This last post for the trip is not going to be about food! I go on a brief detour….I ask myself, which angle should I take?…
So, here I am on the last day. So much to squeeze in – basically everything else which is not food related. I want to see where we lived before leaving Burma, four decades ago. I remember parts of that day very well and others not at all. Waving goodbye to people from the car but who were they? I’m not certain. Maybe my sister remembers. I must ask her. She has an exceptional memory!…..
With regards catching up with close relatives, there are not so many to. I count how many I know in Rangoon, or anywhere else in Burma for that matter of fact. It’s very few.
Dad was one of six, four brothers and two sisters. (just like us!). Five of them had left Burma over time by choice and one remained. There are four surviving siblings. All abroad. Three live in Australia and one in the US. Then from Mum’s side there were four sisters. Apart from Mum, all remained living in Rangoon but only one is alive now, Aunty Dolly.
We have a tight schedule to fit into today. After the first lie in of the trip, we make contact mid-morning with Aunty Dolly and Uncle Maung to see if they are free for lunch and they are! So is his daughter (our cousin Aye Nyeint)…..Yes, you guessed it, we decide to lunch at Rangoon Tea House! Unfortunately, Aunty is not well enough to join us for lunch.
We order chicken biriyani, ohno kaukswe, stuffed keema paratha and Pyay paratha (dish named after a town in Bago region famous for its paratha), accompanied with some excellent iced coffee and teas. Made the traditional way with condensed milk. All of it, needless to say, is delicious. And that’s all I’m saying on the subject of food for this post!
After another great lunch, we pop in to see Aunty Dolly at her home on 51st Street. Slap bang in the middle of downtown. I vaguely remember being left here once with one of my cousins (one from mum’s side, now living in Australia). I guess I must have been around 3 years old., my cousin one! For what occasion and reason I have no idea! Someone said my parents may have been going to a family wedding and we were too young to go along with them….
Aunty talked about mum’s last visit in 2016/17. Mum’s first visit was after she retired, and Dad had passed away, around 2000. This would have been the first of several annual trips. She would spend one to two months here, followed by a month or two in Australia to see my sister. In those years getting a visa was not, by any means straightforward. Nor was it possible to stay for lengthy periods. But there were ways and means!
Mum would ask every time she was planning a visit why don’t I come along with her. And I was tempted but for one reason or another something got in the way, and I would say ‘yes, next time’.
That next time eventually came 13 years later in January 2013. It would also become the inaugural family reunion in Burma. The previous year, everything started to change dramatically and quickly with the whole world watching over Burma. Two brothers (separately) had eagerly already made their first trip back. They visited old family ancestral homes, saw familiar sights and had lunches with Mum and Dad’s old school and university friends. Excitedly reporting back every few days with accounts of what and who they’d seen. This was the impetus which ignited the 2013 reunion.
One of many engagements, an invitation to a lunch reunion which takes place every month of Old St Paulians, who matriculated in 1958. (Check out the interesting video clip link about the school – Old St Paulians. ). This is the name given to ex-students of St Paul’s High School in Rangoon. Dad and his friends were past students. How amazing they still keep in touch to this day. Every time any of us are back in Rangoon, we are invited to come along to the monthly reunion of Old St Paulians, as Dad’s stand-in, I guess!. And without fail, when my father’s old school friend Uncle Soe Win heard we were in town, he kindly invited my brother and I. A shame the date did not coincide with our time here. Unfortunately by the time we connect, we only have one day left…..so we promised to catch up next time!
The high school is a magnificent building and one of the oldest schools in Burma. Along with several other significant buildings, last year it received a ‘Blue Plaque’ from The Heritage Trust of Yangon, in recognition of its historical and architectural importance in the makeup of Rangoons history.
Back to 2013. It was decided. All six siblings, plus partners and Mum would visit. Over the preceding months we discussed to the enth degree, the itinerary which had been created on a spreadsheet (!). Communicating via emails toing and froing. There is an actual reason! We are spread over four countries; Australia, Brazil, Singapore and Uk.
Not hard to imagine how super excited we were! Most of all Mum was so happy to see us all back in Burma together.
Uncle Maung decides to take the rest of the afternoon off and joins us on our quests. This is great as he’s able to direct our driver. Because next we go to the last house we lived in before leaving Burma, on U Lu Ni Lane.
We walk around, snooping here and there, trying to figure out which house it is. I follow as I’m clueless what we are looking for. Moe realises the house no longer stands. (it was still there when he first visited in 2012). Then he recognises the neighbour’s house. And there it is!
I’m not sure what to think when I see it. I have no physical memory of the place. Then again there is a new build ongoing, so it probably has no resemblance to the original. I look around and absorb the surroundings instead. To say, I now see physically in front of me, the reason why our parents wanted a better life and opportunity for us, is an understatement beyond imagination and words…..
The same neighbours still live here!
We discover, the same neighbours still live next door! We pop in to say hello to them. To my astonishment, Aunty Naw Bwe Say remembers me straight away and called me out by name, well my nickname, Buh-dho. (Burmese readers will know the meaning!). Aunty used to babysit us on occasions. Her husband used to drink with Dad. They both look remarkably well and fit.
We say goodbye and their daughter (who is a few years younger than us) take us around the back lanes to the railway line. This is where we used to cross to reach the old cinema, which was pulled down only a few years ago. It had stood for more than four decades (probably much longer). Unbelievably, I actually remember going to see a film there!
We have one more mission. We need to find a family friend. You could say ‘relative’. U Aung Kyaing. He lived with us and looked after all of us, when we were all very small! When we left he must have been a teenager still. He probably had no idea we were not coming back. I have a vague recollection of early morning walks to the local shop or bakery where he would buy me a treat to eat. I haven’t seen him since then.
Over the past couple of months, and now here over the last few days and hours we have had no luck contacting him. No email reply. No mobile phone answered. It rings out and out but strangely no-one picks up.
We drive for nearly two hours and finally arrive in the Hlang Tharya township area on the outskirts of Rangoon. We have no address. There are no street signs. Really! We have nothing to go on except Uncle and Moe’s combined memories from previous visits. More than 3 or maybe 4 years ago Uncle had taken mum to see him! But it shouldn’t be too hard, Moe says. He just needs to spot a couple of landmarks then he will recognise it…..
When we arrive Uncle and Moe realise quite quickly we are confronted with a very different situation. They are astonished by the pace of change. In the intervening years the development has exploded and completely disorientated their bearings. It does not seem to be so straightforward now.
We drive up and down the main road leading from the city several times before Moe suddenly recognises something and we turn into a side road. We enter a warren of streets – a maze of confusion as we drive round and round the narrow streets. Every corner looks the same. Houses built cheek to jowl with little to distinguish one from another.
It is mere guesswork from here and trying to find ‘landmarks’ as such, is not proving easy. Moe says we should look out for a coal or ‘fuel’ shop (or shack) nearby. So we drive around aiming to find one. We soon realise there’s one on just about every other corner we turn.
Eventually after an hour or so we stop. Moe and Ko Aung (our trusty guide is still with us) decide its best to continue on foot and to ask around. Moe is sure we are close.
Today of all days the clouds decide to open up. You certainly know the monsoon has finally arrived. Huge warm heavy droplets fall, thunder cracks and thudders in between bright shards of light in the distance. It’s hard to decipher which was first? The lightning or the thunder? Moe is not deterred by the rain. And off they go. Unsaid and in silence we all resolve to not leave until we find U Aung Kyaing. We have come this far….
Whilst they are gone Uncle and our driver talk to a nearby shop owner. They talk for some time, occasionally pointing here and there and a few phone calls. Half an hour later we are regrouped. Some quick feedback and it’s clear we are very close. We literally drive a few hundred metres, then stop….It’s there! We have found the house with the small convenience store frontage.
The first thing we do is video call our sister in Australia so she can talk to U Aung Kyaing. She would have been 13 when we left, so old enough to remember U Aung Kyaing well. This is just amazing and would not have been remotely possible three years ago. Mobile connectivity in Burma is now more than about 85% compared to 15% five years earlier in 2013.
As we head back into the city darkness I notice, the streets are not so dark at night anymore. Parts are lined with street lights and parts are deflections from fancy new hotels and buildings… I guess that it will be different again when I return in the not so distant future.
This last photo is added because every visitor to Rangoon must visit Shwedagon Pagoda. Whether you have been before or not. Locals visit almost every day. And you should visit every time you return to Rangoon.