Myanmar: Flowing Down The Irrawaddy
By Miranda Bruce-Mitford
I board the steamer the late afternoon. The packed boat is already sitting much too low in the water; and there are still crowds of people pushing around the landing dock, laden down with tiffin carriers and reed mats tied into bundles. After politely waiting my turn, I make my way up the wobbling gangplank onto the deck, which is now teeming with colour, aseveryinchis taken up by passengers. They have untied their mats, extracted their belongings, and arranged themselves in their brightly patterned longyis, like butterflies.
As the voyage begins, people are chattering and laughing, passing tea around in thermoses, and making cheerfully lewd jokes about the soldiers who are aboard in sizable numbers. The soldiers sit uncomfortably in groups on the deck, rifles upright between their legs, muttering to each other. My arrival on board provokes animated discussion. I am used to it at this point, but I'm tired and look forward to the privacy of my cabin.
I have been allocated the only cabin on the boat. Feeling rather ashamed of this, I follow a sturdy crew member as he beats a path through the sea of bodies. Smiling apologetically, I am led to the stern of the boat, where I am ushered through an open door.
The cabin is spacious and has windows on three sides; however, to my surprise it is occupied by twenty-two other people sitting on the bunk bed and on the floor. My appearance excites chatter, and a young man is pushed off the lower berth to allow me to sit down. I am at once surrounded and subjected to a lengthy interrogation: where do I come from, how old am I, what do my parents do, am I married, where am I going, where did I get my longyi from, have I eaten yet?
But as the boat starts to clunk and creak, and we move gently out into the centre of the river, my fellow passengers gradually fell silent and settled down to doze off.
The door opens suddenly, and a monk walks in. Immediately, the occupants of the upper bunk jump to the floor, and the monk is ushered up top. The three who have given up the bed rearrange themselves on the floor. After a while the people begin whispering. The consensus eventually is that the monk demands less respect, because he carries a portable radio. By virtue of his robes he keeps his superior position, but otherwise he was ignored.
By now it is nearly dusk. I step out onto the deck, make my way to the rail, and stand there welcoming in the night, watching lives play out on the Irrawaddy. Everywhere on the river there is activity. Beneath the swollen salmon-pink sun, small boys - sent out to wash - leap into the water with great splashes of golden brown water. High up, oil lamps flicker to life, as women prepare evening meals, their small houses perched on stilts over the water.
I watched fascinated as a woman walks along a bamboo plank to a shielded platform beside her house. Her head disappeared from view as she squats to relieve herself directly into the water below. Standing up again, she waves to us cheerfully. I wave back.
Out further on the river little lights bob as fishermen laid their nets, calling to each other across the water. More lamps glow from villages along the shore; and the pagodas, illuminated by fairy lights from Taiwan, are visible for miles.
Finally, I am able to pry myself away from life on the river. It is fully dark now, and I am hungry. The galley is at the prow of the boat, and I edge by the other passengers en route. Some people are asleep; others talk quietly as they lay. The kitchen is an open fire on the deck over which a cook shakes huge pans that hiss and sizzle. As I approach, I feel a sudden sense of unease. The floor seems to be moving as though it is alive. My steps falter when I realize that the floor actually is alive. There are thousands of cockroaches running all over the deck.
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