One of the very inspiring aspects of living in a less economically developed country is the incredible ingenuity of people who have so few resources. Daily I am wonderstruck by the Burmese people who, with so little, can do so much.
A couple of friends and I were recently dropped off with our bikes on a remote road in the delta. Fifty kilometers of hot, hilly landscape lay between us and the Bay of Bengal. As our families sped off in air-conditioned vehicles, we climbed in our saddles and began our slog to the sea. Seconds after the cars disappeared from sight Mark’s rear tire blew out with such force that the tire bead was ripped away from the sidewall. With no spare tube or tire, and a few small patches pitifully inadequate to close the two-inch gash in Mark’s tube, we stood on the side of the road feeling helpless.
As luck would have it, just down the road stood a ramshackle group of bamboo huts and shelters; one of which had an old bicycle tire hanging from its roof. In Burma this is how bicycle repair men advertise their services. Mark popped the wheel off his bike and handed it to a young man sitting on the swept-dirt floor. Around him were the tools of his trade: some scraps of old inner tube, a small bowl of grimey water, a pair of rusty, old scissors, a steel rod flattened at one end (tire iron) and a mangled tube of rubber cement.
Within ten minutes the tube was fixed and reinflated, but the tire wouldn’t stay on the rim because of the ripped-out bead. By now several men stood around discussing what was to be done with the tire. For the next half an hour several creative strategies were tried to no avail. Finally, the young repair man disappeared into an adjacent hut and reemerged followed by a white-haired man. The growing crowd of men parted and the old man squatted in front of the wheel, and for several minutes stared at tire bulging off the rim. Without a word he stood up and returned to his hut. He was back moments later with a stout needle and heavy thread. An old spoke was bent, hammered and sharped into an awl, and the old tire master (who we suspect was also the village surgeon and tailor) cross-stitched the tired back to health. Two dollars later (an exhorbitant but justifiable price) we were on our way heading toward the sea in the heat of the day.
Where I come from we tend to solve such problems by throwing money at them because we have so much and are encouraged to buy more. The old tire would have been tossed in the trash, and for a new tire I would have shelled out more than our Burmese tire surgeon makes in a month. For all our wealth and technology, if such ‘resourcefulness’ were an Olympic event, I know we’d never make it to the podium with the Burmese, the Ethiopians, or the Pakistanis.
My students and I are fortunate to work with wonderful technology to support our learning. But I want my students to understand what the Burmese know so well- that their ‘headware’ is more important than their hardware, and that being resourceful is more critical than having resources. As I see it, my job is to keep my students from ending up stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire and so many places they just can’t go.