Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dala - Life on the Other Side of the River

It took me a full two years before I decided to cross the Yangon river again by ferry. This time I stopped in Dala township. I was accompanied by a local friend. I was planning to visit "Chu Chu", a recycling enterprise which was founded in 2013 through a project supported by the European Union. We also took advantage of the nice weather (a dry spell during the rainy season) to discover the alleys of Dala while watching the locals' life.

The same hustle and bustle which I remember from my previous visit welcomed us at the Dala jetty. This time I slipped away with a resolute "Jezu be" which means "Thanks" from the pushy "guides" who were looking for possible clients. All around me people were rushing to get out of the ferry terminal and to set about their daily errands. Some people were carrying large bundles containing things they probably do not find in their villages on the Irrawaddy delta. Many people are commuting between Dala and Yangon for work. The river is busy with ferries and small boats going back and forth. Some locals in Dala are modest businessmen who resell stuff bought from Yangon's markets in their small shops, located in the alleys of this township.

If you decide to make  Dala your main visit of the day my advice is to rent a trishaw. Luckily, both me and my friend managed to squeeze in one. Should you negotiate the already reasonable price offered by the driver when you know it is his body who powers the vehicle? The expanded bicycle drives smoothly on the newly laid pavement. There are only a handful of proper streets in Dala so you often have the feeling you are in the countryside. Some consider Dala a suburb of Yangon. It might well become a suburb but not before the promised bridge between  Yangon's downtown and Dala will be finally built. According to the latest news the construction will start in 2017. 

Every local knows Chu Chu's location in Dala. They also know that Chu Chu recycles plastic. And in Myanmar plastic is everywhere. In other words the skilful artisans literally collect their raw material on their doorstep. Apart from this they regularly visit markets and return with huge bags full of discarded plastic bags and plastic instant coffee wraps. The shop increased in popularity after successfully selling their artifacts in the Pomelo shop in Yangon. They were trained by talented designers, and they continue to work with some of them improving their products and looking for new ideas. Since the beginning of the year they started to sell from their workshop in Dala. 

The project developed nicely and currently has  many local families involved in the business. Most of the people work from home.  They bring back woven plastic bags, book covers, woven bins made out of instant coffee wraps and different baskets. They earn a fair living in a place where employment is scarce. Many managed to pay back their debts. They meet regularly at the workshop to discuss the new designs, to deliver the products and to receive new training. The producers recently started to process the rubber from the many broken tires that lie around. I studied the skilfully crafted belts, iPad covers, wallets and even carpets. My local friend was amazed. 

After a short visit to the small shop we continued our trishaw excursion driving slowly on the sleepy alleys. It was almost noon and it was an unexpectedly hot day. However, on the both sides of the paved alley you could notice stagnant water mixed with garbage. There is no sewage system in Dala and that is why the houses are built on stilts with a narrow bamboo bridge to take you inside the house. During the monsoon season rain water collects all around the houses. On the same street you notice a mix of bamboo and concrete houses depending on one's wealth. Some plots of lands are fenced with barbed wire. "The rich people started to buy land in Dala. They fence it and wait for proper investors to come in a few years. The price of land has increased so much over the last years", complained our trishaw driver.  

I asked the driver to stop when I noticed a young boy writing in a book while lying on a wooden platform above the water and the garbage. "Was he doing his homework?", I wondered. We spoke with his mother who was boiling a huge amount of rice over a charcoal stove. The woman was 44 years old and she had seven children. In a way she felt the need to explain that the local services will start a big cleaning operation the next day. In our morning excursion we only saw a proper bin on one of the streets and at some point two women garbage collectors pushing around another one. Nevertheless the population should be sensitised by the local authorities  about the dangers of living surrounded by garbage. 

We saw many children playing in the streets and so we found out that it was a teachers' training day in Dala. The trishaw driver was happy because he felt that this is an improvement. The teachers receive training and additionally the school is now free of charge until the 8th grade. 

We finished our trip by paying a visit to our trishaw driver's house upon my request. He took us to the end of the town from where the green paddy fields started to grow. Our eyes rested on the bright green fields for a while. He stopped the bicycle and asked us to accompany him. We took a short walk on a dry dirt-path towards two rows of bamboo houses. His house was one amongst these many improvised shelters. Children were busy fetching water from a pump not far away. I noticed two boys pumping and filling up their plastic canisters and buckets. The water was yellow. It was Government water. "Do they drink this water?", we wondered. "No, it is only for cooking" the trishaw driver explained. "For drinking we take water from a pond which fills up with rain water". On our way back to the ferry he showed us the pond which was covered by water lilies. Probably not every local from Dala uses the same wells but for me these two water sources looked unsafe.

I saw this kind of bamboo houses in the outskirts of Yangon when driving to the Ngwe Saung beach. The constructions in Dala are improvised and not permanent. The land does not belong to the people. They pay a yearly rent to a well-off local but still they are afraid that one day they will be ordered to move in case an investment opportunity arises. The yearly rent is around MMK360,000. 

Behind every poor family lies a sad story like the ones I read in the "On the Road to Mandalay" book written by Mya Than Tint. In this particular case the parents of our, by now, guide divorced many years ago and sold the house they had in Dala. Ironically they now live next to each other in two separate bamboo houses. The many brothers and sisters live close to each other with some sharing a house. Ten people, adults and children, were living in two small rooms which formed the house of our driver.

Our driver is 38 years old, has three children, was schooled only two years (as the eldest brother he needed to work to support his family after the divorce of his parents), rents a trishaw every day for which he pays daily MMK 1,000 to the trishaw owner and earns an average of MMK 6,000 per day.

Coming back at the busy ferry terminal and seeing the many hopeful trishaw drivers waiting for customers I could not but ask myself how many are in the same situation as the man I left behind. 

If you are an inquisitive tourist, you notice things and you start to wonder. You have questions which need answers. As a foreigner, living in Myanmar for some time now, when making such a visit I push for answers and I try to understand how society functions. Often it is difficult. As a tourist you will most probably look around, wonder and leave Dala remembering it as a township frozen in time, with dirty dusty alleys, friendly locals,  a great recycling initiative and a Pagoda with a mummified monk in a glass case. I left wondering about the future of these people and especially about the hardships the children of Dala must endure every day. Yet they were happy, smiling, playing, chasing each other and greeting you with a loud "Hello!". They've never known better. I will remember this my entire life.

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