Life among the pagodas
If you were to join me in our courtyard for some breakfast and tea, you would be treated to the view of a menagerie of humans, animals and wheeled transportation passing by. It could take years to fully describe all the color and activity in this place—American suburbia can’t hold a candle to the color and movement that fill a typical Yangon neighborhood.
Our neighborhood is part of one of Yangon’s largest townships, and is called Mingaladon. We are bordered on the south by the Yangon airport (we can see our street from the air when we fly out of Yangon), and hemmed from the east by the Yangon city train (it’s a three minute walk from our house to the train station). When we need household goods, tools, clothing, spices, et cetera, we go north to Mingaladon Ze, an enormous open-air market with row upon row of vendors. To reach Mingaladon Ze, we bike across Ka Yei Bin Len, a bit of a thoroughfare for traffic coming into Yangon from the surrounding countryside. (Crossing the street here often gives one pause to consider life after death, especially when you’re paused halfway through your journey across the street, with unsecured container trucks and reckless motorcyclists whipping by on either side.)
If you were here in our home the previous evening, you would have heard the echoes of women singing in Pali at a local temple (a means to earning merit), children playing badminton or soccer in the cool of the evening, and the ghoulish screeching of cats (there are a few that religiously howl in our yard at 2 am a few times a week). If we’re fortunate, we also heard a breeze rustling the mango and palm trees above our house, cooling things off for the night. If you were lucky, the first thing that would’ve woken you today would have been the sound of pigeons parading about our metal roof. On less fortunate days, you might be awakened early by the sounds of neighbors blasting Buddhist sermons through giant amplifiers. (Thankfully, this hasn’t happened too frequently where we live; we have friends elsewhere whose neighbors regularly start the sermons at 4 am.)
From 5 am until about 7 or 8 pm, we hear the sounds of various roving vendors, selling a variety of products, from fried beans or sliced watermelon to various salads, lottery tickets or ice cream (I so dearly want to buy from the ice cream man whenever he passes by, but it’s not worth the risk of sickness due to dirty ice). Women walk with baskets of handmade fans, clusters of bamboo-handled brooms, birdhouses, feather dusters, and occasionally a young man passes by carrying a host of multicolored cleaning sponges on his head. What I first mistook for an exotic bird turned out to be the sound of a man carrying an eight foot long bamboo rod filled with inflatable toys, extracting a peeping sound from one as he squeezed it while strolling with his wares. Many of these vendors carry bullhorns with a pre-recorded message, so as to save their voices.
Our neighborhood rests atop a swamp. Right now it is dry season, and in the street outside our home, the water table is about 3 or 4 inches below the street level. When rainy season hits, Yangon receives more than 100 inches of rain in 4 months, and we can anticipate wading through lots of dirty water (most homes here don’t have septic systems). Many families of ducks make their baths in the brackish water along the streets; aside from the profusion of trash floating in the water, I think it must be paradise for the ducks, and they’re certainly some of the healthiest creatures I’ve seen around here. A family of geese also presides over the street adjacent to ours; they take daily walks through the neighborhood, the monogamous parents hustling their offspring along, visibly concerned that the next generation is not crushed by the wheels of a careless motorist.
The street outside our home is quite busy early in the day, and then things tend to slow down from about 12 until 3. The market is closed at midday, as are most shops—the best time for fresh produce and more choice meat is early morning, between 6 and 8, or in the evening between 5 and 7. By noon, there are more clothes out drying than there are people: it’s mostly children in the street, playing their marble games or climbing trees, undeterred by the 100 degree midday heat. Having finished their laundry, a lot of the women in the neighborhood wrap their cotton skirts about their busts and take their outdoor bucket shower at this time of day. Most homes have their water reservoir in open concrete basins outside the house. People here will shower several times a day during hot season; being and smelling clean—while there are always some odorous exceptions—is valued by the general populace.
There are so many word pictures I could draw that I hardly know where to begin. How to describe the fascinating diversity of all the multicolored homes here, their fences doubling as laundry lines and plant trellises; the litters of puppies napping in piles of sand along the street; bare chested men standing on porches, flapping and re-knotting their pasos (skirts), staring as we pass; the children running after our bikes and hollering all sorts of greetings, shrieking and giggling when they hear us reply; the tractor/truck machines chuckling loudly as they lurch down the street, making normal conversation impossible for a few moments.
Kids wander up to our gate frequently, clutching the bars with their hands and pressing their faces in.
“What are you drinking?” (Our tea in a clear glass looks suspicious to this child, whose conversation style has earned him the nickname Stream of Consciousness.)
But he doesn’t believe us, and replies, “I’m not brave enough to drink whatever you’re drinking.” He then continues a monologue, observing all kinds of things about our house and where he saw us last.
He isn’t the only one who loves visiting our gate; there is a menagerie of kids, ranging from half naked children who like to use the gate as a track for their matchbox cars, little boys who want to see if they can get money (or candy; they generously gave us the option and were offered bananas instead), and crews of munchkins delightedly hollering “dta-dta!” (“goodbye!”) for ten minutes straight, climbing atop each other’s shoulders to ring our doorbell.
By now (10 am), our little concrete courtyard has warmed up enough to make it uncomfortable to sit outside much longer. It’s time to close all the house windows in order to keep things as cool as possible for the next nine hours or so. And it’s time for me to return to language study, housework, and our calendar commitments.
‘til next time,