A Magical Story of a Woman’s return to Burma after 44 years
Beauty in the Backstreets – One Woman’s search for the path to Kamayut.
Sometimes in life there are moments, that split second when you just know it feels right.
Times when decisions made and actions taken lead up to that one instant, a single moment in time that allows that something great to happen.
With our feet on Burmese ground, we walked purposefully though Yangon towards the Kamayut township on a specific mission. The long awaited journey for Irma to rediscover her childhood home, her haven that she had left 44 years previously, along with her parents, brother and sister.
They took a boat out of the Yangon port which then sailed on choppy waters for a full month before they docked in England, the country where Irma then married, set up home and made her family.
Her Burmese life slowly seeping out of her pores, as her new Western world took over.
Little thought was given to returning to her homeland, a wistful longing spoken at random, a flippant comment, paired with unplanned maybes, as thoughts of Burma, of a life long ago, drifted like a dream.
Almost half a century past her by before she made the emotional journey back to Burma.
That day in 1967, as a 19 year old Irma boarded the ship to start her new life, she suppressed thoughts of returning. Leaving at a time of conflict in Burma, fear and worry about what would meet her there if she was to ever go back was enough to keep her away.
It wasn’t until Jmayel and I made the move to Chiang Mai in North Thailand, just a mere 230 miles from Burma that stirrings of a visit began to happen. It all started to seem possible now.
With the soles of our shoes firmly planted on the city pavements of Yangon, we began our much anticipated search. Headed in the general direction of Kamayut, we passed a few landmarks that sparked recognition for Irma, like Yangon University, a school and some familiar street signs.
A country that was still very much close to her heart, stories and memories flooded her being as we walked. Nearing her old town with each step.
Never before had Irma been able to gather all her tales and bring the well told fables to life. Until Now.
On reaching Kamayut town, Jmayel and I were pleasantly surprised. The now trendy area was filed with a younger generation of Burmese at cafes and street stalls, new apartment blocks and smart houses replacing the once rows of wooden shacks.
It was inevitable that things would have changed in the time Irma had been away but it also meant nothing looked the same to her anymore.
After a good couple of hours walking we stumbled across what we thought was the Kamayut train station, but with Irma struggling to remember any landmarks, we soon discovered it wasn’t the right one. We were at the station a stop before Kamayut.
Our faith waning with the fading light, doubts began to creep in on us actually finding Irma’s old home and street. Were we actually going to be able to find it, had this trip all been for nothing?
Yet we continued walking, following the train line, Irma asking locals for directions along the way.
Off the main roads, we walked amongst the real Kamayut, the wooden homes with chickens and dogs roaming free, neighbor’s chatting and laughing easily as their children played football and games in the street.
With renewed belief that we were on the right path after speaking to a group of locals, who pointed us in the right direction, the pond Irma was looking out for near the station, was still there, just beyond a row of houses.
As we neared our destination of Third Street, Irma quickened her pace, as I equally sped up to get in front of her, to capture her response on camera as she entered her childhood street, Jmayel heading up the rear, this was it. We had made it.
Irma’s first steps in her old street
What was to happen next is what I was referring to at the beginning. Some people measure their lives by moments that affect them and this certain occasion will not leave any of us for quite some time.
As Irma walked unwavering down the street, eyes darting, looking around for numbers or clues as to where her house should have been, she stopped and called out to a man standing nearby a small shop. He was just opposite to where we were and Irma asked him where house number 119 should have been.
‘This is it, here’ he told her, gesturing to the shop.
With dis belief Irma looked around her and began to let her surroundings sink in. The road Irma remembered, the wooden stilted houses, the open drains, the bamboo bridge connecting the homes to the road, it was all gone. To her the road seemed smaller. Instead it was the people that connected her to her old life.
As a crowd of intrigued residents grew around her in the shrunken street, Irma began retelling her tale, why she was here and where she had come from.
As one particular story started, a favorite of Irma’s, about a little boy who lived next door and liked to run around naked; He used to come and have breakfast with her dad but he would refuse him entry unless the child was fully clothed, to which the little boy adhered, until it was time to go home. As soon as the youngster jumped from their steps, off came his trousers and he was once again back to being free, just as nature intended, until the next morning.
This particular story always managed to raise a smile and a chuckle when told but this time, as Irma‘s account went on, the man standing next to her started to nod his head, his face creased up in an enormous smile, the lady next to him laughing as she said ‘that’s him’. Everyone started to point at the now fully grown man, who thankfully was also fully clothed this time, as they named him as the little naked boy from the story.
With an astonished gasp, Irma’s hands flew to her face, as she repeated ‘oh my goodness’ over and over.
The 3 year old boy she had left behind and who had become just a humorous character from one of her tales from years gone by, was now standing next to her.
As we stood by watching the events unravel, it didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand the language or the words being said, we knew instinctively the magic that was happening.
As Badru watched from the edges, not wanting to trespass on his wife’s fine moment. His eyes grew glassy as he let the emotional display overcome him.
We each in turn, from our separate corners of the street, watched an animated Irma. Her face lit up with genuine shock and happiness as she stood at the entrance of the small shop, now taken the place of her once childhood home.
As I stood on Third Street, protected behind the camera lens, I let myself into the moment as I too felt the emotions around me. My eyes welled up as I watched the story unfold, as I looked across to Jmayel and saw a satisfied smile playing on his lips while he watched his mother, raw and unedited.
It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, yet it felt like more than that, like it was meant to be.
Irma chanced upon a local man in the street, yet it was no chance, it was like he had been waiting there for her to come. Almost as if he knew she was on her way.
The man that had not moved. Still living in the same road, in the same house since he was born and he remembered Irma and her family. He remembered her father living in the house and asked after her mum and her sister by name. They stood and reminisced until the light had completely gone and in the darkness they exchanged contacts with a promise from Irma to send him a letter.
It was one of those moments that took your breath away. An unexpected and unrepeatable situation that I am honored to have been a part of and a witness too.
The 18th Nov 2012 is a day that will stay with me, a day that I was incredibly glad we done what we did.
As that is the day, we found beauty in the backstreets.
Watch the Cinematic Documentary – 44 Years from Kamayut
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Sacha El-Haj – 8 Miles from Home
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