Come & See

Myanmar Reflections

Written by St Andrew on . Updated

Hakha, Chin State, Myanmar - a people shaped by geography

This is the first of my reflections on the trip Mark Ritchie and I took to Myanmar. As time passes the play-by-play of what we did seems less vital than overall impressions. So I am beginning with those.

The character of the Chin people is inseparable from the geography of the mountainous Chin State. I commented to one owner of a modest home on the spectacular view from his living area, "In the US, this is what we would call a million dollar view." He responded that it would hardly be worth that much in the Chin State since everyone has a mountain view. Lol

The mountains are everywhere. Every road, every road rolls down a hill or climbs or twists left or right. To arrive at Hakha required a seven hour drive to go 115 miles. During one 90 minute portion of the drive I counted the longest straightaway, not even flat, in seconds: 8 seconds going no faster than 25 mph.

In the large town of Hakha, pictured below, I cannot remember any flat straight stretch of road.

The Chin people embrace the mountains and the roads with all of their foibles. Minor rock slides shut down roads and they sleep in the buses with little complaint until the roads can be cleared. (very few people own cars, many travel dicey mountain roads on motorbikes with spouse and small children hanging on and consider that normal)

Many remember fondly when traveling to another village took days on foot and sleeping was along the trail with friends and family. This pace of life, perhaps a bit romanticized but I'm not certain, has been broken by three main factors recently: the national rush to improve roads, the affordability of motorbikes, and the introduction of smartphones in the last two years (more on that later)

Rice, the cherished staple of their diets, is grown in small terraced areas during the rainy season. Vegetables are grown year-round in small gardens close to the house. Livestock is rare. Chickens are not. They are likely to be found crossing just about any road (and they don't know why...)

The rainy season comes in summer and videos of slogging through mountain roads on motorbikes or on foot are shown with good humor. Many roads become impassable for days.

The mountains separate villages which over the centuries means that many villages have their own distinct dialect. (Being appointed as a Methodist pastor in the Chin State requires great linguistic agility as an appointment may require the learning of a new dialect to communicate.)

The building of roads opens up Hakha to many commercial opportunities and echoes the biblical vision of the rough places being made plain. But it will not happen overnight. And the availability of easily passable roads and 50 mph travel may never occur because of the extraordinary expense.

To the Chin people I met who have visited Indiana the flat expanses (and lack of rice at every meal) were rather jarring. The mountains are home to them.

This geography and identity connection opens me to consider how the geography of my life has shaped me. (Consider reading the classic book about geography and how it shapes a soul, Dakota by Kathleen Norris.) I'm still ruminating on that.

How has the geography of your upbringing shaped you?

Blessings on your day.

~Chris Danielson