Katie Hicks has been volunteering and traveling through Myanmar (Burma) with her husband since early June. Read about her trip, in her own words, below:
When my husband and I decided to travel halfway around the world to do a volunteer assignment with Winrock International in Myanmar, I truly didn’t know what to expect. I was excited about the opportunity, but nervous about living and working in a country that had only recently opened up to visitors from the United States. As my assignment nears its completion, I can honestly say that my time here has been better than I could have ever imagined, which is exactly why I’d strongly encourage anyone who has a few weeks of free time and a valuable set of skills to volunteer with Winrock International through the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program!
My assignment with Sai’s Tacos – a social enterprise and restaurant that is focused on providing economic opportunities to individuals from Myanmar’s Shan State – has been both challenging and rewarding. The truth is, though, I think that would have been the case no matter what organization served as my host because the people of this beautiful country are so amazing. Throughout my time here I have been amazed with the way in which they have wholeheartedly taken an interest in and responded to my assignment.
Perhaps the best example of this is from a man from Maing Thouk, a small village on the eastern shore of Inle Lake (one of Myanmar’s most visited places), named U Thein Linn. For the past ten years, U Thein has worked as a trekking guide, which has provided him an opportunity to learn some English and get acquainted with the needs and desires of Western tourists. Unfortunately, in the past year, U Thein has suffered from knee problems and, as a result, can no longer guide treks. He and his wife still runs a small tour operation in Nyaung Shwe, the major tourist hub for Inle Lake, but after spending a few minutes talking with him it is easy to tell that he misses his old job. In addition to his tour company, he is also helping his mother and six younger siblings expand their modest restaurant in Maing Thouk, which is where I first met U Thein.
After telling U Thein why I was at Inle Lake – to explore potential expansion opportunities for Sai’s Tacos and to locate local sources of produce (the region produces some of the country’s best eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, peas and beans) – he quickly took an interest and offered to help – without me even asking! I thought this would entail putting me in touch with a few people or making a few recommendations on what to do, but after meeting him the following morning as he requested, it became obvious that U Thein was genuinely interested in helping me in my assignment. We spent the next four hours biking around Nyaung Shwe, exploring property that he knew was for sale or rent. After lunch at his family’s restaurant – a lunch that he wouldn’t allow me to pay for – we spent another two hours talking about sourcing produce for the restaurant from the Inle Lake area. I would have never been able to get so much accomplished without U Thein, and he offered his services without even being asked. I will always remember U Thein’s generosity and kindness.
Hopefully, as a result of my assignment, Sai’s Tacos will be able to expand to Inle Lake in the near future. If it does, it would be my pleasure to return to Myanmar and treat U Thein to lunch. He deserves it.
As Katie explains, Sai’s Tacos is a for-profit social enterprise and Mexican restaurant established in 2008 with an aim of providing employment and income opportunities for people from Myanmar’s Shan State. In addition to hiring workers from Shan State, the restaurant also sources as many food products as possible from this region. The purpose of Katie’s assignment was to help Sai’s Tacos sustainably expand its operations, providing employment and income opportunities for additional beneficiaries.
The last photo (below) shows how Myanmar’s Intha people, who have have lived and worked on the waters of Inle Lake for generations, cultivate floating gardens, which they create by intertwining reeds that grow around the lake into long buoyant rows. Mud from the lake’s floor is then piled on top and mixed with the dense hyacinth weed from the lakebed for fertilization. How beautiful!
Thanks very much to Katie for a job well done!