Slow Boat on the Irrawaddy

The sun rises to a fresh morning and I awake to my second day traveling up the Irrawaddy River from Bagan to Mandalay, Myanmar. A low sky is hazy and sun diffuses through the clouds to cast everything in silver. The wide expanse of water shores up to gray sand beaches and low grasslands beyond that. My bed is the bare planked deck of a slow cargo boat and my backpack is my pillow. The upper level of the two story boat has many travelers such as myself, almost all local. They have stirred and risen long before me.

The boat, having docked for the night, has resumed its chugging pace, stopping at small villages to load or unload cargo… bananas, clay pots, onions. Life on the river’s edge bustles with fishermen, bathers, washers of clothes, swimmers. Many wave as we pass.


A small boy, face freshly painted with traditional yellow tree bark markings, runs barefoot over the lacquered green and red plank deck, around the upper level of the boat, then back to his Grandmother, who, digging through a colorful plastic basket, lays out breakfast for him on a straw floor mat. Breakfast is rice and vegetables, noodle soup, and a rich sweet milk coffee that brightens the boys face when he drinks it. The breakfast had been carried on board and kept packed away until now. Grandfather sits on the mat with Grandmother and the little boy snuggles between them resting his head on a blanket of red and gold.

Grandfather is losing his hearing and elevates his voice to pierce all other sounds on the boat – the group of chatting girls, the happy laughter of children, the coughs of an old woman, the roar of the engine. His words dampen everything in a wet authoritative blanket, assuring himself that he is heard.


No one seems to consider this an intrusion, save for the one other foreigner on the boat, Mike, who has been up much of the night listening to the ceaseless prattle. Long after the evening meal had been eaten, the floor matts put out onto the deck and mosquito nets put up for sleep, long after the millions of flying bugs were battled and lights put out, Grandfather was saving the world – or something – with lengthy dissertations being received by one younger man who said an occasional word or two in response. Last evening, Mike, realizing his need for reasonable quiet, had shared a cigarette with Grandfather and put in his request for an “inside voice”. Then, later, when the request went unheeded, he shot nasty looks whenever they locked eyes. Grandfather’s booms continued, beating into Mike’s brain and grinding it into the seething pulp that is now, just for fun,rehearsing various ways Grandfather might accidentally meet his demise.


Grandfather rises to hobble down the isle past the woman facing the river, counting strung beads. She slowly fingers the clear glass, separating each bead in slow succession, attempting to enter that peaceful place of meditation. I wonder if his voice grates on her too.

I am sitting on the breezy deck writing. Having watched all the passengers rise and ready, long black hair combed and faces painted, my personal goal for today is to “make no baby cry”. Because, I make babies cry. It’s my white face. Any child too young to walk seems to have an aversion to it. I have miserably failed at this goal today and had to start over already after two young mothers approached, babies in arms, and requested a picture be taken. As soon as I raised my camera the babies started to cry and so that ended rather badly.


Older children have no problem with me however, and one five year old is hanging her face over my journal, this moment, as I write. Giving her free reign with my camera, she has already run the juice out of it and is now working with my i-phone. I have spend the last 30 minutes trying to teach her how to take pictures of actual objects instead of her foot repeatedly. She is…not a fast learner.


Most of the time all you need to join a group is a conduit into the community. Much of the time, for me, that conduit is a kid. Others on the boat, following my little friends lead, have begun visiting me. It was started by the girls mother who came and sat with me smiling. I gave her gum. She offered me a powered fruit drink. Without a word we became friends. Then I was visited by several others including Grandfather, who came to watch me type. I offered him a cigar and he, in turn, offered me a banana. I guess we are friends now too.


Grandfather has since gone back to sit with Grandmother. The younger mothers have put the babies to sleep, older children are resting and I am once again alone except for the young man who has lain himself at my back and fixed his eyes on this screen. Hazy dawn has turned into midmorning brightness, the river is lazy, I am sleepy and Grandfather is quiet. All is well.


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