My experience of pregnant travel in Myanmar
When I discovered I was pregnant with my eldest son, my trip to Myanmar was already booked. I was researching my second novel, The Road to Rangoon, and had been looking forward to going for months. This was my first pregnancy and I was nearing the end of a healthy first trimester, but more than one friend suggested the trip would be better postponed. It would be dirty, they said. The food would be dodgy. One even went so far as to suggest I’d be more likely to be involved in a car crash than at home. I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit hysterical, but I did want to make sure that travelling was safe.
I began by searching the internet for accounts of women who had been to similar places, but I found very little reliable advice. Medical information focused almost exclusively on flying during the third trimester and visiting well-established Western resorts, not heading off the beaten track in developing countries.
Breathtaking temples of Myanmar
My midwife had never heard of Myanmar and had little to offer beyond a rather baseless “I wouldn’t eat the fish”. Having found myself needing hospital treatment in a Cambodian backwater a few years earlier, my main concern was access to emergency care. She arranged to bring my scan forward to check that the pregnancy wasn’t ectopic before I found myself in the wilderness, but gently reminded me that given my stage of pregnancy, miscarriage was largely indiscriminate and were the worst to occur, there would be nothing to do but ride it out, so it made little difference what country I was in.
I spoke to my GP, too, about the risks. I was lucky that my travel vaccinations were up to date from previous travels, but anti-malarials were clearly out. Avoiding mosquito bites was the best I could hope for, but again, facts were hard to establish. When asking which insect repellents were safe, for example, I was met with only a grimace and a shrug.
I found the lack of quality information frustrating, but what my midwife had said about miscarriage struck a chord. Though I had age and good health on my side, the whims of pregnancy – as all in life – are unpredictable. I’d learned nothing to convince me that my friends’ concerns were justified. I resolved to let the fates decide.
As it happened, there were a few things that proved less than ideal about pregnant travel. I had rotten sickness throughout my pregnancy and every flight (of which there were many) was spent with my head in a paper bag. The weather in Myanmar was stiflingly humid, the air thick with the scents of heaving markets and overflowing drains. More than one fish curry found its way into a less than pristine squat toilet before I’d left the restaurant as I glanced at the waiters and sheepishly muttered “It’s not you, it’s me.” It was manageable, however, if it at time slightly wretched. The concessions I made, such as watching what I ate, were not too different from those I’d made at home.
So would I make the same decision and travel again? Without a doubt, the answer is yes. It was high in the hills of rugged Shan State that my choice became fully vindicated. Until that point, I hadn’t told anyone I encountered that I was pregnant. I wasn’t showing much and I didn’t expect or want special treatment. This trip was not about me. It was for finding out about Myanmar. I was having a fascinating time but becoming increasingly irritated by how little progress my research was making. Myanmar is staggeringly beautiful, but troubled, its people made wary by decades of military dictatorship and civil war. I found it impossible to engage in any conversation beyond pleasantries and often felt like the worst type of tourist – detached and voyeuristic – and so far from experiencing the country’s true soul.
Whilst walking with a local guide, however, we stopped to chat to a family outside their home. They produced rice crackers and my guide asked to show us where they were made. The family politely agreed, waving us into their home, but I felt like I was intruding and hung back. The guide insisted, saying the family would appreciate a few kyat in payment, and so reluctantly I went inside. The weather that day was blistering, pushing forty degrees, and the woman at the stove had a belly that was ready to burst. She was eight months pregnant, I discovered, sitting on the floor and dusty with ashes, still working at least a ten hour day.
My new friend and the house where she’d give birth
Shocked, I blurted out that I was pregnant too. The faces of the family instantly changed. Their smiles broadened, reaching their eyes for the first time. I was ushered to a seat and bombarded with questions. They were suddenly interested in me, genuinely so, and we ended up spending the afternoon there, sharing tea and stories about our lives. The woman told me how she would give birth at home, in the room where she worked with her mother and grandmother at her side, more than two hours by boat from the nearest medical facilities. When I left, I felt such a mix of emotions; elation that I’d forged my first real connection, and guilt for what privileged healthcare I received at home.
I mentioned my pregnancy much more often after then. I realised that being pregnant disarms people. It’s a leveller. It creates a connection between lives that are otherwise so different that the gap appears unbridgeable, starting conversations and finding common truths. It gave me a new glimpse into the generosity of human nature, too. There was the restaurant owner who sat at my table and went through his menu, telling me what he thought should eat for a healthy baby. (Stay away from bananas, he warned. Bad luck!) There was the taxi driver who insisted on turning off the meter and letting me sit in his air conditioner cab while a particularly heady bout of nausea passed. I was even given email addresses by people I met – a temple guide in Bagan who took me on a detour to see a local maternity hospital and a primary school teacher I met in a Mandalay café – and asked to send pictures when the baby was born. These are correspondences I maintain today. Everywhere I went, more than just providing a service or going through the motions of civil conversation, people cared. They were open and curious. They wanted to chat. Travelling pregnant was deepening my experience beyond anything I’d foreseen.
A remote maternity clinic in Shan State
I’ve often thought about the woman I met in Shan State. My son’s birth had complications and I was profoundly grateful for the care I received, and to not to have been in a remote hillside hut. I’ve since learned that more than 99% of newborn deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Africa and South Asia, which includes Myanmar. It’s an appalling statistic. I hope she faced fewer issues than me. Whatever the outcome, meeting her strengthened my resolve to write about the subjects I do; the underdogs in precarious societies, those who are forced into a life of hardship through nothing more than the lottery of birth. This isn’t about me, I had thought to begin with, but I learned that being more willing talking about myself helped me find out about others, too. I’ll remember that on future travels, whether researching or relaxing, pregnant or not.
I’ve dedicated The Road to Rangoon to my son. It felt only fair since he’d taken so much of its journey with me, from that first scorching Burmese escapade, through draft and redraft as he slumbered by my desk. I’ve no doubt that without him my experience in Myanmar – and the novel that followed – would not have been so rich.
Sunset over Inle Lake
I was spoilt for choice when H for History asked me to discuss my “Top Ten Books on the East” with them, this week. You can view my choices beside lots of other great bookish stuff if you have a Tumblr account, or have a nosey below, if you don’t!
Ten of my favourite books on the East
By Lucy Cruickshanks
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh takes the reader on an epic journey through more than a hundred years of Burmese history, chronicling the formation of a modern nation via the stories of three generations of intertwined families. It’s rich with cultural insights and colour, and with his ability to evoke a sense of time and place like few else, Ghosh deftly explores the complexities of colonialism, war, multiculturalism, dictatorship and the challenges to personal loyalties each brings.
Ambitious, charismatic and terrible, Balram Halwai realised young that success was rarely won through hard work and kindness and has instead risen through Indian society by an altogether more criminal route. In The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Halwai recounts his journey with quick wit and a talent for self-justification, not so much describing how he navigated the country’s ambiguities and immoralities, as revelled in them. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, this is social commentary at its most caustic; a story of inequality, corruption and nation struggling to reconcile the glossy promises of modernity.
In Lost Horizon by James Hilton, troubled World War I veteran Hugh Conway’s plane is high-jacked. When it crashes in the remote mountains of Tibet, he finds his way to a curious utopian lamasery, Shangri-La, and is submerged in a paradise so ethereal and enthralling that the rest of the world can be forgotten, where tranquillity is only matched by beauty, but where as many questions are raised as answered and the peace may not be quite all it seems
Written by a former soldier in the North Vietnamese Army, Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong is a brave work of fiction that has been banned in Vietnam and seen the author imprisoned for her criticism of the government. The story follows a young Vietnamese woman on her journey into the 1980s Soviet Union in search of work. Stridently unsentimental and full of evocative imagery, the legacy of the American War weighs heavily, but this is a tale of a nation rebalancing, of the conflicts between tradition and progress, young and old, rural and urban, and the difficulties these cause for ordinary people.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard is a fictionalised account of the British author’s childhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. When Jim is separated from his parents, he surrenders to the Japanese and is interned in a prisoner of war camp, learning to survive on his wits alone. Graphic and frank, and against a backdrop of death and deprivation, Ballard creates a coming-of-age story that feels honest and touching, in a world where uncertainty reigns supreme.
Set in Vietnam during the dying days of French rule, The Quiet American by Graham Greene uses the relationship between Fowler, a British correspondent, and Pyle, the quiet American of the title, to depict a complex world of post-colonial strife. Through masterful storytelling, poignant character details, perfect pacing and sharp, shrewd dialogue, Greene beautifully sets the romantic promise of Indochina against a prescient warning about the relationship between Vietnam and the West.
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester charts Hong Kong’s history since the 1930s through the eyes of four tangled but very diverse characters. With a love story at its heart, it traverses the whims of British colonialism, the horrors of Japanese occupation in World War II, the post-war exuberance and the uncertainties of the Chinese handover using clean, effortless prose and a sympathetic eye. Lanchester’s management of history is delicate, never impeding the story, but leaving the reader with a vivid insight into one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle is a graphic travelogue that documents the year the author spent living in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon. While his wife travels the country working for Medicins San Frontier, Guy remains in the city with his young son and time on his hands. He’s baffled by the logic of the ruling military junta, clumsy at navigating cultural niceties and obsesses over rumours of an imminent bird-flu epidemic. Intelligent, affectionate, funny and surprisingly moving, this has to be one of the most original and perceptive accounts of contemporary Myanmar available today.
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is powerful fictionalisation of the author’s childhood experiences during the ruthlessness of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. Narrated by seven-year old Raami, it tells of her family’s momentous fall from royal privilege, the murder of her relatives, the chaos of civil war and her survival through forced labour, sickness and starvation. Replete with myths and poetry, and as beautiful as it is harrowing, this is ultimately a tale of protecting childhood in a world of savagery, and the power of memories, resilience and hope.
In Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, we learn about the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born into one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps to ever have escaped. His memories from inside the brutal totalitarian state are riveting and terrifying, and his adjustment to life outside, uncomfortable and sad. There’s an agonising sense of place that hangs over every page the memoir, which gives an unprecedented insight into the world’s most intensely secretive nation and will leave an indelible mark on your mind.
Where do ideas for novels come from? What is it that makes an idea great?
Hunting ideas can feel like hunting gemstones, but as my characters in The Road to Rangoon discover, life rarely throws up giant, perfect gems. Ideas are like rubies, imperfect and hidden but always waiting. They are brief flashes through the dirt and darkness, glimpses of fleeting, dazzling possibility. The trick is in noticing them, recognising their worth as they glitter momentarily, in teasing them out from the rubble of life and refining them, posing the questions that polish them to a shine.
Today I’m chatting to Women Writers about inspiration – a subject I’m often quizzed on by writers and readers alike. Morning!
“Haunting and heart-wrenching…The powerful story packs such a punch that it will stay with the reader long after turning the final page.”
This thoughtful review for THE ROAD TO RANGOON from Novelicious has made my day! It’s a joy to hear you’ve taken a reader so far outside their comfort zone yet come up trumps. Thanks to them for taking the time to read and feature. Always appreciated.
It has been an historic week in Myanmar, where THE ROAD TO RANGOON is set. The first free, fair and transparent elections in decades have taken place and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, have won a landslide victory. It’s a remarkable achievement given the government’s long history of dictatorship and brutality, and the fact that Suu Kyi herself spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing them.
Well done voters for being brave. Here’s to hoping it stays as good as it seems.
It was great to be asked to write a little something for the ‘Writers and Artists‘ group recently. They’re a wonderful resource for both aspiring and established authors, and I’ve often turned to them over the years. Here I am, talking about the importance of setting in novels, and what it can tell readers about your characters too.
Happy Monday, everyone. Wishing you all a belter of a week.
We had a fun Tuesday in our house last week, with visitors from the local TV station. I got to chat about lots of interesting bookish things, the baby saved his meltdown for after the interview had finished, and the camerawoman didn’t notice the massive pile of washing up I’d hidden outside the back door in a last-minute dash. So all in all, I’m calling it a win! The footage is now available to view online. Follow this link to have a peek!
“Exotic, dangerous, slippery, enjoyable, well-written…”
Praise for THE ROAD TO RANGOON from the South China Morning Post last week. Thank you!
“A story of hope and salvation set against the complex and troubling backdrop of Burma’s turbulent past.”
Last day on the tour and I’m rounding off the week with a great review from The Book Trail. Thanks very much! Happy Friday, everyone.