Paradise or Prison?

April 8, 2010

For seven lazy days – and with the shits in remission – there was nothing to do but do nothing at all. It was 40 degrees in the middle of the day but at least the sea breeze washing in off the Bay of Bengal kept the edge off that heat and there was plenty of shade to be found beneath the palm trees and brush-parasols.

There was barely a soul on the beach, barely a cloud in the sky. Occasionally a bullock cart laden with bamboo crawled it’s way along the shoreline. Occasionally a fishing boat tripped across the horizon. Occasionally I went for a swim. Or a beer. Or a sleep. Life can be that easy at Hotel Name Restricted -for the guests at least

Each morning I jumped a motorbike ride into the village for a cup of tea and an hour or so wander-paddling back along the beach. There are a string of resort hotels running along the beach (there was one when I was last here), ranging from the abandoned (due to damage by Typhoon Mala in 2007 and reminding me of Famagusta, Cyprus) to the very luxurious and expensive. Most of the latter are pretty much empty, at least at this time of year (high season = October to March when it’s cooler) but all will fill up for Thingyan the upcoming four-day New Year / water festival when the price of my bungalow will rise from $15 to $40 a night. A sprinkling of local tourists came in over the weekend. If they venture into the sea most do so fully dressed, even in jeans and punk’s not dead t-shirt (in fact a version of punk’s very alive and kicking in Myanmar; it is the youth fashion movement) but, in a first for me, on this occasion I saw a Myanmar lady in a bikini – a pleasing but not at all common sighting

Of course the lads who work at the hotel – almost but not quite to a man – are obsessed with English (especially) and european football and most of them – as is the affliction in these parts – support Manchester United. A very pleasant early evening was spent with them at their accommodation block watching – the TV turned around to face the outside, chairs set in the sand, mosquitoes at play, frustration mounting – Chelsea put two past them to go top. Champions League games start at 1.15am but still draw a good crowd.

A lot of the rest of the time I was to be found sitting in the shade of the open-sided reception area making new Myanmar friends of the hotel staff, honing with them my very basic – but slowly improving – Burmese and, in return, teaching them a bit of English. This was an especially rewarding time for me. I met some great people with interesting life stories to tell. From a cast of many, here’s the DP for three or four of them.

Mr Malcolm – this first name / family name mix-up is rife – is almost 70. He’s Yangon-born out of Goan-Portuguese stock and living in Pathein. He has lovely way with the English language and a love of a proper tune. We spent quite some time chatting away as Johnny Cash MP3’d away in the corner.

Ma Te Yew’s 32 and also from Pathein where her family have a bookshop in the Pagoda. Dad’s also a fortune teller – astrolger and palmist (he did mine). A keen learner of English, I’ve rarely met a nicer girl than Te Yew. More of her later I hope.

Ke Ke, also 32, and his wife of a year Ma Ko, 30, have set up Salmander, a seafood restaurant, in the village and I wish them all the best with it. That Ke Ke has a very wise head on his shoulders, shoulders that bear a lot of responsibility for the welfare of his wider family and he works three jobs to keep everything together.

So all this nothing to do with nice folks to do it with in sunshine and with the amenity of the Bay of Bengal makes for something of a paradise holiday destination. Until you look at it from the other side of the reception desk or from the point of view of the villagers.

Nwe Saung recently ‘celebrated’ its tenth anniversary as a beach resort. So it’s just ten years since the villages that once lined this beach were scrubbed out, their inhabitants shifted up the coast and slightly inland to make way for the hotel developments. Of course these have provided opportunities – work for many and prosperity for a few – but Ma Ko says the villagers cry when they remember their old lives in their old villages right besides the sea. Maybe they will get some satisfaction from the eventual arrival, perhaps next year, of a market so they can buy essential items that are currently unavailable or expensive. What value they will get from the talked of airport right on there doorstep is harder to define.

And what of the work that’s now available in the hotels? Like some Victorian below stairs throwback, where I stayed staff are working 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, with little prospect of a day off, for just more than the price of a cup of tea an hour (from which basic food and basic accommodation costs are deducted leaving them with $20 for a month’s work) and, when not working, they are confined to the premises after 6pm, not allowed into the village and not supposed to ‘fraternise’ with the $50 a day spending clients they serve. But it’s thought worth it because it’s a means of feeding yourself and having pocket money rather than going hungry or being a burden on your family. No-one seems grossly unhappy, fun is certainly had and friendships are warm.

Maybe Hotel Name Restricted’s not so bad even if whoever owns it is grossing up to $1000 a day and running a wage bill of $15 a day. There are far worse places to work in this country (and in other countries) and there are far greater manifestations of the running sore of denial of opportunity to people desperate to improve their circumstances and ready to work hard to do so.

So, a paradise of sorts but a prison of sorts too. Let’s settle for that. Little is ever totally straight-forward in this country; there is nearly always a story within the story. “Life’s shit, may as well try to be happy” could be the national slogan, just as waiting for public transport could be the national past-time.

I’ll be doing some of that tomorrow – on the road to Mandalay.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent – Johnny Cash was always guilty as hell.)

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