musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘teashop’

Photographs from Zin Ko in Mandalay: 2014

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As promised, here is a sample of photos that Zin Ko took in Mandalay, and other spots, recently, using my old Canon camera. From shots of graduates in his neighborhood, scenes from the teashop on 90th Street, to picnics with relatives and friends at the waterfalls in Pyin U Lwin, and photos from our trip to Shan State, it looks like the kid is getting the hang of being behind the lens.

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One added bonus with Zin Ko taking photos this time was that I didn’t have to take as many as I usually do. He got his fair share of “Parent & Baby” shots, plus when we went touring around Inle Lake and other spots in Shan State, when the rest of the kids wanted “action shots” that task was often undertaken by Zin Ko.

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Dropout Dilemma

One of the boys in the photo below just dropped out of school. He was in the sixth grade at a school in Mandalay.

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I know these kids well, and this boy in particular. They are among the regulars that I take on trips in the area when I’m in Mandalay. Over the years I finally learned all their names (not an easy task, I assure you!) and I’ve gotten to know a little more about them each time I visit. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear that this one kid had dropped out of school at such a young age. According the report I got from a mutual friend in the 90th Street neighborhood where they all live, this boy has not been going to school for a few months already.

When I was in Mandalay the last time this boy told me that he wasn’t happy living at home. I don’t know all the details, but I know that his parents are divorced and that his father has a drinking problem. No indications of any physical abuse, but again, I don’t know the full story. But I think there were/are problems with the mother also, and this boy had been living with the grandmother and/or an aunt. In any case, the grandmother and the aunt are the ones who seem to be trying to take care of the boy.

My friend told me that this boy was now working at a car body shop on the outskirts of time. Far enough from “home” that he was also now staying and sleeping at this shop each night. What can you say about this situation? Bad … sad … tragic … outrageous … heartbreaking. It’s all of that.

My first instinct was to ask; What can I do to help? How can we get this kid back in school? Well, it’s not so easy. He was apparently “signed out” of the school by the principal after his lengthy absence and his only recourse, if he DOES want to go back to school, is to wait until the next term starts in June and try to enroll again. I’ve gotten mixed signals about what the boy wants to do. At first he seemed to have no desire to return to school and only wanted to work. But the latest I heard was that he was open to the idea of going back next term, but to a different school. Perhaps he feels embarrassed about dropping out and doesn’t want to face his friends from the old neighborhood.

I asked for advice from two trusted and wise friends; Ma Thanegi and Khin Nwe Lwin. They were both very helpful, but also very honest and realistic in their suggestions. They reminded me that there are a lot of kids like this boy in Myanmar nowadays: teenagers, or children even younger, who have stopped going to school and are working in teashops, restaurants, factories, and workshops. Nevertheless, the typical Westerner is outraged at such situations, thinking that the child should be in school and not toiling away the day in some sweat shop. But the reality is that many of these kids either need to work or want to work. And if the child is able to learn some sort of trade by working, it may actually be beneficial for him in the long run. Going to school doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table, and many families benefit from having their children employed. No, it’s not ideal, but it certainly beats seeing a child homeless, living on the streets, begging, or resorting to crime.

On a related topic I read an article in the Bangkok Post last week. The headline read: Fishery Working Age to be Raised. The article reported that the Thailand Labour Ministry was raising the minimum age of workers from 16 to 18, part of their efforts to suppress human trafficking, help deflect criticism about human rights violations, and to help curb the high brokerage fees that job brokers charge migrant workers. Again, this sort of thing sounds good on paper, but to put the minimum age as high as 18 strikes me as much too strict. It’s also a lazy and rather ineffective way of trying to fix these problems and penalizes teenagers who would like to work.

I’ll say it again: staying in school is not always the best solution. Children’s “rights” should reflect what the children wants, not what some NGO or government bureau thinks they need.

 

One Afternoon in Mandalay

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When I’m in Mandalay I usually take the kids from the neighborhood I frequent on 90th Street (near U Tin Chit’s teashop) on a field trip somewhere in the area. Earlier this year we took our first multi-day trip to Bagan, Mount Popa, and Shwe Set Daw. This time around, however, due to school being back in session and my limited finances, we confined our excursion to a one-day tour of the greater Mandalay environs, visiting pagodas, monasteries, and old wooden bridges (but no, NOT the famous U Bein Bridge this time around).

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We also found time to visit the Olympic-sized swimming pool that is located next to the zoo, just north of the moat that surrounds the old Mandalay Palace. I know that these kids love to swim, but I wasn’t sure that this would be a wise choice, coming so soon after the tragic drowning of one of their friends in the river a few months ago. But the kids made it clear that going to the pool was high on their agenda, and Maw Hsi, one of the fathers who came along to help me keep an eye on the kids, had no objections either, so, swimming it was!

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And of course the kids also found time to eat a variety of snacks at almost every place we stopped. It didn’t matter that we had a full lunch at one of the old monasteries in town (overseen by a friendly head monk who walked around with an iPad and showed me photos of his village school project), they still couldn’t resist the lure of more mangoes and weird salad concoctions.

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For the most part the kids behaved themselves, but one of the boys ended up punching another one later in the afternoon, leading to a few tears and threats of retaliation, but they eventually patched things up and it all ended well. At least I think it did. Never a dull moment with this crew!

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Burmese Buzz

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Call it the Burmese Buzz, or the Myanmar Mood, but the feeling just won’t go away. It’s that heady, slightly intoxicating feeling that I get after experiencing yet another memorable, life-affirming trip. I’ve been back in Bangkok for three days now, but I’m still feeling Myanmar, thinking Myanmar, missing Myanmar.

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Which is odd, in a way; I’ve visited Myanmar over 20 times at this point, and the travelling back and forth has become a relatively routine matter. Once I’m back in Bangkok, I manage to switch from travel mode to work mode almost immediately, heading straight from the airport to my bookshop, taking only a short detour to drop off bags at my apartment. I stop trying to speak phrases in Burmese and revert back to Thai. But that’s sometimes easier said than done; after getting off the airport rail link in Bangkok on Tuesday I asked a motorcycle taxi driver to hold my bag, but spoke in Burmese. The synapses finally clicked and I managed to speak the correct language the second time around, but I still felt out of sorts.

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Maybe that was indication that acclimating back to daily life in Bangkok wasn’t going to be as smooth and effortless this time around, and perhaps the withdrawal symptoms would be more acute. I feel like I really bonded closer with many of my friends in Myanmar this time, so leaving them all behind and returning to Thailand has left me feeling sadder and more wistful than usual. I keep thinking about the good times and the little things that make each trip so special: I yearn for another bowl of monhinga for breakfast; I want to tie on a longyi and hop on my bike; meet friends and hang out on 90th Street in Mandalay; stop at Aye Myit Tar for curry and beer and the let the waiters fuss over me; visit the delightful kids and mischievous monks at the school and monastery in Tat Ein village. But alas, vacation time has ended and I really must try and put all that behind me for now. But only for a while.

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One of the albums on the MP3 music player that I take on my trips is Sin Za Ba by Linn Linn. I played that a lot during my eleven days in Myanmar and I’ve listened to it every day since I returned. I only understand a fraction of the lyrics in the songs, but the melodic music evokes a special mood and reminds me of the days I spent in the country. I listen to these songs and it feels like I’m back in Mandalay. Like most great music, the songs on Sin Za Ba resonate with me, soothe me, and inspire me.

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I guess it’s not too soon to start thinking about the next trip. I won’t be able to return for another seven or eight months, but at least I can start the process of mentally planning it all. Better the Burmese Buzz than the Burmese Blues.

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A Time of Gifts

A lone red-robed monk walking between the banks of a flooded rice paddy, a black dog trotting at his side. Watching the monk slowly walk towards the rising sun, I marveled at the peaceful sight.

Sometimes the best pictures are the ones you don’t take with a camera; they are the ones that pass fleetingly, but remain engraved in your memory. I was on my to the airport in Mandalay this morning when I saw that monk, and even if I had a camera clutched in my hand, I don’t think I could have summoned the presence of mind to snap a photo, as transfixed as I was on the sight.

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In fact, my last two days in the country, back in Mandalay after four days in Shan State, I couldn’t take any photos at all, at least not ones that were properly in focus. While teaching an English class at Tat Ein village in Shan State, I had lent my camera to some novice monks, who were gleefully taking photos and playing with the zoom lens function. At some point the lens got stuck and they sheepishly handed the camera back to me. I looked at it, tried to zoom in and out; nothing. Tried to turn the camera off and back on again; nothing. Hmmm … Major Tom, we have a problem. I tried again and again, changing the battery and playing with the buttons some more, and the damn thing still wouldn’t work. Later that night, back at my hotel, I figured out a way to get the lens to close manually and then open again. Voila; I could take photos again. But when I tried to turn it off, the problem reoccurred; it got stuck and an error message appeared. I also noticed that the shots that I was able to take weren’t quite in focus. Looks like a job for the repair department at Canon.

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I tried to put the problem in perspective, reasoning that I’d already taken a lot of photos and had only three days left in the country, so I could live without my precious camera. But the very next day I had a trip to Taunggyi and Kakku planned with some monks from the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, and I really wanted some photos from that trip, mainly so I could make some prints for the monks themselves. My friend Ma Pu Sue saved the day, by letting me borrow her camera for the day. Her camera uses the same type of memory card as mine did, so that made it even easier. The only problem was that I took so many photos at Kakku that I used up her battery and had to resort to my faulty old camera for a few shots at the very end of the trip in Taunggyi and at a Pa-O village. Oh well, at least it wasn’t a total loss.

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It felt odd not having a camera to use the final two days in Mandalay. There were a few moments that I would have loved to have photos of. One was a group of children outside a monastery on 90th Street playing a game that resembled stickball, or baseball or maybe even cricket. They were using a flat piece of wood to hit a rubber ball around a dirt field. I’ve seen kids play soccer, badminton, chinlon, and other sports, but never anything quite like this one. I had a go and popped up the first ball thrown to me. I totally whiffed the second ball, but when the third offering came, I belted it high and far, over everyone’s heads. Home run!

That evening I took Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko to a restaurant that had karaoke rooms. Watching them sing Burmese love songs would also have made for some fun photos, but seeing their joy at singing those songs was worth the price of admission. My contribution was a rendition of “Top of the World” by the Carpenters and a weak attempt at Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Hey, they were the first two English songs on the menu and looked easier to sing than the Eagles medley. I’m just thankful that nobody was there to record that session and post it on YouTube.

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The last day in town I met Sophia, a young university student from Germany. We were both renting bicycles at Mr. Jerry’s bike shop on 83rd Street, and she struck up a conversation and asked where I was going. I told her that I didn’t have any real plans. My only real appointment that day was a trip to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street later in the afternoon, and dinner with Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko in the evening. I asked Sophia if she wanted to experience a Burmese teashop and she readily agreed, so we hopped on our bikes and headed to the Minthiha branch at the corner of 28th and 72nd streets. After a round of tea and various fried and baked breads and snacks, a woman and her young son sat our table and had their lunch. Later she introduced herself, Wan Thu Khin. Her 6-year-old son, Lu Phone, his cheeks smeared with thanaka, also introduced himself and showed us the English language lesson he was studying. After a colorful and possibly inebriated gentleman had walked by and introduced himself, the conversation evolved and Sophia asked where she could buy a Burmese longyi, women’s style, of course. After taking Lu Phone back to school for his afternoon class, Wan Thu Khin offered to show Sophia a shop in the nearby market. I tagged along and it turned out to be a fun outing, watching the women pick out a colorful longyi, trying it on Sophia, and then having it altered (for free!) at a shop run by a friend of Wan Thu Khin. We roamed the colorful aisles, stocked with every imaginable product you think of — from fruit and vegetables to electronic goods and mattresses — while vendors smiled and chuckled at the sight of two longyi-clad foreigners walking around. The final mission was to apply some thanaka on Sophia’s face, which a female vendor was happy to do. With longyi and thanaka, she had received her initial immersion in Myanmar culture. If that wasn’t enough hospitality, Wan Thu Khin, invited us to visit her home while we were in town. Alas, since I had to return to Bangkok the next morning, I couldn’t accept the invite.

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Later that afternoon, Sophia followed me over to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. On the way we stopped at Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a lovely old teakwood monastery, and passed several other old monasteries, including the massive Ma Soe Yein complex. At 90th Street, Sophia was the star attraction. I introduced her to U Tin Chit, Ko Maw Hsi, U Nyunt Htun, and the group of kids that soon formed. They brought out hot cups of tea and bean cakes, and then Ye Thu Lwin, a bright young student of English, showed up. He asked me; “What is your friend’s name?” I replied: “You can ask her.”  A bit shy at first, he ended up asking Sophia all sorts of questions in English, and she turned the table and asked him some questions too. I couldn’t help but smile at this exchange. Once again, I wish I’d had a camera to take some shots of all the cuteness, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

As we prepared to leave we were showered with gifts from U Tin Chit and some of the others; more bean cakes, apples, bottles of water, and some cans of Red Bull, the latter which I took only out of courtesy. I never drink that crap, so I gave my can to Mr. Jerry at the bike shop later. Before I left town that night the gifts kept on coming; longyis from Ko Ko Oo and Nyein Htun at Aye Myit Tar restaurant, cans of Myanmar beer from Kyaw Myu Htun, and a packet of thanaka paste from Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, not for cosmetic purposes, but to treat the insect bites on my left arm.

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I was reflecting on all this gifts and last-day events as my taxi took me to the airport this morning. As usual, I was moved by the kindness and generosity of the people in Mandalay, both old friends and new acquaintances.  I know that I sound like a stuck record every time I write about this stuff, but it bears repeating: these people are amazing. Far from wealthy in monetary terms, but rich in spirit. I may not have any photos as keepsakes of those last two days, but I’ll never forget any of those priceless moments.

Mandalay Weekend

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My bags are packed, documents are in order, and this weekend I will be back in Mandalay; hunting down Mr. Htoo to see if he’s free for dinner at Aye Myit Tar, making fun of Nyein Htun’s latest hairdo, and catching up with my friends over on 90th Street. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this trip very much.

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I’ll be in Mandalay for a few days, then off to Shan State, where I’ll teach an English class at the primary school in Tat Ein village, visit the monks at Shway Yan Pyay Kyaung (I promised a couple of them that we’d go to see the ruins in Kakku), and catch up with friends such as Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su. And then I’ll return to Mandalay for a few more days before going back to Bangkok and resuming my daily work routine. A quick trip this time; I won’t even visit Yangon or Bagan.

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Hopefully, I’ll have time for one or two posts while I’m away, but no promises. I plan to be riding bikes — while dodging farm animals of all sizes and vehicles of all types — on the main streets of the city and back roads in the countryside. Rainy season is in full swing, so I’ve got umbrellas and a raincoat packed too. Hey, I was a boy scout, so you can bet that I’m prepared!

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New School Year, New Uniforms

It’s the first week of June, which means that the new school year is starting in Myanmar. Back to school means the end of those carefree lazy days, and it also means having to buy new uniforms and school supplies for the new term.

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Most of the kids that I know from 90th Street in Mandalay are among those students returning to classes this week. Not all of them, however, are still in school, a few having to drop out prematurely and work to help earn money for their families. Not an ideal situation, but it’s a poor neighborhood and people do what they can to get by. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to do something to help the children and their families now that the new school year was commencing. Two years ago I bought material at a local market, enough to make school uniforms for about a dozen students. One of the parents measured all the kids and took the material to a nearby tailor on 90th Street, and in a few short days they had their uniforms. That went over well, so I decided to do it again this year, but on a larger scale. I contacted my friend Khin Nwe Lwin, who is the daughter of U Nyunt Htun, one of the men who patronize the teashop on 90th Street. Khin Nwe Lwin works in Pyin U Lwin, a town about 90 minutes from Mandalay, but she returns home at least twice a month. I asked her if she would help coordinate the buying and distribution of uniforms. This time I said that I wanted to buy about 20 uniforms, not only for the kids that I took on a field trip in March, but any children from that group of families. Khin Nwe Lwin helped me pick out some deserving kids that came from poorer families and tallied the cost of everything.

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Unfortunately, I had this brainstorm after I returned to Bangkok, so I wasn’t able to give her any money when I was in Mandalay. But I solved that problem by recruiting a special courier. One of my friends, Walter, teaches at an international school in Mandalay (yes, such things do exist there!) and he comes back to Bangkok frequently for visits, trips that are actually necessary due Myanmar’s rule about foreign workers having to make cross-border visa runs every 10 weeks. So when Walter was in town last month I gave him a chunk of money to give to Khin Nwe Lwin. Once he was back in Mandalay, he hopped on his motorcycle and zoomed over to 90th Street and passed the money over to the owner of the teashop, U Tin Chit, who then gave it to Khin Nwe Lwin. Altogether, we outfitted 23 children! There was some money left over, so I suggested that she divide it up and give each child a bit of pocket money. In a recent e-mail she reported that everything went as planned, and sent me these photos to prove it! From the one photo, it looks like a few of the boys must have done short summer stints as novice monks. In any case, I’m happy to know that the crew will all be looking good for the new term. Study hard, kids!

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Meanwhile, I also got an e-mail from one of my friends in Bagan, a fellow who goes by the name of Ninety Nine. It’s even spelled that way on his ID card! Now in his early twenties, he is currently working at a new hotel in town. He had dropped out of school for a few years, but about two years he started taking classes again so that he could get his high school diploma. Easier said than done, apparently. He failed the final exam last year and after more study sessions he recently took it again. This is what he told me in the e-mail:

“I fail my exam again for this year, about the mathematics too. So, I don’t want to try for the next year. This subject is like fighting the lion for me. Please give me the best advice.”

Hell, what I can tell the guy? Keep trying, study harder, you’ll pass it next time, blah blah blah. Honestly, I don’t even know how important it is for him to pass this exam, unless that’s essential for getting a job in the tourism industry, which seems to be his preference. He has outstanding spoken English language skills, and an engaging personality, so I think he’d make a great tour guide, or someone who could manage a shop or restaurant that caters to tourists. Whatever he decides to do, I hope it’s easier than “fighting the lion.”

 

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