You Can Go Home Again:
A Story of Memoirs, Mothers and Magic In Myanmar
An integral aspect of travel is that which is unknown. Undiscoverable. The sort of thing that suffers when it’s held too tight. Controlled spontaneity.
When we step out of our homes and venture out on the road, time seems to stretch and fold and morph, days get longer, weeks feel epic, and after a month you’ve lost all sense of when you are – all you know is where.
This feeling, I’m convinced, is magic in its purest form.
And one of my favourite things about this job is that, every once in awhile, I get a call that seems to emerge from the ether, as if it were magic willing my phone to ring.
That’s how I felt the first time I spoke to Daphne Pirie.
It was about a year and a half ago when Daphne called to say she was looking to put together a trip to Myanmar.
Daphne’s story fascinated me from the get-go.
She was born in Myanmar in 1933 to a Burmese mother and a British father who worked for the police force.
She regaled me with stories from her childhood in what was then known as Victoria Point in Burma (now Kawthaung in southern Myanmar), and of her father patrolling the waters of the Mergui Archipelago before being killed in the jungles.
Soon after his death the family fled to India to escape the Japanese invasion of Burma, where they spent time with Rudyard Kipling and eventually made it to England, thanks in part to the direct help of one Winston Churchill.
As she explained the way these deeply personal, watershed moments of her life aligned with historical events, I felt like I was listening to a Ken Follet novel come to life.
Finally, she explained that now, in her 80s, with the borders of Myanmar finally reopened after more than 50 years of military rule, she wanted to return to the country of her birth in search of any connection she might find from her past: school houses, department stores, her father’s grave, memories.
And maybe, I thought, if we got really lucky, the fates would intervene and we’d find something else.
Daphne and I talked for three hours on that first call as her stories transported me far, far away from my desk in wintery Toronto.
Immediately I could feel it. The magic was here, present in all the possibility this trip represented. I know modern-day Myanmar about as well as anyone on earth, and I immediately set out in search for anything I could find that pertained to Daphne or her past.
I searched online for old photos from the time period and called friends in-country to ask about old buildings and capital cities. Eventually I stumbled on something that just felt… right.
A website dedicated to Eric Blair (you may know him better as George Orwell), who famously spent time in Burma, linked to an obscure book entitled Land of Chindits and Rubies, published in the early 1980s by a woman named May Hearsey.
I read a sample of the book – Hearsey’s memoir – online, which described life during the exact same period that Daphne had mentioned. Hearsey even told a familiar-sounding story of her life as the Burmese wife of a British Police officer.
Reading the excerpt, I could feel that same sense of dissonance brewing within me. What was this? Could it really be about Daphne, or was this the magic taking over, clouding my judgment, confusing Daphne’s stories with the author’s? I honestly couldn’t tell.
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I ordered the book from Amazon, not sure exactly what to expect but figuring it would help provide me with a sense of the time. Something about the patina of the book and the picture it painted of turn-of-the-century Southeast Asia stirred something in me. (This could well have been the magic, but in fairness it could also just be that I’ve watched Indiana Jones way too many times.)
When the book arrived in the mail a few days later, I called Daphne to ask her about it. I told her I had found this book online that described so much of life as she remembered it, it was written by this woman named May Hearsey, and…
Daphne stopped me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, based on the way everything else about this trip came together, but of course I was.
May Hearsey was Daphne’s mother.
Daphne was aware of the book, but had no idea you could buy it online. The whole family thought it was just some journal passed around at reunions. She was surprised to hear that anyone could buy it online, never mind that I had just ordered it myself.
I hadn’t even started planning her trip yet, and already one thing was clear: it would be full of surprises.
Daphne explained that May, her mother, self-published the book from London in the early 80s, with the help of a friend. Since I now had it in hand, she recommended I read the book and use it as the basis for her trip.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, with this amazing chronicle of a long-forgotten time in hand – the merging of a lifetime’s worth of memories, geography, expectations, dreams and reality – and now a character in the book, the author’s daughter, was asking me to help her recreate it.
There was no more wondering. No more questioning why or how my phone had rung that day. The answer was plain.
And even better, I knew something Daphne didn’t – yet. Something that I, in one of the truly wonderful moments this job often affords me, would get to reveal to her.
You know that weird, fuzzy feeling we sometimes get from our longest-held recollections, like they’re perched, perilously, on the edge of our consciousness, in danger of slipping into that murky realm where memories become indistinguishable from dreams?
We often feel it when we venture back to a place we used to know, only to find that today it exists solely in our minds, the wood and mortar having decayed long ago.
Well, this doesn’t happen so much in Myanmar.
Because it remained virtually stuck in time for decades under military rule, many of the places Daphne remembered are still there, hardly changed, almost as if they were waiting for her to return.
Daphne, I knew, would be surprised to find that she could in fact go home again.