Near a bend in Myanmar’s Chindwin River, the 180 villagers of Kazat watch progress lumber by on the backs of weathered cargo boats loaded with shiny factory-made vehicles and heavy equipment.
The midday sun sometimes reflects off the chrome and casts a silver wink up the path leading to Kazat’s truck factory. Here in a dirt yard, a single truck rolls off the production line once a year.
Salvaged oil barrels, scrapped out, pounded flat and reshaped, help fabricate the vehicle. Used engine parts trickle in on a slow-moving stream of somebody else’s bad luck. The entire production line can shut down for weeks until a certain nut-bolt combination can be found upstream, downstream or whenever someone heads to town.
As Myanmar’s infrastructure improves, more people are passing through so auto parts are getting easier to land. It still takes a day and a half on a road under construction to reach anything resembling a town.
What can be found are old fuel barrels.
In nearly every community, you’ll find them stacked and ready for another purpose. In some communities, people are paid 50 cents a barrel to pound out the dents so the used barrels can be resold. In Kazat, the faded drums get overhauled into door panels and engine hoods.
These back-yard and front-yard mechanics rely on creativity and patience to get their truck off the wood blocks and into the nearby fields where it can help transport crops or people and haul supplies for the village. It takes a fair share of bartering, and sometimes a little begging, I imagine, to get the job done.
This year, the monsoon season dragged out past late October so the truck’s delivery day was running behind schedule. The mechanics of Kazat are hoping nearby road construction might help spread word about their truck factory so more villagers will place an order. In the meantime, people are buying motorcycles.
There’s a fair share of gold-mining jobs nearby. The road delivers an easier way to transport teak, rice and other commodities. Each progressive step increases disposable income and social problems.
Resourcefulness and hard work remain their mainstay. You can see it in the way the women sweep the dirt streets and sell food from a tiny stall on the main path leading toward the fields. You can see it in the tin cans turned upside down over the wooden fence to keep the heavy rains from rotting the wood too soon.
Watch children practice their lessons from home as they sit at desks made from empty chainsaw boxes, and you understand recycling is nothing new here.
The mechanics aren’t the only ones hoping to maintain and build their home business.
Just a few doors down, a group of women stitch traditional longyi, the sarong-style garment worn by both men and women in Myanmar. Like the community, the single sewing machine wears a hand-rubbed patina that can only be earned.
I had many questions when I stumbled upon the seamstress house, but our different languages shielded me from asking them. I’ve learned to almost welcome those quiet moments when a smile, a handshake and creative gestures bind a morning of wordless communication.
There, she points, are her children. Here, I point, are my children’s photographs on my cell phone. Here, she gestures, are the stacks of cloth ready for transformation. Here, I show, are how beautiful the light casts upon her face.
Past the fields, a family runs a small brick-making business. Kazat now has a tea cafe where villagers gather to watch sports on a flat-screen television. New homes are being built alongside the traditional stilt houses as the landscape of Kazat begins to change.
For the people living in Kazat, independence develops seed by seed, stitch by stitch and one spark plug at a time. What happens as the 21st Century drifts in is a future as unpredictable as their beloved Chindwin River.