A Crazy Life 7 – Burma Days
As you can read in my previous submission, my visit to the monastery school had a profound effect on my way of thinking about myself and my life, and also how I would treat others in the future.
I decided to give up one day of my weekend each week to teach conversational English at the monastery school. I visited a bookstore in Yangon and bought some English alphabet posters and simple vocabulary posters, such as colours, shapes and numbers.
From YouTube, I downloaded alphabet songs and other songs to help young kids learn English. Then back on the ferry to Dala, pedalo taxi to the school and off we go!
Even amongst poverty, there was discrimination. There was a small mosque in Dala Township. I was warned never to offer to teach the young Muslim kids in the township, or I would be barred for good. In Burma, whole generations have been brainwashed into mistrusting all Muslims.
My songs and music were limited to how long the batteries on my laptop would last! I would put up my vocabulary posters and all the kids would repeat the words after me, or we would sing along together to the English songs on my laptop.
The class consisted of all age groups, from 4 to 12 years old, in all about 100 kids. So I had to switch between nursery rhymes for the youngest kids, up to simple conversation for the older students. The girl who had originally asked me to teach English would also stand near the front of the class and translate my instructions, (on the occasions that she could understand me).
I would move around the class to allow all the kids to see my flashcards and to hear me clearly. The youngest kids would fall asleep from time to time. My class would be interrupted by a monk who would come and hit the noisiest boys with a large bamboo cane. Although being hit clearly hurt these boys, they laughed the pain off in only a few seconds. Living in these slums made them tough!
Occasionally some foreign tourists would drop by, brought by the pedalo boy. They would stand outside the classroom taking photos and videos, no doubt wondering who was this crazy old ‘Brit’ singing songs with a bunch of scruffy slum kids ☺
Word got around at the private school where I taught on weekdays. Praise was heaped on me by both local and expat teachers. But whenever I invited other teachers to come and help, there was always some excuse why they couldn’t do so.
I never felt bad towards my fellow teachers about their unwillingness to help. Selfishness and greed are all part of human nature. That doesn’t make them bad people. They had their life and I had mine.
Close to my school was another monastery, where monks were training to be teachers, so that they could eventually go to other poor monastery schools around the country to teach orphans and disadvantaged children. They asked if I could also teach them English, so that they could pass on this knowledge to their students. The only problem was that the available lesson time was 5:30 in the morning! So the early mornings would see me walking through the backstreets of Lammadaw Township in Yangon, on my way to teach English to these monks.
It was about 3 km from my apartment to the monastery, but I always enjoyed walking, especially since Yangon roads are often packed with cars. Each time I would pass a group of young kids who lived in cardboard boxes on the street near to the railway station. They always ran up and said ‘Mingalaba’ (hello) to me, always smiling, despite their own living conditions.
I regularly went back to visit my exes in Phuket. I would also take this opportunity to cross over the river at Ranong to visit the town of Kawthaung, which is located right at the tip of south Myanmar. I had visited Kawthaung literally dozens of times on visa-runs when I lived in Phuket. But now my visits took on a new meaning.
Firstly, I would cross over the river in a small, open boat. These trips were fine in the dry season, but potentially dangerous during the monsoon. The boat was small and there was a strong crosswind. Waves would splash into the boat, soaking all the passengers.
On one occasion, as my boat was midway between Ranong and Kawthaung, a squall blew up. There were about 12 people on this little boat, myself and 11 Burmese women with their kids. Water started pouring into the boat from the high waves. I grabbed a plastic bucket and started bailing out water as if my life depended on it – which it probably did! All the women were sobbing and praying, and I realized that it was highly likely that none of them could swim, and of course there were no life-jackets in the boat. Even I, as a strong swimmer, suspected that if the boat sank, I’d be swept out far into the Andaman Sea.
Fortunately, the wind subsided and we reached Kawthaung safely. This time, I wasn’t doing a visa run. I walked into the town and up the hill. On a previous visit, I had found a small orphanage, chocked full of orphans and destitute kids. They were well-cared for, but lacking toys and books. So on each trip to Kawthaung, I would bring a box full of ‘goodies’.
Since Burma was still under tight, military control in 2012, I was followed all the time by plain-clothes policemen. Sometimes one of them would stop and chat to me in surprisingly good English. “Hello, who have you met today?” Every Burmese who spoke with me then had to hot-foot to the local police station to report our conversation.
I learnt later that Christian priests from Ranong would previously visit the orphanage, but they had now been banned from visiting because of their religious affiliation. I, on the other hand, was never barred, presumably because the police had checked up and found that I had no religious convictions.
I also learnt from the orphanage staff that there was another orphanage, located 20 km outside the town at a local monastery. Apparently the kids there were in a bad way, with very little food and just ragged clothes to wear. I commandeered a motorbike taxi and headed off in the direction of the monastery. At 5 km outside of Kawthaung, I was stopped by the police and ordered to turn round. No amount of pleading would change their minds. I often think of what became of the children at that orphanage.
You can find some short videos that I made in Kawthaung on one of my channels.
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]