At sunrise, we travelled by a small van cab with an open back with two benches either side for passengers. My student who had the best English sat shotgun with me in the cab of the van while my poor other student had a 4 hour trip open to the elements in the back.
Waiting shore side at Kyauk Taw were another 6 teachers from REC (Royal Education Centre). We only took 4 people in our boat however as it was fairly small and my students were nervous about the weight of the luggage. Half way into our advertised 30 minute journey, which became 45 minutes the next time we undertook it, the engine cut out in the middle of the sizable river. Fortunately the shyer, quieter of my students comes from a boat-orientated village and wrangled the engine back to life with impressive efficiency having bounced over the muddy bank with the agility of a goat and seemingly without notice of the mud clinging to his thin shins.
We were met from the boat by the smiling faces of students happy to see their teachers and curious about the newcomer they had brought home. Some were tasked with carrying the luggage, including a precious football which got broken the day after by over enthusiastic children. Others just followed us fascinated by my white skin and long body. I am the third foreigner to visit the village, but the first native English speaker and with ‘golden’ hair.
I met practically the whole village in the first hour of my arrival. They were very friendly and showed no ill-will at all.
We met the REC head monk that evening after he had returned from a jaunt to the city. He is very young, and has an open, friendly countenance with a very expressive pair of eyebrows and bottom lip. My students tell me he speaks English, but he rather collapsed into embarrassed giggles when pushed to speak. Luckily my student did a good job of translating and the monk and I got to know one another better under the starry night carpet far above us. He holds some very progressive views about the conflicts in the area and hopes to foster a peaceful community of understanding and tolerance between faiths and ethnicities.
The first night my hosts closed the door for me, which I was then unable to open at 2 am when I woke up needing to use the bathroom; I didn’t think breaking their door on my first night would be met with pleasure! Luckily there was a small window to the outside which I was able to jump from, knowing that it would be easier to open the door from the outside. I did however end up with a spider to the face and a head of hair covered in cobwebs, but it was a small sacrifice for not breaking the house of my kind host!
The 200 REC students had collected in the main hall where I headed next to greet them in celebrity style! I was even rigged with a microphone, which I soon ruined by touching it and creating horrible feedback. While my higher level student chatted to the monk, it was left to my lower level student to translate and encourage the students. He did an amazing job of this. He is very gentle and cares for the students as individuals. He allowed the student to try unaided to converse before whispering a translation to them and waiting for them to voice that sentence. I think that the students were really impressed with their Myanmar subject teacher speaking in English.
It was lovely and I felt a little like the queen must feel on her state visits. I greeted about 20 of the 200 students and each time another one found the confidence to talk with me, three or four of his or her friends also found that they suddenly knew how to speak English! I shook the hands of another 50 or so, and they were all amazed by my soft skin; more than likely a result of not having to undertake challenging physical labour.
The following day I was invited me to teach the children! This left me wondering exactly how much of the teacher training had sunk in; planning is key to a good lesson! I acquiesced though and spent the 7 minute walk frantically scouring my mind for something to keep the students interested. Fortunately for me they just wanted to swim in the river which I was happy to do.
Once I had bonded with them over a game that I lost due to misunderstanding the rules, they walked me back to my local abode and fired questions at me non-stop. One of the older girls translated anything that the others didn’t understand and it was a fun saunter through the village. More than occasionally I feel like the Pied Piper when I have a string of children following after me!
On my final morning, my hostess woke at 3:30 am in order to prepare to go to market in the next village. I was awake and wanted to offer to help, but didn’t know how so after a ‘minglarbar’ I turned over and pretended to sleep! At the more reasonable hour of 6 am I accompanied my student on a 20 minute brisk stroll to see the market. It fulfilled all of my south east asian imagination gleaned from various exotic cookery programs as I saw chillies and dried fish pilled high beside various green vegetables. Some of which I know a name for and some of which I don’t! We had amazing Mondi and bought this rice cake with palm sugar and coconut to eat on our walk home.
We later took the obligatory photos with the students and the monks before getting back in the boat.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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