2015
05.27

OGRE ISLAND

About villages on Ogre Island with special crafts and trades. About making rubber, carving teak wood, weaving textiles and producing slate tablets for school children. About an invitation to celebrate a dead man’s life. An excursion to Ogre Island off the coast of Mawlamyine.

I will never again treat a rubber band as if it were a throw-away nothing! In the West, most likely it is a throw-away nothing, machine made from some synthetic material. Or is it? I just had never put a thought to the fact that even rubber bands need to be produced. And in Myanmar, they are produced by multiple-steps of manual labor lasting days.

Myanmar is rich in rubber trees. I have seen my first plantation of such trees today in Mon country, near Mawlamyine. Rubber is harvested just like maple syrup or resin by cutting thin lines into the bark of the tree and catching the sap the tree produces.

Natural rubber comes in a milky white color and solidifies when exposed to heat or to a couple of days of direct sun. When it still is in its liquid state it can be dyed in a variety of colors by adding pigments. That is a pure marketing tool as it does nothing to the quality or function of the product. When the liquid has the right color, a set of wooden poles is dipped into the soup and set out to dry. During the hot season the drying process is less than a day, now it could be 2-3 days. Once the rubber hardens, the rubber “skin” that has formed around the wooden poles is pulled off and hung up in a shed, awaiting its turn at the next rubber producing station: the cutting machine.

A motor runs a slicing machine cutting the rubber tubes into the familiar thin rubber bands. A person is manning the machine, watching via a mirror that is positioned at the machine’s output if the bands are cut at the expected level of quality. If thicker strips or ragged strips emerge, the blade needs sharpening. And with proper care, hundreds of thousands of thin little bands are dropping down into a bucket. Ultimately the bands are sold in big bags to wholesale vendors. And if I understood our guide correctly, for a 2×1 foot bag filled with rubber bands, the villager may fetch a mere $1.50. Unbelievable!

Ogre Island is just a 15 minute ferry ride from Mawlamyine. It is full of small villages separated by rice fields, and mountain ranges. The rice fields are sparsely populated by farmers who live in small bamboo huts. All the houses on the island and many houses even in the bigger cities on the mainland are raised on stilts. During the rainy season the clay-filled soil creates puddles of water everywhere. Drainage is slow. Other areas turn into barely passable mud fields. In the morning we walked a pretty dry and sturdy road which in the afternoon, after only two 15 minute heavy rain showers was barely recognizable as the same!

Every village on the island has its area of specialization producing something. Mr. Anthony from the Breeze Guesthouse was leading a group of us — 8 foreign visitors from as far as Spain, Australia, Britain, the US — on a day’s excursion exposing us to the various crafts and the islanders.

We crossed the island on a tuk-tuk, a motor bike powered mini-truck, which comfortably held 10 of us on two benches and which is reported to hold upwards of 25 locals if need be… The farmers were out with their oxen plowing the rice fields. Soon rice planting season will start. The weather held up, for once!

Textiles are another important source of income for some islanders. Most of us have seen old wooden looms at some museum or another. Here these amazing machines are rattling along day in day out, operated by women who produce the most amazing looking fabrics by hand. The workshop we visited had four of those looms. They were located at the rear of the house which was raised on stilts, beneath the main floor. Upstairs, a few more women were working, spinning yarn onto spools. Each week the color scheme of the workshop changes. This week seemed to be the turquoise and white week.

One of the upper floor rooms was converted into a shop where we could purchase the fabrics fresh off the loom, so to speak, and of course, I did. Fabrics are one of the easiest things to bring home and are also one of the most distinct handicrafts different countries produce.

I have been looking at people wearing the typical Myanmar longyi (sarong, also lungi, longi), more carefully now. Men and women use it alike. It’s a shawl-like piece of cloth you can wrap around your waist. But you can also pull it up into mid-sized pants if you want, or turn it into shorts with a pouch as I saw at some point where a young man collected truck fares into his “pouch” only to unwrap it into its full-sized glory when he was all done. These garments are airy and practical, and many of them are locally made. And, let’s not forget: they are very beautiful. Women not only sport the skirt part of this outfit but often have tailored, matching tops to go with. Now that is outright classy and it makes for a colorful picture on every street. If I had enough time or if I run into a tailor who can make one of these fast, I think I just have to have one.

As fascinating as the rubber-band production is the making of small slate tablets for school children. The slate is mined in the mountains right behind the villages. First it is cut into thin slices. Then it is smoothed and rounded into equal sized tablets, coated with black paint, and finally framed in wood. A small pen completes the set which will be sold for about $1.50 in just a few weeks when school season starts. It will be sold to the lucky ones who will go to school rather than work at home with their parents…

As we visited a home in which these tablets were produced it was rather funny to see how we Westerners hovered over these ancient tablets while at the same time the rather wealthy owner of the house photographed all of us with a digital tablet! Reversed roles, and a great reminder why we call these notepads “tablets” in the first place.

The day ended with a visit to a village outlet of teak wood carvings. Burma used to be the world’s leading exporter of teak. Still, in many areas teak wood is used for furniture making and exquisite small craft items such as pipes, cups, pens, slingshots and more. We were served tea and delicious small rice pads and marveled at the many objects for sale. Of course, I bought a few to bring home. I always like to buy things from the people who produce them rather than from retail stores.

An unexpected stop on the tour was a visit to a Buddhist Dhamma School. There, the family of a recently deceased man had put on a huge feast for the entire village. We were invited. At the temple hall many small round tables had been filled with multiple dishes. Women were handing out plates of rice for every guest. We sampled a variety of meat and vegetable dishes and a honey-coconut sweet at the end. It always amazes me to see the boundless generosity in particularly poor countries. People literally are willing to share the last thing they own.

Very grateful for this experience, I declare this the first truly wonderful travel day. Shiny pagodas are awe inspiring and I will surely see and travel to many more of them. But to see the daily life of people, to experience their hospitality and generosity is truly moving and humbling. And it is what makes traveling worthwhile to me.