing physio exercises with his neighbor, he left his bed and peed on the floor. Nobody reacted, and nobody came. It is a very disturbing feeling which can leave bad memories in someone who has never been this close to misery.
But the feeling I got after 24 hours there is that Thabarwa volunteers bring joy and a delighting change of pace in the routine of these patients. Some of these patients are abandoned by their families, because it is too expensive to take care of them, or they simply don't have the time. Their only distractions are their bed neighbors - if their health allows them to talk -, the doctor's visits, and the newspapers - if they feel good enough to read.
One of the proposed activities was "Physio with Tito". Tito is a young boy physically handicapped, and he relies on people pushing his wheelchair to move around. For one hour every day - or more if both Tito and the volunteer are up for it -, the boy is taken to the physiotherapy workshop to strengthen his muscles. Some volunteers tied deep bonds with him. Without them, he might not be able to do that everyday.
What worries me today is the coming hot season, during which tourists - and I guess volunteers - are scarce. Will there be enough volunteers to tirelessly take empty water bottles and fill them for the patients? Will doctors do it more regularly?
Not to mention the impact of coronavirus on this community. I'm working to make masks in Yangon and to deliver some to the Center, but it will never be enough anyway. More pictures after my next visit.