A Trip Down the Western Delta

January 4, 2015

This time last year I was spending my first full day in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), at the start of a six month humanitarian operation in the western part of the country. Recently, I’ve been spending my online time on Instagram posting pictures mostly from the past two years. Over the past couple of months I posted some pictures from Myanmar and received moderate praise.  The one year anniversary of my arrival in Myanmar got me thinking and reminiscing. So I thought I’d compile those pictures here, plus a few more I didn’t post on Instagram.

Upon reviewing the pictures I noticed they were thematic. It wasn’t intentional when I originally posted them. Most of these pictures were taken from the speed boat that ferried me down the western delta from Sittwe to Myebon, where my organization was responsible for managing two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps of Buddhists and Muslims who had been displaced from their homes due to ethnic fighting in 2012. I always looked forward to the two hour early morning boat ride. I’d plug in my iPod and listen to Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young while the boat sped along muddy, narrow channels and past life as it existed, still does and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Change doesn’t happen very quickly in the rural backwaters of places like Rakhine State. I find it ironic how I often want the pace of change to slow where I live in the United States. And yet when I think of places wrought with so much conflict like Rakhine I want the pace of change to quicken – quicken towards reconciliation, education for all children, accessible primary and maternal healthcare for children and women, and robust livelihoods for those for those who eek out a meager existence and struggle to feed their families.

The western delta is a maze of rivulets that intersect and eventually pour out into the Bay of Bengal between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Along these waterways thousands of people make their homes, subsisting primarily on rice and fish, and trading or selling those products for other staples and merchandise. The waters are milky brown and ebb and flow with the tides in these flat, wet lands. Life is not easy here for all the fertility of this land. The cause is both natural and man-made. Cyclones have swept across these lands, decimated crops, wiped out livestock and taken thousands of lives over the decades. Over-fishing, the destruction of mangrove forests where much of the aquatic life reproduces, and the use of pesticides has contributed to fewer and smaller fish. Government regulation is practically non-existent. Where it does exist, the government bureaucrat will quickly turn his eye when the unspoken bribe (‘tax’, as I’ve heard it referred to) is provided.

I’m displaying these pictures chronologically as if I’m taking that same boat trip nine months later – from the broken harbor in Sittwe, through open seas, into the winding waterways, to the docks of Myebon and into the camps themselves. I’m plugging into Jimmy Hendrix. I’m feeling fortunate for my life after my petty cursing of this winter weather earlier today. I’m well-fed, well-clothed; I sit by a cozy fire in a warm house; my refrigerator is full; my daughter is healthy and happy; I drive a nice car; I’m sipping wine.

A journey through the western delta…

Two Children

Sittwe lies at the mouth of one of the rivulets of the western delta. It’s the capitol of Rakhine State. Here, two children look for crabs on a quiet morning beach.

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Villages along the way

This is one of the first villages where our speed boat navigates closely to the shoreline. It is reached after first crossing a large stretch of the Bay of Bengal just after leaving the port in Sittwe.

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Moving wares

Here, a pair of men and possibly a son to one of them are likely moving firewood up the delta for sale in Sittwe or some other village where firewood is scarce.

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Thatched Hut

A thatched hut along a muddy river embankment.

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Awaiting Transportation

A group of women appear to be waiting for a boat – likely a dilapidated wooden one – to pick them up. They undoubtedly will be dropped somewhere to engage in a long, hot, hard day of labor.

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Distant

At a couple places along the journey the rivulet will open into a broader expanse, displaying an exotic landscape of silhouetted huts and Buddhist stupas.

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Moving Bamboo

Taking a “shortcut” into Myebon one day, we slugged through a narrow passage and squeezed by a man moving a load of bamboo upriver – by himself and only by his own manpower.

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Mybon Port

These next few pictures show the rugged, backwater port of Myebon where we provided water, sanitation and child protection services to over 3,000 internally displaced persons.

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Backwater

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Speed boat

Our speed boat being tended by a young boy and girl.

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To the camp

Once we landed in Myebon we were most often driven through town escorted by the local police on a three-wheeled vehicle called a tuk-tuk, or in the back of a pickup truck. Once we were forced to walk through a town that’s been hostile to the IDP population since ethnic tensions broke out in 2012, and of course hostile toward us because of the very limited assistance we provide them.

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IDP Children

On this particular day we were visiting the camps to inspect the latrines we had built. Children gathered for a photo.

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Water reserve?

A man dips water from a diminishing water pond during the dry season. Drink, anyone?

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WFP

The IDPs are completely dependent on food deliveries from the United Nations World Food Program.

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Coming Soon:  Winter’s Thaw and Freeze in Vermont

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All content Copyrighted © Stephen Tavella

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