A month at the Phaung Daw Oo School
The last 6 weeks have been a fascinating journey in a country that is at a cultural crossroads; Myanmar is moving from the traditional values that have shaped it for the last millennia into the 21st century at a frantic pace.
I was in Monywa (Mo-ya) a city 4 hours east of Mandalay at a monastery to help a group of local university students improve their spoken English when I experienced this first hand.
We arrived at 11.30, monks have to eat before noon so they were in a hurry to have their lunch, they had been waiting for us. It's traditional that monks eat first, we ate next, 2 westerners waited on by half a dozen students. The food was good Myanmar fare.
We taught in the afternoon in a typical large room with wall fans but no air conditioning. The power was out for most of the afternoon so the lack of AC was irrelevant. It was of course hot, we sweat buckets – not figuratively, literally. This was a pretty standard day for me but it was about to change.
That evening, like all good hosts they wanted to show us the best of their city. We saw a stunning sunset from a hilltop pagoda. We then drove into town, the streets were as chaotic as usual, hot, sticky, full of noise and people and traffic. It was now dark, there were only a few street lights so I couldn't see far. It was everything I have grown to expect of a city in Myanmar.
But then we rounded a corner and suddenly it all changed. The darkness become a blinding light, the chaos, a calm, the noise, quiet. The rough road was gone, it felt like we were levitating between towering white washed walls, bathed in brilliant blue-white light. This was the grand entrance to something big? And there it was, the answer to why we were here. Written in intense blue and red neon “Ocean Centre”- Myanmars’ very own shopping mall chain.
Inside was a completely different Myanmar to the one I had experienced that afternoon; bright white lights, white walls, all at 20 C (cold), there were even travelators to whisk the smiling customers from floor to floor. Many of the regulars were dressed in western clothing. We looked oddly out of place, 20 students in traditional lonygis, 2 westerners and a maroon robed Monk in this "new" Myanmar.
The students were excited to show us everything, the fast food restaurants, the Japanese import store, the flat screen TV's, all the"stuff" that was for sale. But most of that this was the “future”, this was their future, this is where Myanmar was going, all shiny and bright!
To be far it was helpful for our teaching, all the labels were written in Burmese and English. We talked about many things. What this was for, what that did, what things tasted like, it was both useful and fascinating. We looked at a western style bed with pillows, bolsters and a sprung mattress, they understood it was a bed but why all the padding?
The most salutary fact came out at the end, when we asked if they ever shopped here, not one of them did – in fact they couldn’t imagine shopping there as the prices were so high. And a lot of what was for sale they didn't realise they needed, not yet anyway. With a little advertising I'm sure they will.
We then went back to the monastery to sleep on the floor on our straw mats as people have done for centuries. It was all very surreal.
Apologies for talking about my Swiss army knife again but as a tool in my opinion (I'm an engineer) it is unsurpassed. In my post “what I traveled with” I explained how my bug spray leaked and dissolved the shiny red plastic handle. It bares the scares, but it's still oh so useful.
It’s an old friend, given to me over 25 years ago for a long trip. It proved useful then and has been on just about every trip I’ve made since. And this trip is no different. It isn’t the all singing all dancing fifty different blades version, it has nine, two of which I have absolutely no idea what they do but who cares – the rest is perfection clad in once shiny red plastic.
This trip my toenails decided to give my toes grief when I was running. Over a three day period my left foot became a sore, bloody mess. A bit of nifty trimming with the scissor blade and a few sticking plasters - all was good again.
But the piece de resistance came the other day when my phone suddenly and inexplicably wouldn’t charge. I thought (hoped) the cable was broken but I checked it on another phone and it charged perfectly. In checking though I realised that I couldn’t get the plug fully into my phone. There must be something in the socket was my brilliant deduction. Here I’m relaying on my phone in a rather scary way, as I discussed in the last post. It’s not only my contact with the outside world, its also my contact with a lot of my local world, Myanmar is wired like the everywhere else. I’ve become totally reliant on technology.
I wouldn’t normally go sticking things in a phone but what else could I do? It was quickly dying; drastic times require drastic measures!
Enter the marvel of Swiss engineering. It has both a plastic tooth pick and metal tweezers. I started gingerly poking with the tooth pick, thinking “I’ll do less damage with plastic” and a tiny piece of white fluffy lint came out. I then went full bore with the tweezers scarping away. More and more lint came out. After 5 minuets of scratching and fiddly tweezering the plug was back in and the phone charging. All was good. Red Swiss army knife saves the day – again.
My world came crashing down the other day, it almost ended, at least it felt like it . My phone stopped charging!!!!!!!!! The battery was at 19% and falling fast. I thought I was about to lose my phone, the technology that allows me to be part of the 21st Century, at one with it. I could suddenly see flashing before me all my perceived difficulties - what the hell was I going to do?. The issue in the end was minor - simply resolved in a few hours. This over reaction got me thinking about my relationship with this technology and being here.
In my first blog I mentioned my arrival, 26 hours of travelling, 7500 miles, 12½ hour time difference, I log into the hotels wi-fi and I’m texting with my family as if they’re next door. 25 years earlier; No cell phones, no internet, no texting, no google, no siri, no facebook, no Instagram, no anything really. We had a guide book (a paperback) and a film camera that used a few batteries, a digital watch with an alarm and flash lite. That was our technology.
Communication’s was by letter, snail mail as it’s lovingly referred to today. We’d send letters home and family, friends could post mail forward to post offices in towns that we planned to visit. Hopefully we would get there before the mail was returned. There were a few long distance, expensive, crackly phone calls. BUT WE WERE OK.
So, what’s happened in the intervening 25 years? Why has something that didn’t exist then become so absolutely indispensable now? Why was I so worried? Was I going to miss out on so much of the 21st century by not having a phone for a few days or even a week? I’m not saying everything I use it for is unnecessary, but do I need it all the time? Was this panic truly necessary?
In Buddhism, they talk about being present in the moment, not looking back to the past or forward to the future. Being here and now, living in this moment wisely and earnestly. I’ve found here my technology has been taking me out of the moment. I was able to distract myself all too easily with it. Instead of enjoying my experience I was voyeuristically trying to be part of someone else’s.
Here I’m realising that a little more balance in my life makes it better. Technology is part of that balance, there’s a place for it, I need for somethings. But I need to decide how I use it, rather than letting it dictate to me how I should use it. As the weeks have passed I’ve been purposely fiddling with it less. I’ve turned off my notifications, all those pings and bings are gone; Email first, then Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, Instagram. Initially it was rough, resisting that urge to keep looking, to keep checking but after a while they went. I now try to make a few specific times each day to check in, it does feel better, I’m more in control. The balance is shifting in my favour, I am regaining control.
I’m not where I want to be, not yet, the other day proved that. But I am getting there.