On the day I was leaving to go to the field, the car arrived twenty minutes early. It was just after 6 am so I quickly closed down my laptop, gently turned off the lights, picked up my bags and closed the door behind me. I had checked my email in the dark, knowing that I was unlikely to get online again before my return on the Friday, acknowledging the importance of my bridge to the outside world to family, friends and a community of former strangers who are increasingly important in my life
As we drove across Yangon, the sun was just making its way over the horizon and the quiet streets were bathed in a deep pink glow. By the time we passed Inya Lake the sun was resting gently above the horizon, and the park area on Pyay Road beside the Lake, in contrast to the roads, was filled with people going about their early morning exercise, walking, jogging, tai chi, yoga and working on formation aerobics. An intense pink light had developed which was throwing red shapes over the city’s buildings.
We continued across town, and turned westward at the 8 mile junction. Before long we crossed the Ayerawaddy River over the great Bayinnaung bridge, Yangon gently warming behind us and the river busting with activity below us. My colleague told me with great excitement that we would pass by a massive bridge which was newly constructed and had been opened the day before. He had watched the opening ceremony on the TV news.
As we continued westwards towards Pathein we continued across a landscape punctuated by a complicated system of waterways from slender streams, to massive swathes of the main Ayerawaddy river, all making their way towards the Andaman Sea. We eventually turned off the main road to travel southwards, onto a smaller road which soon turned into a stony track. Our speed dropped right down as we bumped along, my colleague somehow managing to sleep for a good part of the bumpy ride.
I can never doze during these trips, no matter how long they are, as the journey is so fascinating. Passing everyday life is so interesting, and I realised that I was soon becoming obsessed by the incredible number of small bridges leading to homes, buildings, fields and paths across the small waterways near the road. There were some tiny bridges, slim and deceptively flimsy looking, which were made of a couple of lengths of bamboo, laid across the water, resting on a V formation and with a kind of “hand rail” to enable people to cross the water safely.
There were more seemingly sturdy bridges, the bamboo more intricately woven to make an apparently more firm structure. There were quaint little arches over the water linking roads and homes. There were groups of men sitting on half bridges, and washing on more sophisticated bridges.
It is clear that in this landscape where waterways, like veins, criss-cross everywhere, bridges from simple to more complex structures right through to the phenomenal newly opened kilometres long bridge are critical to life in the delta.
As indeed the internet in its role as my bridge to the outside world is critical. I would feel incredibly isolated and cut off without my bridge. If that bridge is broken, or damaged, as can happen quite often here, I feel incredibly isolated.
However, as our journey continued and we approached our first destination, I realised that in fact the bridges had an even more powerful association. Before my diagnosis, I would not think twice about field trips and always looked forward to them. Being so ill pulled me up short, and being robbed of independent life and a great deal of mobility, field trips were well off my agenda for a good while. Now, back in the flow, planning adventures and working in remote communities, I feel that this trip represents a real bridge to my other life, the life before cancer.