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Back to School in Myanmar

A Burmese Road Trip: Part 1

By Dave Fox
Driving from Nyaung Shwe to Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

We overtook motorbikes and horse-drawn wagons as we drove out of Nyaung Shwe. We could have flown from Inle Lake to Bagan but we opted to hire a driver and go overland. We had missions that could not be accomplished by air.

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Google Maps estimated the 330-kilometer (205-mile) drive would take six hours. On Burma’s ragged roads, we were skeptical it could be done that fast.

Once we left town, the road etched its way along a canal, through marshlands and sallow fields, flanked on both sides by distant mountains. Families bathed and did laundry by the water, using plastic buckets in lieu of showers. We passed thatched-roof houses and centuries-old stupas.

After an hour, our rickety, six-seater van began climbing, switchbacking, rattling and squeaking up tattered asphalt that had been paved once upon a time. Plumes of dust swirled in the air, turning all the leaves brown.

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Three hours into our drive, we undertook mission number one. My wife, Kattina, and our friends, Rena and Gary, are school teachers. Burma’s schools, particularly in rural areas, lack basic supplies. At Kattina’s school in Singapore, where every student is issued a MacBook, she had found a stash of old notebooks that were going unused. In Yangon, we had stocked up on ballpoint pens to go with them.

As we passed a school in a small, mountain village, we asked our driver to hit the brakes.

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Children swarmed as we entered. One ran to find their teacher, a young woman who didn’t seem to understand at first why we were there. But she smiled when she saw our bag of stuff.

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We peeked into classrooms and exchanged greetings with the students who were brave enough to test their few words of English.

One large room had space for multiple classes, with wooden benches, and chalk boards propped against a wall. The windows had no glass. In sweltering Burma, the open building was constructed to allow natural air circulation.

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A separate building contained smaller classrooms. On the second story, Kattina, who teaches seventh grade science, found what might have been her classroom if she taught here.

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Some students were shy, and kept their distance. But others jostled for position as I took photos.

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Our first of two goals for the day complete, we drove onward, stopping for lunch an hour later at a roadside noodle joint.

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I stuck to my vegetarian diet, which I was keeping to reduce the risk of nasty bacteria squirming their way into my intestines. But my wife, who, at this point in our story, shall remain anonymous, gave in to the lure of beef skewers.

Back on the road an hour later, she was regretting it. Anyone who has traveled long enough knows the drill. Sometimes, you have to pull over.

In the mountains of rural Burma, there didn’t seem to be many options – until our driver spotted a pottery studio.

Kattina disappeared to an outhouse while the rest of us checked out the pottery. Hundreds of clay jars were drying in the sun. Dozens more were precariously crammed into the back of a tuktuk.

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As well as being an art teacher, Gary, is a professional potter. He builds his own kilns. And meeting people in his primary trade, he was not going to be defeated by a pesky language barrier.

He tried using sign language to explain to the pottery workers what he did. They weren’t understanding, however, so he got down in the dirt on his hands and knees and scratched out a picture of a kiln until smiles and nods of understanding crept across his new pals’ faces.

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Kattina emerged a few minutes later, announcing she had just found the best outhouse in the history of Asia. Impromptu second mission accomplished, we piled back into our van.

Next stop: A town called Thazi where I had a problem of a different sort to rectify. A few months earlier, friends of mine passing through Thazi had done something very bad. I needed to go make amends.

To be continued

Published on Sunday, September 22, 2013

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