Zinsser on Friday

The Old Flotilla

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By William Zinsser

June 11, 2010


 

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me. . .

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

 

Rudyard Kipling’s maudlin poem, sung by generations of voice-proud baritones, has foisted on the world some curious notions of Burmese topography, starting with the bay across which the dawn comes up outer China. No such China-facing bay exists. No flying fishes play on the road, and nobody looking eastward from Moulmein has ever seen the sea. That way lies Thailand.

I’m not saying Kipling was geography-challenged; he was, after all, born in Bombay. He just needed some ay words to rhyme with Mandalay, and God forgives poets stuck for a rhyme. But what about that old flotilla that so euphoniously lay?

 

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’. . .

I always liked that beautiful line and wondered what it could possibly mean. A few years ago I found out.

In 2004 my wife Caroline and I decided to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Burma. We had first gone there half a century earlier, in 1955, and had greatly liked the Burmese people–their quick smiles and natural kindness. But the military government restricted our stay to five days in and around Rangoon. Strictly forbidden were the sites we most wanted to see, farther up the Irrawaddy River, the 1,000-mile highway that runs down the center of the country: the old royal capital of Mandalay; the vast plain of 2,000 ancient pagodas at Pagan, and the villages of the ethnic tribes in the north and in the Shan State to the east. Our dream would have to wait.

Five decades came and went, and successive juntas kept the nation, which they renamed Myanmar, mostly shut. Then, one day in 2004, a travel brochure came in the mail announcing a 17-day tour of Burma that would start with a six-day voyage down the Irrawaddy. I could hardly believe the alignment of destinations and dates. The trip would cover all the places we had been waiting so long to see and would begin exactly on the 50th anniversary of the day we were married in the First Presbyterian Church of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Our boat, the brochure explained, was a newly built replica of the flat-bottomed paddlewheel steamers that once were the lifeline of the towns and villages along the Irrawaddy. That fleet of 650 boats, an astonishing creation of the British Empire, which annexed Burma in three wars between 1824 and 1885 and ruled it as a colony until 1948, was built by a Glasgow shipyard, founded in 1865, called the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company! When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, the British sank more than 600 of the boats to deny them to the enemy, and today the flotilla survives only as a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Our group assembled in Rangoon, and we flew north to the market town of Bhamo, near the Chinese border, where the Pandaw II was waiting for us by the riverbank. It looked like a giant shoebox–a longitudinal edifice with no pretense of nautical grace. But the interior was elegant: polished teak decks, shiny brass fittings, and handsome rattan furniture. Outside our stateroom, two rattan chairs invited us to put our feet up on the railing and watch the Irrawaddy go by–which I endlessly did.

One of our first stops was at the logging town of Katha, where, in the 1920s, George Orwell discontentedly served with the British colonial police–a period he would evoke in his novel Burmese Days. We hiked into the jungle to watch a team of elephants–remnants of the legendary labor force long employed in the teak forests of Burma and northern Thailand–working the logs of a teak station not unlike the one that Orwell’s protagonist supervised.

Many of the villages where we went ashore were seldom visited by tourists and had a harmonious serenity. Sometimes I would detach myself from our group and just sit in a village and enjoy the fact that I was there. I didn’t have a single noun or verb in common with the men and women and children whose lives I had dropped into, but they always made me feel welcome and safe, inviting me to sit among them or bringing me under a thatch roof if one of Burma’s instant rainstorms caught us by surprise. I was totally contented. New York boy goes Buddhist.

But some part of my mind was also out on the river, where I heard a distant chunkin’ of paddles and a faraway hammering of nails in a Scottish shipyard blessed with the most musical of all corporate names: the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Today it would be IFC.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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