“On The Roads of Mandalay”


I have visited orphanages around the world—they always drive my emotion to an unattainable wish to adopt the whole lot of smiling, begging faces.  These love-starved children usually try to make eye contact while silently crying, “Please pick me.”  And, I always leave wondering why the world can’t do a better job of matching lonely homeless children with desiring adults.

God has always urged us to be compassionate with widows and orphans. “The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” — Matthew 25:40, NIV


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We touch down in Yangon, Myanmar in early 2004 with representatives from World Vision International.  Our goal is to visit some of the sites where Cumberland Presbyterian monetary gifts collected through the Love Loaf Program had been distributed.  These ministries included an AIDS support group, a grade school administered by Buddhist monks, a community directed small business loan cooperative, and an orphanage.  Each visit introduces us to unimagined needs.

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As we walk the dusty dirt streets of Yangon, we pass small, unpainted wooden homes on stilts backing up to the black waters carrying sewage to small canals running throughout the slums. This is the only option for the removal of sewage when people move onto undeveloped land and the government is unwilling to install proper public services.  Unfortunately, these moves are always the result of choosing between two miserable options. People leave a meager farm life to wiggle through the hellish tunnel of poverty while trying to find a job and some kind of makeshift lodging.  The transition is never easy and for many it means sleeping on the street under a cardboard box and pilfering through the stinking garbage dumps for something to eat.  We walk by a lot of people carrying very heavy loads balanced on their heads.  I wonder how they bear the burden, but they smile and move along chatting with other Burmese they meet.

Burma is often called the “Land of the Pagodas,” but the graceful white or gilded golden structures are absent in the poor communities.

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Our guides ushers us through the large swinging metal doors of a building resembling a small abandoned warehouse.  The outside of the building has obviously been white washed years ago and now carries what I assume is the graffiti of area gangs. Inside, thirty 8-12 year old orphan boys and one smiling girl converge upon us with few inhibitions.  The orphanage director tries to restrain the children, but within a few minutes they are hanging on our legs and trying to converse with us in their limited English.  I am ashamed that I have not bothered to even learn the simplest greeting in Burmese.

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We receive a brief orientation and are then privileged to take a seat on little wooden chairs from the mess hall so we can divvy out the stuffed animals, key chains, baseball caps, pens, notebooks and a host of other things that we have brought as gifts.  None of the kids are disappointed by their presents, but it is obvious that they are constantly glancing to see what their friends are receiving at the other gift stations around the patio.  The director then asked three of the little boys to show us their sleeping quarters.

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The 40 x 20 feet sleeping area is crowded but neatly kept.  The walls are painted light aqua, stained from years of heavy use, giving me the opinion that the caregivers operate on a very limited budget.  Portions of the plaster have fallen revealing fragile adobe and lathe.  The dampness makes the room feel much cooler than the outside temperature.  The concrete floor has a few rugs spread here and there, but the nap has long since been worn down, leaving only the burlap weave.  The forty wrought iron beds are crowded into two rows that run the length of the room with no space to walk between the beds.  The kids must climb in from the foot of the bed.  Despite this simplicity, my mind drifts to an orphanage in Liberia where four kids often share a double bed.  At least each child has a bed to himself.  I see no sheets or blankets, and only two pillows in the whole dorm.  Each bed has a burlap mattress that isn’t over a quarter inch thick.  It is obviously an effort to keep the children from sleeping directly on the supportive wire mesh.  Each bed has one wooden box approximately 2 X 3 X 2 ft. on it.  And, each box is closed and padlocked.  The boys explain that their box contained all of their earthly possessions—clothes, toys, pictures, and books.  I ask one boy, “Out of everything in your chest, what is most important to you?”

He replies, “My books, I love my books.”  And, he runs to open his chest to show his limited treasures.  In his case, his box is nearly full of books.  I nearly cry when I see another little guy showing his favorite toys; two axles and their remaining rubber wheels.  The body of car or truck has long since disappeared.

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None of the children have shoes.  Most of them have never owned a pair of shoes in their life—their feet heavily calloused.  Given the glass and nails so prevalent on all the community streets, the bottoms of their feet must resemble thick leather.  They allow us a peek into the kitchen but the darkness is as empty as the shelves.  Everything is prepared over gas heating elements.  I can only assume that the groceries are brought in on a daily basis or the children will be hungry for the day.  I am so overwhelmed by the experience that I move to the less depressing patio to try to find a few moments alone.  Our guides indicate it is time to go, so we wave goodbye to the kids and return to the quite streets.  My mind drifts to Kipling and his poem “On the Road to Mandalay.”

On the Road to Mandalay

by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,

An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,

An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —

Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,

She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”

With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephints a-pilin’ teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,

An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;

An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,

An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —

Law! wot do they understand?

I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Note: You might be interested in going back to the English period of Burma with the help of a song by Peter Lawson that evolved from Kipling’s poem.  It is interesting to me that my mom introduced me to this poem more than thirty years before I dreamed of going there.  My mother was such an incredible farmer’s wife—a Renaissance woman.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5_M9kTBmug

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