The decision has been made and I leave Pantanaw in just under a week. An encounter with an immigration officer on a recent trip to Yangon sealed the deal for me. Luckily I didn’t have my passport on me because some of the locals on the minibus helpfully explained to the immigration officer that I was a volunteer English teacher in their hometown. A sighting of my tourist visa may not have gone down so well…
I don’t feel ready to leave, but it’s out of my control really. And so begins my week of “last times”. Sad. Below are just some random observations as I reflect on the past three months.
Things that I love
- It’s okay to burst out randomly with a line or two of a song at the top of your voice. I was made for this place.
- When people stop to talk to strangers around here it sounds like they’re talking to old friends.
- People consider me their friend even though we haven’t really had a conversation. A nod and a smile goes a long way.
- It’s normal for animals, including lizards, dogs and cats, to wander into the classroom while I’m teaching.
- The fact that the usual greeting around here is not “Hello” (mingalaba), but “Have you eaten yet?” (Sa bi bi la). This stems from the fact that people at home are usually greeting others as they walk past. If the answer to “sa bi bi la” is “no” then you get invited in to eat. I think I’ve mentioned before about the abundance of food. Everyone cooks large quantities of rice and curry in the morning and this is used to feed themselves, visitors and passers by, with the leftovers being eaten for dinner.
Things that no longer bring me shame or embarrassment (here)
- Having hairy legs or bushy eyebrows. Nobody notices or cares. The prettiest, daintiest, most ladylike of Burmese women sport some pretty long, black hairs on their legs. [On a side note, some of the men here have armpits like children. It’s very odd.}
- Nobody takes a second look when I’ve been trying my hand (ha!) at barefoot running. Actually, that’s a lie. They all think I’m ridiculously strange for running, it’s just the lack of shoes that nobody questions.
- Being stared at as I walk the streets. This may be my only chance at almost-fame. I’ve decided I should just embrace it. Smiling, waving and greeting my fans is now a part of life.
- Accepting gifts from students, parents of students, shopkeepers, friends of friends of friends. This is almost a daily occurrence; that and receiving dinner invitations. I’ve learned to graciously accept it all without having much ability to repay anyone. Leaving will be a rude awakening. What do you mean no one will bring me my breakfast?!
- Having people cook delicious food for me and being able to tailor this cooking to my own preferences. Yes, I’m still Her Royal Highness of Pantanaw (though still struggling with people fanning me while I dine at their table).
- Oh, and if I was even remotely interested in taking selfies, I would not be embarrassed at all to do so here. Any pose, and facial expression – it’s all acceptable. The finger on a tucked in chin is particularly popular it seems.
Things that no longer bother me quite so much
- Insects – those crawling in my food are now just silently removed and (rather un-Buddhistly) squashed between my fingers, ants on the bench are hardly noticed, though we always protect our food with a moat of water, and these days a rubbish bin crawling with maggots elicits a sigh rather than a squeal.
- Drinking instant coffee, even when mixed with milk powder, has become satisfactory. I still know how to appreciate a good coffee though.
- Feeling sweaty – everyone is (though maybe not quite as much as the big, white girl).
- Dangling, green mould from the ceiling. I only noticed this when a friend came to visit this week and I was trying to look at my accommodation through an outsider’s eyes. It’s actually quite disgusting.
- Recognising anatomical parts in my food. Mix it with rice, close your eyes and shove it in (my most recent food stories include pig’s ear and congealed chicken blood – mmmmm).
- And things (generally geckos) crawling on the walls hardly even catch my eye these days.
Things that I still struggle to embrace
- Sharing cutlery with the others at my table after they’ve just sneezed or told me they’re suffering from diarrhoea. Soup is served in a communal bowl with a communal spoon in the centre of the table, and the cutlery for post-mains snacks and fruit is also shared. When I questioned the hygiene once, they looked thoughtful and said “oh yeah, we don’t really think about that”. They still don’t.
- Hoicking, and not just a quick hoick and spit – sometimes this goes on for minutes and to the dark reaches of the oesophagus. Apparently it’s considered a bit impolite to do it in front of others, but people seem to be okay with impoliteness in this area.
- A little surprisingly, my most offended sense in Pantanaw is not that of smell (as is the norm). My sense of hearing brings the greatest irritation here. Noise comes in many forms:
- The farm-like vehicles that travel past our house and, even more annoyingly, the classroom very regularly throughout the day. To give you an idea of their loudness, when one went past the other day I absent-mindedly pictured a helicopter nearby. And then I remembered where I was.
- The customers being served in front of our classroom;
- Revving motorbikes outside the classroom;
- The “travelling advertisements” of people driving or walking the streets with loudspeakers through which recited messages are given incessantly;
- Street food sellers shouting out the wares atop their head ;
- Really bad karaoke which happens somewhere in Pantanaw at least twice a week – the volume of their poor quality sound systems makes it heard the town over;
- Buddhist morals being recited over the town loudspeakers – this happens at all hours including, on occasion, the whole night long;
- The neighbour’s new small keyboard. He’s not a very accomplished player;
- The wood chopping factory next door;
- I could go on …
- Walking at a shuffle is the pace of choice around here and it takes much effort for me to refrain from speeding off. At that pace, the smallest of errands becomes a long, exhausting task.
- And the drink of choice at local tea shops is 3 in 1 tea … some kind of powdered, black tea-tasting substance, mixed with creamer and sugar. They make it in tiny cups so it comes out strong, super sweet and thick with creamer. Ick. I still can’t stomach it.
- Washing my clothes by hand. The biggest drudgery of them all. I will insist on a washing machine when I move to Yangon.
- I have to close my eyes when our rubbish is disposed of … in the huge pile of plastic over by the river. “Just chuck it over there”. Nooooooo!!
- And my students are little better, despite researching and giving a presentation on plastic pollution. Their lolly wrappers often just get tossed out the window of the classroom. Grrrr.
Overall this has been an absolutely amazing experience and I am really sad it has to end so soon. At least I can come back and visit.