‘Where your sunglasses?’ The smiling teacher indicated to my head. ‘You had them on your head before you went into the river?’
Noooo! They were my absolute favourite TK Maxx bargainous ones. I must have lost them when I got swept undercurrent sliding down a mini waterfall. That’ll learn me to not be a poser wearing sunnies in water. Terrified she’ll run off and spend her hard-earned cash on some replacements, I lie smilingly, telling her they are in my bag and rush off before she asks to see concrete evidence. Losing sunglasses in a current 35-40 degree average whilst exposed in wide open countryside is not ideal, but I shake the thought quickly: I’m having one of those special never forget moments again: I’m swimming in glorious natural water, a gleaming rushing river, in Pyin Oo Lwin, an ex-colonial style hill station where George Orwell hung out for a bit, just two hours from Mandalay. It’s stunning, and the cool water lapping my body is exactly what 35 degrees plus calls for. Actually, on reflection, it’s perhaps just a smidge too cold.
Small water area near Peik Chin Myaung caves…we start to get our feet wet 🙂
‘Brrr!’ chatters my companion’s teeth: she is one our young Myanmar students: feisty, no-nonsense, cute and built strong. In mock bravado English, she challenges me to a swimming race. ‘I will be the fastest, much faster than you! I am very strong!’ she giggles. No doubt true, since I swim at the pace of a disorientated snail [and I’m not even sure your average garden snail can swim], but she has captured my attention. Not many Myanmar people are able to swim as there is little provision for it when young unless they are brought up near the coast or a gushing river like this one. Certainly none of the other 35 of our party has claimed to be able to swim, and are now standing in the shallows of the river splashing each other animatedly in anticipation of Thingyan, the forthcoming water-festival. I’m interested to see her swimming. ‘OK, let’s have a race’ I grin back, ‘maybe four of us?’ – my friend can, I know, actually swim, and another shy Myanmar teacher, older this time, has already mentioned that she grew up swimming every day. The youngest teacher nods, ‘Yeah ok! 4 person race! Go go go!’
House building on the way to the river
We line ourselves up, squelching our feet into the sediment of the river, a sensation best described as gross. The river has a strong unyielding current, and we watch as a small stick is dragged downriver, pulled this way and that. It’ll be a quick race, that’s for sure, but we can all touch the bottom of the river with our feet, and the rocks at the end should stop us from plummeting to a watery grave if the current proves too strong. We flex our arms and make cheering noises, pretending to psych each other out.
Getting nearer to our river!
‘Ready Steady Go!’ Taken unawares, our Myanmar opponents take off, and grinning, we follow. It is a quick race, and I am an unremarkable third, the four of us a close match for each other over a short distance. Both Myanmar women are quick, although with frantic but effective strokes. A cheer comes up from the riverbank as the others celebrate the swimming skills. It’s another example of how I just have taken for granted something in my own education. I might not have enjoyed those cold November trips to the nearest 70’s style swimming where the chlorine stung my eyes and the dizzying array of brown and yellow tiles offended my young sense of indoor décor propriety: (the only positive being the 10p Highland Toffee afterwards), but it’s another reminder of how fortunate I am. Lucky that our education system sees the life-saving potential of being able to swim and insists that every child learns. I am officially crap, more doggy than Daley, but I can swim. I can stay buoyant, I know of three strokes reasonably well and can tell you whilst gazing longingly into the middle distance about those who have mastered butterfly. I can scull, I swam in pyjamas whilst being held down by weights, and I can do mushroom floats. Basically, I could, under reasonable circumstances, save my own life in water if I needed to. It’s a privilege, but perhaps a right, that most Myanmar people don’t have. I’m intrigued by these two who can.
The still end of the river [we swam further up beyond the waterfall]
‘Where did you learn?’ I asked the older lady, a shy elegant woman of early 50s, one of those svelte effortlessly stylish women for whom the longgyi seems to have been created. ‘In my native village. When it’s hot in the summer, we play in the river.’ It’s the standard answer for those who can swim here: so many of my students come from tiny villages with no electricity and running water and the heat of the summer must have been unbearable without fans or, heaven forbid, aircon. I’ve known two students who in later life have had serious kidney problems due to the impure water they drank as youngsters. I turn to the younger. ‘In rainy season in my village the road is muddy, very bad, so we can’t use it. So we swim to school. Sometimes swim swim swim.’ She laughs in a sing-song voice. And there I was, in my youth, feeling bitter about being taken to a swimming pool in a cushy comfortable coach with jazzy upbeat primary-coloured upholstery.
Site of the great race of 2016!
One of the things that has most struck me in this country is how I have always been critically aware of the world’s inequalities: an upbringing under joint custody of Newsround and Blue Peter assured that, but seeing a young child on TV walking miles to the nearest school and without ready access to clean water is worlds away from knowing them really well, laughing with them in class, marking their essays and helping them to express themselves in a foreign language. The difficulties that some of my teachers endured as children seems much more real to me and much more shocking when I see them now arguing over past tenses and becoming unmanageably excited during the whisper game. It’s lucky I don’t work with children, as I would be far too indulgent.
We are still averaging 5 pagodas per trip…
We continue to play around in the water, holding floating competitions and teaching each other some new strokes. Another tall young teacher swims over and wants to improve her swimming. We mistakenly assume from her swim over that she can stay buoyant, but she grows tired within seconds and starts to sink and cannot find the riverbed. ‘Crap!’ we squawk as we grab her and hold her afloat whilst we decide that learning now to drown would be the first technique to learn. Another instance of how I would love to have more time and more expertise to teach other basic life skills whilst I’m here: First aid skills, ICT skills, driving skills, and now, it seems, Learning To Not Drown 101. I am beginning to understand the complexities of development project work: how do you prioritise? Which skills are most important? Learning English to access the global economy and lift the GDP?, or ICT to be able to use the internet leading to knowledge-gain and entrepreneurship?, or swimming, first aid and safer driving to save lives immediately? It’s a conundrum that I don’t have the skills or knowledge to answer. Lifting Myanmar up will be fraught with complexities and difficult decisions. I don’t envy the forthcoming months and years for the NLD.
Time for lunch! A feast, as usual!
Noticing that our bystanders are getting bored and hungry, we decide it’s time to leave the river. Squelching our way up past the monastery, we enter the impromptu changing room and embark on a public contortionist display as we all try to dry off, redress and re-apply makeup without any semblance of having an actual body. My thoughts flicker again to my municipal pool where women strip off proudly underneath clouds of talcum powder with sagging breasts before doing some intimate jousting with towels. Having perfected the art of bra clippage with one hand whilst holding up a sarong with teeth we’re all finally done, and head enthusiastically onto buses towards a rich lunch, a promenade around the gorgeous botanical gardens, and a blissful ice cream.