2015
05.26

About the Golden Rock during daylight, about monks, child labor, an angry Vietnamese monk, a fall, and another rainy day.

It was 4 AM when I woke up because the pitter-patter on the metal roof had stopped.

Most houses around here, even this fancy-shmancy Mountain View Hotel at Mount Kyaiktiyo, even some mansions and certainly all the shacks around here seem to have metal roofs. I wonder why? Just because it is cheap? A much more appealing material are the bamboo roofs I have seen in the villages. But they seem to be an even more blatant statement of poverty and are not typically found in the cities.

What metal roofs do — they unmistakably indicate the degree of rain, from the almost pleasant pitter-patter indicating a mild drizzle to the deafening drum indicating storm conditions. That’s when you can’t hear your own voice any more and have to start shouting, as one of the receptionists had to do when I checked in. But now it was quiet and I was awake. Why not get up?

I had my work cut out for me as clothes and bags which seemed dry last night in comparison to their earlier soaked state actually still were quite damp. So I put in another hair dryer blowing session and then fell asleep again. It was still quiet. But what was I doing?! Why was I in bed? Who knew how long this dry spell would last?

Thank goodness, I rushed out the door. I had exactly one hour before the downpour started again. I caught the end of the begging round young and old monks were doing along the central path of town. I was surprised to find them collecting money instead of just food. In fact, most of the big round begging bowls were empty, but the lid of the bowls doubled up as a small plate and bills were stacked up on almost every monk’s plate. I donated some, too. It seemed to be the thing to do.

Alongside the single files of monks, two, three, or four at a time, there was another quite disturbing group of single-file people: young and old people, some of them children — barely 10 or 12 years old; men and women, boys and girls carrying loads of bricks on their heads, on boards, or in huge baskets. They had to tread the central path too, portions of which were lined with a green cloth for safer travel, but others were pure marble as slippery as anywhere. Most of these workers were balancing 12-15 bricks; some young ones could only manage 9-12 and some very ambitious ones more than 16. Just imagine that weight! And just imagine what one single wrong step would do.

I maneuvered as carefully as I could over some of the marbled areas and was just about to reach the safe green line when it happened: I fell. I was fine, but my big camera flung over my left shoulder hit the marble loud and hard! My heart sank. If that camera was gone… The lens cover did not come off. I panicked. But the internal functions seemed still to work. In the end, all that was lost was a bent lens cover; this time…

Some of the young porters were even running. I marveled at their courage and their sure-footedness. I bet they get paid by the number of bricks. And I bet it’s pennies.

I remember a documentary which mentioned that Burma/Myanmar ranks first in the work with child labor. Literally hundreds of children are rounded up in villages and taken to the cities were they perform menial tasks as well as hard labor 10-12 hours a day for a dollar a day as wages. And their parents are unable to “buy them back”. They can’t afford to feed another mouth and have to let them go. Forget schooling!

Once you open your mind you realize all the children around you who work. At the restaurants it seems almost natural to see 10-year-olds serving tables. Their parents own the restaurant. That’s what they do, that’s what everyone else does. Young kids line the intersections in the city or roam the ferries, selling cigarettes, chewing gum, newspapers. That certainly seems more humane than carrying heavy bricks on wet marble floors, but it is still as wrong as anything. Kids are literally everywhere; not in school, but working. You see them on the boats, in construction, and on rice fields, in retail stores and craft production — truly medieval conditions.

Just as I was pondering the wrongs of this world, I spotted a very exasperated older monk. His robes were different from the dark red ones of the Myanmar monks. They were a light yellow. He filmed the monks and held forth to really nobody but anyone who would stop and listen. As I came closer I could make out some of the words — he spoke a broken English: he vehemently complained about the monks collecting money, repeatedly claiming that they violated the 10th precept. “They smoke” he complained! “They have cell phones and behave like monkeys. If I were in charge around here, I would clean up with all of that! But nobody can touch them!” He was visibly angry.

In between the monks the potters filed through and I realized then that he worked in tandem with a nun whom he instructed to hand out some small monetary donations to the youngest of the porters. “I wrote a book”, he continued, addressing now me. “Look it up: Hearts for Peace!” He pointed to his heart putting his hand there to illustrate his words. “I wrote two books and you will see what I mean. I was wounded in the Vietnam war”, he continued, lifting his robe to expose a substantial scar at the right side of his stomach. “You can read all about it at heartforpeace.com”. I promised him to look it up;  I just hope I got that right.

He had a point. I had wondered about the cell phones already and yes, I had seen monks smoking. I found it odd, but I thought it was a cultural thing. But really, monks should not smoke. It is an intoxicating substance and that, I found out at my hotel tonight is violating the 5th precept! And since my new hotel owner is a devoutly practicing Buddhist, he will not drink or sell any alcohol. But he showed great tolerance when I asked him where I could buy any of that refreshing Myanmar beer nearby. But I have to admit that now I feel bad to contaminate his wonderful hotel by drinking.

By 8 AM the storm was back and it roared until 11 AM. At the first audible lull I packed my bags and rolled out to face another treacherous, rainy ride down the hill, with 45 minutes squeezed onto the truck again. This time I ended up in the second row with a young boy next to me who threw up for almost the entire ride. Mercifully, the rain was light all the way down. And my bags were all wrapped inside and out with plastic covers; the damage from the ride was negligible. Barely off the platform stepping off the truck, two young men had convinced me to give me a lift on their motorbikes to my next stop: the bus station to Mawlamyine.

And that’s where I will be for a while and you will hear from me should I have adequate internet conditions.

Good night.

5 comments so far

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  1. I’m curious, do you know what the bricks were for? Could you tell what was under construction?

    • There seems to be construction everywhere. It was not obvious to me.

  2. Reading with interest your observations about child labor. Seems there is not much chance that the next generation will be less poor and disadvantaged that their parents. Glad you made it down the scary hill! Anneliese

  3. Wow, what an atmosphere. Yes, I recognized the problem of the children working too. At first I thought the daughter of the restaurant owner was just curious seeing a foreign person. Then she brought the menu and picked up my order. There are still a lot of things to develop in Myanmar. I was also shocked about the pollution of the environment with plastic trash.

    And the scary truck ride down the hill… I could not imagine how it was in the pouring rain. Well done, Elisabeth.

  4. How very, very sad for the children of Burma. What will happen to these kids with no education? Thinking of you. Ginny