I was 19 when I travelled to Myanmar (also called Burma). Before the trip, I bought a travel insurance in case I got sick, and the broker had insisted that, should I became ill, I had to call the insurance company otherwise they wouldn’t cover the costs.
So I travelled to the beautiful country that is Burma, passing through the wonderful Bagan plains where hundreds of pagoda survive from ancient times, through gorgeous lake Inle, and up north until I reached a tiny village (which name I can’t remember now).
This is where I got sick. Suffice to say that I had a constant taste of rotten eggs in my mouth, but I won’t describe the time spent in the toilets. I needed to call my travel insurance company… in Canada. In my small hotel room, there was just a bed, no phone. Not surprising since this village had probably just a few hundred inhabitant, no paved road to access it, and the luxury of phones must have been found only in the biggest hotels of the capital city, quite far from here. Then I dragged myself to the reception to see if they had a telephone.
-Of course not!, was I answered. (Note that, being a former British colony, a lot of people speak English in Burma.)
-Where can I find one?, I asked.
-Hmmm… I think the post office has one, said the clerc.
-Ok, where is this post office?
I wondered if I could reach Canada from this tiny place, by phone. I really doubted it, but thought that I possibly could contact the embassy in Yangon. They could most likely put me through to Canada.
When I found the post office, I had in front of me a bright room with two men sitting.
-Can I use your phone?
I got a strange look from the man before me.
-Er.. sure, he said, and showed me to his phone.
It looked a little bit like a normal phone of the time: a beige plastic box with a handset on top of it. But there was no dial to turn, no buttons to press, just a big red lightbulb instead. And on the side, a small crank.
I picked up the handset… no ring tone. I turned the crank… still nothing.
-Is this phone working?
-Yes, it usually does. What do you need it for?
-I need to place a phone call to Yangon.
The men looked at me, amused.
-No possible. Can’t call Yangon. Way too far.
Oh, my head was spinning. Can’t call Yangon, maybe Mandalay – the big city not too far – maybe they have a consulate?
-Okay, Mandalay then. Can I call Mandalay?
-Oh no, you can’t call Mandalay.
-But… you have a phone. Can’t you use it?
-Oh yes, on Tuesdays, we get a phone call from the village below, and on Thursdays, we give a phone call to the village above.
At this point I sat down, feeling really bad, not knowing what to do, wondering if I could muster the energy to get back to the hotel. I had the urge of asking them if I could use their toilet. One of the men guided me towards the back house and handed me a small roll of toilet paper. When I came out, he claimed knowing what I had, and he was helping the tourists visiting the village. He even showed a business card with his name and a title like: “Help and guide tourists”. He invited me to his house nearby, to rest a bit. There, he offered me two pills that would cure me, so he said.
Here was I, in a tiny cabin at the other side of the world, sick, unable to call home, with this kind man offering pills! “Should I take them?” During all my trip, I found the Burmese people gentle, jovial, helpful. If ever I could reach a clinic, I’d certainly had to travel out of this village, this small group of hovels. I decided to trust the man and take the pills.
The next day, I was better, a lot better. He hadn’t tried to drug me, rob me, or anything nasty like that. This man truly wanted to help. I went back to thank him and we talked longer. His only possession was a small rice field to feed his family. He explained that the previous year, the harvest was so poor that his grandma died, but as a buddhist, the thought wasn’t painful, as he believed she was re-incarnated already.
I can’t remember his name, as this happened a long time ago, but still cannot believe the situation I had put myself into, and the generosity of that man. Even now I am grateful to this total stranger.