Friday, May 26, 2006

Schooltime in Mandalay

We did the usual thing of climbing up the 1400 steps (up and down) of the Mandalay Hill for sunset and got captured by a group of students ranging from 14 to 21 wishing to practice their English. Despite the slight struggle this was while climbing in heat somewhere around 40 degrees C (Mandalay is HOT) it proved a very satisfactory occurrence. The older ones had pretty good English but the younger ones were mostly restricted to ‘hello’, ‘what is your name’ and ‘Steven Gerrard’ (they are really obsessed with English football here, but be warned most of the monks support Arsenal and will get angry if you cheer for other teams). The girls were so cute. They were so shy and would in certain cases respond with a spew of giggles when given attention.

This is perhaps a time for introducing another observation from this country. The girls are really beautiful. After coming across from India where women are incredibly reserved and covered up, landing in Yangon was a very pleasant surprise with so many engaging beautiful people. There is not so much a general striking beauty but rather one that knocks you back when that wonderful smile comes out from the whole body and bursts onto the faces. There not many relationships with foreigners outside of the paying sex-tourists and I understand that it is very much looked down upon by the government - it is the little things that abound which make you aware of the suppression of the regime. The existence of many nuns, in pink robes sporting shaved heads adds to the interest of the country. Of this I would like to know more as it was explained to me that if they are good Buddhists they can hope of being blessed by reincarnation as a man. Lucky them.

Back to the chain of events… After watching a wonderful sunset with the sun descending over the far hills lighting up with an array of colours the broad flat valley, ancient cities, mighty Aryerawaddy, Mandalay itself and endless fields stretching off in to the distance, and a good couple of hours of basic English practice, we were offered and agreed to quite some delight to come and help out in an English lesson at their local monastery.

Their village was on the other side of Mandalay Hill from the city and it was there that we met the keenest of the students for some cane-ball and Frisbee before sitting down to some more practice around a small pagoda. A pleasant early evening ensued but as the teacher was late we never got truly into a lesson. Therefore we offered to come back the next day earlier and for longer.

This third meeting was the most eventful. We begun by going down into the village amongst a whole range of staring faces for a game of footie. This was carried out to some success and I am sure, to the denial of Dave’s claims, that my team was on top when he pussied out scratching his toe. I am being rather unfair. Firstly, my team were perhaps behind. Secondly, playing barefoot football on such a pitch less than sensible and Dave did practically take his whole big nail off and was in quite considerable pain. This necessitated Dave being ridden home by the teacher to wash his wounds while I was left in the monastery to take the class. A bit of a daunting experience for one with practically no teaching experience but I loved it. It is quite engaging sitting in a candle-lit monastery maintaining the total attention of 20 wide-eyed students of such varying abilities before the presence of a few fascinated monks.

After some explanation of myself and a delve into politics expressing comparable situations and freedoms while being careful not to cross that fuzzy line, most of the time was spent in far more simple idiom finding out about them. It was fascinating. A slight note of disapproval was noticeable in the air when one of them said he wanted to work for the government when he grew up. It was expressed to me how limited opportunities people have when the standard of tertiary education is so low - the universities have been moved out of big cities so to restrict political activism - and political cronyism and nepotism being paramount. A depressing state of affairs for those around me with significant talent but little opportunity. For many the opportunity of leaving their district is a wish the government will restrict, let alone traveling to another country that is all but blocked by obligatory visas costing in the region of $500US. Monetary restriction can be just as effective as an outright ban.

This whole experience was heightened by a huge electrical storm that rolled in overhead pounding the corrugated roof of the monastery. What an atmosphere it created and it was quite a frantic goodbye as I took a quick picture and ran out to many thanks, being encouraged not to forget them – I do not think I could if I tried.

Then on homeward in an open truck through the lightening and downpour to a rainy rooftop and some Indian whisky with a Chinese girl who thought she was much crazier then she was.
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