Fraser’s Octemberfest 11
One of the blights of exploring developing countries is the endless teams of vendors thrusting clothing and handicrafts under your nose when that’s not what you’ve come to see. But every now and again someone stands out from the vendor crowd – without trying to. Someone like Layla. We didn’t want her bangles but were taken with her vivid personality, awareness and command of English. I was curious to know more about her. We passed her as we were preparing for another horse and buggy ride, this time around the township of Bagan. I told Layla that we would be back and that I wanted to speak with her. She replied, with a huge white smile, that she would be waiting. Peter Dawson sang ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in my head.
On our return, with the Artist’s Impression ready to sail, I sat down with Layla on a rough wooden bench and found out that she was 11 years old, had left school, but was obviously a good student because that’s where she learned her English. She was now a full time bangle vendor to help support her family. She had three sisters and one brother. Her father was a boat driver on the river and her mother looked after the family at home. They lived in a village not far from where we had docked. I asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Most 11 year olds just shrug their shoulders, but Layla immediately replied that she wanted to be a tour director. Time had run out and the AIM captain was eager to cast off. I had to leave Layla with so many questions unasked. I gave her some money and Michelle and I both want to find a way to help her to pursue her dream. She asked our names and, as our ship pulled out from the bank, called out, with perfect articulation, ‘goodbye Michelle and Fraser’. Layla is going to make it.
Between our two meetings with Layla, the program provided a highlight of our cruise. After a short bus ride we came to a waiting line of horse and buggies. Having done something similar recently I dreaded the experience ahead of hard wheels hitting potholes that change the location of ribs and backbones. We walked along the line, trying to select a horse that looked big enough and strong enough to pull along our combined weight plus that of the driver and the buggy. Because we were last to arrive at the line, we had no choice but to clamber into the last buggy, with a small horse – which we believed was now about to make its last trip. The driver, however, was reassuring: “small horse, yes, but strong horse. No problem with this horse. Guarantee good horse.”
If this were England, we would have been trotting down country lanes, with waving grassy fields and magic trees taken from children’s story books. The only difference was that dotted throughout this idyllic landscape were stupas, temples and monasteries – in their thousands. Nowhere else in the world would you see this. Once finished with a coating of plaster, these variously sized buildings now stand denuded in their brickwork – adding to their uniqueness in a world where religious buildings and monuments are invariably built of stone. It is worth mentioning that a number of the very old temples and monasteries in Myanmar are built in teak, and are quite susceptible to fire.
The captain of the AIM who, even with his official hat on, looks as though he’s been plucked prematurely out of high school, invited the platoon-curious for a wheelhouse tour. There is no wheel to be found in the wheelhouse, only two rotating handles that control the dual 600 horsepower diesel engines. Top speed is 12 knots when going with the current or four knots against. There is no rudder because the thrusts are directed for steering. The ship and its engines were made relatively recently in China – although one of my more cynical platoon colleagues thinks the AIM might be a refit because he found a grasshopper in his bathroom. Refits, he said knowingly, always leave gaps for bugs to get in.
The AIM is well equipped with radar, sonar and satellite navigation. Even then, it takes a local pilot aboard who knows sandbars and currents that may not show up on the electronics. There may be an element of superstition in this, too.
Many Asian countries produce lacquerware but, according the Kommendant, each does it in a different way. Burmese lacquerware begins with weaving bamboo or horse tail hair into the shape of the finished product and then coating it with layers of natural resins, after which it is rubbed back and painted either in tiny intricate patterns or gold leaf. Teams of workers, mostly women, sit cross-legged carrying out the various processes. The finished products are more than quaint handicrafts; they are important value added exports for Myanmar. Lacquerware factory workers must do three years training at a college before they are employed. From the asking prices of the huge range of bowls and other household items I’d say they should have been comparatively well paid.
Now in Salay the Kommendant took the puffing platoon on a walking tour of the village. It seemed peaceful and orderly, with muddy streets and bamboo houses, schools and a fire station. The fire engine stood ready to go in its shed. It had no ladders visible, but instead a water cannon mounted on the roof for more distant assaults on a fire, with a possible secondary function in crowd control. It was backed up on to a ramp so that, if the battery couldn’t get the engine going, a clutch start might.
There was something mysterious about this town, too. Its grandest brick and plaster houses, built early in the 20th century by the British, were mostly abandoned and everybody I spoke to about this had a different opinion as to why. Some said the houses had ben holiday retreats for wealthy Brits from the big Burmese cities while the Kommendant suggested that they had been owned by locals who’d moved away looking for better business opportunities. What they agreed upon was that today they are worthless. They sit there, these fine examples of grand British city houses, being devoured by tropical rot, with nobody wanting to live in them. This is no village for real estate agents.