The way we were: Burma

My Grandad Barry was always modifying things to make them better. Spot of electrical tape here, piece of plywood there: he was never far from a strategically placed hook or a carefully positioned piece of pipe lagging (to protect children from sharp edges!) Perhaps your grandparents were similar?

When his five children were young he built a seat over the handbrake in their car so everyone had a place to sit and whenever he was around, bits of old wood quickly transformed into stilts, or rabbit hutches or superb shelving units that still stand strong to this day.

On rainy days, he often went off to work on his motorcycle with bread bags over his shoes to keep his feet dry and he sewed a piece of shammy leather on the index finger of his glove so he could keep his visa clear of droplets.

You might be wondering why I'm telling you this. The reason is, that as soon as I arrived in Burma I saw the same kind of inventive resourcefulness around every corner and I realised: it's something I don't see in England that much anymore.

Super fast wifi, every possible selection of food and drink in supermarkets, an array of clothing, huge toy shops, great roads, safe vehicles, strict rules… in England, in many ways, we really are way ahead of countries like Burma… but when it comes to everyday imagination, inventiveness, the ability to adapt, solve problems, make do with limited resources: they'd win that prize, I'm certain.

Is it just me, or do any of you find yourself lacking a bit of inventiveness now and again?

Have strict Health and Safety laws or boring Objectives and Strategies stolen it from us, do you think?

Or, is too much too readily available, does this stop us coming up with our own ideas?

What I am trying to say is that while I absolutely love England and many of the people who live there: Where the hell is everyone's day-to-day quirky inventiveness and why do I never see people cycling around on a bike stacked like this one:

I started asking myself questions:

Do you fix things when they break, Laura, or do you throw them away and buy new ones?

My answer: I usually buy new ones.

Burma's answer: If it was made it can be fixed.

If you couldn't afford a musical instrument for your child, could you still find a way for them to be musical?

My answer: They could maybe play the spoons?

Burma's answer: A piece of tube can easily be transformed into a flute.

Do you see worth in old things?

My answer: Does having an iPhone 3 count?

Burma's answer: Everything has potential.

Do you use the resources around you to make things?

My answer: I once made a picture from a leaf rubbing.

Burma's answer: You can make a lot from a leaf!

Would you buy a brand new bike for your child and inadvertently ruin their Christmas?

My answer: Probably.

You'll thank us when you're older, son šŸ˜‰

Burma's answer: Giving a child a brand new bike is like giving them an empty tube of smarties. The joy is in the fixing, in the modifying, the adapting, the having to share it with three friends, the click of realisation that the seat is not a necessity, but the brakes really are. Actually riding it is a byproduct.

Arriving in Pyin Oo Lwin did nothing to ease my sense of nostalgia. A beautiful little town that was founded by the British in 1896 and which is still filled with the red-brick colonial buildings they left behind, including the 1936 Purcell Clock Tower. We do know how to build a good clock, or… we did.

We also visited the 435 acre National Kandawgyi Gardens.

Whilst exploring our friend Livia and I got tired cycling up the hills and so a woman on the back of a passing moped reached out and pulled us up the hill one-by-one: she saw the problem and solved it with a touch of imagination.

Two days later we caught a train for three dollars from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. Three dollars. (Let's not mention train prices in England.) We were also allowed to stick our heads out the window. (Let's not mention health and safety rules either.)

Our friend Matt invented a game with some local children to keep us entertained for the 8 hour journey, it was called: who-can-stick-their-arm-out-of-the-window-and-pull-in-the-biggest-piece-of-foliage.

The slow moving train gave us plenty of time to marvel at the stunning landscape, particularly when it was bridged by the Gokteik Viaduct.

Upon arriving, it was now time to be reminded of my Grandma Barbara. She once told me that when her and Barry were young they had very little money, but if anyone ever came round they'd always share whatever they had and go without where necessary. She told me how none of their things were brand new, but they were cleaned and cared for, which was just as good.

In Hsipaw we met a couple, Joseph and Rose, who were working selling bus tickets under a tarpaulin. We started talking to them and they soon pulled up two plastic pink garden chairs and cleaned them with a towel so we could sit down. Their lunchbox flask was empty and so Joseph ran to the nearby Indian restaurant and bought a sandwich bag full of sweet Indian tea.

I noticed how they only had three cups: they gave Katie and me one each and they shared the other. We chatted to them for hours. They showed us their wedding pictures; the local police man, the shop-keeper, the doctor all went to their celebration. They insisted we share the little they had for their supper and covered a box with a perfectly patched up table cloth to put their three plates on: it was humbling.

The next day we explored, firstly on bikes. Katie's broke and so a man who was working in a garage fixed it for her. He wouldn't accept any money, he said he was just happy to help.

We cycled to the start of a hike, but realised we didn't have a lock so we couldn't leave the bikes. Just then, a man came dashing out of his house and, although he spoke no English, read the situation perfectly and insisted on putting them inside for us.

We hiked to a waterfall and saw people making sugar along the way, they invited us in for a drink and to try some palm sugar sweets. They didn't want any money, they were just happy to show us what they were doing.

When we got our bikes back the man had covered all the saddles for us with cardboard so they wouldn't get too hot in the sun. He'd been watching out for us and they were all ready to go. He didn't want any money.

As we cycled passed the local fire station we were shocked at the retro fire engines; the fire men said we could take a look around. They even let me slide down the pole! (Do have a video, but it is too Bridget-Jones-esq to show!)

Later, we went to the market. There was a canned food stall, a torch stall, a hat stall, a sock stall, a stall for vegetables, a stall for meat, a stall for cakes… each person had a role and there was a real sense of community spirit. A huge part of their local currency is 'helping each other out' and, in future years, I hope tourism doesn't change this. We bought a torch each for a dollar, the stall owner gave us the batteries for free.

In Burma people don't have as much as many of us have in England; both politically and economically things have been, and continue to be, very tough. However, with a touch of creativity and a currency of care, they succeed.

As I sit writing this blog on the street front, I often look up and smile with a sense of disbelief and amusement as I see constant examples of people's inventiveness. I didn't think it was possible to do many of the things they do, but it is and it was: all that's needed is a touch of imagination, a kind heart and perhaps… a little gaffer tape.


We have decided to be more inventive in our day-to-day lives! Some of you might be inventive in your jobs already, but think about resourceful, imaginativeness out of work. If at any point in the next few weeks you fix something instead of throwing it away, or invent something out of the resources around you, or solve some practical problem… then comment on here and tell us what you did or send us a picture and we'll upload it.

I'll begin with my recent problem solving…

What to do when the plug socket is too high and the wire too short:



5 thoughts on “The way we were: Burma

  1. Really good to see some “domestic ” pictures as well as the fascinating tourist ones. Think you ought to encourage people here to stop wasting as much and learn to save some of the world’s resources. I was brought up in a “make do and mend”culture when things were not available / affordable but we were perfectly happy with that. There…enough preaching but it is Sunday ! You both seem to have met and made friends with some lovely people . What wonderful memories you will have of this first part of your big adventure. Love to both of you, Granny Brenda

    Sent from my iPad


  2. There`s good and bad in each situation – I wouldn`t want to have to fix everything but we have wasted too much though that`s changing with charity shops, Freecycle and people who eat discarded supermarket and restaurant supplies.


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