Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Across the river: Life outside of Yangon

Our apartment sits at the end of a block, in a thin strip of neighborhood called Kyee Myin Daing. Kyee Myin Daing is nestled between the colonial era train tracks of San Chaung and the Yangon River.  It is a former Yangon suburb subsumed by the city as it sprawls out and up and continues to develop. 

Our apartment is the top floor of a sixth floor walkup, with windows overlooking a busy road and the river beyond.  Every morning, I wake up and look out at the river and its constant stream of traffic.  I wake to the sound of outboard motors grumbling by; loud speakers blaring morning prayers or calls for donations; and vendors singing out offerings of their goods.  A cacophony of local life marks the beginning of the day.

Looking down at our street from our apartment

It’s been several months since I arrived, an outsider to join a partner who although foreign, found his place in Burma long ago.  Everything remains raw, vibrant, colorful, and loud.  Despite my continued sense of wonder, and daily experience of often overwhelming newness, my wanderlust remains. I want to explore other parts of the country.  I hope to see other neighborhoods in this changing city.  I long to see what is on the other side of the never empty river.

Perhaps an equal curiosity in our presence allowed me to cross the river and get a glimpse into life on the other side.  One of our neighborhood trishaw drivers, Aung Lay, invited us to visit his community and family’s home, in a village across the river called Ouq Youn.  I knew little about Aung Lay before our afternoon adventure.  He is young, yet soon to be wed.  He is an excellent cane ball player.  And he greets me with a smile and a wave when I bicycle by on my way to work in the mornings.

We met at our favorite neighborhood teashop.  Saturday morning, and a break in the early rainy season showers meant blue skies washed clean of the grit of the city’s pollution.  Aung Lay led us towards the river.  We passed construction workers on a break from paving the road that passes our apartment, standing by the bamboo thatching protecting the fresh layer of cement.  Water pooled in puddles, glimmering in the morning sun.  We made our way to the river. 

Our ride awaitsSmall boats waited to ferry passengers and products.   Vendors lined the waterway, offering produce and prepared foods.  Workers passed heavy bags up the docks and onto waiting trucks. Aung Lay and Matt chatted with a one of the boat’s owners and soon we were on our way.   We passed the cargo ships that are daily fixtures on the river.  

In a few short minutes, we approached a very different looking riverside: a woman bathed her baby and young son in the shallow waters; young boys splashed and played; a few boats sat anchored waiting for use.  We disembarked.

At the edge of the Yangon River, in Ouq Youn

Our explorations immediately began.  Compared to the noise, to the bustling market and the stream of people in our neighborhood, Ouq Youn village is quiet.  The community appears inaccessible by car.  Instead, we walked the single, narrow pathway past small thatched homes, passing a woman walking with her small pig and chickens finding shade in shadows.  We crossed the bridge over a creek, which is now submerged in water from the seasonal rains. 

Stream crossing in Ouq Youn

Inland, a pond blanketed by lily pads sits enclosed by a chain link fence.  Villagers trickled by, carrying buckets to collect the freshwater for use.  We stopped to take in the view and admire the modest wooden shrine at the edge of the pond. 

Collecting freshwater

I love taking photos.  The act—finding the right perspective to try to capture the beauty or truth or uniqueness of the moment—can be isolating.  It can also be intrusive.  Living in a country that is not my own, and being so conspicuously a foreigner, I worry about inserting myself into new contexts.  I never want to make others feel that they are on display for me.  This is especially true of children.  Much has been written about the trend towards volunteer tourism, and the tendency to travel to developing countries and take photos with local children.  I am aware of this trend, and cautious in my camera use so that it doesn’t become a barrier to interaction or a sign of disrespect. 

But Aung Lay encouraged me to take pictures.  He is proud of his village, and wanted to share it with us ever since I moved to the neighborhood.  So I took photos.  At first, I asked for permission.  But soon I was collecting small followers.  The village children ran in front of me to pose.  They gathered, grouped, and surrounded us.  We laughed together.  We gathered a trail of local kids, interested in the new people in their village.  My photos reflect some of the happiness that greeted us.  I am grateful to Aung Lay for this small window into his world, and into life across the river. 

My discomfort taking pictures of daily life in my new home remains, and I firmly believe that it should.  I am able to take a few photos of the market now, and have been requested to document the local cane ball games by the boys who play regularly (more on this in the future : )).  People have grown used to me with my camera.

With Aung Lay on the way back homeWe returned, and I experienced my first sense of home. The loud noise of our bustling street seemed a welcome greeting.  Our old Auntie on the corner shouted at us to purchase mangos.  We happily obliged.  I am more settled, but do not want to lose the wonder I experience at my reality.  I continue to crave quiet.  I am still an outsider.  I always will be, as should be the case.  But the familiar faces grow in number, and I’ve found a new friend—Aung Lay, after seeing his home and world across the river.


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Reader Comments (1)

Lauren, I love this! Fascinating what lies on the other side of the river. Suddenly, a rural life with a village in the slow lane. I'm so glad the kids wanted to have their pix taken. You and Matt are lucky to get to see so much of life in Burma. What a contrast so close to the city. Amazing that rivers, large ones, can do this. the Delaware did that twixt Pa and South Jersey. On one side you could catch a ferry in Chester, Pa, all urban and industrial and then you'd land in rural, farm county in Jersey. (might not be like that anymore, they did eventually build a bridge.) But those contrasts, side by side, separated by water, are amazing. I'm not surprised your friend loves his village and wanted to show it to you.

September 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSue Willis

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