Burma 1985

We kids were playing our stick game when the bearded stranger came to our village. One of us hit the short stick into the air with the long stick, passed it to the next child who had to hit the short one in the air again and pass the long stick on. When the short stick landed near his boot we looked up and saw this red-faced, bearded stranger, sweating hard. Foreigners rarely came to the village so we ran along with him, laughing, as he wheeled his bike along the sandy track.

My mother waved at the stranger. Oh, there’s an ox behind him and she is warning him to move faster. We pushed him quickly on through the gate, and he came into our village, West Pwasaw. The rest of the village is surrounded by a fence of stakes and trees and the thorn bushes you find everywhere here, to keep the animals out.

My dad was carrying my younger sister, and my mother picked up the baby as they stared at the red stranger. He gave a small shrug and a wry smile, and my mother beckoned him forward to our wooden hut. She didn’t stop pulping the watermelons. She sat him down on a three-legged stool on our verandah, looked at the bike and sent my older brother off to my uncle for help. She scooped water from the clay urn into a lacquer bowl, and he used the oily surface layer to wipe his brow and drank the rest. She served him a plate of peanuts fried with pickled cabbage. We kids were all clustered around staring at him and one or two touched the beard to check it was real - and the boy who said ‘munny’, in the language the foreigners seemed to understand, was hissed at to shut up: this was a guest not a visitor.


When he was rested and less red, I and two of my friends agreed to accompany him to Minnanthu Temple. This is one of the many massive brick pagodas which covered the countryside near where we lived, the old city of Pagan abandoned in the foreigners’ thirteenth century. He was lots of kilometres away from the tourists’ village and the tracks were mostly sandy: he was going to get red again. The thorn had gone right into the inner tube and my uncle hadn’t been able to mend his puncture.