Betel, Tobacco, and Pickled Tea, or: How I learned to Speak Burmese without Saying Very Much (Part III of III)

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I awoke to a sharp jolt as the ferry banged against the dock. It was still dark, but most of the passengers were already up. Thet and Khin Myat were busy packing their belongings. I looked at Thet, “Pathein?”

He shook his head, “Mawgyun.”

This confused me; everyone seemed to be getting ready to disembark. Was no one traveling on to Pathein? I pointed at myself, “Yangon,” and then downriver, “Pathein.”

Thet shook his head again. He pointed to the ferry, “Yangon. Mawgyun.”

That couldn’t be right, I thought. Had I gotten on the wrong boat? I could feel a rush of anxiety coursing through my veins. I frantically pointed to myself, “Pathein. I go to Pathein.”

The entrance to Mawgyun

Thet held out his watch; it was just after six in the morning. His finger tapped the five o’clock position and then pointed to the boat. “Yangon,” he said and then pointed to me, “Yangon. Pathein.”

So, it was true; I had boarded the wrong ferry. My heart sank. I had taken the trip for nothing and would have to wait another day just to return to Yangon!

Thet sensed my disappointment and gave me a pat on the back. We disembarked together, but Thet and Khin Myat’s journey had not ended. I waved goodbye as they boarded a small sickle-shaped motorboat and disappeared behind the tall grass of the delta.

The old mosque in Mawgyun

The sun appeared above the river, and for a while, I watched it grow through the morning clouds. Eventually, I left the river through a wooden gate that marked the entrance to the dock, continued down a long dirt road with several stalls selling mohinga, a noodle and fish soup, passed a weathered mosque, and onto an asphalted two-lane road lined with elegant wooden buildings, several of which were painted in cheery pastels. When I reached the end of the street, I sat down at an outside café and ordered an espresso. The locals stared at me as they passed, not out of any hostility but curiosity. Some smiled; others waved, but most just walked by with a confused look on their face, as if asking, “How on earth did you end up here?”

Mawgyun’s picturesque avenue

I learned later that like most of the delta, Mawgyun had been hit hard by Cyclone Nargis and became a sort of staging ground for NGOs working in the city and surrounding villages. But that had been in 2008, and the foreigners departed as quickly as they had arrived. The rhythm of life had long returned to its habitual beat in Mawgyun.

I finished my coffee and continued strolling through the city, ultimately, finding my way back to the dock, which was swarming with people. Only they were not the usual merchants and fisherman but adolescents in dress shirts and longhis boarding a small ferry. Some of them shouted hello when they saw me, and I wave back. A few beckoned for me to come over, and not having anything else to do, I complied, joining a group on the roof of the boat between shouts and cheers. A few spoke some English and asked me what I was doing in Mawgyun. I didn’t know what to say, so I just gave them a simple answer: traveling.

A woman appeared from below deck to see what the commotion was about. When she saw me, she explained that they were heading to a Buddhist temple for a festival and, in typical Burmese fashion, invited me along.

School children heading to a festival

In today’s world of discount air carriers and well-paved highways, we don’t so much travel as teleport from one airport or bus station to the next. We blindly change venues with little thought to what is in between. But travel implies motion; it implies movement. Even for those looking to get off the beaten path or find the “real (insert location here),” the focus is too often on the destination, and we forget that simply getting there can be just as rewarding.

I recalled the organized chaos of Yangon’s waterfront the day before, the thousands of different people passing before me, each on their own unique journey; each with a story to tell. But Yangon was only part of that story. It was the beginning or end, a point of departure to some, the final destination for others. How they came to find themselves there or where they were off to, only the river could answer that.

I gave the school teacher the thumbs up, and the children erupted in a wild cheer. Looking upriver, I wondered if I would ever see Pathein. Perhaps, but I realized there on the banks of the Irrawaddy that I didn’t really care, that in the end, what I would remember was the journey.

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