Why Did You Come Here?

April 20, 2010

Incomplete posting ….

In 2008 I left Myanmar (with Debby) just eight days before May 2nd when Cyclone Nargis hit the delta region and south of the country (at least 140,000 dead).

I’ve never been a fan of disaster tourism, it seems a bit .. oh, I don’t know, insensitive? .. and with a post visit track record that includes earthquakes in 2001 (Bhuj, India; Richter = 7.6, dead = 20,000) in 2003 (Bam, Iran; Richter = 7.6, dead = 26,000) and in 2004 (Asian Tsunami; Richter = 9.1, dead = 230,000) it’s perhaps a stone left best unturned.

Cyclone Nargis off the coast of Myanmar May 2nd 2008

The day before yesterday Mo Naing and I took the ferry across the Yangon river to Dalat. This is the town Vivien and I visited on our first weekend in Myanmar in 1995. On the same ferry. Dalat may be only two minutes from downtown Yangon but it’s more a rural small town suburb than any part of the metropolis. The delta region starts almost straight away once you’re out of town. We traveled by taxi, hired at the jetty with a contribution from the manager of a petrol station in Bogalay – our destination today – who joins us for the trip. Although Bogalay is only 80 miles from Yangon he’ll be away from his family (it turns out they live around the corner from Moe Naing) for a month, which is a reflection on both the state of the road and the cost of traveling on it. Today we’ll lay out about six week’s average Myanmar salary for a three and a half hour ride.

Moe Naing wanted me to make this trip because she has spent so much time here since Nargis and because she wanted me to see the kind of places that money we raised at the time was spent. Put out of your mind the stories she tells of the horrifying height of the tidal surge (some died in collapsed buidings but the wind was not the biggest killer; most who died were drowned) and of the bodies roadside, uncollected and unburied even a month after the cyclone, and you can sit back and enjoy some pretty scenery. There’s no getting bored; there is plenty to see, not least a lot of ducks – it’s breeding country – and the state of the road is pretty pitiful. Along the way we pass through a few towns including XXXX from where the British controlled the delta and its outputs (ducks, rice, toddy, betel leaf, fish etc).

These days sleepy Bogalay is where the delta (in)action’s at. (I was here before – on the boat to Pathein but if you’ve read any of this previously you will be aware that I was distracted that night. So what do I know?). It’s certainly where the post-Nargis NGO action was at. There is plenty of evidence of that in the form of project sign-boards and the previously non-existent – very clean – guest house that we call home for a couple of days. Where does this branding requirement come from. Do those we help have to know from whom the help is coming? Like a charitable Champions League or World Cup it’s an A-list-only of ‘sponsors’ – Unicef, World Food Program USAid (from the American people), World Vision, the Australian Government. There are also the usual NGO tales of money perhaps not quite reaching those most in need; my favourite here is of a team of seven with 32 lap-tops between them (a bit pot-kettle that one I’ll accept).

But Bogolay is not where we’re headed, that’s further into, out into, the delta and for that we need a boat which we hire for 30,000 Kyat for the following day along with a driving team of two. We explain that with my boating skills one will be enough but they take that as a joke. we do get the price down from 33,000 (it seems to have gone up since Moe Naing;’s last visit) firstly by refusing to pay for their betel nut requirements and then by explaining how the global economic crisis has brought the dollar down relative to the Kyat. We then give them the $3 back by offering to provide lunch for them.

We set off at 7.30, at a lowish tide. It’s two and a half hours to where we’re going – two villages on opposite sides of the river bank. We spend an hour on a major tributary, half an hour taking a winding shortcut inland and then another hour on on a mile-wide tributary. This is where I follow up my offer to drive and after a moment’s trepidation both our boys are settled inside in the shade having a smoke and leaving the tiller-work to me. They are somewhat surprised that I seem to know what I’m doing. I don’t explain that the River Trent that I’m used to is not one fiftieth the size of this river, I just enjoy myself for an hour sweeping past sandbanks at 20kph, criss crossing from one side to the other when necessary and following the shoreline the rest of the time.

We’re greeted at the first village – XXXX – by the head of the village, Har Tar Zaw. He’s 34 and became head of the village (after some kind of due process at a village meeting) after Nargis which took his Uncle who previously had the job. He also runs the village shop. He explained that on May 2nd 2008 the village had over 700 residents; the next day only 180 were left alive. “How did you survive?” “I was in Yangon, with my whole family. Very lucky”. You bet. We walked through the village, which in addition to NGO aid, has been mostly helped by individual Myanmar donors, with its Unicef water pots, crossed the almost-a-bridge, still broken, that links two parts of the village.  They need $500 to build a new one, although surely a DIY effort could improve this one (old ladies have to use it and, yes, sometimes they do fall in) but as in other villages apparently a let’s-await-a-donor culture sets in and gets in the way of self-improvement. We met a crowd of people who wanted a chat. It’s clear that Nargis was a BC / AD moment around here. Even (or just?) two years on many conversations reference it. One woman calls her unusually fair-skinned child a ‘donation pig’ these having arrived pink whereas the normal local pig is black. (Though a reader suggested another interpretation). Amongst this group there seems to be a collective psychological something going on here. I wonder how long it will last. How long will it take for a younger generation who grow up post Nargis to start the “Oh, stop going on about the war Dad” talk?

Elsewhere life goes on as normal(ish). The rice crop may have been destroyed by rats but there are still crab cages to be baited – with bits of frog and rat – and to be set up at low tide and recovered again at the next low tide and then sold on towards Yangon where, eventually, a crab worth 600 Kyat here will fetch 5000 Kyat at the restaurant table.

We’re a long way from anywhere.  There is no TV.  “So not many Manchester United fans?”.  “Many.  We go over there when we want to watch the football:, says the head man pointing to the village across the river.

We returned to our boat, raised our crew from their slumbers and enjoyed with them the lunch we had brought with us.  One of the drivers told us of spending from 10pm to 4am on the night of Nargis sitting on an embankment in his village chest deep in water with his pregnant wife and children aged nine and three.  If they stood the water knocked them over.  They sat on one end of a piece of tarpaulin holding the other end over their heads.  By morning the kids were losing their strength.

Then we headed across the river to that second, larger village (lucky enough to have a TV and Manchester United).  This one is something of a showpiece having been aided by the Htoo company one of the country’s biggest with their fingers in many pies.  The government bring visitors here to show-off how well those hit by Nargis have been looked after.

3000 people used to live here; just 300 survived the cyclone.  Even brick-built building were wiped out, taking with them all those who had thought them safe enough to take refuge in.  Everything went.  Apart from the pagoda which simply took a beating.  Now, after what must be considerable investment in hard standing and new housing the village is rebuilt.  But it’s a dreary place; the houses are lined up like an army or prison camp, their tin roof’s bouncing sunlight skywards, with nothing much in-between. It’s quiet. There seems to be little to talk about in the dirty (but friendly) teashop (except of course the football).  I’m wondering why on earth anyone young and energetic would stay here after such a disaster.  Maybe if you’re making money as a fisherman there is a point to it, maybe if you are staying committed to rebuilding your community there is a point to it but otherwise, with your family and home gone, why not leave?  There’s nothing to look at in this pancake of a landscape except watch the water passing by.  We’re only about 30 miles from the Andaman Sea but the only time most people here have seen it was the time it washed their families and homes away.  Yangon is only 100 miles away; perhaps it seems a world away.  I’m wondering whether I’m at a meeting of the Myanmar Flat Earth Society when a young woman asks; “Why did you come here?”.

(All stats from Wikipedia so feel free to dispute them.  Opinions are all mine, feel free to dispute them too.)


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