As I sit cross-legged at my personal dining table, the various members of Ko Myo’s family bring dishes of delicious food to me, somebody brings me a glass of water, and someone stands to one side fanning me as I eat. A few words are spoken and somebody rushes away to find a fabric napkin for me to dab daintily (ha, yeah right) at my mouth. The remainder of the collection of people sit or stand around watching me eat, taking note of what I particularly enjoy, encouraging me to eat more and hoping to notice any extra detail they can provide or adjust to assist me. At the end of the meal somebody rushes off to get a basin of water for me to wash my hands in, and then is sent back to get some soap as well. Such is the nature of my meals here.
Prior to this, some of the men would have gathered around to discuss what I should eat for dinner or where or who should cook for me, where would be best for me to live, what sim card I should be using. I have no idea until Ko Myo tells me their decision (or dilemma) after considerable conversation.
As I stroll through the streets in town I am the object of much staring, expectedly so, and I have had my picture taken, both surreptitiously and overtly, and occasionally by request, almost more than I can tolerate.
On my first morning here I was taken around the road to the home of the doctor (and chairman of the National League for Democracy, NLD for the Irrawaddy Division) because they have a flush toilet. While I sat drinking coffee and green tea and watching patients come and go from the partially curtained-off clinic in the same room people reminded me frequently of the facilities and enquired as to whether I had make use of them yet. Never before have people been so interested in my morning habits.
I am taken next door for my evening throw-some-cold-water-over-myself ritual because their bathroom is cleaner. Oh, and it has a door. The lovely ladies there were eager to point out their flush toilet to me and their washing machine, which I am apparently able to use as needed. It turns out it’s not needed because Ko Myo’s sister-in-law collected my laundry this morning to wash.
To some of you this may sound like a dream existence, but those of you who know me well – someone who has a borderline-feminist independence, an approaching-extreme need for privacy, and detests being the centre of attention – will be guessing that I’m not feeling completely comfortable in this situation. It’s funny how the polite gestures of some cultures feel excluding or even rude to others. I really can not get used to eating on my own! Hopefully this will change as Pantanaw becomes used to my presence… When I tried to discuss this with Ko Myo he told me that the Burmese culture is all about hospitality and I am an honoured guest at the moment. All of his family are “so scared” that I will not be happy. I only wish I could reassure them. On with the Burmese lessons.
My feeble assertiveness is getting an exercise here. More on this in my next post but one instance is described below. So, (some of) Ko Myo’s family live in a huge old wooden house, and this is where I am currently staying. I can’t figure out who all is here but definitely his parents, his aunty, his sister-in-law and her three boys (the youngest is so unbelievably cute). People come and go continuously throughout the day, according to the Burmese way, which is lovely but, once again, I just wish I could communicate with them. His Dad is the chairman of the Pantanaw branch of the NLD and their business seems to take place here too – yesterday he was dictating some letters to a young lady who was writing them out by hand before posting. They have kindly cleared out a room for me to have as my own, which is the free accommodation he mentioned. My bed is a straw mat on a wooden floor with a small rug placed on top, some very hard pillows (but pillows nonetheless!) and a mosquito net hanging above – just like camping every night. Inside. J It’s not so bad comfort-wise, or maybe I’m just hardening up to this life, but there are a few things I’m struggling with. Ridiculously so, top of my list is the smell. The whole room is filled with the pungent smell of moth balls. It burns my nostrils. Secondly, the noise. The walls are open at the top and every night Ko Myo’s Dad listens to broadcasts on the wireless until very late, then “visiting hours” seem to start very early in the morning, not to mention the general acceptance of loud farting and burping, and some kind of religious chanting over a loudspeaker that woke me up at 3am this morning. Thirdly, ants crawl over me when I lie on the bed. This is probably due to several large holes in the floorboards that lead directly outside. These bother me less than I would’ve thought, but I’m forcing my mind to stay away from the cockroaches I saw in the bathroom and living area… Oh, and then there’s the light in one of the shrines next to my bed that can’t be turned off if I want the fan on overnight, so I (try to) sleep in relative brightness. These factors and the lack of privacy have caused me to get my diva on and request some different accommodation – a very hard thing to do when everyone is doing so much to make me feel welcome here, but I just don’t think I could cope here. For the next month, at a small cost, I’ll be staying in a place on my own, or with a Burmese lady who’s (hopefully) coming from Mae Sot to help me. It must seem strange to them, me requesting to be alone. Their daily lives are so intertwined here I doubt they could imagine living on their own. Anyway, it turns out that I needn’t worry about stating my preferences … everything is accepted as cultural differences and they’re happy to oblige me to make me as comfortable as possible.
Socially, Ko Myo and his friends have been very patient with me, taking me to tea shops with them to hang out both morning and night. Here we drink green tea for free and sweet, milky coffee or tea (ick), and they chat away with lots of banter I don’t understand. I tried a Burmese cake here the other day – kind of like a folded up pancake made from beans that is then deep fried and covered in sugar. Nothing I’ll go out of my way to eat again. All of the other food I’ve been given has been amazing though and not a single oily curry in sight Erica! (I was quick to mention that I like vegetables so am getting daily servings, which is great!)
And last night they took me out to the village where Ko Myo’s mum comes from. This was a journey of about 45 minutes on the back of a motorbike. We began on a very smooth, sealed path dotted on either side with thatch huts and water pumping stations where children bathed and ladies collected buckets of water (hopefully not for drinking as I was informed at a dinner out with the “Yangon Foodies” group that the river was full of arsenic and other waste products of the mining industry), and finished on a bumpy, raised dirt path with houses on stilts to either side. Even though the journey was short, we stopped several times along the way for a cigarette/rest stop. No rushing around here. Ko Myo has a huge family, and they all came to his Aunty’s house to introduce themselves and watch me drink green tea and eat biscuits. One of the cousins, who is also a prospective student, gave me a painting he had bought in Bagan as a gift – they’re all so generous. The ride home in the dark was a little more eventful. We bumped into several more of Ko Myo’s relatives along the way, including an old cheroot-smoking monk, and each time had to stop for a catch-up (Ko Myo normally lives in Thailand so hasn’t seen his family for a while) and some photographs. And then one of the motorbikes got a flat tyre so one guy got on the back of the one I was on the back of. That’s three people, one small motorbike, and me sliding closer and closer to the guy in front with each bump. I’m sure I ended up inappropriately close but the one time I tried to move backwards we hit a bump that threw me up and I landed so close to the guy behind I was worried I’d squashed his bits. Also inappropriate. And I must mention my appreciation for the expert spitting ability of my driver. His betelnut consumption was continuous so we frequent swayed to the left and right as he leaned over to expectorate. Without skill (like if I was trying to do it) my knees would have been spattered with red. As it worked out I came away covered in dust but betelnut-free, despite my unnaturally long legs. Such a fun, interesting evening.
Some other surreal experiences include the daily visiting of the monks collecting their alms, and the daily parades down the street outside collecting money for the Water Festival (the week after next). There have been two dancing “elephants” (on two separate occasions), and some men dressed as women, each time followed by a truck full of people and some massive loud speakers pumping out some Burmese party tunes.
Overall, I think I’m coping pretty well. Despite having significant periods of downtime over the past few days, I feel like it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind. I guess that’s to be expected. The attention was a little overwhelming on my first day and I came close to having a wee moment, but after six weeks of travelling without music I have rediscovered its magical, soothing power. Thanks Thomas for adding to my measly collection. I feel very welcome and am growing more comfortable by the day, disregarding the brewing frustrations with this English course I’m supposedly offering… more on that shortly.