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What it’s like to travel in the pope’s bubble


Reporter's Notebook: What it's like to travel in the pope's bubble

PlayYe Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

WATCH Pope Francis avoids word Rohingya in Myanmar speech

    Traveling in the pope's bubble is rather like being on a school trip. Timings are strictly enforced. Journalists are scolded for not appearing at the right time, or not standing in the right place. Everyone needs to look smart, which on this trip translates to jackets and ties in Myanmar's 90-degree heat.

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    As we embarked on our journey with Francis to Myanmar and Bangladesh on Sunday, our passports were taken off of us at the boarding gate, and we were told that we wouldn't be getting them back for the whole week. Rather like a school kid heading off on an important trip, I managed to get myself in trouble almost immediately. Heading to the airport in Rome, a bottle of water exploded in my lap: not the most auspicious of starts before meeting His Holiness for the first time. Thankfully, by the time we boarded, I had dried off.

    The plane itself is a chartered Al Italia jet. Vatican coats of arms on the seat backs and gold-lettered menus give it a touch of something special, but the real treat is when the pope makes his rounds in the cramped economy cabin, shaking each journalist's hand. A glimpse of his immediately recognizable white robe in the aisle sends a hush through the seats.

    Warned it could inflame tensions, Pope Francis avoids word Rohingya in plea for peace in Myanmar ANALYSIS: Pope Francis faces diplomatic test in Myanmar visit, where Rohingya flee alleged ethnic cleansing Pope Francis arrives in Myanmar to cheers, Rohingya diplomatic test

    On this trip to Asia, Pope Francis was clearly tired as he emerged to greet us about an hour into our late night flight, but the 80-year-old still appeared bright-eyed and eager to meet us all.

    When it was my turn to greet the pontiff, I had promised myself I would mention my late grandmother to him. Every day of her 96 years, she said the Hail Mary and found reasons to pray to just about every saint in aid of her only grandson. She was truly the most devout Catholic I have ever met, at least until I met Francis.

    So with my broken Italian, I leaned in toward the pope and told him what little faith I have comes from her and that she would be very happy — molto contenta! — to know I was meeting him. He, too, often talks about his grandmother’s faith. At the mention of my own grandmother, his face broke into his well-known cheeky grin, and he squeezed my hand before giving me a thumbs up.

    The water I spilt on my lap thankfully dried by the time I met the Pope. I was so happy to tell him (in hastily learnt Italian) about my wonderful grandmother – who was so Catholic she wore blue in May. I know she would have loved to know I got to meet the Pope and would have been so proud. He gave me his well known cheeky grin, and squeezed my hand. That was for you, grandmaman! ??

    A post shared by jamesaalongman (@jamesaalongman) on Nov 28, 2017 at 2:14am PST

    Arriving in Yangon, we began our work. Our bus follows Francis wherever he goes. And in the country's largest city, which is home to more than 5 million people, our convoy wove through long, dusty traffic jams and past bicycles laden with all kinds of goods. The streets are lined with market stalls and the smiling faces of the young and old.

    This is a country slowly emerging from years of military dictatorship, and wherever we go, crowds gather waving the Vatican flag. Many here seem to be happy that a major figure like the pope is a guest in their country. From the windows of our bus, we see people waving from cars, hanging off the backs of trucks and pausing to watch him pass on the sidewalks. This visit — the first by any pope to Myanmar — feels truly historic.

    PHOTO: Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmars civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an event in Naypyidaw, Nov. 28, 2017. aung Htet/AFP/Getty Images
    Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an event in Naypyidaw, Nov. 28, 2017.

    Meanwhile, timetables, speeches and other logistical announcements in Italian flood our inboxes. My clearly bemused expression has attracted the sympathetic glance of more than one Burmese resident, who have all been incredibly warm and welcoming to both the pope and the press.

    But his trip here has been the most controversial of his papacy, coming at a time when the Burmese military faces allegations of ethnic cleansing because of its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya people. And Francis' work here is not over yet. This week he will meet with a group of Burmese monks, some of whom are alleged to have taken part in the crimes against the Rohingya.

    From here, he will travel to Bangladesh to meet with some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled the violence.

    PHOTO: Pope Francis signs a guestbook as Myanmars President Htin Kyaw looks on, at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 28, 2017.Max Rossi/Reuters
    Pope Francis signs a guestbook as Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw looks on, at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 28, 2017.

    But as the pope navigates these issues and this country, the overwhelming response from viewers and readers seems to be positive. "I'm not really into religion, but I dig this pope,” read one comment, and there have been plenty of others.

    Traveling with Francis gives you the sense that you are not just traveling with the leader of the Catholic community, but with someone who wants to be a world leader in the truest sense of the term.

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