The putter of a fishing boat’s engine somewhere in the dark sea across the road that separates it from the bar I am in; motorbikes go by and the occasional car. The monsoon rains have passed and I am making myself comfortable with one or two Beer Changs as I tap this out on an improbably tiny Bluetooth keyboard that is cluttered with Thai symbols along with Roman script.
I am now three weeks into living and working in Myanmar- specifically Myeik, the capital of its southern-most province, a city of 200,000 people who act like they’ve never seen a white man before. This is, in large part, because most of them haven’t- the entire region was sealed off by the Military junta in 1962, even to other Burmese, and was only opened again to the outside world three years ago.
It would be naive to pretend that time has stood still here during those decades but who really can say? Well, the locals could probably tell me if I spoke their language or they spoke mine. Attempts at translation all go one way via Google translate. None of the people from the region seem to be able to write in Myanmar script when I thrust my iPhone at them, even though I have downloaded and installed the necessary language packs. Okay, I only tried this once- to give the name of the bar outside which I am once-more sat, to a Myeik friend I have made since moving here. Perhaps the bar has no name or they were illiterate fishing folk. It’s entirely possible they haven’t seen an iPhone before, as well- Android is the preferred choice around here.
(UPDATE: The Myanmar script, despite being described as beautiful by my co-workers, is so inpenetrably circly that the illiteracy rate is about 70% of the population. My response: “Well, it’s not really fit for purpose, is it?”)
To those who might say, “Well why don’t you try learning the language, you lazy git?” I can only point to a guide on the varying levels of difficulty English speakers have with learning different languages and then again to my post on how I’m incredibly lazy with that kind of thing and can barely even speak French beyond ‘Where is the train station?’ despite five years of enforced schooling in it and a month of detentions at age thirteen for putting ‘l’alarm clocke’ in a vocab test.
Perversely, my job as an English teacher means I have spent years of my life in countries with the most challenging languages, even for natural linguists: the Middle East, China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and now here in a country which has a jaw-dropping 249 participles and in a region where even the other teachers- all from Yangon- don’t understand the locals unless they speak very slowly and avoid all slang.
Despite this, and the itchy spots on my back caused by something in the water, I am Myeiking myself more comfortable than I have been in twenty years.
In three weeks I have seen exactly two other foreigners- a nice Thai-Italian chap who was just passing through and some fat, red faced grumpy man who just grunted at me when I said hello. Thankfully, he was just here on a short business trip, he said, when I forced him into conversation as he was leaving the restaurant I was at. Turned out he works in Marketing. It figures.
I am torn between the urge to big Myeik up as a new frontier for the intrepid traveller, with its unspoilt Andaman coastline (except for all the plastic litter dropped by teenagers and fishing boats) and unexplored islands (which are actually full of marijuana plantations) and just not write about it at all. Nothing terribly eventful has happened except for finding a new fan club in the stray dogs who have mange and limp outside my gate, hoping for attention and the odd scrap of food.
I find I enjoy teaching again for the first time in years and now have the time and space to write more. Killing my PS3 the first night I arrived (I hadn’t realised the country suffers from frequent power surges) is probably a blessing. Video games bore me to tears now, no matter how many I downloaded in my stint in The Gulf.
As for Myeik- I can’t write authoritatively on the place at this point in time (and as the wiki page is just a stub, I really should). Hell, I can’t even find a place that sells toaster ovens. I can say, however, that the people of Myanmar are some of the genuinely nicest individuals I think I’ve met. The previous teacher- a Polish-English woman was fed up by constantly being stared at. Perhaps she should have tried smiling in response. At that point, a huge grin breaks out on their faces like a sudden shaft of sunlight through the heavy monsoon clouds.
Seemingly every adult male plays guitar very well, putting my ‘I know all the chords and can do a passable impression of Tom Waits’ level of accomplishment in the shade. At $20 or so for a decent handmade instrument, plus zero technology until the change of government, you can see why they would dedicate themselves to learning something useful. All that is changing, of course. SIM cards, which once sold for a thousand dollars, can now be had for $5 (the Qatari company Oredoo is one of two market players) and people are now discovering the simple pleasure of looking at baby animals on their Facebook feeds. Thankfully, nobody is chasing down Pokemon, but it is only a matter of time.
Already I have shown my colleagues technology they didn’t know existed- the PlayStation Vita; the Kindle Paperwhite; the MacBook. Already they are wondering how long it will take to save up for one of these (except the PlayStation Vita which even they thought was crap, giving up on it long before the load screen for Assassin’s Creed gave way to its stuttering, jerky frame rate).
I am well-known to the Police (they wanted to have a beer with me) and the local government office (a wooden shack) is directly opposite the house I am living in. They told me to ‘Shush!’ The other night at 10pm when I was Skypeing my sister on the balcony. So it is hardly rock’n’roll: like most of East Asia my co-workers prefer crap ballad music and bang bang EDM in any case. I have copied over a shit load of decent music and British TV for them, though- they like Roots Manuva:
and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, especially the story where the British Prime Minister is forced to fuck a pig on live television:
When I told them the last British Prime Minister actually did fuck a pig (well, he stuck his willy in a decapitated pig’s head at some university society high jinx dinner / secret society initiation ritual), they were genuinely shocked.
They have freedom of speech now and are waiting for democracy to bring real, positive change to their lives.
But, then- aren’t we all?