Going back to Sittwe on the government ferry.  About social classes and poverty.

It took $20 and only 3 hours upstream to get here from Sittwe with a rundown, claustrophobic, air conditioned private speedboat in which the music would not stop blaring, and a cheesy soap opera on an overhead monitor could not be turned off.    It will take 5-7 hours and $6 to get back with the double-deck open air government ferry.  I will take that any time, especially since it is yet another beautiful and sunny day.  I finally can catch up on some blog entries and process some of the hundreds of photographs I took over the last three days.

As always, there is a hierarchy of travelers.  On the deck below there is the cargo and there are the people who sit between their sacks, boxes and motorbikes.  Some women have spread out a huge pile of beans to process. Older women and men have formed circles to chat.  The teenagers, as anywhere in the world these days, are busy checking their cell phones or are listening to music, ear phones plugged in.  The kids have settled in to sleep or are busy eating snacks.  Only the occasional middle-aged person is reading a book.

On the deck above, two rows of lawn chairs on either side of the stairs are lined up leaving a small corridor to walk.  Opposite end of the captain’s cabin there is a small concession stand and a “kitchen” in which some women are preparing rice and fish for a meal.  Below the kitchen is the machine room.  Lucky for me, the machinist allowed me a glimpse in to take some pictures.  The motor and all looks and sounds like early 20th Century technology.  But it seems sturdy and will surely get the job done.  When a local man tried to follow me, he was chased away…

I am the only foreigner on the boat.  Even during high season Mrauk U is not yet in the standard circle of Myanmar highlights.  It is too cumbersome to get here.  There is no airport even though one has been under discussion for about 10 years now.  There is a lengthy overland bus ride from Yangon; it takes more than 18 hours to reach Mrauk U!  And so the alternative and currently the only sensible way to get here is to fly from Yangon to Sittwe and to take the boat from there to Mrauk U.  This, too, will take almost two days in transit each way. Not many tourists will sacrifice this much time for a site which is gorgeous and worthwhile in every way, but reportedly does not live up to the beauty of Bagan (which I will see soon).

Since I was the only foreigner on board and had arrived early, I was led to a chair right behind the sleeper cabin on the inside of the boat facing west.  As we are en-route I realize that I had been singled out for literally the best seat of the house.  It had been kept open for a VIP: we are going south;  I am sitting on the sun-protected inside looking west, with the sun and not into it.  Shortly after I put my backpack down, an important and very nice looking man came to claim the seat.  He was ready to take my pack down but when he realized that he would displace a foreigner, he yielded.  I guess, I pulled rank on him without knowing quite how.

Right behind the captain there are two sleeper cabins.  That seems to be the ultimate VIP area and would certainly come in handy in the middle of a rain storm.  The chairs on the upper deck are only one dollar more expensive than the squatter seats.  A few remain unoccupied which means that it does make a difference to some travelers to save that money in exchange for seven hours on the floor.

This and many other situations I have encountered here and during previous travels begs the question: how do you define poverty?  Are you poor when you cannot or will not spend an extra dollar for comfort?  Are you poor when you live in a one-room straw hut with hardly any belongings?  By western standards, certainly.  But what if you have one or two meals a day, have a school and a medical hut in the village, have a boat to fish and enough to exchange that for the necessities of daily life?  Is that still poverty?  Is poverty the lack of opportunity?  Can poverty be defined in absolute terms?  Or is poverty only relative in comparison to how everyone else around you lives?  Is poverty only measured in material things or also in spiritual or emotional terms?

I feel very rich today not so much because I sit in the best seat of the boat, but because I had three incredibly rich days of experiences.   To me, this is one measure of wealth.  There were times when I could not afford to travel.  There were times when in East Germany, the government of the country I lived in, severely restricted where I could go.  I felt extremely poor and deprived then; not because of my material poverty — which was also there — that did not feel as bad; but because the limits of opportunities.  Some of the younger people I have talked to casually and briefly over the last two weeks here, have asked me how many countries I had seen.  I always downplayed the number as that seemed to be one of the measures of wealth and cause for envy.  It certainly always was for me.  I did not want them to feel bad.

Is travel or not to travel a component of wealth? There are so many people, particularly Americans or West Europeans who would have both the opportunities and the material means to travel and it means nothing to them.  I am sure they do not feel poor or they would travel.  So, perhaps poverty after the basic needs are met, is defined on a much more personal level?  I guess I don’t have the answers, but am just throwing this out as food for thought.  It certainly is going through my mind as I am slowly gliding down the >>>>>  river feeling extremely happy and rich.

Ship ahoy!

4 comments so far

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  1. Alas, Elida, so much of the world which the freed bird is seeing consists of millions of other birds in cages.

  2. The women’s faces are smeared with what looks like dried lotion of some sort. What’s that all about?

    As for poverty, one way to look at it is the amount of time and energy necessary to meet one’s daily needs, in addition to the excruciatingly low material standards, even after spending all that time and energy. Ultimately, life is time and energy. If so much of it goes to meet one’s daily needs, there isn’t much left over for spiritual and intellectual development.

    • The yellow stuff is a kind of natural sunscreen ground from the bark of a tree. I should have mentioned it.

  3. Three days of “paradise” with even some sunshine and the best seat on the boat. Could you have ever even imagined having this opportunity in the future during your days in East Germany? (Like a bird being let out of its cage to fly and see the world)