Two years ago, Americans could not visit Myanmar, the beautiful Southeast Asian country that is transitioning—with occasional setbacks and bouts of violence—from a military-ruled country to a democracy.
But in early September, a group of 11 Santa Clara University students responded to an invitation from the business school’s Food and Agribusiness Institute (FAI), and joined a trip to Myanmar as a way of learning up close about that country’s traditional and varied farming methods for everything from tea, rice, sugar, peanuts to grapes; its challenges to develop its agricultural industry without damaging the environment; and the threats of global warming to the country’s industrious inhabitants.
“We had hoped the students would be pushed out of their comfort zone to experience both the challenges and richness of life in a developing country,” said Naumes Family Professor Greg Baker, the director of FAI who also accompanied the students on the two-week trip. “When I hear students describe their experiences as transformative or life-changing, I know that we’ve been successful.”
FAI Assistant Director Erika French-Arnold, who planned and co-chaperoned the trip, believes SCU may be the first university to take students on an immersion trip to Myanmar.
Several students recently shared their experience with fyi: Garrett Jensen, a senior accounting major; Lisa McMonagle, a junior majoring in political science and environmental studies; and Nicole Orban, a junior finance major. They each marveled at the country’s beauty and how vastly different it is from America—from its pagoda-dotted landscape to its extravagantly friendly residents (some of whom had never seen an outsider before).
“Myanmar has very little western influence,” said McMonagle. “If you visit in the future, it probably won’t be the same. We all felt we came at a very unique time.”
Among the highlights for students was a trip to a Yangong village, which required a four-hour bus ride and a two-hour boat ride on a branch of the Irrawaddy River. They were heading to a village that had never been visited by foreigners, so some of the children had never seen people with white faces. When the SCU students arrived, the entire village welcomed the group, escorting them to a monastery, feeding them nonstop, offering them extra bedding and setting up mosquito nets.
“We were really struck by their generosity, and we did not feel that we deserved that necessarily,” said McMonagle. “One of my friends said it made her really aware of how other people treat strangers in other parts of the world.”
The students also visited the city of Bagan, home to thousands of pagodas and temples, and villages along the Inle Lake region, where villagers farm on unique lake gardens, floating incubators for crops like tomatoes, supported with bamboo and beds of weeds.
The visit included many stays in monasteries; meditation with Buddhist monks; lessons in microfinance; an audience with a midwife who shared tales of NGO contraceptive workshops that didn’t quite take (think men taking birth control pills and putting condoms on fruit, as they had been shown in demonstrations); and an attempt at foot-steering a fishing boat that almost landed some students in the drink.
The level of poverty in the area was a shock to some students. “The poverty I experienced in Burma was unlike anything I was expecting to see,” said Orban. “Before the trip, I imagined that I would come into contact with begging, homelessness, and people suffering from a lack of the necessities of life. I found the most significant poverty was a poverty of options.”
Orban noted that many of the younger girls were excited to find husbands—and will never have the opportunity to travel or learn in a classroom. “They don't have the luxury of choosing a career path,” said Orban. “They will marry young, live life on a farm, and raise their daughters to do the same.”
Also during their stay, the students couldn’t avoid politics and the fact that the country (called Burma by countries like America that didn’t recognize the right of the military to change the name in 1989) is still heavily influenced by the military, which gave up power in 2011.
“All of the people we talked to were extremely honest,” said Jensen. “But they were hesitant to be honest if they were government employees.”
The students are now taking two classes to reflect on the experience, and have become Facebook friends with an author on Burmese culture and food whom they met during a class session before the trip.
“I think that our students gained an appreciation of how privileged they are,” said Baker. “They learned the importance of a functioning democracy, infrastructure, education, working markets, access to health care—all of the things that we take for granted.”
Both students recalled fondly using their free time to climb to the top of a pagoda in Bagan at sunrise and sunset, where they surveyed the landscape of the entire region, with its verdant waterways, crops, and temples and pagodas “popping out everywhere,” said McMonagle.
“We were seeing this ancient, ancient place,” she said. “It was just beautiful.”