Myanmar Boat Ride Turns Into More

Back on the rickshaws – my guides full of the non-stop banter you might expect of siblings, which in many ways these parentless street teens are – they took me down to a muddy jungle river. There I hired a boatman with a motor canoe to take us up the river past fishing villages built on stilts, hearing the calls of colorful birds in the trees. It was definitely one of those “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto” kind of moments. I thought of friends who served in Vietnam, and how similar the terrain but so different an experience this was.


Image 1 of 8

Christina (left) and Nandamin selling postcards outside The Strand Hotel in Yangon. Don Chapman photos

Back to the rickshaws, past the occasional chicken or goat, across a field where oxen grazed on the remnants of a recently harvested field of something like hay that was now collected into big rounded stacks, my teen guides took me to the worst and saddest place I have ever been. And they did it on purpose. The area is called Dala, perhaps Yangon’s poorest.

It is a village of about 100 huts, hovels really, constructed of wood sticks and bamboo, the stray brick or cinder block, or plastic sheet or strip of corrugated metal, whatever could be gathered, no doors in doorways, no glass or screens in windows, all connected by muddy, rocky paths. And most of the residents were young children. There were a few women, a few teens, very few men. One drew water from a greenish pond in two buckets, which he carried back to the village on either end of a wooden pole pressing on his shoulder. Residents often go days without food, I was told.

“Why,” I asked, the gentle reverie of my day suddenly shot to smithereens, “did you bring me here?”

“Would you like,” the rickshaw driver Jeskoo replied, “to buy them rice?”

We had not seen a market all day. “How would I do that?”

“Come,” he said, and it was back onto the rickshaws.

A half mile later, across a wooden plank that served as bridge over a muddy ditch, was a nice home from which a couple sold rice. Offered handfuls of two grades, it was obvious which was superior. I bought two bags, about 55 pounds total, and we piled them aboard the rickshaws.

Back at the village, in the shade of the humblest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar, a few ladies of the village and a couple of teen boys, along with Nandamin, Christina, Jeskoo and Lin Lin, using a small metal bowl and a blue stick to level each measurement, poured rice into 100 clear plastic bags and tied them up, as children politely watched.

“OK,” I said, “now what?” “Now,” my guides said, “you have to deliver it.”

With two teen boys from the village hauling the plastic bags in a big laundry basket, we went door to door, offering one bag of rice per hut, a boy of about 3 holding my hand. Normally a germophobe, I held his hand. For one night, at least, the village would eat. I think of them, all of them, every day.

This story has a couple of kickers.

On the ferry, I was approached out of the blue by a gentleman originally from Korea. A Baptist minister, he’s been in Myanmar for 30 years and has established many churches, ordained many pastors. He mentioned he has a school.

“You have a school? There’s two girls you have to meet!”

Nandamin, Christina and I explained that they have had some schooling but can’t afford to attend school now, so work on the streets. Unfortunately, we learned, the pastor’s school is nearly a two-hour journey across Yangon and it’s ferocious traffic, too far from the girls’ homes. But they want to attend their neighborhood public school and make better lives for themselves.

So one week later, after the conference and a two-day foray to Bagan, I met the girls again at The Strand, along with Jeskoo and Nandamin’s unemployed, uneducated auntie. Over lunch at Junior Duck on the waterfront, I agreed to pay for the girls’ schooling for the next year. It is not that much in my scheme of things, a couple of hundred bucks apiece – $100 for school, $100 for uniforms and supplies – but otherwise unobtainable in theirs. They are excited, and promised to study well. They understand that education is power, and a path off the streets. Assuming they follow through, I promised to visit again next year to check on their progress. I am now “Grandpa Don.”

“I will be much taller then,” Nandamin said.

And even smarter too. And we’ll buy more rice for Dala.

I mention this story not as a public self-congratulatory, but as an example of a different kind of tourism.

And what can happen when you just want to go for a boat ride.

Kicker two: I spent two days in Bagan among the ancient pagodas. In the lobby of my hotel, I met a woman from Washington state, Mary, who noted my U of Oregon logo shirt. And I told her my story about Nandamin and Christina. She had a story too. In Phukett, Thailand, 17 years ago she and her husband bought food at a street cart and chatted with the woman vendor. Returning several times over the years, they got to know her and her family. When the woman’s daughter finished high school she was unable to afford university, so the couple along with folks from their home town paid for the girl’s schooling. She graduated with an emphasis in business. Today, the family runs four food carts and a restaurant, with more growth in store.

I told Mary thank you, and that I would be using her story as a post-script for a column.

“By the way,” she said, “we know a family in the newspaper business in Oregon.”

“Where?” “Astoria and Pendleton.” “The Forresters! Mike Forrester gave me my first newspaper job out of U of O, in Pendleton!”

“We see Mike and his wife every year.”

It was that kind of trip. More to come.