The new year means back to work. After my weekend visit to the village which is home to the two talented teachers I was due to collect Van for her annual visit to Myanmar.
I arrived at the airport with the artist teacher from CEAL who has volunteered himself as my ‘best friend’ in Sittwe. This is for the best as I need translation and guidance in this unfamiliar land. Although we have not exchanged pinky promises, I feel sure that he will uphold his end of the bargain. In exchange, I have taught at CEAL, planned lessons and a syllabus and supplied him with tablets to combat motion-sickness on his day-long bus journeys to Yangon and Mandalay. While I do have some ethics qualms about gifting drugs, I myself know only too well the agony of travel sickness and would not wish it upon anyone. The roads here are long and bumpy at the best of times. At the worst, they are a blur of pain and vomit mile after mile. The irony is that Van is often mistaken for being local here, whereas it is actually me who knows the way around and which shops we should go to purchase the various things we need.
After a work meeting which turned into an all-nighter complete with 2 hours nap, a jet-lagged Van and I arrived at the bus station with my new sleepy best friend. Bundled up for the surprising cold morning we were packed onto the bus to Kyauktaw where I knew my two excited students would be waiting with the boat. The bus ticket had cost half of the usual price, and I hadn’t questioned this at the time of purchase just thinking how lucky we were that we were only paying $2 each for the privilege of the dust-covered trek. However, it was soon apparent that this was the bus to Yangon, not the Mrauk-U bound bus. Both buses are used almost exclusively for locals. The Mrauk-U one is a little newer and is somewhat advertised as being for foreigners. Although, save for me who was on my 5th journey, Van and a nice Indian man who was helped by me and my student I know of no foreigners who have chosen the bus over the more expensive boat.
While on the dusty road, my drying hair needed to be braided to try to control the humidity-induced frizz that was started to appear. The buses here are crowded with seats tightly packed. As such, it was hard to maneuver braiding my locks of straw. The bus has special stops along the way; most are to collect passengers and one is a rest stop where there are apples, oranges and fried goods for sale as well as some restrooms. This stop is a little under one hour from the final destination of Kyauktaw and I knew that my hair would not appreciate the wait. I did not want to arrive to meet the students looking frazzled before we had even begun.
It is an odd mix in the village; the students and teachers are friends and everyone lives in close quarters. I sleep upstairs with Grandma while my student and his mum sleep downstairs. We hear the coughing, the snoring, the talking and the hocking alongside the roosters and cows. We wash together in the river with a handful of other villagers. The men of the village wear only a longyi around their middles fashioned as a diaper, while the women are more modest and wear their longyi tucked as you might a towel; around the top of the chest. Still, there is a lot of flesh displayed and it’s a working balance that I have never before been exposed to. There is very little privacy and this is something that is quite a culture shock for both Van and I.
Fortunately for me the bus stopped on the side of the road, with workers laboring to complete the road building. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere and not at a scheduled stopping area, only pausing momentarily to ponder if the bus had broken down or if this was some new form of highway robbery, I gleefully alighted to stand and stretch my arms behind my head so that I may braid in comfort. Van and I visited the restroom with the ease of locals before continuing the journey. While we might have the local gestures covered, I at least still stick out like a sore thumb and the locals couldn’t help but stare at us as we used the facilities, stretched out like a couple of cats under the hot sun and resettled ourselves on the hot bus. I delight to report that these glances from the local people are not malicious feeling but simply curious.
At Kyauktaw we arrived before our students; a friendly gang of locals were crowded around us enquired as to our plans when they arrived. Tourists are not a common sight here and there was an air of panic for us that we had got off the bus at the wrong place in our quest from the ancient capital of Mrauk Oo. They had a surprisingly high level of English as we half spoke, half mimed that our friends (easy than explaining students) were coming to collect us.
After 10 days of hard work, under the cover of moonlight, we stole to the library where we awakened our boat-driving student teacher. The silver water glistened and rippled with the movement of the boat cutting the black liquid as we watched dusky silhouettes on the banks of the wide river. The night carpet hung heavy overhead. The four of us adopted our usual positions and hobbies; one driving despite being cold and barely awake, one taking photos despite the lack of light by which to see, one singing happily despite the cold fingers and lack of tunefulness, and one gazing into the distance overcoming the fear of boats by reminiscing how the boat journey of a moonlight night had been a central feature of a favorite childhood novel and thinking of how graceful a simple plastic boat could be when bathed in the early morning fog and silver-black shadows.
We were returning to the big city to reconvene, meet with people and buy supplies for the next stage of our teacher training mission. I will admit that this is turning into harder work than I imagined but it is starting to finally show real potential and for that I am beyond excited. The teacher training stage is now into unknown territory; not just for our local teachers but for us as well. I have been giving live feedback and making in-class choices for our locals teachers to translate into their lesson. We have already booked our bus tickets back to The Village!
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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