When I was studying Burmese, I should never have learned the phrase “I will pay for everything.” It certainly got me into trouble on this trip, or rather it made me shell out more money than I had expected. But in the end it was an expense I was more than happy to be burdened with.
It all started with one boy, from the crew on 90th Street in Mandalay, saying that he didn’t have enough money to buy a uniform for the new school year. The term was starting in just a few more days, so time was tight. I didn’t hesitate, assuring Yan Naing Kyaw that I would be happy to pay for his school uniform. But I should have realized that by agreeing to buy one uniform, I was opening the door to buying uniforms for all the kids that I normally take on field trips, plus two more for the younger sisters who could not (or were not allowed) go with us to Yankin Hill this time. The grand result: new uniforms for 18 children.
I went along with my trishaw driver, Maung Lwin, and one of the fathers, U Khin Maung Si, to Zeigyo, the main market in Mandalay, to purchase the uniforms. I had assumed that we would buy some ready-made uniforms, but the men agreed that buying the material for the shirts (white) and longyis (dark green) and then taking them to a neighborhood tailor shop would be more practical, not to mention economical. Who am I to argue with such logic? I’m just a gullible tourist.
But even after purchasing the material, that wasn’t the end of my financial involvement. The following day I dropped by the teashop on 90th Street for my regular cup of tea and conversation (and yes, always, more photos!). One of the fathers asked me when I would be able to pay the tailoring bill. Huh? I hadn’t expected that additional expense. So, uh, I stuttered, how much extra will that be? The answer was: 250 kyat per uniform. Multiple that by 18 uniforms and the total was 45,000 kyat, or, calculating the latest exchange rate, a little over US$50. Not a huge expense by any means, but the problem was that I didn’t have that much with me and this was the last time I had planned on visiting the teashop before leaving town. I had other plans the following day, which would be my last in Mandalay before departing for Nyaungshwe, so that put me in a predicament. The teashop owner, Ko Tin Chit, told me not to worry, that I could pay when I returned on my next trip. But that won’t be until November, I told him. Not a problem he said. Even so, I didn’t like leaving my obligation unpaid. I had some money with me — about 20,000 kyat — so I gave that to Ko Tin Chit and promised to pay the balance later.
After I returned to my hotel that afternoon, the fact that I still had this outstanding debt really bothered me. It wasn’t much money, but my funds were dwindling faster than I had planned on this trip. Blame it on the poor exchange rate: last year it was around 950 kyat per dollar, and this year it was starting to creep below 800. Plus, all the hotels had raised their rates for the first time in six years, and this was even during the low season. I needed to conserve my cash, but I still had some emergency dollars in reserve that I could exchange for kyat. And that is what I decided to do that evening before going to dinner.
The following morning I woke up earlier than usual and pedaled my bike back down to 90th Street and gave Ko Tin Chit the rest of the tailoring fees. I felt relieved. And as an added “feel good” bonus, it was the first day of school and I got to see the kids strutting their stuff in their brand new uniforms, smiles on (most of) their faces. I felt like a proud parent myself that morning. Money well spent!