Of all the women who greeted me, Ma Kyu was the only one who didn’t smile. One after another, each one of my temporary companions welcomed me warmly, offering a shy grin and examining me with gentle curiosity. Ma Kyu stood with her hands on her hips, eyes flickering with a subtle disapproval.
Ma Kyu and the other women were lay attendants to the monks and relatives of the abbot at the forest monastery near the city of Pago, where I would spent a few days. Ranging from middle-aged to elderly, they were baffled that as a young woman I was traveling alone. The monastery was quite traditional, and I was not allowed to wander about unaccompanied. Even walking with my monk friend, who had brought me here, was inappropriate without a third person present.
Ma Kyu had appointed herself my caretaker, and almost immediately after I placed my bag on the ground, her duties began. She took my arm and led me to the shower, two open stone basins in the back of the living quarters with metal bowls used to pour water over yourself. While I was familiar with the scoop-and-pour method, I had never experienced it out in the open. Ma Kyu was quick to show me the correct technique, involving undressing, bathing, and redressing while wearing a lungi, your modesty protected by the thin fabric. Like a mother bathing a child, Ma Kyu did the entire process for me, ignoring my mild attempts to do anything myself. She carried on seemingly unaffected by the fact we had barely met as she stripped off my clothes and scrubbed my arms, neck, and back.
Ma Kyu did not speak English, and I only knew a few words in Burmese, so we communicated with our hands. Ma Kyu’s gestures were not so much questions as demands, which suited me well enough; I had learned long ago that saying yes was easiest when adapting to a new place. So, after my shower, I did not protest as Ma Kyu brushed my hair, rubbed a yellow paste the Burmese call “natural makeup” on my face, and heaped all manner of unrecognizable objects atop my rice for dinner. She then led me to a small pagoda to pay homage to the Buddha, checking my form as I bowed before the golden statue, scarcely removing her hand from mine.
Everywhere I went, Ma Kyu was there, leading me by the arm, adjusting my lungi and shirt, ensuring with a watchful eye that I paid due respect to the monks and images of Buddha. At night, as I lay on the floor in the room all us women shared, she sat next to my mat, watching me silently as I wrote or studied my Burmese letters. One morning, I awoke early in the hope of taking my shower with some semblance of privacy, only to find her there waiting, lungi in hand.
I finally broke free to Ma Kyu’s grasp on a day-long visit to the abbot’s native village, where I was accompanied by the more relaxed Oh Ma. While I was never left alone, I enjoyed the relative freedom from Ma Kyu’s constant direction. Still, when it came time for my afternoon shower, I found myself in the front yard of someone’s house, being helplessly bathed by two women as a small crowd looked on.
It was then I realized that in a place where if you pour yourself a cup of water, someone will help themselves to it, where you can enter someone’s home without permission and expect an offer of tea, where an entire household sleeps in the same room, the concept of privacy is nonexistent. It is a luxury, meant only for those who can afford not to share.
When I returned to the monastery after a day away, Ma Kyu greeted me happily as if I was a long lost friend. This time, when she held my hand it was not to lead me somewhere, but with tenderness, as if she could not believe I had survived without her. It was almost as if she had missed me.
The next morning, she only supervised as I showered, a proud parent who was still there to catch me when I tripped over my lungi.
As I waved goodbye to her through the car window a few hours later, onto my next destination, she waved back, wearing a satisfied half-smile that said she had done her job. With that, she sent me off into the world of Burma far better prepared than I ever hoped to be.