Rum River Adventures

My head bobbed upward from the river. I expelled a gasp of breath and screen-wiped the excess water from my eyelashes with the balls of my thumbs while I trod water and took in the horizon of my surroundings.

Above, pale grey-blue sky while elsewhere jungle, unending jungle, and upon the other side of the jungle - silent, impenetrable - was the coast, the Bay of Bengal over the brow of the hill. We were up a tributary within the Ayerwaddy delta, about an hour’s slow boat ride from the town of Chaung Tha, the easiest to get to beach from the city of Yangon.

Away from the dusty grit air of the city, I’d finished making a failed attempt to dive to the bottom of the riverbed. Grey-green balloons of air jettisoned and luminesced as they captured the sunlight descending into the depths, passed my open eyeballs, passed the scuba mask, passed my hands and arms inadequate for the task of taking my body down to do the clutching of freshwater oysters in the same way the locals had done from the muddy slime.

I swam up out of the murk, burst into the open, and understood I was within a childhood dream: Swallows and Amazons, messing about on boats, exploring unchartered rivers with people whose language I did not speak, whose culture I was not a part of. With rum warming my belly, and with the sun toasting my shoulders, I scanned the length of the waterway and knew I had come home to adventure, had realised the promise of the books I read as a child.

Countless trees covered undulating hills, tracked down to the snaking green river shining, and there was no one in the world save us, no other life discernible save ourselves, the herons in the trees, and the promise of elephants coming down to the water.

The long wooden motorboat sat low. Its gently curved hull made of bleached wood hewn from the jungle’s banks, no doubt, and daubed with tar that left the boat and smeared itself across our bodies as we lifted ourselves, inelegantly, full of weight, from the water – river and ocean. Its engine was an outboard motor. Its captain a mute named Moses who’d picked up our business at a beachside shack where we ate fried rice and necked Myanmar beer from glasses the shape of pineapples.

There was something in the way he communicated, like none before, and the promise of adventure tantalised, though we knew, suspected in our heart of hearts, he was a chancer, a cowboy, but we were in the land of cowboys, of taking chances, and we wanted to be the same, wanted to enter the wild, untempered lawlessness that pervades this almost untouched landscape where piracy, one imagines, is the everyday; where law-breaking would exist if only there had been a person to have written laws in the eventuality of such crimes being committed. None have bothered to ascribe punitive measures or to describe the laws, so nothing – no code – can be broken, so these ways and means of making a living persist, unabated: the cowboys charming and chasing the tourists for their dollars.

We knew we had chanced upon such an outlaw and we were somehow happy about our choice. This is what we told ourselves: this is a risk, let’s take it, so we said yes to Moses.

Anna Loewy