Wednesday 11/9/2016 - Chindwin River Cruise: Kalewa, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Buddhist chanting began again at 5:30 a.m. We found it to be quite soothing. The river comes alive around sunrise, and here in Kalewa it was no different. We watched as a local water taxi pulled ashore. It was organized chaos as passengers queued along the riverbanks, and small boats pulled up alongside the water taxi to sell breakfast to those onboard. Then the water taxi pulled away and the vendors disappeared as quickly. Looking at the shore you would never guess that there had been a rush hour frenzy just moments ago.

We learned from the crew that when we had felt that jolt yesterday afternoon while traveling upriver, the drive shaft of our boat had been damaged. The river is very shallow and there are many obstacles such as submerged logs, sand bars, and whirlpools. The crew took it in stride. The captain had moored in an unexpected location last night near Kalewa Village so that the crew could take care of the problem.

The crew had stayed up all night attempting to fix it, but they still needed to do additional work (and needed to buy some parts). We felt bad for the sleep-deprived crew, but they were professional and cheerful as always.

Making the best of an unexpected situation, Win organized an excursion for us in Kalewa Village for 9 a.m. This was part of the adventure. This is not a cruise in Disney World; it is a cruise on a remote river. We knew that the crew were doing the best that they could, and Win made the experience seamless for us. We would still be visiting a riverside village. We had total faith in Pandaw, and enjoyed the unexpected twists and turns of the adventure.

Everyone was watching the U.S. presidential election results roll in on their phones, since we were more or less 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We didn't want to know anything until it was finalized...too stressful to follow each and every state. We ate some delicious noodles featuring jalapenos, had some coffee and juice, and left breakfast before they even circulated the lunch menu. We just didn't want to stress out about the election. We had voted absentee before leaving, so we had done our part. Worrying about it now would just make the day less enjoyable. The result would be the same whether we worried about it or not. Htet came looking for us so that we got a chance to order our lunch entree.

We were the first ones to get off of the boat in Kalewa, and we got a great reaction from people. Tourist boats don't usually stop here, and this was a place where the logging industry had really taken a toll on the teak forests. Large signs in Burmese and English encourage the population to resist the illegal logging trade. Some of the buildings closer to the river had a distinctly colonial feel.

A young woman took a selfie with Craig. We saw a woman and her husband sitting on a wooden bench with a tiny infant. We greeted one another and I asked if I could take a photo of the baby. The father, who obviously knew a little English, replied, "Yes. Baby. Photo baby."

A group of musicians and a person dancing in a costume made of cellophane, mylar, and colorful garland came parading down the dirt road. When they encountered us, they stopped and did a little dance for us. They played a cymbal and clapped bamboo sticks together. One man shook Craig's hand and was talking to him. They moved on, and I heard Genean mention that they had been collecting donations for the elderly.

We hadn't realized that, and wanted to give a donation. I ran in the direction that they had gone to catch up with them. Our captain and some crew members on the river bank got worried, wondering why I was running back toward the boat. I waved the money that I was holding in my hand, and said "donation." They called out to the guys to stop, which they did. The procession approached me and I handed them the donation. They were quite happy.

I ran back to rejoin the group. Folks in the group were looking at longyis from the Chin ethnicity in a small shop (the people here aren't Chin, but they trade these longyis down the river). Several people decided to buy one, and while they were waiting to have them altered, we waited outside. The proprietor of the shop came out to talk to us. "USA? Big day. Election. I think Hillary Clinton win." Clinton has been a staunch supporter of "The Lady" (Aung San Suu Kyi), so we were not surprised to hear this. We told him that we hoped that he was right.

Sandro realized that we were just biding our time while others were shopping, so he told us that we could wander around on our own and the boat staff would keep an eye on us. This was perfect, as we were keen to interact with more locals, and we were perfectly comfortable setting out on our own.

This was a bustling town, with many people on the move on motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and pickup trucks. There were many shops along the side of the main wide dirt road. There were baskets of colorful fruits for sale. Vendors sold packages snacks, soda, and newspapers. We watched a woman cutting areca nuts for betelnut using a metal blade on a lever. A woman with a treadle sewing machine did alterations on longyis on the sidewalk in front of her shop. We peeked into a jewelry workshop. People were selling bamboo stalks filled with sticky rice and filling stainless steel tiffin containers with prepared food.

A couple of crew members from our boat went into a hardware shop and bought at 12 lb. sledge hammer head to help with the repairs.

Everyone was very friendly and most were amenable to photos (some even initiated them). We wandered down the streets, saying hello to all of the shopkeepers and pedestrians. When we called "Mingalaba" and waved to people, whether they were in a window, in a car, or on a motorbike, it would usually take a few seconds for them to realize that we are addressing them. When they did, they flashed a big smile and waved, returned our greetings, complimented Craig's longyi, and asked where we were from. We would notice people trying to sneak photos of us with their phones, and we always smiled and posed for them. We take enough photos of the locals; it is only fair to reciprocate.

We saw a sign for the Myanmar India Friendship Road (part of the proposed India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway). This is a ongoing project to connect Manipur, India with Tak Province, Thailand, passing through Myanmar, which lies in between. The highway is planned to pass through the following cities and villages:
  • Moreh (India)
  • Tamu (Myanmar)
  • Kalewa (Myanmar)
  • Yagyi (Myanmar)
  • Monywa (Myanmar)
  • Mandalay (Myanmar)
  • Meiktila (Myanmar)
  • Nay Pyi Taw (Myanmar)
  • Payagyi (Myanmar)
  • Theinzayat (Myanmar)
  • Thaton (Myanmar)
  • Hpa'an (Myanmar)
  • Kawkareik (Myanmar)
  • Myawaddy (Myanmar)
  • Mae Sot (Thailand)
This must also explain the large bridge currently being constructed over the Chindwin right near where our boat was moored. We couldn't help but wonder what impact such a international highway would have on villages such as this. The river has been the major lifeline of transportation in these villages, even if some are accessible by road as well. But the advent of a higher quality road with direct access from India and Thailand would probably change the economy significantly. Hopefully it will improve the economy. Nonetheless, we felt lucky to be able to visit this area while it is less influenced by the outside world.

When we reached another spot on the riverbank, we turned around. Since we were alone, we didn't know how much time we had left before we had to head back to the boat. We met up with the rest of the group, and Sandro encouraged us to visit the local market. Obviously we weren't leaving just yet. Sandro pointed us toward the market, which was down an unassuming side street. We entered the property through a covered alleyway. The majority of this marker was indoors.

We walked around the market, admiring all the wares, including cheroot cigars, packets of spices, colorful clothing, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. I bought two small colorful Buddhist posters and some muffins.

We chatted with the sellers and the shoppers. I took a photo of one infant, and then showed him the image. He reached for my camera, and the mother immediately tried to discourage him. But when she saw that I actually encouraged him, she relaxed. He pulled the camera toward him and inspected his image closely, delighted. It was so cute!

One infant in the market reached for my camera when I showed him the photo of himself. The mom started to tell him not to but when she saw I wasn't worried, she let him pull it toward himself and look at it. It was so cute!

We made our way back toward the boat on our own and found that the rest of the group was relaxing in a chai shop (teahouse). These are social gathering places where people meet one another and discuss news and gossip. Young people from smaller surrounding villages would congregate in a chai shop like this in the larger town, hoping to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

A little chai walla (a boy who serves tea) wiped down a table for us, brought us some fresh teacups, and brought us some steaming hot samosas with tamarind sauce. Yum! We saw a man cooking naan on a griddle over a fire, and we ordered some. It was served with "wild peas." We also had some chai. Everything was so delicious and fresh.

The little chai walla was excellent at his job. It is easy for westerners to feel like he should be in school instead of working. However, in a developing country where families struggle to survive, sometimes the short term benefits outweigh the long term. Going to school won't help much if a family is starving. Sometimes they need to make difficult choices, eat now or invest in the future. And the developing nature of the economy means that many people have high school or college degrees, but can't find skilled work. This little boy had a great work ethic, was friendly and efficient, and earning money for his family. We can't always just apply our western lens to the situation and judge it based on how our own culture works.

We went back to the boat and sat in the library chatting with Toni. Sandro came in as we were examining the two Buddhist posters that I had purchased at the market. He assumed that they were something we had found in the library. I told them that I bought them, and he was quite surprised, saying that he had never seen tourists buy something like that before. We asked if he could translate the Burmese text for us. He sat with us and explained the nuances of each poster. One was a protection poster, and the other was the Buddha's interpretations of a king's dreams, which have become idioms in the Burmese vernacular.

We then went back to our cabin to cool down and to rest our achy feet and legs.

At 12:30, we went to the upper deck for lunch. Patrick said, "Craig, did you hear that Trump is the unofficial winner?" We thought he was joking because he knew that we had no cell phone connection and wouldn't know any better. But one look at his eyes told us that he was not joking. Lunch was a rather somber affair, and we looked forward to the afternoon excursion to get our minds off of the political situation at home.

For lunch, we enjoyed:
  • Tomyan soup (prawn & lemongrass)
  • Butter fish with curry sauce and vegetables
  • Japanese tofu curry with steamed rice
From the stern of the boat, we could see the crew diligently at work to try to finish up repairs on the drive shaft. They carried a heavy metal plate to the shore and worked on the propellor and drive shaft with various tools.

Eda's back was really bothering her today. She had opted out of the morning excursion because she had been in so much pain. But the group rallied. Patrick went to shore to buy some tiger balm and pain medication for her. Esther revealed that she practices reiki, and offered her services to Eda. Eda had never tried reiki before, but was in such pain that she was happy to try anything.

At 2 o'clock, the drive shaft was fixed and we set sail. About an hour later, we pulled up on a sandy riverbank and the crew placed the gangway. We were all happy to see Eda up and about, ready to join us on the excursion! She was very grateful to Patrick for the medication and to Esther for a successful reiki session.

We walked across the sand and up a hill to Sa Pa Kyi (granary) Village. This is a very small village; there are only 24 families living here. This is where we gave out some of the school supplies that we had purchased in Mandalay. Primary school is compulsory, so even the tiniest of villages has a primary school. However, children must go elsewhere to regional middle schools in larger towns. There are no dormitories of hostels in the other villages for students, so if they don't have friends or family they can stay with, they are out of luck. This means that very few children from this village ever progress to middle school. This makes the primary school even more essential, as it is the only schooling that most of these children will get.

We went into the small schoolhouse and were formally greeted by the 13 students. They bowed their heads as a sign of respect. We would notice the extreme politeness and respect shown to adults by the children in this and other villages along the Chindwin. If children need to pass between two adults who are having a conversation, they will dock down out of respect (even if they are too tiny to even be at all disruptive). It was refreshing to see these kinds of manners in children.

There are two usually two teachers at this school, but one was out sick. The female teacher was only 21 years old, and has been teaching for 7 months. She is from Kalewa, the village that we visited this morning.

The students were adorable. They sang songs for us in Burmese and English, including "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." Toni led them all in the hokey pokey and Genean sang "Itsy Bitsy spider." The kids were so mesmerized looking at all of the foreigners dancing and singing that they had a hard time remembering to participate. It was very cute.

The students recited the English alphabet. Sandro said that they know the English alphabet by rote, but don't really understand it. So we helped them to practice their pronunication of the letters. We had some language give and take. The kids took turns introducing themselves to us, starting their introductions with the English phrase "My name is." Then, each of us introduced ourselves, starting introductions with the Burmese words "Kyawantaw aamaimhar." It was fun, and the children repeated each of our names, which undoubtedly sounded as unfamiliar to their ears as theirs did to ours.

We distributed two pencils and notebooks to each child. The others on the boat had also brought school supplies, so each student ended up with a stash. Parents showed up in the doorway watching their children and seemed so proud.

I always enjoy visiting schools in other countries, as it harkens back to my days of teaching young children when I was in college. Kids are a joy no matter where you go. It was obvious that Eda also enjoys these interactions, and we were very happy that she had been feeling well enough to participate.

We walked down the single dirt road which comprised the village, looking at the traditional houses on either side of the road. The houses were wood-framed, with woven or wood plank walls. Like many traditional houses along the river, these were elevated, both as protection against floodwaters and as shelter for livestock. We saw pigs, chickens, and dogs relaxing in the shade beneath the homes. Some of the wooden pilings were set into concrete footings.

Large spherical baskets on the upper level of the houses act as grain repositories, the namesake of the village.

By now the children had been dismissed from school, and we ran into several of them and were able to meet their parents. Photographing some of the babies was especially fun, as their eyes seemed to penetrate me. They stared at us with curiosity, as their parents looked at them with a smile.

We stopped at a house where a mother and her daughters were harvesting manioc. One daughter used a wooden tool to dig for the tubrous roots. The boat crew found some manioc that they had previously harvested in order to show us what it looked like. The family had a bamboo chicken coop under their house, and we watched a mother hen and her fluffy baby chicks wander in and out of the coop in the golden late afternoon sunlight. A man showed us a fish trap that he had woven.

At around 4:15, we returned to the ship. The crew helped Craig down the steep slope to the sand. As we walked across the sand bank, we saw something shiny and black in the sand. We picked it up to find a lump of naturally occurring coal. Craig had noticed veins of coal in the riverbank geology as we were cruising the river, and here was additional proof that coal is a natural resource in this area.

We were very hot and tired, so we enjoyed our cold welcome drink and then went straight to our cabin. We took cold showers and then went up to the upper deck.

The happy hour drink of the day was called "blood and sand." I was intrigued. It consisted of a layer of grenadine on the bottom and then a mixture of local whiskey, cherry brandy, orange juice, and lime juice on top. It looks like sand layered on top of blood and it was delicious! Htet is a great bartender, and so personable! The appetizer for happy hour was onion rings. The perfect pairing!

We all sat with Sandro and had a cultural discussion which eventually came around to attitudes towards love and sex in Myanmar. Sandro joked that he needed a beer to tackle those topics, and he gamely answered the group's questions.

Women of any age who have begun menstruating are allowed to marry if their parents approve. Without parental consent, women must wait until age 20. This is non-negotiable legally. If a younger woman marries without parental consent, the husband will go to jail, no questions asked.

Questions came up around LGBT issues in Burmese society. Sandro surmised that 70-80% of gay men in Myanmar are closeted. In a society which aspires to stereotypical male-ness (aspiration to be male like Buddha), gay men are viewed suspiciously. Most go into more creative amnd/or liberal professions, becoming makeup artists, stylists, and tour guides.

Trans men are generally more accepted in Burmese society. People view it as more understandable for a woman to want to be male (again, to be more like Buddha).

Sex education is basically non-existent, even in a heterosexual context, in Myanmar. Again, it's easy to judge what we westerners might see as outdated conservative notions of sexuality, but the country has been isolated for many years. Kissing, let alone implied sex, is censored in Burmese television and movies. The government feels that TV is family entertainment. If they are showing foreign programming which contains kissing or more, they will cut away from the scene and insert some symbolism, such as a rose falling down or glass breaking, which would not likely be understood by children.

This taboo nature of sex causes more problems than just homophobia. There is a stigma against unwed mothers, and abortion is illegal, leaving those who have children out of wedlock in a difficult predicament. Some doctors and nurses in the bigger cities perform illegal abortions in an effort to help these unfortunate young ladies.

Human trafficking is also a problem in this country where opportunities are limited for many women. It is thought that the gender imbalance in China has created a market for foreign bride trafficking. Rural women and girls in the areas which border China who are looking for legitimate work opportunities are targeted. They are easily trafficked because Burmese do not need a visa or passport to enter China, only a Burmese identity card.

Sandro, being Burmese but working in the guiding profession, bridges two worlds. He speaks fluent Italian, and as such was able to find work with Eurpoean tourists when U.S. sanctions prevented Americans from visiting. He also speaks fluent English. He has been exposed to different viewpoints and ideologies far more than the average Burmese. This helps him to know which issues and customs are of interest to tourists, and he is able to present multiple facets of different issues.

Win came over at 7 o'clock and reviewed tomorrow's program with us. He seemed surprised and slightly embarrassed by the direction (and frankness) of the discussion.

Soon it was time for dinner, and we sat with Bob, Bets, Barbara, and Eda. We had a lot of laughs. The afternoon with the children had been so lovely, that the election was far from our minds.

The food was once again amazing:
  • feta cheese with watermelon (This is not a combination that I would ever have thought of, but it was absolutely delicious ahnd refreshing!)
  • watercress soup
  • Indian style beef curry with biryani rice (Steph)
  • Potato with marrow curry and steamed rice (Craig)(
  • almond cake
After dinner, we retired to our cabins. Apparently the election was not far from Craig's subconscious. This was the first night that he did not sleep well, and he was plagued with nightmares.

Woman and very young infant

Woman and very young infant

Costumed dancer; part of a procession collecting donations for the elderly

Costumed dancer; part of a procession collecting donations for the elderly

Fruit seller

Fruit seller

Mom and baby

Mom and baby, Kalewa

Kalewa market

Kalewa market

Chai walla

Chai walla, Kalewa

Cooking naan at the chai shop

Cooking naan at the chai shop

Enjoying chai, samosas, and naan at the chai shop

Enjoying chai, samosas, and naan at the chai shop, Kalewa

Craig disembarks from the boat at Sa Pa Kyi Village

Craig disembarks from the boat at Sa Pa Kyi Village

Primary school, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Primary school, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Primary school children greet us at Sa Pa Kyi Village

Primary school children greet us at Sa Pa Kyi Village

Passing out school supplies at the primary school, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Passing out school supplies at the primary school, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Craig, Steph, Genean, Al, Bets, Esther, Sara, Eda, Toni, Barbara, and the schoolkids at Sa Pa Kyi Village

Craig, Steph, Genean, Al, Bets, Esther, Sara, Eda, Toni, Barbara, and the schoolkids at Sa Pa Kyi Village

A namesake granary, Sa Pa Kyi Village

A namesake granary, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Mom and baby, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Mom and baby, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Mom and daughter who invited us into their yard to show us their manioc farming, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Mom and daughter who invited us into their yard to show us their manioc farming, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Toni poses in her Burmese hat, Sa Pa Kyi Village

Toni poses in her Burmese hat, Sa Pa Kyi Village

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