My first day in Bagan, Naingmo invited me to his house. I climb up into the two level bamboo platform, open to the air and light. The lower level is the living space, the upper sleeping. There is a half wall divider between where the parents sleep and the girls. The boys sleep outside.
Naingmo’s mother and little sister Susu, who ran with me, and three year old Winwin served me roasted peanuts, tea and prawn crackers.
Winwin kept holding out the bowl of peanuts for me, and her mother kept smacking her hand away.
Naingmo lives in a fishing village near old Bagan, and he showed me where the villagers spend their morning, how boys start to fish with lines and then take on nets.
Where people bathe in the morning.
“What do you call this village,” I asked. “Fishing village,” he said.
Soelinn, his brother, tried to take me in a horse cart to Naung U, the nearby built up town with a market and countless guesthouses, because I needed calamine lotion. The horse had other ideas, though, so we ended up turning around and I ended up on a bicycle with Naingmo for most of the day.
At sunset, though, I found a horsecart driver, Soelinn’s boss. He was the boss of his horse, who trotted briskly along. We tried to go to a monastery down by the river, but I was put off by the swarms of kids selling postcards who mobbed me, loud and beseeching, clinging to me like bees as I tried to take photos. The need is clear, but training these kids that foreigners give them money for this behaviour is not the answer.
I get back in the cart and ask Zyazya if there is a school I can make a donation to. He tells me it is better to give something directly to the kids in the village. He drops me at a temple to watch the sunset, and he speeds off on his brother’s motorbike to Nyuang U to buy 30 notebooks with pictures of Disney princesses on them and shiny colourful pencils.
We go to the village, where the project has already made it through the grapevine, and Naingmo’s mother is waiting once more to serve me Chinese tea, roasted peanuts and grilled curried fish chunks his father has pulled from the river that morning. “How will we tell the kids,” I ask Zyazya. “They will appear. Like magic,” he says succinctly.
The kids line up, along with a couple of pregnant women and one very determined old lady. Why shouldn’t she have a notebook?
I am happy to treat the kids, and am clear that Disney notebooks are far from any solution to what ails Myanmar. (Ironically, Aung San Suu Kyi referred to Myanmar — particularly Bagan — as “Fascist Disneyland” in one of her essays). I am nagged by the guy in the temple I bought a small clay figure from who asked me for a notebook and pencil; I was intent on our little project of going to the village, and wasn’t really listening. Random distribution. Need here looks different than in Uganda but is as deep, as bottomless, a cold dark well.