Like my week in Yangon, my first week in Mandalay has flown by. After arriving at 6am on the overnight bus from Yangon, my colleagues from Partners Asia and I wasted no time in setting off for a full day of meetings. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel, where a smiling group of young men whisked away our bags before we could unload them all; I watched in amazement as a wiry teenager hoisted my heavy suitcase, filled with books, on his shoulder and carried it up three flights of a boiling-hot stairway. As we looked for a taxi, it became instantly clear that Mandalay is a very different city than Yangon – one that’s filled to the brim with motorbikes and almost completely devoid of stoplights, traffic rules, and auto taxis. Having no success finding a regular taxi anywhere near the hotel, we flagged three motorbike taxis to take us to our first destination, the Mandalay Law Firm. A relatively inexperienced motorbike passenger, I held onto my driver with what must have felt like a death grip as we weaved around cars, motorbikes, trishaws, pick-ups, buses, dogs, people, and bicycles with only inches to spare.
After discussing arrangements for my legal English course with U Hla Ko, the president of the Mandalay Law Firm, we met with Daw Ywet Nu Aung, a local attorney who works on land cases. As in other parts of Southeast Asia, disputes over land rights are incredibly common in Myanmar. Few property records exist, and it’s difficult to know who owns what; ownership rights are fragile at best. Although a given city-dweller may have “owned” a building for twenty years, or a farmer’s family cultivated a particular parcel of land for generations, there is no way to prove title – and even if one could, it would be virtually meaningless here. In the end, the government has the right to claim anything and everything, and this is happening with alarming frequency as the country develops. Over the course of the next few days, we worked with Daw Ywet Nu Aung to document a series of these land cases, and the stories were remarkably similar. Most involved landowners who were charged with trespass and the nebulous crime of “mischief” when they refused to leave their land after the property had been seized. Needless to say, displaced landowners neither have recourse nor receive compensation.
On Saturday, we met with U Thein Than Oo, an activist lawyer and founding member of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network who also works on land cases, among many others. A people’s hero and human rights advocate, U Thein Than Oo accepts even the most difficult cases, often pro-bono; his more than twenty cumulative years as a political prisoner have done nothing to shake his resolve in advocating for the people. Right now he’s representing students who were arrested this spring after protesting for educational reform. After discussing how little exposure local lawyers have to native English speakers and how rusty their childhood language skills are, we agreed that I should arrange a training session for his juniors as well. Having settled these arrangements, my colleagues from Partners Asia returned to Yangon.
With my schedule thus set, I began preparing a tentative outline for my two legal English courses, but ultimately decided that I needed to wait until I met the students and could determine their relative experience levels. At the orientation for each class, I distributed a series of questions that asked about the students’ legal and educational background, instructing them to write complete answers and then share them with the class. As expected, the skill levels are across the board; although nearly all of them studied English for many years in school, and all of them must occasionally read legal texts in English, very few have practiced speaking or writing with this terminology – let alone with a native English speaker. Many, not surprisingly, are quite shy about this fact, and are hesitant to speak up. Yet they are visibly eager to learn, even asking for more homework so they can get more practice while they have the opportunity. They express their gratitude at my volunteering in a chorus of “thank-yous” and applause at the end of each class. Although it’s rather challenging designing a course without any textbook or pre-set curriculum, I’m happy to have the freedom to take class activities and discussions in the directions that seem most helpful for the students. It’s a lot of work, of course, but I love it.
Although I’ve only been in Mandalay a week, I already feel quite at home here. The hotel manager has pronounced that I’m “part of the family” now, local restaurant owners know to whip up something vegetarian when they see me, and the woman at the corner fruit stand starts chopping up pineapple and watermelon when I cross the street. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a friendly and reliable motorbike taxi driver, Ko Maung Ye, who cheerfully zooms me across this sprawling city anytime I need to go somewhere. A clever 25-year-old from a nearby village who wanted, but never had the opportunity, to attend university, he’s eager to practice English, show me all the beautiful and interesting things in his country, and teach me conversational Burmese. Now I’m comfortable enough on the motorbike to hold on with just one hand!
The little challenges of adjusting to a new place and new people are thrilling to me, but the Myanmar lifestyle certainly wouldn’t be for everyone. I frequently feel a little queasy after a meal; the temperature is often at or above 44° Celsius (that’s 112° Fahrenheit!), not accounting for humidity, thanks to a heat wave rolling in from India; the internet is painfully slow and hardly ever works; the power goes out multiple times every day, and with it, the A/C. This morning, as I pulled off the sheets to get out of bed, I noticed a large dark spot next to me. Hoping that I had simply tracked a clump of dirt into bed, I nervously reached for my glasses to get a better look, and sure enough – it was a very large, and very alive, cockroach. Yet this came as no surprise, somehow; Myanmar has, after all, a tropical climate, where flora and fauna of all kinds abound, and open windows invite unwanted guests like insects, rats, and lizards. I suspect that if I slept on the floor, as nearly all people in Myanmar apparently do, that I would have even more encounters of this kind. Although I don’t particularly relish finding geckos in my towels and bugs in my sheets, these experiences remind me how thankful I am for what I have and how aware I should be of how others live. In the meantime, all I can do is laugh, relax, and go with the flow, exploring the new scenery around Mandalay and enjoying my new friendships here.