The day was grey and cold with drizzle turning to rain. It was an unpleasant day to be on a boat. This inclement weather didn’t stop our female companion from falling asleep for the majority of the journey. This would have been OK, except that we were on a small boat which rocked and jerked violently every time she rocked or jerked in her sleep. I have learnt that one should not sleep in a boat if one wishes to remain on friendly terms with the fellow passengers.
The journey was 9 long hours. We got lost. I recommended adding signposts to the river but my suggestion wasn’t met with much enthusiasm as we all got wetter, colder and more achy. The one student drove the boat for the whole 9 hour period, soaking wet and freezing. He sacrificed his coat to his sleeping cousin while me and my other student huddled like penguins under an umbrella which blocked the wind. I say penguins because the umbrella was black and silver; I was wearing a black and white scarf and my student had a white long sleeved shirt, which when paired with his black hair and coupled with the cold made for a very arctic feeling.
We were greeted by the uncle of the student driving the boat who was overwhelmingly pleased to see us and very pleased that we were safe and mostly sound. My penguin-esque companion may have been slightly hysterical, repeating in a far too cheerful manner that ‘we were fine, everything was fine, it was all going to be fine!’ We stripped off our sodden clothes and changed into fresh ones. I was given a purple longyi with blue and silver leaves which mostly matched my light blue shirt which amazingly wasn’t at all wet. The two boys got longyis and shirts with matching sweaters. My cardigan was said to be thick and when it arrived, I briefly wondered who would think to buy such a garment before wrapping it around my chilly shoulders. It was a salmon color with beads and other adornments down the front with oversized white buttons. My grandmas would have thought it too old for her and it was made of a fleecy wool. However, it was warm and I was not. Therefore I wore it as merrily as if Chanel had made it.
We were fed, although none of us really had the coordination to adequately feed ourselves. I found that I wasn’t really hungry while one of the boys chucked a handful of rice down his clean longyi into his kangaroo pouch he joked as that was something we covered in class in Yangon. I was then introduced to around a hundred family members in a spacious room on the first floor. It was lovely to meet my student’s family, and he looks startlingly like his father and uncle. This is the first time that I have seen a family resemblance. My other student looks a little like his mum, but the vast majority of parents and siblings in Myanmar easily look like any number of them could have been adopted. I had a delightful glance into my student’s past as his uncle pointed out a childhood photo in the time honored traditional of embarrassing your family members in front of people they want to impress!
After a 2 hour audience with various family members I was pretty tired. The family really wanted me to practice my few Arakanese phrases with them. However, I was strugglingly to remember my own name let alone a foreign language! Bearing this in mind I quickly agreed when my student who was translating asked if I wished to go to bed. If I was this tired he must be exhausted from driving the boat and while his English is fluent compared with my grasp of Araknaese, he is really only a beginner and I could see him struggling.
My students have been tasked to look after me and keep me safe. I’m not sure that includes a 9 hour boat journey; but as the parameters are vague I think we can write it off as a fluke. They worry about my capacity to cope. They fear that because I am not from Rakhine I will get sick from the long journey or the new food. I however, feel equally concerned for them because they are only young and making sure I’m happy and well looked after is quite a challenge in an environment which is not something I am really familiar with. They are very slender and I’m sure they feel the cold as much as I do despite us all lying that we are fine until we a blue in the face! My backside hurt from the journey, but I noticed serveral times that my student grimaced when he sat down, so being from Rakhine clearly doesn’t make you immune from getting a bruised bottom!
After I had retired to my bed chamber, one of the students text me to check I was OK. It was a sweet gesture and I decided honesty was my best choice, admitting that I am as stubborn as the pair of them and I’d prefer to suffer than admit defeat. All three of us knew that the other two weren’t in the best condition of their lives, but why dwell on the negatives?
I could easily see that the student’s family considered his talking to me and me replying to him to be as amazing as magic. This is why I came to Myanmar; the adversity and struggles mixed with the brilliantly positive moments that just wouldn’t mean the same if they were unaccompanied by hardship. After sleeping in my rather medieval chamber which I was quite fond of I awoke in search of the bathroom. The Myanmar people have an amazing ability to hold their bladders which I’m both jealous of and worried by in equal measure. I greeted the aunt and uncle in Arakanese which they immediately reported to my student when he woke in a bleary-eyed state. I understand how meeting a real foreigner motivates students to learn English; I found myself wishing that I knew more of the local language in order to be able to converse in a deeper way than ‘how are you? I’m cold.’
I think that this visit was actually my most heart warming time since arriving 6 months ago. Like many, many families in the rural areas, my student’s family is very poor. He was sent to work in a factory to earn money to send home to his family with a short-term, instant gratification outlook. When you earn scarcely enough to feed your family you can’t really afford delayed gratification. However, the uncle, who seems to be a merchant, pushed for the young man to be allowed to continue an education and study English. After my visit, my student confided that his parents were so thrilled that they couldn’t wait for him to study and learn more English!
We visited the village monastery where I was surprised to find that the monk spoke reasonable English and was not at all afraid to speak to me. Sometimes I could see the familiar glimmer of misunderstanding flit across his features, but this didn’t make him clam up and go silent much to my delight. I think that the villagers were amazed to see their monk talking calmly to the foreigner and I’m sure that he earned himself extra respect by being unafraid to speak out. After refusing several kind offers of food we returned to the first port of call to eat our lunch. Then after much discussion of what we should do about returning or going straight to Sittwe, where the only comment that I added was that I didn’t want to wear the same underwear for three days we got back in the boat to return to R.E.C.
Soon we were trying to make rainbows with the falling sunlight and the splashing water at the side of the boat and no longer noticed the happy singing. This gave us just enough time to drown ourselves, I mean wash, in the river before a glorious burning red sunset filled the sky. Although, while I was busy not tripping over my own feet and keeping afloat in the river, my student did a backflip! An impressive feat, but it made me feel even more tired.
For the return journey, the monk accompanied us to Sittwe. We wore masks along the dusty road and posed for a selfie with the monk; not something I had ever included on my bucket list, but something that seems to deserve a place on it nevertheless.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer