There was a whole saga even before the new fan arrived. From the moment KM discovered the original fan, mounted over the door to my room, had stopped working, drama ensued. At first, I hadn’t bothered too much. OK, it was Burma, in the tropics, but it was winter. True, not a very cool one even by Burmese standards. But on my two previous visits, I hadn’t had a fan at all. Also, I was on the ground floor of a north facing block – the ‘cool’ rooms.
But on the other hand – I didn’t feel very cool. Winter hadn’t got around to arriving yet and the temperatures hung in the lower 30’s during the day. Humidity was high and in a few days, I would have a roommate with double the heat and breath producing going on.
I mentioned to KM. “My fan isn’t working.”
The tiny nun fixed beady brown eyes on me. “You must tell the Water Man. You know the Water Man?”
“I know the Water Man. But…”
She interrupted me forcefully anticipating resistance to her suggestion. “You must tell him to bring his ladder and fix it.”
“But he doesn’t speak any English” None at all in fact.
She spoke more loudly and slowly this time in heavily accented English emphasising each word as if it were a finger jabbing at my chest. “You must tell the Water Man. Ask him to fix it.”
Her voice lowered slightly and she looked a little furtive. “Don’t tell them in the Office.”
At this point, I stopped protesting. The feud between KM and the office staff was legendary and not one I wanted to get caught up in.
I looked out for the Water Man. He was a tiny but immensely strong man who wore a constant friendly smile. He was often seen hoisting 20 litre containers of drinking water from a trailer he wheeled about onto his shoulder and then into dispensers in each accommodation block. There were perhaps 20 dispensers in the Meditation Centre and he replaced them all several times a day as we drank thirstily. I never found an empty dispenser in all the time I was there. In between, he found time to respond to all sorts of DIY requests.
With sign language, I brought him to my room and demonstrated the lifeless fan. Within half an hour he was back with a ladder and screwdriver. 10 minutes later he shook his head.
KM muttered darkly when I told her. “Must have a new one. Old one is not good make. Must buy different make. I think $30.” She looked expectantly at me.
“That’s fine. I can give Dana for a new one.”
“OK, you go tell the Office.”
So I told the nun in the Office who decided this was a good opportunity to check the whole Meditation Centre room by room (about 140 of them) to see if there were other fans not working. Only when this had been done, I discovered on checking a few days later, would the correct number of new fans be ordered. The whole process would take a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, it was getting hotter. My roommate had arrived and we were feeling the heat.
KM had been thinking about our dilemma. One day we heard a vigorous knock on the door immediately followed by her entry.
“You go ask Abbott for fan. He has (one). He use but he say you can (borrow). Go now.”
This says something about the way of Burma; nothing happens and when it does it has to happen immediately. And then nothing happens. Like this.
KM bursts into our room with her “Go now.”
I’m meditating on my bed. “Can I finish meditating? I’ll go later.”
“No can. Must go now. He is waiting.”
“The Abbott is waiting? OK, I’ll go.”
I get to the Abbott’s office cum shrine. He’s not there. I sit on the floor until my knees start to hurt and then get up to examine the shrine which is unusually large and elaborate for Burma with stunning fresh tropical flowers.
After about 40 minutes and half a dozen mosquito bites, he arrives ponderously taking his seat behind the large teak desk. He’s only 40 or so but he moves like a much older and fatter man. It’s the ‘important monk’ walk. There are by now a few of us in the room waiting to see him. We do the 3 bows to the floor and he watches me with a half smile. I wonder if he can sense I don’t really want to be bowing to him. I don’t know him or respect him as I do the Teacher whom I’m happy to bow to. And I don’t really go along with the whole ‘bowing to the robe’ view. So I’m a reluctant slightly conflicted bower and he gazes as if he was watching some exotic animal perform tricks in a zoo.
I was there first but the Burmese don’t go in for queuing. Or fairness. They dive straight in. So I watch my mind for another 30 minutes shifting around to minimise the pain that is now in my hips.
Eventually, he looks at me and thrusts out his chin. “Very hot” he says loudly and self-consciously.
I nod. I think this means that KM has told him why I’m here. This is not a given despite what she’s led me to believe. I hope she has as I think I have just heard the extent of his English. My Burmese extends only to ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. He gets up slowly and disappears for another 5 minutes. When he comes back he is carrying a fan.
Ce zu tin bar deh. Thank you. And more bowing from me and staring from him.
I am grateful, really. He has given up his only fan for the foreign Yogi’s comfort. I lug it back to our room and have a quick shower before lunch.
The new – but old – fan put me in mind of Hal. You know, the computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey? It had clearly been around since the sixties. A waist high, standing, cream coloured plastic specimen that whirred warm air around intermittently, seemingly on its own inner schedule.
Without any warning, he would slow down from whatever setting we had him on and come to a stop. From a standing stop, he might make a single rotation and then go silent and immobile again. K and I, reading or meditating on our respective beds, would look at Hal and then each other and be reduced to giggles. Ten minutes later or an hour there would be whirring accompanied by clattering as he got going again.
Like Hal the computer he seemed to have a mind of his own. He didn’t give a lot of air but he had character!
We fiddled with dials and different power buttons but nothing would get him going once he stopped. It puzzled us as the old fan, before breaking down, had worked consistently except during the regular power cuts the monastery (and Burma) was prone too. It took a few days before we worked out what was happening. Burma’s electricity is quite weak and intermittent so the mains source that fed the lights were always given first priority. The wall mounted fan that I’d had previously was part of the same circuit. But Hal was attached to an extension lead that travelled from our door right down the corridor to a wall socket where he was subject to an erratic and secondary supply of electricity. That was when he hadn’t been unplugged completely by some Yogi impatient to charge her phone or tablet.
A week or so later the new fan arrived along with two young men who preceded to create a huge amount of mess and noise drilling into the concrete ceiling. The new fan was strong and vigorous and produced a cool downdraft. But it didn’t have personality. It didn’t rattle and clatter to its own rhythm and make us giggle like teenagers at a boarding school midnight feast. It wasn’t Hal.
Hal, who had to be returned to his owner with a similar amount of bowing and scraping along with genuine gratitude to the office of the Administrative Abbott.
Ce-zu-tin-bar-deh. I bow again before leaving. The half smirk was back. It was a very strange look. As if he had a mouthful of food he couldn’t swallow in our presence. And a slightly suspicious but foolish smile, as if he was worried I was laughing at him but was determined to find me amusing.
Or perhaps we were both just mutually in-comprehending.