“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, September 19, 2005


So I went out walking today. So it was raining. Normal people stay inside when it rains, but hell, if you did that here, you wouldn’t leave home for the 5 or so months of the rainy season. It always rains. All the time. I can’t remember a single day since I’ve been here that it hasn’t rained at least once. Maybe there wasn’t one. I was at the market and it started raining, so I took out my umbrella, went home, dropped my packages off and then went out again. Today’s mission, I decided, was to look for/at the bookshops of Yangon. That may sound strange, but there really aren’t that many. I had two that I found in a book that I decided to go and find. I found the first one without too much incident. It had some really bad novels and a couple of Shakespeare books. I bought the Myanmar Culture Shock and a phrase book. On my way to the second shop, I managed to collect two young street boys. I knew one from before when he sold me the Laos Lonely Planet for $2. I was in a good mood, so I chatted to them: always a bad idea. They decided I was friendly enough, so they followed me, asked me about my life—how long in Myanmar? Where do you live? What’s your name Do you want to buy postcards? No? But you haven’t bought any yet and you really do need to buy some. They asked me where I was going so I told them 37th street. They decided that this was a good mission and took it upon themselves to ensure that I got there (no doubt hoping that I would buy some postcards somewhere along the way to get rid of them), pointing out the interesting sites along the way—this is a movie theatre. This is another movie theater. This one’s Malaysian. This one’s Indian, no wait it’s Thai (as we all looked up at the very visible hand-painted movie signs). It wasn’t particularly useful, but I didn’t mind.

It started to pour with rain. I didn’t know rain until I experienced my first tropical rainstorm. It rains so hard that you’re drenched in seconds, the rain coming sideways, but the temperature doesn’t change, ensuring that even though the rain isn’t chilling you, you will still have no doubt that it is raining simply because there is so much water. I was cursing the fact that I left my big umbrella at the plant nursery yesterday, but decided to plough ahead. Sometimes rain storms here pass through quickly, so I decided that’s what would happen today.

We reached 37th street, after the boys almost got run over a couple of times, and they pointed out every street we passed. I turned down it, and started looking for the little bookshop. Meanwhile, the rain kept coming down. It comes down in such volumes that the streets flood very quickly. We walked down the middle so as to avoid the puddles at the edge, and the deep holes the murky puddles hide. Progressively, I got wetter and wetter. I was wearing jeans but they were rolled out so initially I just got the splashes from the road, but the sideways rain meant that soon the cuffs were also damp.

The bookshop turned out to be about 3 blocks down the street, but I didn’t know this, so decided that I would make it there before I was completely drenched. After two blocks, however, when crossing one of the intersecting main roads, it became clear that the rain was too angry to stop anytime soon. I was by this time walking in water up to my ankles. Jandals/flipflops/slippers are not the most ideal shoes to walk in deep water, as they get dragged on by the water (I’m sure I’ve broken pairs like this in the past), but my faithful shoes held (one boy took his off, and the other had his broken a little while later). I knew I was on the last block of the street, so I persevered. By this time I was no only drenched, but wet enough to be dripping. I passed all sorts of Burmese in a similar situation and they all looked at me in shock—a foreign woman braving the storm, and what’s this? Two little boys in tow. They all smiled at me and I sloshed through the now knee deep water laughing to myself. One man even asked me “Are you happy?” Not an existential philosophical question, merely polite concern that I was okay. I told him I was fine. I was actually enjoying it, to be honest. How often to you get completely drenched and walk through puddles with two boys joyfully skipping and splashing beside me.

I learned that they of course have no homes and they gestured that they sleep on the streets where they can find a place—it made me shudder to regard the puddles everywhere that they were gesturing, although I’m sure they have a dry niche somewhere. A lot of the sob stories are cons to insist that you buy them food, give them money, buy their postcards, but they do have truth to them. Still, I will not give money out. During my walk I saw one guy lathered up to really make the most of the “shower”. My boys would duck under drainpipes dumping water to “rinse off” as well, although it was hardly necessary considering the downpour.

I reached the bookshop eventually, and the gate was closed, so I stood under the eaves hoping someone would hear us. They did and invited me inside to drip on their floor, so I bought a few books from their lovely collection. Then came the trek home, which I must say was worse—the entire way I was in up to my knees. I felt the odd plastic rubbish bit skim my foot, and I shudder to think of what else I may have stepped in. Katrina may be happening elsewhere, but I felt my own Katrina type flood of sympathy here, literally. Normally when I walk I’m constantly watching my feet to avoid holes, piles of rubbish, mud, and other junk, but today there was nothing but murky water… I was lucky to find the kerb, really. Lucky not to have slid, or slipped or gone into the holes so that ugly, murky water was only on my feet.

It was a long, long way home, but you never realize how far until it is far, and of course I was not fit for a taxi, so I plodded along with my two companions. They realized I wouldn’t buy postcards from them, or take them to the cozy little street stand for something to eat (my one-track mind was only seeking my home), but they kept entreating me to visit them tomorrow so I could then buy postcards or give them a present. Their disheveled drenched appearance would be touching, but my heart was hardened long ago, and I was in a similar state myself. I did spend some time thinking, though, how glad I was that I had somewhere to come home to.

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