I often get asked what it’s actually like to live in Burma. The every-day-ness of it. If you read this post about the difference between London and Yangon, you’ll know that every day is unexpected, and never goes as planned. But it always starts in the same way…
The mornings are magical. We live in a house in a little oasis of the city just north of Kandawgyi lake (if you look on a map). There are 13 trees in the garden full of birds whose morning chorus mingles with our dreams long before the alarm goes off. We sleep under a mosquito net canopy which wafts in the light that seeps through the curtains and make me feel like Mary Lennox in the opening scene of A Secret Garden every day. My excellently trained husband runs me a bath, and thanks to a night of aircon on 16-degree turbo mode, it’s chilly enough to want one. Then, just to continue in this mawkish vein, we actually sit down for breakfast for at least 20 minutes and discuss things like real people over mango and tea and toast. Don’t worry, it gets progressively less glamorous from here…
At 8 o’clock, Peter picks us up. He’s a half-English, 100% adorable taxi driver who we hailed to take us to work once, and who now collects us every morning. He’s 75 going on 105, speaks next to none of his father-tongue, and literally cannot drive. Each morning he backs through the gates to the house and almost crunches into the bench outside our door. His car is from 1970, has such a low roof that Ralph can’t sit up straight in the back, no headrests (overrated), and a lovely plank under your bum and another in the kidneys. He’s always late, partially blind, and drives in his very own lane straddling the two actual lanes. But he’s so charming and “pray for us” every day so we can’t bear to tell him to stop coming.
The office is a big villa in a residential area of north Yangon. Ralph works for a company who work out of the boss’s home, and Kalinko’s office is in an annex at the back. We are very much part of their extended family: we all eat lunch in the kitchen together. We celebrate birthdays together. We pat the newly adopted stray dogs together. We trip over the piles of flip flops and sandals outside the door together. The security guy is Jerry from My Family and Other Animals. He always has a sparrow chick in his pocket which he’s hand-rearing, or a puppy on his lap. There’s a wingless crow in a makeshift aviary cohabiting with a cockerel, barking orders at the 20-30 multiplying guinea pigs who have fearfully low understanding of the dangers of incest. It is deliciously eccentric.
The electricity cuts out about every 20 minutes. At this time of year, it’s 40 degrees, so every single aircon unit in the country is on and there isn’t enough to go round. This means the wifi dozes in and out of action all day, so my phone is usually balanced on the window grate pleading for signal, and we hotspot from that. When it rains, neither work. The corrugated iron roof also makes it so loud that phone calls have to be delayed until the rain passes.
Like in most offices, the bulk of my day is spent on my laptop, while the wonderful Kalinko team dash around Yangon collecting samples from the bus station (everything travels by bus here), meeting with shipping agents, or heading off round the country to spend time with our makers. Oh, and killing mosquitoes with an electrified tennis racket. That takes up at least 10% of the time.
Nwe Nwe is the office mum. She speaks no English, but is fluent in excitement and I often find myself enveloped in her giggly bosom, or being brought cups of tea. I’m like her very pale foreign pet. She cooks lunch for 40 every day (and breakfast for anyone who wants it). Lunch is a roving affair – we grab a plate and a seat at the kitchen table when there’s a gap. It’s a good time to be lambasted for my terrible Burmese, and to marvel at how much rice the tiny-framed office girls and boys can fit in. Some of them are about 10 inches wide and 4 inches deep but manage to consume whole saucepans of rice. Mind-blowing.
The UK comes online from about 1pm, so I usually spend the afternoon on video calls with the team back home. My regular Zoom call pals are used to a number of different backgrounds, from the office walls, to the trees and birds of the garden, to the bizarre Burmese-Thai-version-of-a-Parisian-café round the corner, in a constant quest for solid signal. The background music is always fruity too; either Buddhist chanting, heavy-metal from 1000-decibel speakers on the back of a passing election-campaign truck, or cackling from the girls in the next door room.
At 5pm and no seconds, the office empties. I hang out with the tumbleweed and the wingless crow for a couple of hours, before heading home, or to yoga, or for a swim. Then unless we’re out for supper, we eat at home and go to bed embarrassingly early.
Given the noise, the heat, the void of road hazard-awareness, and the near-certainty that you’ll spend most of your day weaving through curve-balls thrown by trying to run a business in the 19th hardest country in the world (coming in just above Somalia, Libya and South Sudan…), it’s an oddly relaxing life. We relish our long mornings and early nights which seem so impossible in the fraught equivalent working day in London. And when, against all the odds, you get an email from a happy customer saying how much they love their new cushion or placemats, and you send the message up to the villages that somebody 5000 miles away adores what they have made, it makes total sense that you get up following day and do it all again.