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Burma diary: how millions of people make a living

I recently spent three weeks in Burma (Myanmar). This article does not provide any insights into investing. Rather, it shows how people in many other countries struggle to survive each day, regardless of how much we think the world is becoming more integrated by trade, travel and communications. Only 30% of Burmese have access to electricity, and millions survive on a few dollars a day.

Part 1: the toil of the gravel carriers

I'm sitting on the upper deck at the back of our river boat watching the lives of the people who work on the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy, one of Asia’s great rivers. There are four main activities: unloading gravel from long wooden boats; boat repair; ferrying tourists on rides and selling clothes.

The gravel work should make everyone in Australia grateful for their opportunities. A wide and long wooden boat arrives laden to the brim with gravel, dragged from a source on the river. A plank is thrown from the shore to the boat, and then the ant-like parade of effort begins. A small truck with high sides on the back reverses towards the end of the plank, and eight female 'porters' appear in longhis (the Burmese version of a sari) and checked shirts with long sleeves. Each wears a hat, heavily-padded on the top. They carry heavy plastic tubs, not light and flexible but firm enough to hold a load of gravel.

The first woman walks across the plank and throws her tub into the gravel load on the boat, and men spade the tub to overflowing, then two others in the team heave the tub onto her head, balanced on the padded hat. She puts one hand on the tub to steady it, twists and scurries back across the plank, now bouncing under her weight. She competes with the seven other women for a place on the plank.

The sides of the truck are too high for her to lift and empty her load from ground level. Another plank has been laid from the ground to the top of a barrel to form a narrow incline a couple of metres high. She takes a bit of a run to the top of the plank, and with both hands, lifts the load off her head and into the truck. She goes back and does it again.

Back- and neck-breaking work. How long would I last, how many loads? She's a tiny slip of a woman, perhaps a girl, they all are. Is she the one who tried to sell me a T-shirt this morning, the gentle banter of her sales talk proving unsuccessful so a day on the gravel is necessary to avoid going home empty handed? I've been watching for an hour and there's no respite. Sometimes, they queue up on the plank, four or five arriving at the same time, and it bounces, and one loses a load.

Their backs are straight and long and they move on relentlessly. Nobody stops to wipe a brow or take a swig of water despite the hot day. Where's the shirker? Is it a team paid for the entire effort, like a rowing eight, with no scope for slack? Are they selected for stamina and strength, or willingness? They're paid a few dollars a day. How do they set a plan to ensure they are not still carrying tubs of gravel in ten years' time?

Meanwhile, on our boat, as I watch from the comfort of my cushioned lounge chair, most of the passengers have gone on an excursion to see more temples and pagodas. The most common complaint on board is that we simply can't eat any more food - the breakfast is already far more than the muesli or cornflakes we grab at home, and then the soup, salads, main course and dessert for lunch is just too much. At the end of lunch, the dinner menu comes around. We can barely face it, deciding what's for dinner when we're stuffed from lunch.

Down on the bank of the river, the women-ants continue their parade. The gravel in the truck can now be seen above the level of the sides, and relief, the driver hops in and with a massive puff of dirty smoke and raucous blast of the diesel engine, the truck struggles up the gravel-strewn bank. Down on their haunches, the women sit for the first time in at least an hour. For a minute or two. But there's still gravel on the boat. And so the parade begins again, only this time (blessed relief), there's no plank to climb to reach the top of the truck. They carry their load from the boat and dump it in the pile of gravel on the river bank.

Later in the day, the truck will return, and the gravel will be loaded back into the tubs to be run up the plank. Oh dear, double-handling and massive effort. Cheaper to employ someone to reload the gravel than have another truck ready.

A couple of the girls take a wash in the river. It's greeny-brown, not a sewer and not full of litter, but there's no doubt where the effluent and waste along the river goes. I've seen floating turds at times, not many to cause a smell or gather ‘on mass’, but enough to know that if anyone on our boat fell into the water these girls are cleaning in, they'd rush back to the boat and bathe properly. And worry about their health for a month.

The girls are highly skilled at bathing in public. They walk into the water wearing a longhi and holding a piece of soap. They bathe their head, shoulders, arms, the longhi itself, and probably private parts, as there's a bit of under-longhi action. Then they return to the river bank where a clean longhi lies in a basket, and the new one is carefully rolled into a loop and held over the head. Letting it down, avoiding touching the wet longhi, the new longhi is held in the teeth covering the body while the old longhi is loosened and allowed to fall. The new longhi is then wrapped around the body, and from the river bank, the old longhi is cleaned. Is that it for the day, the only bathing?

The people from our boat return from their excursion, exhausted after another village and three more temples. They're not carrying much this time, unlike earlier visits to the lacquer work factory and the previous day to the silk weavers. Show them the craft work involved, show the months of toil in skills handed down through generations, and the wallets open. The $200 lacquer box is no doubt a top quality souvenir of genuine value, probably taking months to complete the eight coats of lacquer and intricate design work. But pester the same person to buy a carving or painting outside a monument or temple and it will be courteous but hard bargaining over a dollar or two.

Elsewhere along the river bank, a noisy diesel generator has been pounding away all day. It drives an arc welder, wielded by a man in a hoodie working on the side of a large metal boat. No sign of goggles or protective gear, but he does wear sunglasses. How long can eyesight last with an arc light a few feet away. It's now late, going dark, and still he works. Then a hammer comes out and he bashes something into place. Next he grinds, sparks flying brightly in the dusk, before moving along a little and grabbing the welder again. As far as I can tell, he's been doing this since day break. Finally, it's too dark to work and the noise stops. A signal for me to go inside and have my first beer of the day. It's been exhausting, sitting and watching all this work.

Part 2: retail therapy, Burma-style

The river boats bringing in Westerners pull up on the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy all day. From this spot, the Mingun Temple is a short walk away, and as each boat approaches the shore, the ox carts and tuk tuks move along the bank, hoping for custom. Young sailors rush off the tourist boats and drive wooden stakes into the mud, and long ropes are thrown over and tied to the stakes. A gangplank is lowered and the wealth pours off.

There are few young people among the Westerners here. These are expensive river cruises, $500 to $1,000 a night, and the backpackers are not seeing Burma (Myanmar) this way. They are on the back of a bus which costs a few cents to travel across town. No, these are the moneyed retirees, who are seeing Burma because it's in this year's Top 10 Travel Destinations you must see before everyone else. They've cruised Alaska, done the river from Moscow to St Petersburg, Budapest is old news and Africa is a potential new frontier

Down the gangplank they move tentatively, because although have led fit and prosperous lives, often working hard until their families were finally off their hands, they are in their 60's to 80's and the limbs don't move too well. There's plenty of girth. The young Burmese guides help them to land, knowing that their guests will later wash their hands in the knowledge they've been touched by a local.

For many living on the river bank, a day's work involves serving these wealthy people. A young girl is here to meet every ship that arrives, a hat in each hand and another dozen on her head. She hopes for rain or bright sunshine, as hat sales are slow on cooler, dry days. She spots her ideal target - a bald, older man walking alone without a wife to tell him he doesn't need his tenth hat. Suddenly, with perfect timing, the sun bursts through the clouds, and she tells him the hat looks "good for you" and "special deal for you, only $5". He spends more than that on sunscreen, and what about the freckles on his bald patch that he's been worrying about at the moment. He takes a look at the hat, and she registers from thousands of such encounters that she has a sale if she plays it right from here. She knows only a few words of English but they are all she needs. "Sun" she says, pointing skywards with the hat she thinks he will like, and he allows her to put it on his head. It's not a perfect fit, his head is a bit large, she knows exactly where a bigger size is among the pile on her own head. But he shakes his head and says "too much", and of course it's too much, she'll be happy with $2 but he'll pay $3. "OK, this one, better for you, only $4", and its fits perfectly. "$3" he says, and the deal is done.

On a good day, she'll sell 20 hats, give the money to her family, who are all so proud of her. The Westerners think they are good at bargaining, they walk away until the seller becomes so desperate, that the power lies with money. But in a country where a man works a day for a few dollars, the price of a hat is not set on the streets of London or New York.

Along the banks, there is a hierarchy of transport services. The cheapest is the ox carts, simple bamboo wagons with wooden wheels pulled by a couple of Brahmin bulls. They can go closest to the water, over the ruts and stones, and have first dibs on the travellers with the least money. There are no seats, just a dirty mat on a platform. Then the tuk tuk drivers further up the bank, offering the comparative comfort of a covered ride and a seat. They also prefer rain to discourage these intrepid travellers from taking the short hike to the temple themselves. That's the trouble with these visitors to the new frontiers like Burma. They want to do as much as possible themselves, even though they are older than their parents ever dreamed of living. And older than these Burmese are likely to live even now.

Gradually, the groups that left the boats two hours earlier return from the nearby temples and pagodas. More of a straggly group this time, some returning earlier to avoid exhaustion, others tired of yet another religious site, others following the crowd, haggling with the locals. There's the guy videoing everything - quite what he does with hundreds of hours of shaky images when he returns to England is a horrifying thought - "Would you like to see my Burma video?"

Tick that box on that temple, the one that was an attempt by King Bodawphaya in 1790 to build the largest temple in the world but halted after 25 years when he fell sick. It remains unfinished and is probably the greatest pile of bricks in the world, more a mountain than a building.

Now, back on the boat, leaving behind the hawkers and the ox cart drivers, where's my cup of tea and a biscuit? Freshly baked cake, just what I needed. Didn't you love the gold leaf work, how do they hammer the gold leaf so finely for 10 hours a day? And despite having nothing, living next to the cows and all that litter, how happy those little children looked. They just bathe in the dirty river whenever they want. And the whole family lives in that tiny bamboo house, looking after grandma. Don't you just love this country!

4 Comments
Mike
March 30, 2015

Sounds like the typically overweight, overindulged, over-entitled and spoilt boomer generation with first world problems about where their next umpteenth meal is going to be when they get back on board the cruise ship and that breakfast was late that morning.

Give me a break.

The guy bargaining a few dollars on the hat would walk away feeling like he had "haggled a good bargain", but it is just embarrassing when you consider that "that 1 or 2 dollars" makes the world of difference to that other person, i.e. whether they eat that day or not.

Monica Rule
January 30, 2015

Hi Graham,

I enjoyed reading your travel blog on Burma. I was born in Burma and arrived in Australia with my family at the age of 9 back in 1971. My three sisters and I regularly take my mother back to Burma every two to three years so that we can re-connect with our extended family. The last time I was in Burma was in 2006 when I took my husband and mother there. My sister is taking my mother back there next month to celebrate Mum’s 80th birthday.

Your article described exactly how Burma is. Most Burmese people are very poor and they survive on very little money. Those that do have regular paid employment don’t really get paid much. For example, one person’s wages for a whole week may be equivalent to five Australian dollars.
Burmese people are very friendly and caring. When we were there in 2006, my husband collapsed at the Shwedagon Pagoda. My husband has a heart condition and the collapse was caused by his blood pressure being too low due to one of the medications which he must take regularly. I was alone with him and panicked when he collapsed next to me. A huge group of Burmese people came to our rescue and assisted me and provided medical aid. One small boy even offered me an unopened bottle of water.

Burma is one of the few untouched, unspoiled places to visit. Of course this will change as it begins to adapt to the influx of Western tourism.

Thank you for sharing your holiday memoirs. As I read your article, I feel a little sad for the people of Burma but also a little hopeful that things are changing for the better. Australia is a wonderful country and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to follow my dreams here since arriving from Burma.

Shawn
January 30, 2015

Burma was a British paradise until the mid 1960s when the Burmese militiary thought they could run things better than the British. So that's why things are so backward, 50yrs of insular existence. Still imagine no government handouts (welfare), perhaps a bit of rice once in a while. You'd work hard too or starve. No slacking. We have it so good here, but things could change if we fail to remember histories lessons, and I'm afraid we are going down a path of major pain ahead.

Ramani
January 30, 2015

How right you are, Graham, to highlight the many unappreciated delights we take for granted here in Oz: walk slowly in rain without having body parts blown apart by hidden land-mines (Cambodia) or being mugged (USA); squint at the evening sea without stepping onto human excrement (India) or being asked to cover up or else (middle east).

In a strange twist of schadenfreude, we react to these horrid situations by remembering what Aussies are blessed with. Yet we waste time worrying about whether mortgage rates will or will not move next Tuesday? 'If that is your problem, son, you do not have a problem'.

Before we scurry back to our refuge that is home, a sobering thought: all these places were idyllic Edens too, once. Hell and heaven are infinitely fungible, in our finance-speak. So unless we are careful, we could all get there before we know how!

 

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