Lethargone - The Gentle Wind E-mail

Lethargone ViewSometimes life throws you a curvball, and you are forced to see life through a different lens. Meeting Erik is one of those curvballs. As we sat for breakfast overlooking the mighty floodplain of the Ayeyarwaddy river from the perch of Lethargone Guest House we quickly decided that this would be our resting place for one day.Some ten years earlier Eric had chosen this very place as his final resting place, the very room we rented was to be his last, and the sunsets and sunrises would count the few remaining days of his life.

The curvball thrown at Eric some 10 years earlier was HIV.† He had married late in life, and catastrophe struck when first his wife died from complications with HIV/AIDS and then he himself was similarly diagnosed and doomed.† Confronted with a premature death he decided to leave the confusion of Yangon behind and contemplate his last remaining days from the perch on the hill at Yenangyaung, where he spent his years of youth.† At his early sixties he had expected to live into his 90ís as his father had, but that expectation was now reduced to days or months as he build his room with a view and prepared to die.

Ayeyarwaddy floodplanes seen from Lethargone

Now in his early 70ís Eric is an imposing figure.† His slim, tall figure and shock-white hair from a mixed heritage of Australian, American and Burmese contrasts sharply with his surroundings.†† We had the honor of coming along for a walk as he was to inspect some land he was planning on purchasing.† He carries himself gracefully through the heat and poverty that surrounds his peaceful resting place, and worried employees help him rest and find balance when it gets too much.† As we walked through the village below the perch people came up and greeted, as they always do when white people visit, but here it was Eric who was the center of attention.† Asking for guidance, trade and general conversation we were joined by a constantly evolving entourage of locals.† This man has not changed the world, but he has changed his surroundings, and made a deep impact on his surroundings.

Eric inspecting soil

When he arrived back at Yenangyaung he met a retired army major.† HIV has been rampant in the armed forces of Burma, and generally been silenced up until recently, as in so many other places on earth.†† Being taboo, the afflicted soldiers, majors and generals gradually found alleviation in a local bush that when cooked into a bitter brew and drunk, seems to reduce the impact of the ailment and strengthen the body.†† Eric drank the concoction regularly as the major instructed, and gradually his strength came back from the brink of death.† The soup carried his health for 4 years before modern medicine caught up and helped carry his strength from 2006 onward.

HIV remedy? Eric showed us the plant and appreciated any help in making it known to the world.  As he didn't know the name I refer to it and show a picture here so that anyone who might check it can pick up the challenge.

When you are sick all you can think of is getting healthy, or hope to die, but once strength and health improves there are a million unfinished projects to attend to.† As his health improved, so Ericís focus went from himself to his surroundings.† Having worked for an oil company in senior positions he now had savings and time to put to use during his remaining time, whether it be days, months or years.

Eric's School

HIV is rampant in Myanmar, and many children become orphans as a consequence.†† Eric saw this as his calling to help, and has since dedicated his life to helping the fortunes of these children.† Some children are lucky and have one or both grandparents left to look after them when their parents die while others are left without family.†† If they are born from HIV/AIDS infected parents they are usually healthy, but some contract the disease as they are breastfed in early days.†† Erics projects span from building houses for the children and surviving family, water-systems for sanitation and a fully functioning school which currently houses 106 children, whereof only 5 pay tuition.† The rest are sponsored by Eric and his foundation.

As the investments increased, his private funds started diminishing and his health always a factor of uncertainty Eric understood that he needed to build something that would live on after him if the children were to benefit in the long term.†† Individuals have come and helped as they have chanced upon this unique individual, Germans have established the formal foundation, South Korean NGOís have helped with water tanks and many individuals have volunteered at the school. †Even so, at current running costs of approximately $5000 per month, relying on volunteers and NGOís just wouldn't keep.†† Thatís when the Lethargone Guest House evolved.†† It could give employment and surplus to finance the projects if managed correctly. †A legacy is something that is self-sustained, and the Lethargone Guest House can currently generate up to $4000 per month if fully booked.† Sooner or later the 9 full-time staff will continue operations, their training greatly enhanced by a Swiss lady who returns regularly to help get the place running.

Thousand Dollar House

As we walked with Eric and his entourage he explained how the houses were built, what the various costs amounted to, how the crops were grown and bricks were made from mixing two different types of mud and burning in huge furnaces for 24 hours.†† Water has come a way, but power is still an issue.† Solar panels, promising on paper, are still too expensive locally at some $165 per square meter and the winds too gentle to give windmills a fighting chance.

We ate with Eric and two german volunteers that night.†† The volunteers had been there for almost 3 months, and would move on to travel Southeast Asia.†† While their efforts are a help, it is clear that the greatest difficulty is to find capable teachers to stay for longer periods of time.† While Myanmar has been a British colony, the language has not stuck, and very few have proficiency in this most useful language.†† Learning English will open a world of engineering, management, tourism and agricultural knowledge that the children will need to thrive in this world.† A Swiss NGO was pushing for the use of E-learning and we discussed the merits and pitfalls of these technologies.† Supplementary materials, game learning, distance learning and two-way tutoring via skype or similar technologies are all well-intentioned, but when neither electricity nor internet connections are stable or present at all, it seems that paper will get them farther for the time being.

I finally asked Eric whether he had decided on whether to buy the land he had surveyed that day.†† While it was not optimal, as there was too much shade, he would buy it for $2000.†† By cutting down some trees, crops could then be grown there, and the children who are not proficient with academic learning at the school, could learn the agricultural trade instead, or as a supplement, and the crops could be used for the restaurant or school meals.† For $2000 Eric had just on that very day embarked on a new journey that would save many in times to come, and leave behind a legacy worthy of a man worth knowing.

Eric and some of the kids from the school

If you want to stay at the guest house or help the projects in any way, here are the contact details:

Lethargone Guest House
Thit-ta-bway quarter,
Magwe Division, Myanmar
Tlf: 009506021620, 21448, 09-5053342, 0943071609



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