Radio Times/1923/11/30/Burma: The Land of Thrills
Burma: The Land of Thrills
A Talk from London, by the Rev. Father Jackson.
I daresay that a good many have forgotten those few scanty lessons on Burma which they had in the geography class am of their youth. Though, probably, there are not many like certain friend of mine, who—when I told him that I was leaving my London parish to go to Burma—said: "I suppose that's short for Birmingham!"
Burma is the country which lies to the East of the Bay of Bengal, and is, therefore, the most eastern province of our Indian Empire, and it touches Assam, China, and Siam. You get to its chief port, Rangoon, where the rice comes from, by a month's sea voyage from England unless you happen to have a fast non-stopping private aeroplane, in which case, you could do it by a straight flight in about thirty-six hours.
Five Months of Rain.
When you get there, you find a tropical climate—with an average temperature thirty degrees higher than the average of England—which gives you five months of rain and then seven months of no rain. If you ask, as so many do: "Can an Englishman really enjoy being out there?" I should say If you're out there in the wartime spirit to "do your bit" it is all delight and romance; if you're out there in the poet-war spirit to "get your piece" (I see that my typewriter insists on spelling that word with an "ie" instead of an "ea") it is an alternate boiling and baking which soon makes you feel a good bit over-done.
Now, of the Burmese people—the first thing that strikes you is their language. It is Mongolian—that, is, akin to Chinese—and, therefore, quite foreign to the Western ear. It's not quite the "out-grabe " of the "mone raths" in "Alice in Wonderland," being rather a series of spits and clicks.
A Narrow Escape.
Speaking of the difficulties of the language reminds me of an incident which occurred in my first week out there. I was playing with some children, when one of them put a small object into my hand with a remark. I didn't understand much of the remark, but caught the verb "to eat" and, responding immediately to the suggestion, put the thing into my mouth and crunched it up. I then learnt that it was a monkey-nut with the shell on.
A few minutes after-wards, another boy put another object into my hand with another remark. Again I caught only the verb "to eat." and was about to respond to the suggestion when I thought are that it felt rather hard, and, examining it more closely, to see whether it required shelling, I found it moved, and identified it as a large black beetle!
My work in Burma is mainly routine work at head-quarters, under fairly stable and ordinary conditions of town life in a suburb of Rangoon. But even that is by no means monotonous. Frequent burglaries of the premises, not infrequent murders in the neighbourhood, a street or two of wooden houses burnt every now and then, an occasional wild-cat hunt or cobra chase, strikings by lightning, an annual earthquake, periodic visitations of plague and cholera—these things offer variety to life.
Although we can never call the town-life of head-quarters "humdrum," it is touring in the jungle which furnishes the real emotional thrills. I have covered between 30,000 and 40,000 miles in the province of Burma, in all kinds of transport and all kinds of company; but it is only possible to enumerate briefly some of the situations that arise. I think the most uncomfortable journey that I can recall was an eight-hour night journey on the uncovered seat of a third-class railway carriage—during the first five hours we were literally unable to change position by reason of the crush around and on top.
Into the Wilds.
The most discouraging moment I can remember was once when we came to the last stage of a journey into a wild district. The first man I interviewed as to how to get on to our goal assured me that no visitors to that district ever survived the virulence of the local fever; the second refused to accompany me because a man-eating tiger had been making havoc on the road fur the past few nights; the third consented to take us in his cart, provided that there was sufficient company to insure safety against the highwaymen. We did the journey all right, and had confirmation of all the opinions!
One incident serves often to remind me of the necessity for discretion. I was going along a slippery mud track behind my guide when he suddenly told me emphatically to keep close to the left. Investigating carefully for myself, I discovered that we were crossing the face of a small precipice, on a ledge about eighteen inches wide, and that on the left was a sheer drop of about twenty feet into a swamp of goodness knows how much depth of mud.
As a tax for cheerful endurance it is hard to decide between a midday walk barefoot over paddy-fields, baked so hard as to be like edge-wise broken tiles, or a two hours' tramp after lark through swampy grass with the snake calls incessantly audible on every side.
By way of sudden emergency thrills it would be hard to beat the sensation of being caught by a squall in an absolutely flat-bottomed sailing skiff in the middle of the Iriwadi—when the momentarily changing wind made it impossible to lower the sail, and sent first one gunwale and then the other under water.
I think that an even more sickening moment was an occasion when I was crossing a twenty-foot stream on a single bamboo without hand-rail. On reaching about the middle, with the bamboo swaying and bending under-foot, I felt that I was about to be attacked by vertigo, and by way of restoring confidence to myself, I asked my companion whether it was very far down to the water, should it come to a matter of swimming the rest. He replied laconically "There's no water!—about seven foot of slimy mud under you!"
Two questions are almost always asked me. One is: "Is it really safe to be amongst the Burmese people?" To that I can only answer that I have been amongst them, unaccompanied by any white companion, as intimately as most Englishmen ever have, and—except for petty theft—I have never experienced anything but courtesy and hospitality. And as for the petty theft—well, as I try to live in apostolic poverty, they haven't made much out of that.
The other question is: "Are the Burmese people musical?" As being very much children of Nature, they are musical; but also, as musicians, they are very much children of Nature—that is to say, not artistes. It is impossible, I believe, for a Westerner to reproduce their curious gradations of pitch and tricks of voice production; but it would interest you to bear a little song which I have written with all the notes of its melody exclusively on the five notes of the Burmese scale, and with cadences in direct imitation of Burmese. It doesn't really sound a bit like Burmese in practice, but it is in theory, and was written for a Burmese boy to sing.
"The bird has a nest, a nest in the tree; a little red bird, as soft an can be. A cat sees the nest, the bird in the tree; and the little red bird, as safe as can be. 'Come down. little bird, from your nest in the tree. Come down and sit here, sit here close to me.' 'No, no you big cat! That may not be; I will not come down from my nest in the tree.'"