The rainy season was not as impressive as I had thought it would be, expressing itself through a few spontaneous downpours. The greater obstacle that presented itself instead was the increase in car traffic which – when combined with the humidity – made breathing cumbersome and browsing through Yangon a difficult venture. With the concrete slopes on the side-walks mossy and slippery from earlier downpours I carefully attempted to navigate the busy city streets; it happened in spite my cautions that whilst stumbling along the side-walk one of my sandals broke and tore out a strap. This little accident, as regrettable it might be, was still better than what I heard from a friend who last year was walking with two other people in the evening when suddenly the man in the middle disappeared into a hole and broke both his forearms while trying to catch himself on the pavement before disappearing into the sewage system.
As a European, my immediate thought when looking at the hopelessly broken shoe was that I would have to buy a replacement. This, however, turned out to be a lot trickier than I anticipated as none of the Burmese stores appeared to have my shoe size in stock. Locals seemed to be totally at loss when looking at my feet, hovering between amusement and despair. After some visits to various street stores, a modern shopping centre and a traditional market hall, I finally gave up and changed my plan in favour of buying a strong glue that would save my poor sandal at least over the course of my travels in Burma.
Walking east from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, not far from the NLD office, with fund-raising stalls full of badges and photos reminiscent of catholic places of pilgrimage with their devotional articles on display, I suddenly passed an inconspicuous shack beside the street – with some elevated planks to sit on, a crate, a roof, and an open-air waiting room which accomodated two customers on rickety stools. A man was working inside in crouched posture, focussed on his work while a boy – possibly his son – sat behind the crate, which served as a make-shift counter. These two persons together with a heap of umbrellas and spare parts in the back sufficed to fill the space.
Stepping closer I realized that this could be one of those magic places where everything that can be repaired will be repaired. This is an amazing feature of developing countries where new products are rare and expensive, so that people became incredibly skillful and inventive in fixing things.
I showed the torn sandal to the man and asked him if it could be fixed. He invited me to sit on the planks and grabbed a strong string and an awl. Using his feet to hold the sandal in place, he swiftly pierced the leather strap along a line, pushed through the string and fastened it with knots. This took no longer than a few minutes, but was amazing to watch. His fast and firm handwork was to become one of the prime images that indelibly remained in my memory from this stay in Burma.
The price he suggested was ridiculously low: 200 Kyats, which is about €0.2. When compared to the price of new sandals bought in a shopping mall the repair service in the roadside shack was both cost effective and memorable – needless to say I paid more than was asked; for the experience alone was worth a great deal more than 200 Kyats. The shoemender was happy about my appreciation of his work and I, in return, was happy that communication was possible with a paltry vocabulary and a smile.