It was supposed to be a 5-hour ferry trip...

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
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Trip End Apr 12, 2005


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Tuesday, May 25, 2004

So the day I wanted to leave Mrauk U for Sittwe was rainy and windy, like the previous 36 hours. It was actually really nice to have a change of weather as hothothumidhumidhothothumidhumid was getting a little old. But having the heavens finally open and pour down had its downside as well--the private speedboat to Sittwe was cancelled and my friend Htein Win convinced me to take the government ferry with him. Normally that would be the highest form of irresponsible independent travelling in Myanmar, as using any form of the regime's services theoretically just helps them continue being in power. But Htein Win was persuasive, assuring me that my $4 was too measly to be helping out the nasty military junta and that it would rather go towards paying the crew, for the fuel, etc.

Being quite soggy at that point and ready to get to Sittwe in order to head back to Yangon the next day but definitely going against my gut instinct, I went along. In a pretty pathetic attempt to alleviate my guilt for freely handing over my $4 to the gov't, I said I'd tough out the 5 or so hours and sit in a sling chair "with the people" on the lower open deck rather than pay more for "1st class" upstairs where Htein Win had a cabin with his project assistant. He offered to keep my pack upstairs in his room, but I said I'd be fine, and would take him up on his offer only if we ended up in a hurricane. Oi, if only I knew! What happened after that is a classic story of how priorities get mixed up with instant karma...

The rain was still coming down in a steady drizzle when we boarded, and by the time we left Mrauk U (over an hour late, early by most Myanmar transport standards!) the wind had picked up even more. As we headed out down the canal and into the open countryside away from the town, the rain was starting to shift and blow into the lower deck area, getting all of us and all our stuff quite wet. I decided the best way to avoid this was to keep walking around the deck, trying to keep on the side that was getting the least wind and rain. That actually wasn't too bad, cause I also avoided sitting right next to a giant crate of seafood that was hauled onboard and plopped next to me just before we left. Whatever was in there was very stinky and was making the most bizarre popping and crackling noises...

A young guy had squeezed past me earlier with his bike in one of the side corridors while we were still waiting at the pier, saying "Oh, too narrow!". I told him I was impressed with his vocabulary, and then we bumped into each other in the same skinny passageway on one of my rounds to find a relatively dry place to stand. We had a very typical conversation for my 4 weeks in Myanmar; usually someone would approach shyly (more often than not, a young man), and if I made eye contact and smiled, I guess that was the unspoken invitation to start a conversation. This is pretty much what most chats were like:

Young man: HELLO!! (always said/barked AT you in Myanmar with a lot of enthusiasm, emphasis and volume)
Me: Hello.
YM: Where you go?
M: To Sittwe. Where are you going?
YM: (silence)
M: (slower) You go Sittwe? (I have to admit I'm starting to use a lot more simplified English. It's a helluva lot easier to understand than the present continuous, after all.)
YM: (smiles, he knows this one now) Ahh, Sittwe, yes.

We both smile, so far, so good. But I've got an inkling now that "narrow" was maybe a fluke.

YM: Wehcaaf?
M: Sorry?
YM: (louder) Wehoucaafa?
M: Hhmmm, sorry? (trying to smile and seem like I'm not being difficult on purpose.)
YM: (smiling nervously) Wehyoucaafa? Engaland?
M: Ahh, I'm from Colorado.
YM: Oh. (short pause, quizzical look, decides to fake it.) Ahh, Clodorah, ok!
M: Where d'you come from?
YM: Ohhh, uuuuhhh.....18 old.
M: Oh, ok. You from Sittwe?
YM: No, (unintelligible).
M: Ahhhh...

We smile more, I decide not to press the question. We both break out of our concentration on trying to understand each other to find there's now a small crowd around us, curious people who want to hear the Amazon speak with the local kid.

YM: I universy stundt.
M: Oh, which university do you study at?
YM: (very nervous smile at the crowd, he's in the spotlight now...) Enkaleesh.
M: Oh, you study English?
YM: Yes. I learny Enkleesh and I (unintelligible)?
M: Sorry?
YM: (louder, leaning towards me) I learning English babaspee sorry?
M: (hating to say it, but I can't bluff an answer) Umm, sorry? You're learning English and what?
YM: I baspee English, no pratiss. Sorry baaspee.
M: Ohhhh. Yes, speaking is very difficult, isn't it? Do you have a teacher from an English-speaking country you can practice with?
YM: (complete silence, has a wild look as the crowd stares at him for a response)
M: Where is your university professor from?
YM: (laughs)
M: Your teacher from England? America?
YM: (unintelligible)
M: Sorry?
YM: I learn 4 year.
M: Oh, ok. (We both smile. A lot.)

And so on. People are SO nice, and it's really brave of them to try and practice. But it's pretty draining when you do this (not kidding) 10 or more times a day. Guess I've lost my TEFL stamina??? :)

Well, to get back to the drama, as we 'chatted' the weather just got worse and worse. About an hour or two into the journey, the wind and rain were more or less horizontal and the waves had grown to considerable size. By that point I'd decided to ditch my big pack under my umbrella down with my chair on the lower deck (sorry, people, ditched you, too!), and I moved upstairs where it was a little more protected. Eventually it was too wet and windy to avoid it even by walking from one side to the other when we tacked, and some women who had chairs inside a small, narrow cabin generously and thankfully motioned for me to join them inside. We smiled and did the 'conversation' again, and after we'd exhausted ourselves, we all started to nap and try to block out the storm outside.

A huge gust ripped open the door next to me and I woke up to rain pelting me from one side. As I closed the door I noticed we were not really making any headway down the river, but seemed to be going almost sideways. Huge waves were now rolling underneath us and it was very difficult to see the land to either side. It was mostly all a big, grey blur. Oh, it was going to be a loooong boat ride.

Sitting back down and taking a look around the small cabin, I was pretty surprised to see that not only were a couple of women looking to be on the verge of being seasick (hey, I'm the one who's from a land-locked place after all, it shoulda been me!!) but also a good bit of hysteria beginning to take form. The woman next to me passed out and the others fluttered and fretted around her, sticking herbal tubes up here nose and pouring water on her face till she came to again. By that time, several of them were in tears, and within the next 10 minutes, most of them were in some form of combination of praying, crying, throwing up and getting wild and anxious looks in their eyes (not necessarily in that order). They began to skip using plastic bags and were barfing over the sides of their chairs onto the floor. Hmmm, close eyes so can't see, try not to smell (put sleeve over nose in discreet way, breathe thru mouth, think of ANYTHING else so you don't sympathetically vomit with them...... When Htein Win's assistant burst into the cabin with his sky blue UN helmet on as well as a bright orange life vest, shouting something and tossing another vest to one of the women, all hell broke loose. I haven't seen so much rocking, praying and wailing since I was in Jerusalem watching people at The Wall.

Deciding that was definitely my cue to escape out into the fresh air (!), I popped outside to join a small crowd leaning on the rails, looking at something. Not normally being a water-traveller, I was suddenly jolted into the present moment by seeing what our boat was actually doing. We had definitely stopped going down the river, and were in a small canal. Hmmm, interesting. And a second later my gut did a somersault when I realized we were drifting closer, closer, OH SHIT!! we're going to hit that flooded rice paddy!!! My thoughts turned to the all-too-common news stories from Bangladesh: "200 Drown in Ferry Sinking". I suddenly had an inkling of how that sort of disaster actually begins to happen and I selfishly started to think of how I could safely jump off if necessary and swim to the paddy without getting my cameras wet...(I guess I'm not really lifeguard material!)

After chatting to a couple of people (surprisingly including another tall, solo western woman, Sybille, a French NGO worker) leaning on the rail who seemed very calm in comparison to the Barfing Ladies I'd just left, I found out that the captain had actually steered us there on purpose, into a smaller canal between two (very flooded) strips of land. The crew then braved the slicing wind and rain to tie up the boat to some tree stumps and there we waited. And waited. And waited. And watched a wooden fishing boat about 50m away start to disintegrate in the wind after their crew had tied up, bailed out and came over to our boat to wait it out.

To make a long story short, after a couple of hours when the 'storm' had more or less passed over us, the captain had intermittent radio contact with our destination town, Sittwe, which was still getting pummelled. So they decision was made to spend the night tied up there next to the rice paddy, even though the majority of people were completely soaking wet, had no no place to sleep besides on the rusty, filthy decks, and also had no food to speak of. Thankfully, some local fishermen came to the rescue by rowing over with baskets of freshly caught river prawns, and along with some of the bags of rice that were (how fortunately!) being transported below decks they were cooked up in the galley--it was a fab, hot meal and no one could get enough.

I of course had long ago abandoned my place on the lower deck (so much for my unity with La Raza), and when it came time to find a place to sleep I continued with that theme and opted for the relative comforts and dryness of a tiny shared single cabin thanks to the generosity of Sybille, the French NGO worker I'd met earlier. That night we braved a small flood inside the room as well as hundreds of bugs who invaded at sunset and grabbed a few blinks of rest.

We set sail again under grey skies the next morning at 5, arriving in Sittwe a few hours later and staring in disbelief along the way at the damage this storm had caused the day and night before. Houses had been flattened, huge trees uprooted, fields, roads, sidewalks and piers were all underwater. Sheer devastation. People on the boat kept remarking they'd never seen such a storm before. Apparently there had actually been a warning sent out the previous morning, but we'd already left Mrauk U (hhmmmm...why didn't they check the weather BEFORE we left, like the speed boat had done? And why didn't we turn back?). Just in the past 2 days in the Bangkok Post there have been two stories about the Myanmar gov't only now coming out and asking for aid for helping the northwest of the country. It turns out that it was a full-blown monsoon, the worst since 1968, with at least 150 people dead, and over 18,000 homeless. Click here to read an article about it Wow, seems we were luckier than we thot...

Once in Sittwe, it was no problem to book a flight out to Yangon the next day. But poor Htein Win had to attend a funeral of a friend, and poor Sybille had a 2nd sleepless night in a row in her office HQ due to a loose snake in the building (oi, not a good thot...). Once again I got off easy, spending most of the day in my hotel bed with my ugly cough. Everything's relatvive, right? :)
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