Friday 14th December 2018

2014 Pathein Blog

Pathein Blog 2014

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Friday, February 14, 2014

Very dark at 5 but our alarm call came and was confirmed by my phone’s alarm.  We had a quick instant coffee from our room and got a taxi from the hotel to the bus station.  Having been told it might take an hour to get there, it took around 15 minutes so we had a long wait.  The Burmese do love their loud music, and I mean LOUD, from the taxi to the bus station to the bus itself.  We had to give in our passports to confirm our tickets and set off in a completely full bus at 7, people carrying bags of vegetables and in the front two mums with babies who barely squeaked over the five hour journey.  We stopped once at a way-side cafe where Linda showed a sketch of egg in an attempt to get us breakfast but we got bananas as our second choice with some fairly undrinkable coffee mix in lukewarm water.  However she did manage to get us a pack of quail’s eggs which were delicious, though difficult to peel.

We arrived in Pathein to an absolute scrum of people trying to take us anywhere by taxi or motorbike, even taking my laptop case from me at one point, which went down like a lead balloon as you can imagine and culminated in my pushing him off and grabbing it back.  Linda established a price to take us to St Peter’s Cathedral but somehow we ended up at yet another bus station by the river so had to reissue instructions.  When we reached the cathedral we were dropped by the large diocesan centre which looked very hopeful in terms of accommodation, however we were met by Fr Pius, Fr Henry being in Yangon until Saturday, and he took us to lunch at the best local restaurant, known to Linda and her family already.  He showed us the Social Centre where, he suggested, we will start teaching tomorrow – help!  Around 20 young men and women from the Formation Centre from 9 till 5 – eek!  We then were taken to the pretty completely misnamed Paradise Hotel, where we are currently (but temporarily) installed in very basic accommodation.  We subsequently went to look at another local hotel, where Linda has stayed before and which has wi-fi (the absolute deal-maker), and they can take us from Saturday night.  The room is again basic and we will share but we will have hot water.  My mosquito net and silk mummy are now most definitely in use – thank you, Katherine – as is my anti-mosquito plug-in.

We spent the afternoon and evening preparing for our first lesson tomorrow, typing it up in the diocesan library, getting it printed in an internet cafe and photocopied in a local photocopy shop.  We also decided we would provide biscuits for a tea break in the morning and have the students fill in a little assessment sheet as well as working in pairs and groups (good old active learning) and that marvellous Sacred Heart chestnut of the circle with one chair left out, where you ‘Move if you … are wearing white … have travelled on a bus … have used the rest room today’.

We had dinner in a tiny cafe that was also the local chippie with queues of people waiting for Singapore noodles and chicken to be cooked in batches and served up.  Similar to Cambodia, many people do not have cooking facilities in their homes, especially in towns and eat out all the time as it is cheap to do so.  Linda and I shared a portion of noodles and vegetables – great plan, the portion was VAST and cost around 800 kyat (pronounced chat), around 80 US cents or 55p and around the same amount for a Coca Cola!

We then bit the bullet and visited the New Moon Hotel (La Pyae Wun in Burmese) on Saturday (working out how and when to break the news to our current hosts later).  I used their wi-fi and then we went to bed at around 8:30, pretty exhausted!

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Friday, February 14, 2014

I didn’t sleep particularly well – my bed is very hard and I can feel the wire frame – waking early to listen to music from my iTunes library and iron my crumpled clothes.  Didn’t hear any mosquitos though but I slept under my net and had my plug-in running anyway.  I can’t say how glad I am that I brought my laptop.  As well as a means of keeping in touch with home and uploading my many photographs, it will provide us with teaching materials.  I have used it every single day.

We had breakfast at the cafe that Linda says was the cause of Adrian (her husband who has just returned home with her dad, sister and niece, after three weeks here prior to my coming) very nearly deciding to leave and high-tail it back to Scotland on the first morning here.  It is basic with plastic tables and the ubiquitous plastic, ‘nursery’ chairs – not made for Scottish bottoms – on an earthen floor with green tea in pots on the tables and the local population of workmen eating rice or noodles with meat and vegetables and maybe not the most pristine of manners.

We arrived at the Social Centre where we will teach, at 8:30 or so to get set up and organised.  To our dismay around half of the class of 19 saw us arrive and followed us in.  They are so keen to learn and it has been a really lovely day.  Most of them are from the local junior seminary and convent and are preparing for the priesthood and religious life, averaging in age from, I would say, eighteen to twenty-four or so.  (Good one, Linda, asking if they had received or sent Valentine Cards!)  Many of them have already completed degrees or are in the midst of studying for one.   I was very keen to move them from the sitting in rows format to sitting in a circle and we did this once they had completed an assessment sheet we’d deliberately made difficult so that there would be extension material for those who have a bit more English than others.  We try to speak very slowly and enunciate properly.  They have the typical SE Asian problems of pronouncing the ends of words and saying the letters l and r.  The game I described yesterday was a riot, though, with young people practically knocking one another off chairs so they didn’t have to be ‘it’!  Some of the women are very reticent and Peter, the caretaker, and Fr Pius kept shouting at them to ‘Speak the English’ or rattling off their versions of explanations in Burmese – not helpful.  Also the Social Centre is next to a major road and the windows and doors open for ventilation so it was difficult to hear the quieter and less confident voices.

Fr Pius had lunch available for us in his office – lovely vegetables, daal, potato curry and rice followed by apple – and we then went back to the Social Centre to prepare for the afternoon.  We think we will take the group out of the centre next week, getting them to follow written directions to a place of our choice (which will involve a cold drink).  We will then get them to write directions on subsequent afternoons to a place of note or interest in Pathein and we will write a short tour guide of the city.  We will reserve the mornings for more formal teaching, hopefully overteaching phrases and sentences already covered to build confidence.  The afternoon was very hot and we went over some of the assessment material with a view to discerning teaching themes for next week before playing a round robin game answering and asking one another questions and then going home.  Linda and I went to a cafe with two of the students – John Bosco number 1 and Christopher – to try and find another source of wi-fi but failed and just chatted instead.

My little rest in my room turned into a two hour sleep and Linda woke me to say she was going out to look at the shops.  I got up and did some blogging before she returned.  As I was sitting on the verandah the sun began to set and hundreds of egrets flew over before doing some spectacular aerobatics and roosting in the trees around our guest house.  We could see them later shimmering amongst the leaves in the light of the full moon.

We visited an old family friend of Linda’s who happens to live next door with his 98 year old mother.  The house and its many, many contents were fascinating.  We then set off to walk down by the river bank where colourful and noisy stalls are set out.  We ate in a riverside restaurant but had considerable difficulty getting the young waiters to understand their own English menu.  Eventually we ended up with Singapore noodles and vegetables and mixed vegetables.  Linda’s attempt to order water brought beer and sprite before she picked up a bottle from someone else’s table to show them.  ‘Ah, Max Two Oh,’ they said.  I asked what was water in Burmese but that sent them into an apoplexy of worry.  So far I can say, ‘Mingala Ba’ – Good morning/afternoon/evening’ and ‘Jay su tim ba day’ – Thank you (forgive phonetic spellings).

The city is incredibly noisy – people cannot resist peeping their horns all the time.  We – everyone – walks up the street to a cacophony of shouts and toots and music from the many shops and stalls.  How everyone here is not hearing impaired I have no idea.  We get particular attention being foreigners and Linda being a good head above everyone else in height and many shout, ‘Hello.  How are you?’ but always in a good-natured way.

Today is also an annual Hindu festival – one man told me the pakora festival or that was what it sounded like.  Anyway today a van carried a statue of one of the Hindu gods around – don’t know which one as it was shrouded in beautiful cloths with a man carrying a pot of fire and another a huge headdress of flowers both dancing behind it.  Music blared from the van.  They seemed to us to stop and venerate the Buddhist temple before moving on.  The man I spoke to said that tomorrow they would walk on coals and split their tongues with knives as part of the celebrations!

As we stood and chatted on the verandah before going to bed (having some medicine, Kate!) a huge cockroach landed on the balustrade next to Linda.  It didn’t move but I went and got a magazine to swish it off and down to the ground several feet below.  Eurgh!  Hope it doesn’t find its way up here.  The guidebook did say that rats and cockroaches are vermin which may be seen in Burma and so far we have seen a dead rat (on the pavement in Yangon) and now this cockroach.  Ok.  Seen them.  No more now.

Good night!

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Saturday, February 15, 2014

Really did not sleep well with A/C blasting and no way of turning it off and horribly uncomfortable bed.  Was tired and grumpy this morning., though am making the most of the kindle at these times.  After our traditional breakfast of coffee 3-in-one and fried egg on bread, I discovered that they had changed the wi-fi code at the hotel and I could not hack in.  The cheek of it!  So we went back to the Paradise and checked out so I could come back and legitimately use the internet at La Pyae Wun.  Our room was not ready so we just left our stuff and headed out.

Linda wanted to see her aunt and uncle who live in the suburbs of the city.  We took a taxi and he fairly quickly got us to their house which is in a lovely, shaded corner plot.  I was enchanted by the ducks, geese and chickens plus offspring roaming in the garden and from the window could see a man carrying a yoke of panniers and a woman ringing a bell, selling goods round the house.  Of course I had forgotten my camera and was cursing myself.

Linda’s Aunt Hazel got dressed up in a beautiful new longyi and took us out to the nearby umbrella factory and we were treated to an amazing tour of how they hand-make the bamboo struts and shafts and the wooden handles before sticking on and painting the silk or cotton covers.  Incredibly labour-intensive the umbrellas are very cheap.  We went back to Aunt Hazel’s house to meet her brother Douglas who lives opposite her.  Both will accompany us to their ancestors’ village tomorrow by boat, which will be most interesting.  It is getting very hot indeed at noon as the month wears on and we called our taxi man, who had passed us his card, and he came with his wife to take up back to the hotel.  We had lunch then settled in and naturally I fell asleep.

On awaking we got to talking about how busy tomorrow will be and how we need to be ready for Monday’s class.  We spent the next two or three hours preparing group work and eventually went to the library at the Diocesan Centre to use Word on their computers, Googledrive being so very snail-pace here.  I typed up some work and we had it printed out at our pet internet shop than copied at our pet copier shop.

Dinner was at the local bar just across from the hotel and I had Dagon lager which was very nice.  Linda ordered fried cashew nuts and chips and a tomato salad, which never appeared.  I ordered fried cauliflower, which was delicious done with onion.  We were treated to an Abba fest circa 1973 on the dvd nearby.  Took me back…!

Tired tonight but beginning to feel more relaxed here.

Chaung Zaug, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Sunday, February 16, 2014

Set the alarm for 7am Mass and joined the throng headed for the cathedral.  It was High Mass which was rather long – no idea what the gospel was but it went on for about 20 minutes.  The singing was strong and powerful but backed by a cheesy electronic piano which was a shame. At the offertory procession around 30 people took up flowers and vegetables and fruit but whether this was planned or people just take up their surplus for the church, I don’t know.  I’ll ask the students tomorrow.  Other than that it was a little like being taken back in time fifty years with all of the ladies wearing mantillas and the convent girls and school boys sitting in uniform in rows.

We took street pancakes for breakfast back to the hotel where we asked for hot water and made our own coffee – delicious!  When I began to prepare for our boat trip I realised I had lost my prescription sunglasses.  Disaster!  I went back to all the places we visited at the end of the day yesterday but to no avail.  I’m really cross with myself.
Linda’s aunt and uncle arrived at 11 as planned and sent us off on the back of motorbikes to meet the boat.  I really have been reluctant to do this up until now as I’m pretty sure it negates my travel insurance but Linda assured me it would be a very short trip.  Well, it wasn’t.  My knight had to be the one with the pronounced tic who had aspirations to be a boy racer and spent much of the journey passing other traffic on the inside or on the pavement.  In order to be first he took me through the cathedral grounds over the speed bumps.  I do hope he doesn’t understand English is all I will say.  The air was blue.

On the outskirts of town we accessed the boat on a small tributary of the wide Ngawon River which flows through Pathein, through a rice mill which had the most beautiful bamboo matting floor. We climbed down (the river is tidal) and all squatted on the bottom of the exquisite wooden boat of John Ying who was 70 if he was a day and wearing a down coat – it must have been 38 degrees in the shade.

The men used bamboo poles to get us started and then a petrol engine to work the motor.  We made our way down the small river which meandered to join the Ngawon.  I saw what I’m pretty sure was a kind of brown kingfisher but didn’t get my camera focused in time.  We passed boat after boat of sacks of rice going up to the mill and, once out on the big river, boats of thatch and other goods headed up to Pathein and beyond.

After around an hour we motored up another small tributary for around ten minutes until we reached the village of Linda’s ancestors.  The children had heard the boat’s engine and were out in force to greet us.  Linda’s Uncle Douglas took us to the pastor of the village who was most welcoming and ask us into his home, a traditional house on stilts with the main rooms upstairs and space for the animals beneath.  The village is a collection of around 20 houses, mostly wood or thatch, gathered around a brick church.  The people (100 inhabitants or so) grow rice and vegetables and fish the river.  The pastor and his wife gave us the most lovely lunch – rice, eggs, aubergines – after we had walked through the village to where Linda’s great-grandparents are buried tranquilly between the rice paddies and the river.

Well, walk is the wrong verb really.  Firstly we were escorted by all the village children who begged to have their photographs taken at every opportunity.  And it was more like an animated version of ‘Bear Hunt’ that Elizabeth is so very fond of.  Over the sacks filled with sand – thud, thud; across the bamboo poles – steady, balance; through the hay piles – tickle, poke; through the mud – squelch, squerch; over the fire ant hill – eek, jump; across the plank – wobble, wobble; through the jungle – phew, puff.  You get the picture.

The village is so quiet and well-ordered it seemed quite idyllic though Hazel says that it is tricky during the rainy season which lasts from May through to September as the village is only accessible by water.  I was enchanted by the hen with ten chicks and the ducklings that mixed with the hens and the pigs and piglets.  The photographs are just lovely but I may have to wait till Singapore to get them uploaded.  The internet is very slow and unpredictable in the hotel here – but better that than nothing.

The journey back was more choppy but just as picturesque and the motorbike ride just as hairy. Back in the hotel I was pleased that the electricity was back on – there are regular stoppages and it had been off since around 9:30am – and I could wash my feet which were just filthy.  The washing I had handed in at 9am was beautifully washed and ironed.  So all was right with the world.

LInda and I headed out to do a kind of treasure hunt for tomorrow afternoon and now it’s bedtime.

Mingala ba!

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Monday, February 17, 2014

Up early to get organised and have breakfast only to have Christopher, one of our students, spot us and come in to join us at what Adrian is pleased to call the Breakfast Hovel next door to the hotel.  Christopher was very useful in ordering us mugs of Instant Coffee which is so much better than the mud we have been being served, and in getting us egg done on both sides to Linda’s preference.  The locals get the attention of the waiters by making kissing noises (really!) but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do this.

Once we got to the Social Centre the students began to arrive and the boys in particular were on good form, playing football with a blow-up globe Linda had brought and watching a slideshow I had of Thomas, Katherine and Julian – see the second entry of my blog.  It was useful to let the students see the grey weather and how warmly dressed we have to be in winter.

I used a further slideshow I have made of the visit to Linda’s ancestors’ village from yesterday as an introduction to the students saying how they had spent their weekend.  Everyone tried really hard and most listened patiently to the others’ stories though there was much repetition. We had spent some time dividing the students into mixed ability groups so that the girls were in with the boys and the more able students able to help those whose understanding was not so good. Each group made a flag which represented their interests and I was humbled and touched by their thoughtful responses.

We moved on to each group trying to identify a hero from six sentences I had elicited from their biographical details on good old Wikipedia – Did you know Pope Francis had been a nightclub bouncer before he became a priest?!  We were interested to note that they were able to identify the current Pope, Mother Teresa and Barak Obama but not Nelson Mandela so we talked through why each of them had been heroic and about equality.

We gave the students a long lunch break till 3:30 so that the heat of the day was less intense for our walk around the city later.  We went to the Diocesan Office for lunch and met Fr Henry.  We were able to ask him about a budget for our work and about use of the computer and printer facilities and indeed he invited us to use the office there and then which we did, printing off our instructions for the afternoon.

We took advantage of the break by going back to the hotel for a siesta before meeting the students once more and doing a simple exercise on right and left and forward and backwards. We then sent the groups off at 5 minute intervals to use our directions to find a secret location, with an envelope in case they got lost.  Linda and I set off for the cafe we had chosen as their destination via a bank which was closed (they seem to employ the old colonial banking hours of 9-3; Lord knows how I’ll get to one).  To our relief Groups 1, 3 and 2 turned up and we had cold drinks ready for them.  Poor old Group 4 eventually rang one of the other students and were way back at the church about 3 minutes away from the social centre, not understanding how to use the envelope.  The direct route took only 5 or 10 minutes and they finally arrived to jibes and catcalls.   Tomorrow, we told them, the groups create the directions for the rest of us.

We meandered back to the hotel through the market escorted by John Bosco and Christopher who are very concerned about our safety and security and, we think, have been asked to look after us.

Dinner was vegetable curry and Jagari which is a kind of sugar cane tablet for dessert.

It’s quarter past nine and way past my bedtime.  Mingala ba.

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

We gave our usual breakfast boy a tip today and for the first time he broke into a smile.  I caught him showing the note to his pals and he was obviously thrilled.  These young lads (12 to 18 years, maybe) work very hard from early in the morning to late evening on their feet all day.

Our first day in our new premises was much easier than in the Social Centre.  We have a large space (even if festooned with Christmas decorations) to use as we wish and lovely Peter still brings us coffee and occasionally sits and comments on the activities and lovely John Bosco no 1 looks after our materials for us and does any photocopying we need.  There is even the internet!!! But it is very, very slow!  However I use my computer to let the students see photographs of the previous day which they absolutely love and sometimes use it to track who has and has not responded to questions.

Linda came up with the idea of everyone describing an object they had hidden in their pocket so that the rest of us could guess what it is.  This was very successful.

After break we set off to get the youngsters to talk about fictional heroes in their home teams (sic – Sacred Heart!).  Christopher and John Bosco had suggested James Bond and we came up with Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow (they adore Johnny Depp!) and Superman.  I had downloaded some material from the internet on each of the characters but we hadn’t banked on a serious lack of knowledge from some of the boys and absolutely all of the girls. We started trying to explain Harry Potter but I genuinely think some of the girls thought we had taken leave of our senses. Somehow Linda figured out that they all knew about Cinderella so we changed tack completely and all groups told us about Cinderella and then did a short play on the story which we video’d – hilarious but very satisfactory in terms of increased confidence, willingness to speak out and work in groups, understanding and speaking of English – very pleasing indeed.

Another lovely lunch at Caritas was followed by the usual wee siesta and then the afternoon session when Group 3 led us to The Polar Ice Shop for drinks by clear, concise instructions – well done.  We took them to the fruit shop to talk about fruit in English (where the bemused girls told the group that this was the THIRD time we had been there!) and asked the students to show us round the Buddhist pagoda which the town is famous for.

The pagoda is solid gold and bejewelled and the students paid it reverence and took interest in the artefacts and statues.  There is a statue of a frog consuming a snake that I have promised to investigate but found little information on.

We are very proud of all of our students:
Aay Si Na, Anna, Carolus, Cecilia, Charles, Christopher, Clare, Daisy, Elizabeth, John Bosco I, John Bosco II, John Paul, John Sky, Justine, Marcellinus, Margaret, Raymond, Stephen and Sylvester.

In the evening Linda and I wandered down by the river and then back to our local where we shared French fries and tomato salad again.  We’re becoming quite predictable.

Lots of lovely emails from home and Kate is keeping me up to date with her progress round Oz too.  Thank you, all.

xxx

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Usual breakfast in the Breakfast Hovel but our boy brought us mugs instead of cups and our egg and bread without any dubiety.  We’re making progress.

I went out early to see if the bank was open which it was not and instead busied myself taking photographs of the port and morning trade heading towards the market.  On my way back to the social centre I saw a long line of Buddhist monks in their brown robes, around forty of them in single file, barefoot and shading their heads with identical fans and walking towards a temple in the south of the town.  I did try to take discreet photographs but the light was poor in the shade of the main street.

As always people are intrigued by the sight of a European woman and shout in either Burmese or English, sometimes getting their children to speak or wave.  I’m a head taller than most people which means that Linda is three heads taller.  She causes massive shock-waves as she’s taken to using a Pathein umbrella which adds still extra height and colour.

We met a couple of women in our hotel who are leading training for journalists in the upper floor of the Social Centre and when we arrived to teach they were all having breakfast on tables in the room we usually use, which is fine – it’s a big room.  They are working with trainee and experienced journalists on various news techniques.  News reporting is a hot potato here as you can imagine, so big wigs in white cars with blacked out windows and police were evident.

We played the chair game at one point, which the students are really in the swing of now, and were asked to keep the hilarity down as we were disturbing the Journalists’ Course and they couldn’t hear upstairs. Oops!  What they did have though was coffee and cakes and Peter, the caretaker, looked after us with both.  I liberated the left-over cakes for the students.

The groups prepared material on Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala, Marie Curie and Rosa Parks to deliver to the whole group and, while they needed extra direction, did very well.  We talked about what makes a hero and why these women have been important figures.

Yet again we had a delicious lunch at the Caritas offices and then a wee siesta after I had done a bit of prep for tomorrow and Linda went to the bank and got me more khats.

In the afternoon each of the four groups went out to plan their directions which will take us to a secret location over the next four afternoons.   We accidentally bought some lovely longyi material from the most expensive shop in Pathein then had dinner at the local bar with the delicious chips and cashew nuts (but we made it ok by having tomato salad too) and met the two journalists again so had a pleasant evening chatting to them.

This has been a very special day. (NOTE – This was the day my daughter Katherine confirmed she was having twins – James and Grace to be!)

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Thursday, February 20, 2014

Today we rose early to go to the market and see round it while it is cool.  As it turns out we got there before it opened at 7:30 but got the chance to take photographs and wander round quietly. There are many things I can’t recognise in terms of vegetables and roots so it was interesting to make a guess at all that was there.  But we saw a whole lot of tobacco and betel leaves. Chewing betel nuts and leaves is endemic and all along the roads and little spills of red which at first I thought was blood but I now realise is the leaves chewed and spat out onto the ground.  This results in red and rotting teeth and seems to be quite addictive – disgusting.  However I will buy some spices before I come home.

All of this made us a bit late getting to the Breakfast Hovel where our lad was sporting a new shirt and a tattoo that we’ve never noticed on his leg before – result of our dollar yesterday?  Today I splashed out and had “Non-Roti and Chick Peas” which is like a naan bread with a cold chick pea salad thing and two cups of 2 plus 1, which is coffee plus creamer and sugar.  It was really tasty but I fear I’m going to find my coffee at home very bitter now.  Having had nearly forty years without sugar in coffee I have had almost five weeks of sweet coffee.

We were later than usual getting to the cathedral complex but were there first – phew!  Peter soon joined us to sweep the floor and put the resulting pile into a corner – typical here.  The students looked at yesterday’s photographs and then Linda had a game of opposites were they had to find their resulting pair.  We then looked at the videos from yesterday which they thought absolutely side-splitting before critiquing them to note that voices needed to be clearer and louder and, if we work outside next time we won’t get the echo there is in here.  They had four different Myanmar stories for us: The Ant and the Grasshopper, Ma Put Kyawl and the Snail, The Blind Boy and his Father and The Lion and the Mouse, most unfamiliar but with similar morals to our own fables. They told us the stories very clearly and were then keen to act them out making props and costumes from paper. We did these in the shade on the steps of the cathedral to the bemusement of other classes taking place.

John Bosco and Christopher took us to Caritas as usual for a wonderful vegetable concoction and spicy eggs with rice, followed by Bee Oranges (teeny and sweet) and apple which was peeled and cut into tiny portions.  I had a chat with Fr Henry and said how pleased we were with the students and their progress and he seemed to concur when I asked if he had had good feedback. He said maybe we could come back next year for 3 to 6 months but I told him I have commitments at home and would not be able to give up that amount of time.

Linda then set off on the back of the diocesan motorbike(!) with John Bosco to buy our bus tickets to the beach tomorrow (3000 kyats each – about 3 dollars).  The students all say the bus is bad and Linda did say it was an experience so we’ll see.  They have the day off tomorrow but we have left them individual homework to prepare for Monday.

The hotel has agreed to allow us to check out for two nights then back into the same room which, although it has no outlook, is quiet and has good plumbing, which can’t be said for all of the rooms apparently.

Very good afternoon with Group 1 leading us to the waterfront via a very nice route with some twists and turns.  We all walked along the promenade together at the end looking at the cargo being loaded onto a collection of large and small boats before saying goodbye for the weekend.

Linda and I went back to the hotel then ordered a taxi to take us to Royal Lake where we were promised a very nice restaurant.  Unbelievably Linda met a woman wandering round by the lakeside who, it transpires, works with her cousin in Yangon.  We saw a gorgeous sunset then sat down for a beer after speaking to some delightful English majors at Pathein University.  They were pleased to tell us we were the first foreigners they had spoken to.  We felt that our students’ English is every bit as good as theirs.  We ate very good Singapore noodles with vegetables and then a trio came onto the stage to perform gentle Myanmar melodies and we realised immediately that the bass guitarist was Sirus, Linda’s cousin’s son, whom we had met at Hazel’s house on Saturday.  We waved at the poor boy and Linda went to talk to him before we called our pet taxi driver and went home.

We have packing to do before tomorrow.

Mingala ba.  I may not now blog until I return on Sunday from Chaungtha on the Indian Ocean, which has no electricity and almost certainly no internet.  Hopefully I will have enjoyed wonderful swimming, great sun and fabulous sunsets.

Chaungtha, Myanmar
Friday, February 21, 2014

Woke before six and got up before my alarm went off at 6:30.  We have checked out of our hotel but they will keep the majority of our luggage until Sunday when we come back.  We got a taxi to the bus station where, in the hut next door to where our bus was leaving from, there were women sitting in a large group overseen by a man, weighing and sorting hair that had been cut and was being prepared to be sold, like something out of Les Miserables.

As last time we were allocated the front seats in the bus.  It was absolutely weighed down with goods of all kinds in the luggage compartment, under the seats and on the roof so we sat with our feet on top of cartons of some goods or other.  Some women were standing at the front of the bus without seats and the conductor twisted one of the cartons from beneath my feet to let one sit on it, trapping my foot between other boxes.  I let out a yell which everyone thought was just hilarious.

Most vehicles are right-hand drive even though they drive on the right-hand side of the road, which does not make driving any safer here..  As we set off the driver tried out his horn which was a cross between a train’s whistle and a piercing yell.  A conservative estimate would be that we heard this sound another eight or nine hundred times from the bus before we got to Chaung Tha Beach. The function of the conductor was, as the driver let out a tattoo of blasts on his horn, to lean out of the open door opposite and yell at everyone in our path, gesticulating wildly for oncoming vehicles to move over.  He seemed also to pay tolls at regular intervals.   Private cars the driver appeared to respect, occasionally drawing to the side to let them pass safely.  All other vehicles were fair game and his favoured gambit was to drive straight for them waiting for them to dart out of our way at the last minute.  On joining the main road over the Pathein River and towards the beach, we pulled out of our more minor road straight in front of a minibus and from then I wondered whether this bird’s eye view was a blessing or a curse.  At one point I glanced at the speedometer to see how fast we were going but it was broken and therefore neither a help nor a comfort.

The route was mostly paved interspersed with tracts of dirt road.  Each time we stopped in one of the small villages on the way we were inundated with people coming up to the windows, yelling and trying to get passengers to buy their wares – fruit, meat and nuts.  Along the way people got on and off and we soon realised that the many pretty young women on the bus were teaching in rural schools.  At one which sat higher than the road we were on, the children cheered and rushed to take their teachers’ baskets from them as they alighted from the bus.  We have often marvelled at how beautifully turned out these young women always are, given that there are primitive washing facilities, their blouses and longyi beautifully washed and pressed and their hair immaculately pulled back into snoods.

The road rose and fell, weaving in, out and over the Arakan foothills, through what could possibly be coffee plantations, as we neared the beach and we finally crossed a wide river on what seemed to me to be a railway bridge with the rails covered by sleepers, paying a toll for the privilege.

We arrived at our hotel around ten to be greet by the manager.  Linda has stayed here in the previous weeks and was welcomed royally.  We were taken from the main complex and down to Hill Garden Hotel by jeep with our luggage, arriving at a little paradise of flowers and trees and being offered a late breakfast of fruit salad, egg and toast and coffee – quite blissful.  A beautiful Burmese-looking cat which had the bearing of my beloved and long departed Walter (don’t listen, Jess) claimed our knees and purred lovingly into our faces before leaping onto the table to sample the butter, taking rather too much advantage and being shooed away.

Linda is in Papaya and I am in Apple, both little thatched shacks with ensuite facilities and electricity only in the evening when the generator is switched on.  Apple is right on one corner of the complex with gorgeous views of the sea from my verandah and a gentle breeze wafting through my two thatched windows.  Each bed (there are two) has a mosquito net and I have brought my battery-operated room repellent as well.  My feet were bitten last night by Royal Lake even though I had Jungle Formula sprayed on.

I am very much looking forward to getting both my feet and my sandals into the ocean.  The streets and dust of Pathein have really taken their toll and my feet are quite revolting with dirt that no amount of scrubbing with our hotel room scrubbing brush seems to touch.  Fortunately cursory glances have shown everyone else’s feet to be pretty similar, though dirty brown feet are not nearly so disgusting to me as filthy white feet.

After changing we climbed down the hill to the beach and were soon in the Indian Ocean which today is quite calm and just the right temperature.  Only Europeans were on our beach but Linda tells me that Burmese bathe in their clothes or tops and leggings, feeling that western swimming costumes are not modest.

Pure chance, in the knowledge I would have little or no electricity here to charge my Kindle, led me to pick up Paper Towns by John Green, a coming of age novel set in Florida, from the hotel in Pathein.  It was just wonderful, laugh-out-loud funny and touching, so I’ll be seeking him out from good old Ely Library when I get home.  I came back from the ocean in the afternoon, having had a sea- and sun-soak to read and rest while Linda stayed down there.

Linda later took  a motorbike to town for some souvenir shopping but I was too lazy.  Dinner was delicious vegetable curry and rice.

Chaungtha, Myanmar
Sunday, February 23, 2014

I woke early as ever and pottered, taking photographs of birds which, when examined later, are just really photographs of trees with blobs on them :(.  I am reading a book from the library here by the wonderful Janet Evanovich whom I discovered in Vermont, with her funny bounty hunter tales set in New Jersey.  This jaunty tale was co-written by someone called Charlotte Hughes and was light and amusing if predictable.

We spent some time chatting with a lovely German couple of a similar age, librarians from Munich who work flexi-time and save their holidays to get a six-week stretch.  They had travelled throughout the country and were curious and interesting in their views.

After a lovely breakfast (eggs, fruit, sweetmeats, fruit salad and coffee mix – what will I do without coffee mix?) I moved into Papaya to release my lovely Apple and a family moved right in.  We went down to the beach and Linda went off to ride a beach pony by the headland, some of which are painted and have their manes cropped to look like zebras.  Predictably I sat and read and cavorted in the waves.

Around one we went back to the hotel for lunch, avocado salad and fruit salad with a delicious lime drink, before showering and changing.  We paid the bill – $38.40 for all we have eaten and drunk – and were taken by motorbike with our luggage to the main hotel (by a young competent rider this time).

We waited in the beach bar by the main hotel for our bus.  It is much livelier down here in Chaung Tha itself but I’m glad we were out of town by our more secluded beaches and very pleased to have been in the thatched hut, cooled by the breezes at the top of the hill.

My heart sank as our bus eventually pulled up.  It was at least 30 years older than the last with no suspension to speak of and windows that rattled so hard it was difficult to hear anything else. The horn at least was normal.  Fish was or had recently been a cargo and had left a pungent odour. We set off but Linda and I found it hard to share the narrow, shallow front seat with our bags wedged in front of us so as not to fall out of the open door and she soon took a seat nearer the back of the bus.

To my shock, as we rounded one of the corners with the setting sun casting long shadows on the side of the road I saw from the reflection that there was a man perched on top of the bus, at the front, holding on.  He clambered down when we stopped after some miles to help take on length after length of rough wood which was piled under the seats and in the aisle and meant we all ended up with our feet on top of it and our knees high.  Another three joined him up on the roof and all four bounced and bumped around for the rest of the journey.  To my disbelief we stopped sometime further on to take on yet more wood and other bundles were thrown up to the men on the top of the bus.  After some miles we stopped yet again for not more wood but for the conductor to peel an egg and give it to a monkey waiting by a tree and banging on the ground. He talked to it and waved goodbye – obviously a regular ritual.  Passengers from time to time passed money to the conductor to throw into copper bowls which were struck or shaken by people asking for money for the Buddhist stoopas and pagodas we passed on the way.

Soon a young man with absolutely no idea of personal space got on and sat beside (well actually half on top of) me for the rest of the way.  He and others used plastic bags to deposit their regular spittings of betel juice – truly revolting.

By the time we arrived in Pathein two and a half hours later I was well and truly over the exhilaration of the experience.  We took two bicycle rickshaws back to the hotel and felt like we were coming home.  It wasn’t Hill Garden Hotel but it was our own noisy, air conditioned cell!  And it had the internet.  Very, very slow but available.

Chaungtha, Myanmar
Saturday, February 22, 2014

The beach hut was surprisingly noisy first thing in the morning with cockerels vying for loudest crow and motorbike, lorry and boat engines roaring in the distance.  I had awoken through the night hearing the generator too.  I soon noticed the variety of bird life around the trees and bushes and have taken photographs of several different species which I will check out on the internet – one was not large but quite striking with a crest and a red rump.

Linda and I breakfasted around nine and I had the fruit salad as well as banana pancake, taking the remainder of the large portion to the beach for lunch.  They also bring some sticky rice sweetmeats, which we had for dessert in Cambodia.

We once again walked beyond the headland to the north past the Buddhist stoopa, to the beach umbrellas (wood thatched with palm leaves) and sunbeds (pallets on legs) and the little beach cafe where seven children seem to live with their parents and a dog they hit with a stick :(.  A wind began to ruffle the ocean and we had to be careful not to get burned as it seemed deceptively cool at times but very hot once more when we left the shore to go back to the hotel later.  The bathing is just wonderful.

Today I picked up a Scandinavian detective romp set in Spain – why are these women always separated or divorced and not living with their children? – from a collection of books left by the terrace.  It started badly but then improved and I finished it before bed.

Most of the people in the hotel are German but there is a group of Australian young people too. The hotel is mentioned in Lonely Planet which I think is why it is pretty full.  It’s very good value at $25 per shack per night.  Some people may be put off by the lack of air conditioning but there is a lovely breeze blowing from the sea.

I went back down to take photographs of the sunset but there was a haze and a stiff breeze and it was not really very special.  I also watched five lads go into the ocean with a large stick and a stepladder.  I have absolutely no idea what they were up to but they were close to what I think is a sewage pipe.  Pretty soon the step ladder was brought out and replaced by a huge blue tub they could all have sailed inside.  I left them trying to sink it, I think.

Tonight I had a tofu curry – first protein today, really – and tomato and avocado salad with a lovely, peppery dressing.  Oh and I had some Myanmar sauvignon blanc as well but this one from Inle Lake was not so pleasant as the one in Yangon, with a kind of petroly aftertaste.

It’s been a very restful day.

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Monday, February 24, 2014

Back to the Breakfast Hovel and was our boy pleased to see us?  Difficult to tell really.  However he brought coffee mix and eggs and bread.  By the look of things these boys sleep in the building on mats once the place closes around 9pm and then are up at 5am or so – a pretty miserable and tiring existence.

Linda then went off to get spices from the market and I went back to get ready for the day, downloading the videos from last week and our photographs from the weekend. We brought back some shells and Linda found some coral and cuttlefish too that she wants the students to see. We set off for the library and I discovered almost immediately I had left the adapter for my computer and had to trudge back to the hotel again.  Everyone was in good fettle and, we felt, pleased to see us and glad to be started back in class.

We did a short round of what we did at the weekend that was different from one another and then into their homework which was describing their favourite book/film/poem/story/painting.  Most did really well, some with very profound ideas and answers.  I quickly put together some synonyms – wee, small, little, tiny, for example – and they had to find others in their group then make up a sentence for each word.  During the break the girls were asking Linda about her tan which they were most dismayed about – as in Cambodia everyone wants to be white – and then about the weather in the UK.  I showed them the video of Thomas on the boat again (only the boys had seen it previously) and then found two photos of Thomas and Matthew in the garden in Ely during a very snowy winter.  We completed the students’ homework talks then did a quick round of opposites.

Group 1 came back at 2, after we’d had a lovely lunch and I’d dashed to the bank, to complete the computer profiles I’d created for them.  They did a nice job and it was great to have time with only five of them, hearing them speak to us individually.  Poor John Bosco’s file did not save and he did not use one bad word but dutifully redid it.

At 3:30 we followed Group 4’s directions to a tea house new to almost all of us, in the north of the city.  The girls have told us they may not be able to join us for our secret trip on Friday, as they must prepare for a wedding, and so we have brought it forward to Thursday but they are still unsure about whether they can come. Linda and I decided to speak to Mother Superior and John Bosco and Christopher got us rickshaws and escorted us across town to meet her.  She was pleased to let the girls come with us on Thursday and we will take the whole class to meet with her on Wednesday afternoon for a short visit.

It was imperative to have a Dagon beer after work today as we had not had a break at all, following which I worked on the computer and then we walked out and by a material shop where I bought pretty longyi cotton to take home.  We then discovered a shop making samosas and had some vegetable curry and parathas – too much to eat really.  I took the last samosa for two young dogs which are starving on the corner of our street.  When I tore off a bit and threw it near one of the poor beasts it ran away.  I threw the whole thing in bits near where it had gone.  Some of these poor animals have no life at all.

I came back to discover that my travel blog was no 26 in the world for February.  How amazing is that?!  Thank you, dear reader!

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We looked at another hotel last night, just to see what else was available.  It’s right across the road and clean and tidy – $5 more at $35 dollars but has breakfast thrown in.  But I said to Linda that we would miss the hustle and bustle of the Breakfast Hovel.  There are often some beggars who appreciate a few kyats, always a racket, and today the travel agent who uses the New City Cafe (for that is its name) as his office came to chat.  He organises tours to the islands right at the mouth of the Ayerwaddy Delta and Linda and he talked about an island, Diamond Island she knows it by, he visited with some English people with Burmese forebears whose family had lived there but abandoned it in 1942 when the Japanese invaded and its inhabitants fled to India, as did Linda’s dad.  Linda was able to say that her father had gone to that island as a child, to a big house owned by his family’s friends.  The travel agent would like to put her family who live near London in touch with that family who live near London.  Talk about a small world!

A good but fairly ordinary teaching day with the girls becoming less reticent and the boys rather more boisterous and needing some verbal direction!  We did some nice working on acting out verbs which they enjoyed.  I showed them the Thriller video on YouTube done by the Filipino prisoners and they found it pretty incomprehensible actually.  They were reluctant to believe it had had 53 million hits.  I do want them to see how this kind of technology works.

Each person talked to us about where he or she is from on the map of Myanmar for some of the girls who come from further afield, and Ayerwaddy Division for the rest of the girls and all of the boys. They almost exclusively come from small villages and towns where their families have farms and smallholdings growing rice and vegetables and rearing animals and/or fishing the rivers and lakes.  Only two came from larger towns.

Group 2 led us round the town after lunch with rather dubious directions which had to be supplemented by my knowledge of where we were to end up, in various places.  And this was back at the start.  The group had set up drinks at tables in a cool breeze by the cathedral entrance, next to our classroom.  No Shark for me today.  I had this ‘energy drink’ from Thailand some of the group like yesterday and it was quite revolting – like drinking Germolene!

We got to talking about where we would be tomorrow and two of the group are keen for us to visit Pathein Museum (which we didn’t know existed).  To our horror, the more macho boys (young men – they are between 17 and 24) said that they didn’t want to go because museums are ‘gay’ – so much for extending their vocabulary.  I played daft and asked if they meant happy places but they said no and one imitated a mincing walk.  Another said it was sissy and, when I looked askance, he spelled it out for me.  Light touch paper and retire.  I took off my sunglasses so they could see how serious I was and let rip about equality and how the law in Britain protects everyone, no matter what gender, race, age, religion or sexual orientation and that we are taught to respect everyone for who they are and that Pope Francis has said the church has to change how we treat people who are different.  Linda took the tack that museums are places where we can all celebrate our heritage and look at progress within our country and others and mentioned how we had fought to keep our museums free of charge so that everyone is able to access them because they are so important. We will be going to the museum tomorrow.

Somewhat chastened the group suggested climbing the bell tower of the cathedral and we agreed to do that.  All twenty-one of us climbed to the organ gallery via a beautiful wooden spiral staircase and then to the next level on an open stair. The next, yet more open staircase took us to an even higher gallery and, spotting a large square hole in the floor set a bit away from our path, I busied myself organising two of the boys to put a workman’s bench across it so that it would be covered and noticeable and no-one would fall.  The gap was bigger than a manhole in our roads at home through which you could see down around thirty feet to the concrete floor of the level below and was completely uncovered and open to anyone nearby. Linda said, somewhat faintly, ‘Mary, are you noticing that there’s a bigger hole?’ This next open manhole was right at the very foot of the last staircase which led to the roof where a number of the group were already clambering and the boys jostling one another and mucking about to see who could lead. As I sit on my bed and type this the memory shudders through my body.  It was an absolute fatality waiting to happen and, as Linda remarked, even if they knew the holes were there, we did not!  Health and safety, there was none!  I yelled out, ‘Right everybody. Down from here right now.’  They all laughed, thinking I was joking and then that I was scared.  I think our tones of voices and stony faces told a different story and almost everyone obeyed immediately, only one requiring a last barked order to leave quickly. We tried to explain that we are responsible for their safety while they are with us, even if they are young adults and that, understatement of the fortnight, I considered the holes in the gallery to be unsafe.

I worked to complete profiles and begin to tie work up in the library.  We have bought printer toner for the library computer so it can be used.  We then did bits of errands for the end of the week, went back to our wee bar on the corner and back to the hotel later than usual.

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Linda’s story got even more strange today as the travel agent in the Breakfast Hovel gave her the email address for the person whose history is similar to her own and Linda knows her!  She is a jeweller who writes books and Linda’s work has been featured in them.

We gathered this morning in the knowledge that Myanmar has been accused of crimes against humanity with regard to the Rohinga minority in the north of the country.  When we talked about the different ethnic groups in the country the students said there were eight and when Linda asked about the Rohinga who were not included in this number, they said that they didn’t count as they were immigrants.  I asked how long they have lived here and the students said they thought around 500 years!  We talked a little more about pride in the whole country and about ensuring that everyone gets a chance to be represented and left the issue.  We’re here for a fortnight only.

The museum was small but interesting.  Foreigners are supposed to pay 2,000 kyats but we balked at this and were let off as we are teachers.  I was most interested in a display which set out the different stages of planting and harvesting rice.

As we left we gave both the boys and the girls around 20,000 kyats ($20) each to buy food for our picnic tomorrow.  Linda and I went with the girls to the market and they were very thrifty, hunting from stall to stall for the best bargains.  Linda and I both bought peppercorns and I bought ginger to take home.

It is beginning to get very hot indeed during the day and stifling in the afternoon, particularly where we have been teaching at the top of the building with the computers.  Of the three seasons, Summer, Rainy Season and Winter (where it might go down to 25 degrees C), I think the height of summer (March/April) must be the most exhausting.

We are beginning to say goodbyes and today said thank you to the lady in the Caritas office who has been cooking our fabulous lunches each day.  We left a box of biscuits for them to enjoy.

The last group finished their computer profiles this afternoon and, despite the fact that many have never been expected to use a keyboard before, did well.  John Paul discovered my itunes library and what was most to his taste was the prologue to Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet.  He was a bit disgusted that I did not have The Wanted on the computer.

We then went to the Aspiratante where the girls live, to meet with Sister Colette and Mother Superior.  We were shown into a lovely cool room and given drinks and mohinga and egg pudding made by the girls.  The girls and sister had gifts for us – a Karen necklace and bangle, a rosary bangle and a beautiful jade rosary, all made by the girls.  Thank you so much!  We did not do justice to the delicious food but we think the boys did. As we finished Stephen and Carolus came to say goodbye.  They have unexpectedly to go to Yangon tomorrow for an exam.  How sad it is to bid farewell to these young people and wonder how they will fare.

Linda and I then spent the rest of the afternoon in the library collating materials for the students including their profiles, all the work we have done together, information on BBC Burmese and tomorrow I will add CDs of the photographs we have taken together.  I then broke the printer we have been using by trying to open the back.  The plastic seems to get so brittle in the heat, it just came away in my hand.  Linda patiently glued it back together and we stuck it with masking tape for the moment.  Oh dear.

We came home to the hotel and rested before heading out to … the bar on the corner for … chips and – oh no, no tomatoes for tomato salad, cashew nuts instead and … a bottle of Dagon between us.  What creatures of habit we are.

Oh, and as we came up the street yesterday around six, music was blaring from what I now know is the old Pathein cinema and we saw advertised a film about Human Rights Dignity sponsored by Movies that Matter and the good old British Embassy.  Rule Britannia!  Unfortunately the film will have three showings on Saturday when we’re gone and our best efforts could not find out the title or the director but only that it would be in Burmese and English.

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Today has been the loveliest day.

We breakfasted early and then, as Anna had asked me to type out her favourite song for her, I went to the library early and printed it out.  We had a chat with the girls and John Bosco until the boys’ truck arrived with Toto the driver from the seminary.  We now know that Stephen and Carolus have gone to Yangon to join a new English class which lasts one month and I’m sure they’ll do very well.  We got a sweet letter from Stephen thanking us for what we had done and saying how much he had enjoyed the fortnight.

The students had excelled themselves preparing for our picnic.  Christopher had plates in his bag!  On the way to Royal Lake I had a crisis of conscience because I felt our destination was a bit tame and suspect that in their heart of hearts they wanted to go to the beach.  Linda said she was happy to change her mind.  We asked Toto to stop and had a chat with Marcellinus, a volunteer with the seminarians who keeps us all right.  He felt that it was too far and the journey would be rough for the girls and we would have a very short time there.  Phew!  We continued to Royal Lake, which I must say is less exciting in the daylight but which the group embraced anyway.

Once we had found a kind of large open shelter to put our things we sat down with the three guitars they had brought to sing with – many of them play well.  They sang Great Big World with great gusto.  I didn’t know it then but I do now.   Then You are My Sunshine and a Michael Jackson song I’m not familiar with, before they sang:

As the deer pants for the water
So my soul longs after You
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.

You alone are my strength, my shield
To You alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.

Well, Kate McNeil and Eileen Waterston, you would both have had ‘a wee moment’ at the wonderful, fervent and sincere voices – the boys, in particular, lifting their faces and vocals and harmonising.  It was very special indeed.  I was transported back to Sacred Heart and our children’s great singing, accompanied by Joan, Elaine and Claire with Pauline, Jean, Roisin, Catherine and myself singing out the words to support everyone with whatever we had chosen for Mass, ably supported by Kerrylee, Ann and Karen (and Jamie too!).

They then organised a kind of Pass the Parcel but with forfeits.  I had to do an advertisement and took my camera as a prop and Linda had to dance Gangnam Style, both of which they loved.

Lunch was a veritable feast with samosas, fried egg sandwiches, paratha with chick peas, fruit (including for the first time dragon fruit, Cambodia Crew) and cake which was strange without milk and butter.  Everything was beautifully served on platters with cocktail sticks for the fruit and cake. In the afternoon we rested while the students played and visited the island together, which was lovely to see.

We decided then to leave Royal Lake and visit a pagoda to the south of Pathein that John Bosco no 1 wanted us to see.  We had a Cambodian massage for the last part of our journey through unknown parts of the city until we reached Yayy Kyi Oo, an unusual, large pagoda with beautiful grounds that John Bosco says are closed at 6pm because of the large number of snakes.  Some of the boys took advantage of scaffolding to climb to the top of the pagoda’s roof.  Linda and I closed our eyes and pretended we hadn’t noticed the height or lack of any kind of railings at the top.

We came back to the hotel and I have been here ever since trying to fit 300 photos plus some short movies onto CDs – not possible, as it turns out.  I have put the jpegs onto pendrives for the girls and boys (and another for John Bosco) and have made a slideshow for each student.  Well, I will have by the time I get to bed.

Pathein, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar
Friday, February 28, 2014

We planned to rise a bit later but I couldn’t stay in bed beyond 6:45 – poor Linda.  We went to breakfast early and then Linda met John Bosco to go and get bus tickets and I went to the bank for the last time where our new best friend is very keen to improve his English and we have independently both had to reject his suggestions to meet us for dinner. (It’s ok, Adrian.  He’s 20, if he’s a day and not Linda’s type!)  We left our stuff at the hotel.  I found a pineapple in my bag last night.  I forgot we had put it there last weekend before we went to the beach.  Fortunately it seems ok.  Also Linda got eggs from her Auntie Hazel (who chummed her back down to the hotel to say goodbye to me last night – very sweet of her).  We’ll take both to the seminary this morning.

When I passed the cathedral shop, John Paul was lurking and looking very suspicious.  I looked at a wee Karen bag for Thomas as all the boys have them here for school, but they wanted 2,500 kyats for it – ridiculous.  Then the girls came out of the aspiratante building and a lump came to my throat.  They were all in their Sunday best blue longyis, looking just beautiful and Aay Si Na, said, ‘Beeyootiful’ every time she saw me for the rest of the day!  Toto was there with the truck and we boarded and headed out north on the road to the suspension bridge, the bumpiest road in the world.  Sacred Heart Minor Seminary is just north of the bridge on the Pathein side of the river.  Father Pius and two of the boys’ teachers were there.  The boys were all there to greet us by formally shaking our hands and wearing their traditional red longyis, with red waistcoats and headbands.  Linda and I knew it was going to be a long and difficult morning and I passed her a paper handkerchief.

Marcellinus was Master of Ceremonies.  The group started by singing a song they had written We Thank You – help!  This was just the start.  Christopher brought out plate after plate of food and we could eat none of it.  Then the boys did a traditional cultural dance with hankies, which was very energetic and then the girls came out dressed in the costumes of all the ethnic groups and did another dance.  They asked Linda and me to speak and somehow we both did and both cried.  We also gave them their folders containing much of the material we have covered together, their computer profiles, their  original questionnaires and a CD with a photo slideshow on it as well as a certificate with a personal message for each of them on it.  Four of the boys then did a hilarious skit based on a traditional story but with Christopher and Charles dressed as women, much to the hysteria of the girls and us.  Each of the students said how much they had appreciated the two weeks, Marcellinus saying that they had been scared of working with foreigners until they had met us and then they all sang God Be with You till We Meet Again. Thankfully that was the end of the formal part else I would have been prostrate.  They gave us Karen waistcoats to wear at the start of the morning then Karen tops later (John Paul’s purchases, I think) as well as beautiful silk, Pathein umbrellas.

The next informal part included a tour of the seminary buildings which include the convent, the monastery, the junior house, the senior house and a conference building.  We met a Father Francis, I think, who showed us round and Brother James, Raymond’s uncle, who is housebound now but whose English was lovely as was the English of all the Sisters and Brothers we met.  We were taken round the piggery, the chicken house and then, after a lovely lunch, the convent gardens. The excess animals, vegetables and flowers are sold at market.  All of the students made a huge effort to speak English for the whole day, which many don’t find easy and which touched us both.  We have been very impressed with how solicitous the young men and women are.  While with them we have not had to carry a thing or cross a road unaided.  We met the boys’ first English teacher, Sister Teresita, who was very old and whom they obviously adore. They really are a delightful bunch of human beings.

While chatting, John Bosco told us that his village right at the bottom of the delta had been very badly hit by both the tsunami and Cyclone Nargis and that, after both, he had seen many dead bodies in the rivers.  He said that during Nargis, in May 2008, his father and brother were in his village and took shelter in the church.  After the storm only two buildings were left standing, the church and the school.  He and his sister, mother and grandmother had been at their other house in the township.  He said he had been sitting only a foot from his sister and they were shouting to one another but not able to hear.  After the storm which lasted the best part of two days, the roofs were off the whole house, except for the kitchen where they were sheltering.  We recalled how the Myanmar government took two weeks to admit that there was a problem and allow foreign aid teams to help.  John Bosco said it was very bad.  They had no food, no water, no shelter.  The orphanage in Pathein increased three-fold after Nargis.

And then it was time to say goodbye .. after giving the pineapple and the eggs back to them again after they tried to give them to us with our bags.  We have had a wonderful time with these young people and I am very keen to know how they fare in the future.  We gave them our email addresses so they can get in touch if they would like to.  Father, so sorry have forgotten your name – the writer, drove us back to town on a normal road – so much better.  Why doesn’t the Chaung Tha bus use that one?

In the evening we looked at stuff that we hadn’t room for so didn’t buy then went one last time to the bar on the corner and then to the New City to give our boy 1000 kyats and say goodbye.  Am an emotional wreck!

Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
Saturday, March 1, 2014

We woke at 7:00 to thick mist which did not clear until we were half way to Yangon, having booked a 7:15 taxi for our 8am bus.  The taxi was late and we had to get the desk to phone again before he took us to the port instead of the bus station!  It’s complicated here because, despite nationalisation the bus companies are all in competition, have different ticket offices, leave from and arrive at different places.  A relatively small place like Pathein has three bus stations. Foreigners have a hard time trying to make sense of it all, which is why we’ve used John Bosco, one of our students, as our agent.  We’ve also found that our students get Myanmar prices whereas we most definitely are charged foreigners’ prices, one of the reasons for using them to buy for the picnic on Thursday.  Eventually we arrived at the right place and, to our dismay, it was a pretty old bus (not as ancient as the Chaung Tha fish bus however).  We had coffee and bananas – 600 khats – at a tiny cafe at the bus depot.The bus did not set off until almost 8am as one of the ferries was late connecting with the truck from the port which brought them to the bus station.  Then there was an awful lot of faffing around with luggage and boxes.  Eventually we set off with little plastic stools lining the aisle for those passengers who had booked last to sit on.  We were not sitting at the front but were with all the other mortals in allocated seats.  As always bottles of water and plastic bags were handed out.  One of the problems with sitting further back is to witness that many people do not travel well.  As plastic bags were filled they were chucked out of the bus windows.  I had forgotten that Myanmar people use long bus journeys (not to Chaung Tha – the buses were too ancient) to try and impair hearing and we watched and listened to various dubious videos for the next five hours.  I used my headphones to try and drown out the noise with music by The Staves (fab girl singing group from Northampton) which used to be my going to school music for a long time, but I had to have the volume up full to hear it properly.As I journeyed I mused about the things I will miss and not miss:NOT MISS – the rubbish everywhere, the incessant noise in the street, the constant and unnecessary peeping of horns, the appalling driving, the bedraggled and unwanted dogs and cats, betel leaves & nuts & betel juice, haughing and spitting – a national pastime, the plumbing particularly the toilets, the use of child labour in some of the cafes, fields and other places, seeing children scavenging through the rubbish for food and things to sellMISS – the gorgeous light in the morning and evening, being minor celebrities everywhere (which meant everyone knew our business and acted as if they knew us), the port which is like something from the sixteenth century in terms of the boats and the cargoes and which I’m sure will change very quickly as mechanisation improves, our ten minute walk to work every day meeting the Buddhist monk with the sparkly fan on his way to collect food, with our students whizzing by on their bikes shouting, ‘Good morning, teacher!’  but most of all the people who are warm and funny and stoic and having fun teaching our wonderful students.We arrived at the Parami bus station around an hour late after the bus had broken down on the outskirts of Yangon.  We took a taxi to a motel close to the airport which was excellent at $45 per room per night.  Linda used this place when she was in Yangon earlier in the trip.  There is a golf club and a pool only a short walk away.  We ate in the hotel, having an excellent cheese club sandwich.  I messed around with my luggage, trying to offload everything I could, into the bin or my hand luggage as I’m sure I must be pretty close to my 20kg limit, which will increase to 30kg once in Singapore but that’s not much help just now.Linda swam and I tried to finish ‘Elephant Bill’ by James Howard Williams, also known as Elephant Bill (15 November 1897 – 30 July 1958) quickly so I could return it to Linda.  This fascinating book describes his work as an elephant expert in Burma before and during the Second World War.Just after five we remembered Annie, one of the English teachers from the library, and her fiance, a lovely couple, who were being married at that time at St Peter’s and then having their reception in the Social Centre.  Our girls had decorated both places with flowers for the wedding and we had met Annie’s prospective father-in-law in the shoe shop buying special wedding slippers (sandals). We are sorry we missed the wedding.  Good luck!We ate in the motel – vegetable curry and rice – and the hotel manager talked about having been in Pathein and environs over the past week buying rice for customers.  He showed us two different kinds he had bought.  It seems to be a very long, serious and complex process.  Rice is the most important commodity in Myanmar.  Even our boys’ seminary has its own paddy fields and rice mill.Linda and I went to bed around 8:30, happy in the knowledge that in Singapore it is 10pm and high time we were asleep.

Singapore, Singapore
Sunday, March 2, 2014

I left Linda at the crack of dawn (she comes to Singapore tomorrow) and was taken to the airport by the motel’s car – everything is a car here, whether it’s a truck (the seminary’s car) or a bus (the car to Chaung Tha or Yangon). This was what we would call a minibus.  Anyhoo, I got to the airport at just after five and had to wait until around six thirty before they actually started checking my 8 o’clock flight in, which was a bit annoying as it gave me lots of time to fret about my luggage being overweight (a recurring theme)!  In fact, wonder of wonders, it was 19.7kg – I could have put another 0.3kg in, had I but known!  I went and had a very pleasant but expensive breakfast – no New City cafe or bus stop cafe here – and chatted to a lady who had come home from Indiana to see her 96 yr old father at Nuasa Beach – spelling? – the ‘other’ beach west of Pathein.  The rest of the time I read on my kindle, The Water Clock by Jim Kelly, a rip-roaring detective novel set in Ely and the fens.  It is foggy again this morning and the flight to Bangkok was delayed but we started boarding just about on time.When I got to the gate my seat number was changed by hand to 2F, a window seat, they said. Great, I replied and when I got on board, I was delighted to see it was Business Class however the young stewardess was most nervous, put out and disbelieving.  Now I am certainly not as glamorous a traveller as Phyllis or Kate, but I wasn’t that scruffy and consequently was a bit miffed.  However I sat down and made myself comfortable while she went to check that I was not some sort of impostor.  Eventually she came and said it was alright for me to sit there.  The aircraft boarded fully and the curtain between business and economy was pegged tightly and, just as the door was closing five people came on at the very last minute.  It was immediately obvious from everyone’s demeanour that this was someone Very Important.  The man went into the seat in front and opposite and the lady I could see next to him had on the most beautiful, shot silk, embroidered, avocado lonygi and jacket.  A man wearing a smart black jacket sat next to me. The flight was comfortable, around two and a half hours over the Mekong Delta and then Malaysia, and before we disembarked the captain came back to speak to the Very Important man and, when I asked who it was  before I left the plane the stewardess said he was Very Important!  I have just googled – oh joy, fast internet in good old Singapore – and I’m pretty sure it was Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar and his wife with three minions and a detective next to me.  I can only assume that economy was one passenger overbooked and they thought this unassuming older lady could not possibly present any danger to anyone. Little do they know that one of my glares can kill at ten paces!I was able to go to Terminal 3 at Changi Airport and book my luggage through to London tomorrow and just took my carryon bags to the Crowne Plaza.  Apart from being connected to the airport, which is very handy, it is one of the loveliest hotels I have been in.  The corridor I am on has a kind of river running on either side of it and the swimming pool is yards away.  My room overlooks the Skytrain and I can see tail fins from my window – my idea of heaven.  I plan to fill in my journal entries for the last couple of days and then upload the photographs it has not been possible to let you see because of the tortoise pace of the internet in Myanmar.  Once it’s cooler I will swim.Lovely swim but COLD water.  An American couple I spoke to were convinced it was chilled to make it more refreshing but I doubt it!I ate in my room while watching a daft Australian film and editing photos – veggie burger and chips with a small wine from the minibar and then a fruit platter – very decadent.Home tomorrow.  Night, night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 March 3rd

I rose early to get to the airport and do a wee bit of shopping before I boarded the flight.  I needed shoes and bought a cheap pair of flatties, then some Lego for Thomas and booze for Jennie to say thank you to her for looking after my car and to her boyfriend Alex for picking me up from Heathrow later on his precious day off. No upgrade this time – :C . When I boarded the flight to search for my window seat, 35A, my companions were already seated.  The guy next door had shoved his pillow and cover on my seat and, when I handed them back to him, I detected a Scottish accent.  He was reluctant to engage with me but I did winkle out that he was from Lanark and was then a bit surprised when, as soon as the seatbelt signs were switched off once we were in the air and he could get up, he asked the cabin crew to change his seat and moved to the very front of the economy section.  ‘Something I said?’ I asked 35C, smiling.  ‘Don’t think so,’ he replied.  ‘He’s already moved once.  He was supposed to be in 34B not 35B.’  We agreed that we would both enjoy the extra elbow room and I started on my film fest for the 13 hour journey, watching Captain Phillips – very good indeed – and the new Richard Curtis About Time, a bitter sweet tear-jerker, and a lovely arthouse film called What Maisie Knew, amongst others.Upon landing at Heathrow, lovely Mr 35C got my bag down for me – not a job for weaklings, let me tell you, and we queued to leave the plane.  To our disappointment we were then asked to take our seats again as there was a problem disembarking.  I was reluctant to do so, having spent the best part of 13 hours on my bottom, but eventually had to.  We then watched as a stewardess approached from the Business Class cabin and behind her two police officers came to arrest Mr 34B/35B/front of Economy Section!  Well, Mr 35C and I exchanged very knowing looks.  When I told Alex later, he interrupted me, saying he knew what was going to happen.  He works for HMRC in the Customs sections and says that this is exactly what they do to apprehend someone when there is smuggling or some other crime suspected.  He added that it is common that the person switches seats to try and avoid being detected.  Ooh er, Mrs!

Just as I had planned, I wasn’t the least tired facing my two hour drive home.  I suspected I would be on a high, being on good old British soil, listening to Radio 4 and driving my trusty Beetle and indeed I was.  I wasn’t even cold though I had stashed a pile of warm clothing and boots, just in case.  Lovely Alex had ensured my battery was not flat and had moved my car to the front of Jennie’s.  It was just lovely to be home.  Elizabeth was asleep but Thomas was having his bedtime story and was thrilled to see me.  Laura and Matthew were welcoming and had a meal ready for me. Meg went mad jumping around.  Jess opened one eye and went back to sleep again.

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And now it’s a week later.  I have deliberately left off completing my blog because I wanted time to get back and assimilate and ponder.

And now it’s more than a month later.  I have thought long and hard about how to round off my experiences.  I feel as passionate about them as I did a month ago and as enthusiastic about sharing all I saw and did as I was both during and immediately afterwards.So what do I think now?  Here goes.

Life is short.  Since I came back I have attended wee Ruaridh’s memorial service in Penicuik.  His life was cut tragically short by a road traffic accident a year ago leaving his family and our whole school community devastated.  I think from this, I would say, Make the most of every day. (JULY 2018 NOTE: Dear Myra, Roddy and Owen – Ruaridh’s picture is on my kitchen noticeboard and I think of him and you often.)

Help and support those who need to lean on you. Life produces unexpected events.  One of our Burmese students is on the point of getting a passport and visa sorted out to come to visit us in the UK to improve his English.  From this I would say, Reaching out to people can have all sorts of repercussions and effects you never dreamed of.  (JULY 2018 NOTE: This former student and now Senior Manager with KMSS Pathein hasn’t yet got to the UK [thanks to the exploitative nature of the UK visa maze and despite our best efforts] but has become my rascal of a Myanmar son!)

Life goes on.  My wonderful daughter Katherine and her husband Julian are expecting twins who, God willing, will be born in September.  I don’t think the prospective parents will take up Thomas’s suggestion of calling them Double and Trouble (thank you, the novel Anna Hibiscus).  (JULY 2018 NOTE: Thomas is nearly ten, Elizabeth is seven and James and Grace are almost four – all are adorable, clever, funny and wonderful.  Our family is so blessed.  My late husband would be so very proud.)

Thank you for reading this blog.  When I go back to Cambodia and maybe even Burma (NOTE: sic!), I will write another.

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