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Privilege & Perspective

Last week I got sick in Thaton, Myanmar and learned a couple of lessons.

Thaton is a small place, it was just a dot on a map I choose at random. There were a handful of guesthouses but only one had a license to serve foreigners. “All foreigners this room,” the clerk told me as he let me into a room with a bathroom in suite. It had a toilet, a hose for washing and a shower. All the other rooms shared a squat toilet—a hole in the ground next to a bucket of water with a bowl inside.

At the time I assumed I was required to stay in that specific room, in hindsight I’m not sure that’s true. I think he just assumed I would want too.

The next evening, I became ill very quickly. I spent all night in my private bathroom, stripped naked on the tile floor for part of it. At the worst of it I had little control over my bodily functions, severe diarrhea and frequent vomiting—occasionally at the same time. It was retched, though quick. Twelve hours after it began, my fever subsided.

The next afternoon, when I finally left my room, I glanced at the communal hole everyone else shared, and pondered privilege. It’s often debated in abstract, distinctly first-world terms, but it can be as simple as having a place to shit and vomit when you’re ill.

Continuing past the squat toilet, out the front door and onto the sidewalk I stumbled upon a strange sort of parade. The men were naked, save for ankle length skirts. A yellowish paste made from crushed tree bark was smeared on their bare chests and faces. Most were chewing Betel nuts and the red juice looked like blood dripping out of their mouth and covering their teeth. One man had a series of hooks in his back—about a dozen on each side—and another man was pulling them with strings and forcing the flesh to tear away from his back in what looked like medieval torture. And everyone stared at me—a long haired man with light skin and blue eyes.

No one in the town bated an eye at the scene in the street, that was normal, it was that fair skinned man that deserved curiosity. And I learned a real life lesson in another too-often-abstract term: perspective.

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