Life on the Irrawaddy: Part two

The journey was meant to last two nights and three days; with the help of really shallow waters, we ended up having three nights and three and a half days on board. The beauty of the boat ride was having so much time to soak in the often jaw-dropping scenery and the daily goings on of Burmese life on and along the river.

The Irrawaddy seems to be a lifeline for the people and villages we encountered.

Many of the passengers were merchants who were traveling with their goods to markets in other parts of the country. Other goods were on their way to China (lots and lots of big bags of rice and one big shipment of watermelon, for example). We saw countless smaller boats during our time on board, often loaded to the point that I was surprised they weren’t beginning to take on water with things like tires or huge ceramic pots, bringing goods back and forth on more local routes.

Most of the villages we stopped at seemed quite isolated. Every time our boat would approach the shore, a crowd would gather around the “dock” (usually just some sandbags at the water’s edge, on which wooden planks would be balanced from the ship’s bottom deck).

Passengers, people delivering or picking up goods, women with broad metal plates of snack foods or entire meals balanced on their head, children selling bottled drinks, well-muscled porters, curious kids and anyone else with nothing better to do were waiting for the boat to pull in.

There was always an air of high energy and excitement at our arrival and departure. Hawkers would be start calling out their wares and friends and family would start talking from the boat to shore as soon as we were within earshot. The second the wooden planks hit the shore, folks would start hustling to and fro.

Often there would be towering piles of goods waiting for us on the river bank. The porters were amazing. Carrying one or two massive rice bags at a time, they moved, like an army of ants, quickly and ceaselessly under their heavy loads.

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A crowd begins to gather as our ship approaches

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Passengers and food sellers waiting to come on board. Amazing what the women could balance on their heads!

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Background – porters carrying sacks of rice onto the ship. Foreground – leaf-covered baskets of tomatoes waiting to be brought on board

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These girls came on board selling bottled water. They were very shy at first, but once Ohmar started translating for us, they didn’t want to leave. 🙂

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The one on the left didn’t want to smile because she’d just had a baby tooth fall out and was self conscious.

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Eventually though she couldn’t help but join the giggle-fest. 🙂

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One of our stops ended up being at night, because we were hours behind schedule due to getting stuck on a sand bank. People waiting on shore and walking up and down the planks onto the boat.

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Goods on shore, porters with large sacks of rice walking on board

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Leaving a larger village; view from the top deck with ceramic pots

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Watching as we cast off

The loading/unloading process usually took at least an hour, which meant that we could disembark and explore the little villages we stopped at. This was consistently fun and wonderful to do, especially with Ohmar buying us street-food snacks like roasted roots (smaller, denser and more delicately flavored than potatoes) and explaining sights to us. The villages were all incredibly simple, with basic houses and shops made of bamboo slats and thatched roofs running along a handful of dirt roads. Most villages had at least one Buddhist pagoda, the only structure in town made out of more solid materials.

As basic, unadorned and sometimes polluted as they were (there was often a lot of trash at the river banks), I still found the villages very beautiful, and loved that we were able to visit them. The best was interacting with the local kids. Far more reserved than any of the children we met in India, they were slower to smile and to interact with us, but when they did, their smiles and laughter were priceless. Come to think of it, the same was true many of the adults, too. 🙂

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Simple store front in one of the villages

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Young kids at play (with a machete! Not something you’d see in the US, that’s for sure)

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Trucks dropping off/picking up goods to/from the ship

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Warming up with a shore-side fire

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Close up of the roasted roots. Taste better than it looks, I promise. 🙂

For folks on shore and especially on the boat, the river acted as a natural, massive plumbing system. We’d often see villagers doing laundry or bathing their children or selves at the water’s edge. On occasion we’d also see them dumping garbage off of embankments. Passengers on the ship would spit betel juice, flick cigarettes and toss empty bottles and plastic bags of trash over the railing into the river, often right next to where someone had just dipped a bucket to pull water on board for washing dishes or bathing a child. We made an effort to use the few official trashcans on board – until we discovered that when full, these too were simply dumped into the river. :-/ We were chatting to Elmer and Ohmar about this; Ohmar shared the boat crew’s response that the currents of the river made it self cleaning – they had no qualms about cleanliness or safety of its water or about its future… This approach to nature is something we’ve run into time and again in Asia. I know we come from a very different, very privileged world where the infrastructure for more responsible disposal of waste is in place but I still have a tough time watching trash thrown so carelessly into such beautiful nature…

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Bath time on shore…

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… and on the boat. Either way, it looks cold!

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Trash along the river bank

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A woman dumping a bucket of trash

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