Fear & Kindness in Yangon

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I booked the flight to Burma. Then panicked.

Having only managed a two week holiday during my first maternity leave, I’d been determined to maximise my time off second time round. Charlie had negotiated an unprecedented four weeks off work. We planned to visit pals in Dubai, Australia and New Zealand. Then he was going home and I was taking our baby and three year old to Burma. On my own.

Centuries ago, mums wandering the world alone with a new baby and three year old was normal; it still is in many countries. But, in the West, it wasn’t ok. Nobody did it. Certainly not where I was going beacuse, in 2011, Burma was closed. A military dictatorship controlled the country.

I read a guide book, trying to gather a few facts. A sidebar warned of malaria and dengue fever. I felt scared. Pretended I wasn’t going. Didn’t tell many people.

Only when Yangon was two weeks away did I come clean. By that time I was drinking green tea in a pal’s Melbourne home. She’d travelled. She’d understand.

“I haven’t booked anywhere to stay and I’m worried about mosquitoes,” I confided.

“I’ll put you in touch with Sue. She works there.”

A week away from my day of reckoning, I emailed Sue. Her reply came to our friend’s comfy New Zealand farmhouse: there was no dengue fever in Yangon at the moment and malaria was confined to remote areas. She asked when we were arriving; where we were staying; and said she’d get in touch.

On the Bangkok to Yangon flight, Alicante and I stuck earrings and diamond collars onto posh dogs in Alicante’s colouring book. It distracted me from panic: would the military junta jail us on arrival; would the kids catch a fatal disease; how could I carry two kids and a backpack?

Electricity didn’t illuminate our landing. Myanmar was dark. Fear filled the void.

The airport was eerily quiet. Fear cut across the silence. In the line for customs, I was the only visitor carrying kids, incomplete immigration forms and a Peppa Pig sticker book. I felt conspicuous. Officers singled me out. Took me to the front of the diplomat’s line for questioning. I waited to be refused entry. A lady with gold teeth smiled at us, waved us through.

As agreed by email, a friendly boy from Motherland Inn met us. He helped me load backpack, flowery bag and ramshackle stroller onto a ramshackle bus. Alicante and Sahara dozed, as the rusty hulk rattled a few middle aged westerners and us into the darkness.

In Yangon, the darkness came alight with golden temples. I nudged Alicante awake. She blinked at a golden dragon slithering down a banister and nuzzled back into my shoulder. I stared and stared at gaping tower blocks, sliced open by light; at residents of an abandoned colonial palace washing in a fountain; at decaying grandeur. Decades peeled into the night. The fear subsided.

Motherland Inn’s friendly fans blew warm air and a crowd towards us.

“A lady, Sue, phoned for you. She left her number,” the girl at reception said.

She picked up a giant receiver on the old landline, handed it to me. Mobiles were still rarities in Burma. Staff buzzed around the children.

“I just wanted to make sure you’d arrived ok. Have you eaten?” Sue soothed.

“No.”

“Why don’t Karl and I come over and grab a bite to eat with you?”

“That would be great.”

Ten minutes later they were there. Sue cuddled Sahara. Alicante and I ate noodles. Karl, an Aussie doctor, advised about malaria and dengue. And that’s how I managed. We were protected by the kindness of strangers: Sue, Karl and the beautiful people of Burma.


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