That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90’s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid