Lower Myanmar

Life here Myanmar has been filled with ups and downs. I still feel like I understand so little about Myanmar.

I’ve spent more time than I would like in Yangon. 10 days after I left Kyaukphyu and 4 days in February for what they call here “a visa run”. It’s a rapidly expanding city, creaking under the demands of an ever expanding population. Traffic is mental, pollution levels high and broken drains everywhere. Power outages are regular. But it is very rich in local communities. In my first week I was involved in training some new volunteers. Can you imagine! I’ve just landed myself. There was a local festival outside the hotel. The road closed every night for over a week and there was a real party atmosphere. There were lots of Buddhist float parades, street food galore and even an ancient old Ferris Wheel which was turned manually by a guy in the middles stepping on the struts.

Pagodas and Monastries were represented by different groups.
It’s not soothing music!
Check the guy in the middle doing the turning.
Head to tail food.
The side car stall

Rangoon Sites.

Although polluted and busy there sites in the city which take your breath away. I came across these unexpectedly.

A boat pagoda
An early 20 century chinese palace with lots of Glasgow steel work
A dance school

There was a bit of drama on my last weekend in Yangon when a Nigerian colleague complained of feeling unwell at breakfast. That lead to my having to get him to A and E . Poor D. was having some sort of heart attack. Unlike at home where he would be rushed off somewhere, he was treated on the guerny in reception in full view of everyone. I don’t like watching hospital stuff on TV, so I was a bit unerved when they started doing the defibb stuff with all and sundry looking on. So, I became his proxy next of kin for the day. I went up with D to the ICU where he was attached to various monitors . I felt bad for him in such a vulnerable position in a strange country. I was up and down to hotel for meds, passport, insurance etc. In the late afternoon it became clear that food needed to be brought in too. We assume food will be provided bt the hospital, but here the family need to provide it. VSO folk took over from me as it was clear that D. was seriously ill. I was a bit exhausted by the whole event. The next day I heard that Dr O. the European doctor who looks after the foreigners in Yangon, had said they had given the wrong treatment!! D was promptly airlifted to Bangkok. He’s had major heart surgery but is out of the woods and being medically accompanied back home.

I was ready to leave Yangon but had to wait for permission to go to the new college from the department of Educatuon and internal immigration. The bureaucracy here is mind boggling. A legacy of a military state. Finally the permission arrived and I got the bus to Pathein. My new placement is in the 5th biggest city in Myanmar. It’s five hours west of Yangon and the capital of the Irawaddy delta. Fertile land is turned to rice growing. Two crops a year. There was a terrible cyclone in this area in 2008 which killed around 140,000 people. I think Pathein was not one of the worst hit areas. I have no understanding of the how the irrigation works, but I saw lots of people in small wooden boats on canal type waterways. Most houses are on stilts built in a traditional fashion, wooden with palm leaf roofs. The road was concrete but quite narrow. I had expected it to be more developed. Rice paddies are emerald green. When harvested rice is spread out on vast swathes of tarpaulin all along the road to dry, with folk sweeping it a bagging it. There are rice warehouses all along the route. Other crops like squashes, beans, tobacco, are grown on small holdings. This is fertile land. Although Myanmar is a poor country food is grown in abundance.

The smartphone helps the likes of me on my travels. When on the bus I rang the VSO office to say I en route.  As requested I passed my phone to the beetle chewing conductor. He contacted the college people and lets them know when I would arrive and if there were delays so when the bus got to my stop the conducter roars out “teacha Angie” and I disembark to my welcoming committee. 

I smile, I greet, I feel hugely stressed. Such is the nature of a VSO adventure.

Pathein Education College.
My accomodation. I’m in half of it.
The next door pagoda. 

Starting again.

I spend the next two days meeting new people and I have to say I find Myanmar names difficult. My own children complained at my lack of ability to name them correctly, so names are a problem for me. We’ve become familiar with the name Aung San Su Kyi, but my goodness it’s some job getting my mouth around such different names. And, it’s no use remembering part of the name. I called a young lecturer Chit Chit, but she corrected me. It’s Chit Chit Zaw. Alas I keep meeting people who I’ve been introduced to and I have no idea what they’re called.

Work

I am completely out of my comfort zone and I don’t like that. I have no previous experience in a teacher training college. I have a group of 25 teacher educators to whom I’m supposed to teach inclusive practice. I work with them in small groups. The level of English is very low so communication is very difficult. They are all confounded by a brand new curriculum where they are required to teach in a way they have have never done so before. No more reading out lectures and students shouting back answers in unison from text books. They have to organise group work, discussions, pair and share, gallery walks (whatever they are) with everything prescribed. So students attend class after class all with about ten different activies and endless amounts of information thrown at them day in day out. It’s madness. The poor student don’t have time to think. So I’m supposed to observe classes which are all in Myanmar. I have no idea what’s going on and then I’m supposed to mentor teachers on their practice!! I can’t say I’m enjoying it. I think the teachers would be far better off being given time to settle into the new curriculum without some bloody foreigner observing them.

My day begins at 6.30 which is not natural for me, but it is the nicest time of day. I go for a morning walk for about half an hour.

A teacher’s house on campus
Morning walk
More teacher accomodation
They work the students to the bone here. If they’re not doing gym at the crack of dawn they’re gardening.

After my walk and shower, I head to the local caf for my breakfast, usually a freshly made chouro (like a non sweet doughnut) and a sweet lasi. I sometimes meet teachers there as eating breakfast at a local eatery or stall is very common. I have been befriended my Mah Shey, who runs the caf. She is a retired PE teacher. She loves to practice her English. This morning she was checking the pronunciation of some words; piety, endowed, reverie. I thought, what a peculiar list of words. It turns out she’s reading her Buddhist texts in English. Like most people she’s a devout Buddhist.

Mah Shey with her daughter and grandchildren

She told me her husband died at 58 because he was a drunkard. I thought that was young but she said that over 50 is old here. The average life span is 66 .

Social Life

Well, it’s limited. The college is about 8 miles out of town so it’s a bit of a hassle getting in and out. There are no “side Kahs” here. Its motor bike taxis!! Now I had no experience of riding pillion on a bike before coming here, not to mention doing it side saddle. Dear God, I attempted it once because I was going to a pagoda (as you do) and a longyi had to be worn. No helmet of course so it was all a bit hairy. But I have advanced, I’ve bought a helmet and now straddle the bike taxi – logyi and all. My helmet is hilarious. I have a very small head so had to get a childs one.

Look what I have adorning my head!!

But, I’ve made a few local friends who are tour guides and are keen to practice their English and there aren’t many resident foreigners. I met them via a VSO friend who worked here for a few months a few years ago. We went on a great trip to a nearby beach which is popular with locals. The trip involved a visit to one of the guides grand parents house for some lovely food and a swim in the sea. My first since I arrived here.

Elephants by the side of the road
Grandads house
Amazing food stalls on the beach at Ngwesaung.
My handmade beach hat.
They’re a work of art
Kids on a homemade swing made from the ubiquitous blue piping and an inner tube

Another lovely trip was to a pagoda which can only be reached by river. Po po, the girlfriend of Aung Kyo Mow, wanted to make a pilgrimage to say a special prayer which takes half an hour to recite. So off we went, 5 of us all told, on motorbikes at 6.30 in the morning. We went off the main road after about 15k and then down a dirt track for a few miles to the village where the boat left from.

By the famous gong.
The monks receiving offerings
Hand washing before lunch
A typical rural kitchen
Tea leaf salad for lunch. It’s very delicious.
Arriving back at the village.

Phyo Ko invited me to his house for dinner. He is a lovely young man with a great determination to learn English. He has a young wife and has just moved into his own house on a kind of family compound, on the edge of Pathein. He calls me mum.

Phyo Ko with his wife and neice. Walls never get plastered or painted
His parent’s house nextdoor.
For those of you who know my Monaghan background I love this. Phyo Ko’s dad was a dairy man and couldn’t bear to give up all his cattle when he retired, so he kept 3 and sits with them for hours chewing his betal nut.

Last weekend I bumped into a few Kyaukphyu colleagues who were down for and inter college competition. It was lovely to see them

I still feel like a fish out of water a lot of the time. I do miss home, my friends and the beautiful landscapes around Comrie. The temperatures are racking up here. It will be very hot indeed by the time Neil arrives at the end of March. We will have to head for the hills.

Published by angiecomrie

I'm volunteering for VSO working on inclusion in education in Rakhine state, Myanmar.

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