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dimanche 22 août 2010


I felt that I may not have another chance to visit Myanmar/Burma in the near future, so took this chance to add Burma/Myanmar to my short trip to Malaysia. My best friend had just arrived from the La La Land (attending ashrams with the rest of the DropOuts! From the west.. I am just joking..) and this was a thanksgiving visit for her, for the wonderful time she had in India.
Air Asia has begun daily services to Yangon and it is a blessing indeed. The flight is a sad commentary on the economic plight of SEAsia. Most of the passengers were young able bodied men hired to do physical work (too demeaning for the Chinese and Malays these days) and they are either going home on holidays or at the end of the contract. There is no atmosphere of gaiety but a somber one, reflecting the coolie nature of these flights.
Kyaw is a new friend and he didn't have to meet us at Mingaladon Airport but there he was and he had already organized a taxi which would be with us for the entire length of our stay in Burma. San, the taxi driver turned out to be a good human being and was very helpful for the successful outcome of this mission.
I had only one thing in mind. I have been trying in vain to get in touch with EiTho, PaPa Win and Tin Tin Aye, my friends from Chaungtha Beach.I tried to call Win Htay who had a restaurant called William at the beach there, I requested many of my Yangon friends to call his handphone number, but was not able to get hold of him and thus no news of the girls. Their fearlessness is chronicled in one of my blogs as a background.
It is Monsoon time in Burma. Every thing has that wet and moody look to it. The River Ayerawarry had become an ocean rather than a river and every thing in its path was under water: homes trees and indistinguishable objects poking out of water. When you go out of Yangon, on both sides of the road as far as the eyes can see, it is lagoons of water. People were using kayaks, to go about their daily activities in their farms which were also under water. The rain fell without a stop. This is not a good time to come to Burma as a tourist but that was not the objective. The Objective was to find the girls and once again try to fulfill their dreams about their future.
The morning was spent at Bogyoke market , filling the bags up with gifts for people across the world. Myanmar has god quality Jade and Ruby and Saphires and I have shopped at the same shop HWA SHIN at the market and my friend Ei Khine Myat has always been helpul. A bargain is less important than a friendship and I enjoy the time spent looking for various objects mainly for women friends in faraway places. This time I wanted to get a small blood pigeon ruby for a little American Indian girl called Ruby, an UmonHon Indian.
It was noon time when we could pull out of Yangon. The rain is falling without a stop and the traffic is anything is more congested than ever. It seemed a long time before we could get out of the din of Yangon and soon it was just drowned countryside and hot and humid air and large drops of rain on the clouded windshield of the car with a lame wiper trying to do its best.
The driver, San, who was to become a good friend by the end of the trip, was silent and concentrating on the road, wet and with a multitudes of transportation of various velocities. Soon we crossed the large bridge over the River Ayerawarry and stopped at the very same roadside restaurant that I had stopped on my previous visits. The Myanmar Style Chinese food was nothing special and the place had a faded look to it. After fortifying outselves with Myanmar Tea, Le Paye, we were off once again. Four hours after leaving Yangon we were on the outskirts of Pathein and from here the road gets worse. We didn't go into Pathein, which was to come later, as an unplanned detour, but headed straight to Chaungtha and reached the village as the sun had dipped over the horizon.
No street lamps, wet air, puddles of water, all roads in the village are dirt roads now in an amalgam of mud and water.
We had bought two torch lights in one of the stores along the way for this anticipated darkness engulfing us. The driver said it would be better for us to locate the girls in the morning, but my heart was too impatient. I had come from Paris just to meet up with the girls.. nearly three days of travelling and I couldn't wait any longer. We had a photo of the girls taken on their last visit to Yangon and we showed it to many people, who all said, their faces are familiar but we don't know where they live. San, the driver came in very handy. He questioned a large number of people and in the end we entered a house near the Monastery ( I knew they lived near the monastery) and the woman lead us to the house of Eitho.. Within minutes this slender girl of inexhaustible affection (who must have been my daughter in a previous life and now we are reunited in this life, San said giving us a Boudhiste explanation), came running out and was sobbing uncontrollably. It was too difficult to find out way to the other homes, as the rain was falling non stop but did manage to find the parents of another girl. We made a time for reunion at 10 am next morning at the beach in front of Lai Lai Hotel where we would be staying.

I knew that they would be there on time. We had finished our breakfast by the sea, watching the ocean slowly touching the sands of this shore of Andaman Sea. Pa Pa Win and Ei Tho and their families were ready, in crisp clothes and fresh thanaka on their faces. Pa Pa had a longyi as a gift for me. There was so much excitement all around . we walked hand in hand along the beach, deserted of tourists and only an occasional vendors with curious stares. San the driver owner of the RubyLand Gueset House (Foreigners can stay for 5 usd he assured me, but it is mainly for Myanmar guests, an entire family staying in one room) was also on the beach. We exchanged words and greetings and San volunteered to prepare the dinner: fish and shrimp and vegetables, at his guest house, for the girls and their families, 12 people in all. I also made a time when we could talk to the girls alone regarding their dreams of a better future, rather than spending their lives selling hats or fried shrimp and fish on the beach.
Tin Tin Aye was missing, and the tragic story of a cutlrue of poverty emerges here. She was the youngest of the three but most impish and outgoing. A young man barely twenty who worked at some menial job along the beach had taken an interest in her and within months they were married (yes married!) and she had moved to Pathein. Her Karma, said San.
So we had the two girls with whom we wanted to talk without any input from the parents. The parents on previous occasions didn't want these girls to study because these girls were their income, however meager, from the tourists at the beach. The girls sold hand made hats at 200 kyats each and since the raw materials were free and they could make a few in the morning and sell them , go home for lunch and then make some more for the evening. They could sell 10 to 20 a day depending upon the number of tourists from Yangon, a substantial amount, more than what their parents could bring in as farmers..
Pa Pa has a talent to draw and even artists who had visited Chaungtha beach had commented on it. But where is she to learn ? really Yangon , which at the moment is not a possibility. She tried last year to go to Bogalay where she has a sister and tried to apprentice herself to an artist but it ended up costing all her life savings and didn't come to much because of the eccentricity of the artist.
Eitho on the other hand, the slender girl of inexhaustible nostalgia, had her mind set up on becoming a Professional Tailor, a very respectable profession in Myanmar. As luck would have it, San informed us that his wife, Daw San Dar herself was a professional tailor and he had some knowledge about the infrastructure of this profession in Burma.
Eitho wanted to learn to be a tailor. She already knew the teacher. PaPa wants to continue with a career in art and design but the best way to get there oncea gain would be to become a professional tailor and then design clothes for the Burmese. Despite poverty of many of the Burmese,one notices that they are better dressed and neat and clean than many of the western tourists who come to their country. I have also noticed this in Cuba where Cubans found it distasteful that the westerners who can afford to shower, buy soaps and good clothes don't bother to do so while visiting Cuba. No wonder the Vietnamese very politely call the western tourists to their country, The Smelly Ones.
We trooped off to the home of the teacher (zeyama in Burmese), papa win holding an umbrella over my head. We also had bought an umbrella and rain coats in Yangon anticipating this downpour. The shoes from the west were exchanged for Chinese made thongs.
Through the mud and puddles and passed by the monastery, where we dropped in to say Hello to the young abbot who received us kindly and we prayed for a good future for these two children. I had met him on two other occasions and he is of some repute since he travels to various other monasteries to teach.
Zeyama lived in a house a bit better off by the local standards. Two or three machines, two Chinese and one Singer were standing like sentinels at the entrance. This kind woman, promised to take on Ei Tho as a student, ad libitum, she can come and learn. And later on help zeyama with her work.
But she would need a machine for herself and a scissors and atape and clothes to practise on . At the end of the course, which is to take six months she can set herself up in the village as a tailor, since the zeyama felt that in six months EiTho could be proficient.
PaPa had been thinking about her future too. She gave me a long letter written the night before , in Burmese, which San translated for me. It detailed the difficulties of studying art and design at the moment and her desire to entire her dream through dress design and the most feasible option was also to become a professional tailor. We went back to the zeyama since there were not many teachers for this art in this small village and she kindly agreed to take on PaPa win as well as a student. Once again , a machine and the accoutrements.
One of the reasons, any form of education in Myanmar is out of the reach of the poor is the cost associated with it. One has to pay “presents” to teachers even in government schools in Yangon and the Medical School in Yangon is nototorious for its teachers not showing for lectures but giving them at their homes for a fee, a fat fee by Burmese standards. The tuition fee.
In this poor village, the six-month tuition fee to become a tailor would eat up a major portion of the income of a family. We had come, my closest friend in all of Asia and I, anticipating some expenses but even we were surprised at the high proportion of the fees as compared to the income. But as a tailor, the girls would be guaranteed a profession, a life away from the searing heat of subservient service to the Burmese and foreign tourists and then as talents would permit them go beyond that.
Zeyama informed us that there are sewing machines that can be bought at Pathein. Prices again beyond the dreams of an average family anywhere in Burma, half a years salary of an office worker or more. But we were determined to go ahead with the dreams of these two girls who might have been our children in a past life, as San explained to our amusement.
We visited the homes of these girls, father at EiTho climbed up a tree to bring down some fresh coconuts. aT the home of PaPa she had rushed off to get some Burmese sweets from the shop and we viewed with wonder the talent lay hidden in this outpost of Burma. This girl can draw, especially portraits and hopefully something along the lines where the dreams and talents would meet would occur to both of them.
That night, to celebrate the jewish Shabbat, I lit the candles and said my prayers in Hebrew while the 12 burmese faces looked on with amusement and I prayed for the future of thee two girls from Chaungtha beach, and that a secure future be granted to them, one of dignity and self worth and a way out of the circle of poverty.
After an early breakfast looking at the waves and the sand island in the horizon and pokala island on the left, the two girls piled into the car and we said good bye to Chaungtha. It was a clear day, day heavy with clouds but without rain. On the way we saw the footsteps and fresh faeces of a wild elephant as well as a gentle tamed female elephant. After paying our respects to the elephant and the mahout we continued on our journey to Pathein. The other girl Tin Tin Aye was waiting there and her dress and hair style announced her new life style as a married woman of Pathein.

San was very helpful in negotiating the price of two sewing machines. We had asked the girls whether they wanted one of their brothers to accompany them to Pathein so that they can help with the machines, but the girls said emphatically NO, we will manage. The machines were bundled up and sent to the bus stop on the bici taxis while we tried to have a little snack at the Chinese café: le paye of course and a little bit of noodle. We looked at the watch, it was coming on to 11 am and we had to be at the airport by 4 pm in Yangon, no room for error here.
The girls were very happy. And promised that they would learn diligently. In return we promised to come back to visit before the next monsoon, before next May. In the meantime, because of our contact with San, who has a handphone, homephone as well as email, we will be kept informed of their progress. San who owns a guest house in Chaungtha tries to go there whenever the chance arises, and I am comforted with the thought of this lifeline of a communication connection.
It was time to say Good Bye, eyes welling up, all around, but this time around, there is no uncertainty of a promise only but something concrete has been done for the future of the girls.
Rain started falling heavily as we approached Yangon, but we made it still on time to check into the Air Asia Flight to KL that evening.
All sorts of departures, once again the flight was full of able bodied young Burmese men going on to Malaysia for jobs the locals do not wish to do. Once again the gloomy atmosphere, imagine how often this is repeated all throughout south east asia: flights to Singapore, japan, hongkong, Bangkok, KL.. from all the other parts of the impoverished south and south east asia. The saddest I still think, are the flights to and fro Dhaka in Bangladesh!
I felt very content, my desire to see the girls had come true and with the help of my best friend in Asia, we were able to at least do a little for the future .
San, from the beginning insisted, please don't give money to them, they would spend it quickly and there would be nothing left to show for the generous gift. It was an advice well worth taking.