A sinewy arm reached for my backpack, picking it up as if it were a feather. He smiled and waved for me to follow. Agile and muscled, he ran across the plank and waited. I carefully placed my steps, watching the brown water of the Irrawaddy flow below me. I squeezed through doors, up stairs and wove through men doubled over, loading and unloading heavy bundles. Finally he stopped and pointed; the deck of the boat was covered in what looked like tiny parking spaces and this spot was mine. He set my backpack down, smiled, and was gone.
I took in my surroundings. A hundred or so people covered the deck: laying, sleeping, eating, coddling babies, or reading. Boxes, bags, clothes, food, and blankets filled in any other available space. I squeezed into my spot like a slightly bent puzzle piece.
At dusk the engine began a low, guttural mutter. The ferry pushed away and the town’s stupa became smaller and smaller; the sunset igniting like a fire in the sky. It didn’t take long for the hum of the engine and the sound of rushing water to woo me into sleep.
I awoke to the sound of the motor tiring; the ferry was stuck on a small sandbank. The engine revved and pushed but to no avail. I sat up to breathe in the morning when a woman with gentle lines around her eyes and thanaka carefully brushed on her cheeks, came up to me. She smiled and pointed to my backpack, pointed to me, pointed to a space on the other side, and pointed at herself.
I settled in a small space between her and an older woman with a weathered tattoo on her chest and betel nut stains in the corners of her mouth. I watched as she carefully selected the best leaf, painting it with slaked lime before dusting it with tobacco and areca nut. She rolled it tightly before slipping it into the side of her mouth, smiling with burgundy-tinged teeth when she noticed me watching. Taking turns raising their eyebrows and pointing at various foods they brought with them, they offered me anything and everything they had. We huddled around our sleeping mats, a temporary mismatching family coming together to share food. I had just met them but for the next few days I would soak up the familial warmth like a homesick sponge.
After sharing dinner together, the woman with gentle lines patted my pillow and smiled, it was time to sleep. She offered her blanket, her pillow, trying again to give everything she had. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking of everyone I’d met along the way.
The Burmese English teacher and now friend, who told me 15 years ago if he had spoken to a tourist, he and everyone he knew would be investigated by the police. The Palong man who had once fought for freedom in the tea-clad hills of eastern Burma and whose brother still refuses to give up. The Burmese girl who had made it into Thailand, was adopted, but can’t go to school because she has no birth certificate, no records of who she is. But the people of Burma are the definition of resilient.
Burma’s history is littered with violent repression, forced labor camps, hushed genocide, censorship, and the unwarranted jailing of thousands of protesters for years upon years. Despite the corrupt government that reigned more than 40 years, the people of Burma consistently fought back, refusing to fall silent. The freedoms available today were not handed out; they were fought for with blood and impenetrable hope. But if ignorant of their past, you would never know. They smile like they’ve never frowned. They give as though they have too much. The women beside me, my “ferry mothers”, are perfect examples.
The engine let out a sigh and finally grew silent; we sat drifting but stuck at the same time. Still my mind wouldn’t settle.
I feel free here; free to let down my barriers, free to trust in people, my shoulders only weighed down by my backpack. But I can’t help but think, is it wrong to feel so free in a country where many freedoms are so new? Where many still fight? That so many of us take for granted what others fight their entire life for?
The women beside me fall into a steady sleep, their breathing almost resembling the rhythm of the water. The river’s liquid lullaby finally starts to take effect. Nearing an unconscious state, my mind falls into a pothole stuck on this thought: for many, freedom is not a right but a hard-fought privilege. Don’t forget that. Appreciate. Don’t forget. Appreciate. Do what you can to change that and don’t ever, ever let yourself forget.
About the Author: CB is an American travel writer currently on a working holiday visa in Australia to fund my next adventure.