Another fun stop on our river steamer cruise down the Irrawaddy was at the large town of Pakkoku (population of about 100,000). As always, we moored at a rough bank of the river, no pier in sight. This time, we hiked up a steep flight of narrow stairs to find ourselves at a single-file footpath along the side of a field. As soon as we made the top of the river bank, we found women waiting to sell us the ubiquitous souvenirs: longyi (the local tube skirts worn by nearly everyone), jewelry, scarves and the like. One woman latched onto me immediately and we went through the now-familiar “you like?/maybe later?” routine. Although they can be persistent, we’ve found the Burmese to be much less pushy than other Asian vendors. Burmese are generally a friendly, cheerful group; the people on the street tend not to make overtures to us first, but they beam back when we smile at them and wave, or greet us with a bright “Mingalaba!,” the local greeting that is sort of a combination of “hello” and “auspiciousness to you.” Vendors do approach or call to us, of course, but they’re not overly aggressive, just hopeful. There was something particularly charming about my new friend, and I found myself considering that “maybe later” as she followed along the footpath with me. At the far end of the field, three larger, truck-style tuk tuks awaited our group. Climbing aboard, we were off on a dirt road through fields and past ox carts until we came to the intersection with a major paved road.
We followed the paved road into town and our first destination, a large food market. Here, the boat organized something clever and fun: We were each given a scrap of paper with the phonetic spelling of the Burmese word for a vegetable and sent us off with 1000 kyat (about 66 cents) to try to buy the indicated item. We quickly realized the vendors nearest the road couldn’t hear us over the traffic noise much less understand our poor attempts at Burmese, so we headed toward the interior stalls, but found the vendors there just grabbed our scraps of paper and tried to sound out the word themselves using their school-learned knowledge of English. (We’ve found all over that a fair number of Burmese know some English, but, in general, their pronunciation is extremely difficult to understand, they often don’t comprehend what we’re saying, and there is a lot of confusion on both sides before some level of understanding is worked out.) The first stall I asked, took my paper, then pointed me to another stall, calling to the woman there the name of the vegetable I was to buy. That woman gave me a light green vegetable looking a lot like chayote squash…and handed me back 700 kyat. Hmm. Asking others in our group, I decided to go back and buy another two of the things, leaving me with 100 kyat in change. Alrighty, I was feeling like a success. Our guide, Yen, quickly popped my bubble when we got back on the boat and I showed him my purchase and my slip of paper. Apparently, I was supposed to get some sort of chilies. I wasn’t alone in my failed vegetable search, but we had fun listening to Yen explain what the unknown items were, how to cut and prepare them, and the dishes they were popularly used in.
After the market, we made a stop at a school supply store to let us buy some items for a local “orphanage.” Although the home for children is labeled an orphanage, the children have parents who’ve sent them away to be raised and schooled as monks/nuns. The children ranged in age from 6 or so to a few older teenagers. Boys dressed in orange robes, girls in pink, all had their heads shaved. We noticed several with bald patches on their scalps, skin disease which Yen said resulted from sharing razors. We glimpsed the girls’ dormitory, a jumble of plywood beds, pink robes…and a favored teddy bear.
We watched the children begin their lunch with a chanted prayer as they sat cross-legged at long tables. This mid-day meal would be their last of the day, and they ate breakfast at 4:30am.
I tried to picture my boys on such a restricted diet at the ages of these children. Growing like weeds, my children were ever-hungry at those ages. I remembered, too, all the hugs, love and attention I lavished on them and all the love I received in return. It saddened me to think of the circumstances that would make this poor orphanage seem like a better option for my child than home.
My friend from the first moments off the boat had preceded us to both the vegetable market and the orphanage, she and a friend speeding ahead on motorbikes. She’d greeted me at both places, making sure I didn’t forget her and that “maybe later.” We posed together for photos at the market as she’d asked when we first met, wanting a photo to show her children she said. (Of her with one of those strange-looking foreigners, I guess.) Now, back at the footpath through the field, I gave in, haggling with her a little to buy a pretty, tourist-style longyi (which have waist ties, unlike the tube skirts worn by the natives which they simply fold and tuck). Just as we were parting, she told me she’d sold a longyi to another woman in our group for more than she’d sold me mine and asked me not to tell the other woman. I thought it was sweet that she didn’t want the other woman to feel bad…but had to wonder if maybe she’d sold me mine for more and didn’t want me to know. Oh well, the difference couldn’t be much as the price was not expensive in any event. Later, a friend on the boat who saw I’d bought the same longyi as her in a different color asked me what I’d paid. I wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t asked me directly, but I couldn’t see not answering her since neither of us would ever see my Pakokku friend again. Anyway, it turns out I did get the cheaper price.