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What a river crossing taught me about working with people

It was 3 am in 1998 Myanmar. My team and I were on assignment for a non-government organisation and needed to drive through the night to make up for lost time, only to be stuck when a bridge we needed to cross collapsed. How we managed to cross the river with the help of a local boy offers me a lesson in working with people to this day.

What a river crossing taught me about working with people

The author with her eldest son in Yangon in 2017.

It was 3 am in 1998 Myanmar. My team and I were on assignment for a non-government organisation and needed to drive through the night to make up for lost time.

We needed to get to the ancient city of Bagan before sunrise and were running some six hours behind schedule because our truck had blown a tyre over 100km back.

My friend and driver, SH, said he knew a shortcut that would take us across a bridge to the other side of the river. Easy peasy.

Except we did not count on the bridge collapsing some two hours before midnight. If not for our blown tyre, we’d have made it across before it collapsed under the weight of an overweight bus.

Instead, we found ourselves stuck in a messy queue of trucks on the wrong side of the bridge.

“Are you looking for a way across? I know a way!” said a young voice.

We looked over the side of our truck into the face of a boy, who could not have been more than 10, even if I accounted for the youthfulness that is the happy gift of most Burmese.

His eyes were wide and alive, lit by a secret knowledge he clearly wanted to share- or more likely, sell- to us.  

He headed to speak to our driver. There was a lot of gesticulating and pointing ahead at the river; we saw some money change hands.

Clearly there was a new plan, maybe a secret road we could take.

“We are going to drive through the river. The boy will guide us,” said our driver.

We had 10 minutes to repack our equipment as we saw fit. We were travelling with several cameras – one for film, one for slides; a first generation digital camera that used 3.5” floppy discs to store a whopping 8 to 10 photos per disc, a video camera, recording equipment, our collection of tapes, and a printer.

We were also carrying two huge baskets of mangoes for an orphanage we were visiting in a few days, extra fuel and water, our luggage. A little girl and her guardian were hitching a ride with us.

We moved quickly to hang all our equipment on the top railing bars of the truck.

What we could not hang, we later held over our heads, as though that would make a difference if our truck tipped over.

We offered our travel companions the innermost spots in the truck that we had elevated with bags: box seats to a strange tragicomedy.

“I’ll tell you how to get across. Just follow my instructions,” said the boy.

It happened like a B-grade Hollywood film, mostly in slow motion.

We turned out from the vehicle queue and drove back some way from the river.

We weren’t the only ones there. A few other trucks were already making their way across the river guided by their own young navigators.

Each boy-truck pair was doing a similar dance. The boy would walk ahead in the river, you could just see his shoulders above the water; I suppose, maybe, that would give the driver some knowledge of the river depth.  

Every couple of steps the boy would yell back at the driver he was leading and the driver would adjust his course accordingly, tweaking his way across the river inch by laborious inch, blind to what he was driving over.

It was a cruel sort of experience really.

As passengers in the back, we could not quite see where our own truck was going.

We could only hear the frantic shouting between our river guide and driver, a subsequent lurch and phlegmy water-filled engine cough of our truck as we made our way across.

The water lapped at the sides of our truck and started to seep in through the gaps. I wondered out loud how much time it would take for the back of our truck to soak through; my friend estimated 40 minutes.

My arms ached from holding cameras overhead. The little girl in the box seat shut her eyes the whole way.

We made it across and I would discover later that half of our mangoes did not.

Our driver handed more money to our young guide, who beamed and waved at us with a big smile as we continued on our journey. Our driver must have been generous.

We finally stopped to refuel at a small food stop; both the truck and ourselves needing a recharge.

For the most part, we each kept to ourselves, eating in exhausted silence as we processed what we had just experienced. I washed up at the rest stop — at a well with the waitress’ pet pig tethered by.

I opted to ride up front with our driver SH for the next leg; we always had lots to talk about and I loved the stories he told me of his time on the road.

I also took the chance to ask him how he knew the boy could guide us across the river. Why not find an adult villager to act as our guide?

Years later, while conducting a high-key government capacity bridging programme for the Myanmar government, someone asked why I emphasised the need to co-opt grassroots support off the bat.

I get asked the same when I do change management consult for companies, on how critical it is to bring their frontline staff to the discussion table.

I tell them this story and the wise words of our driver, who 20 years on is still a treasured friend of mine:

“You cannot map the riverbed.  It changes all the time. You need to find someone who knows the river well, someone who knows what the river is like and how to cross it. The boy and his friends play in the river almost everyday, they swim and walk back and forth all the time. Their feet know how to walk the riverbed.”



Cherie Tseng is the Chief Operating Officer at Secur Solutions Group, a smart card technology and digital security firm, as well as founder and principal consultant at Rie Ink, a training consultancy. This is adapted from an essay which first appeared in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take, a collection of 53 essays by a range of Singaporeans and Singapore residents reflecting on our individual and collective journeys to mark the Republic's 53rd year of independence. 

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