Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Burma Identity

Catch up time. I have lots of things to write about Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and my crew counterpart Allan who is leaving us in Hong Kong, so let’s get to it.

Burma/Myanmar was clearly the great unknown of this voyage. What would happen when 700 students – the largest congregation of Americans in the country since 1962 – descend and take over a country that wasn’t quite ready for it?

There was a lot of buildup to this port. Information about our arrival changed every day, and the administration made a big deal about what to prepare for, and they made it clear that they had no idea what to expect. The only thing that seemed clear, thanks to reports of our risk management company (iJet), was that the small bomb that went off at our home base in Yangon a week prior to our arrival did not pose a serious threat to our shipboard community. But otherwise, no one really knew what was going once we arrived in port, or even arriving in port.

As described in previous entries, we hit the mouth of the Ayerwaddy River on our way to the port located some 45 minutes south of Yangon. Due to the shallowness (is that a word?) of the river, we had to enter the river at high tide, and limit the amount of water aboard the ship to minimize how much of the ship was submerged (this would lead to a severe rationing of water aboard the ship which I’ll come back to).

Everybody went outside to see the rural countryside go by, and many straw houses and pagodas later, we arrived to the cargo port in the middle of rice fields. A shuttle service had been set up from the ship to Yangon for the students, and once we got off, we knew this stop was different from most others. We didn’t have to deal the usual hordes of taxi drivers and peddlers outside of the ship that have been characteristic of most of the other ports.

On the way to Yangon, a few things jump out at you:

1. Men wear these long skirts in Myanmar. ALL men except for the military wear these skirts, the longyls. If you don’t think I purchased and bought one by the time I got back on the ship, you are just plain wrong. If you don’t think that most of the guys on the ship bought and wore one at some point, you are also very wrong. They’re pretty cool and comfortable – you won’t believe the freedom down there. Alright, too much detail.
2. The women and children wear a blotch of white paste on their cheeks. I had no idea this was coming, so it is no exaggeration that I was more surprised to see this for the first time than I was seeing dead bodies at the Ganges.
3. I took a picture of the first monk I saw. After my millionth monk, I didn’t think I had to take pictures of them any longer.
4. Burmese is the coolest looking language in the world. They write in circles (which I’ve been told developed from having to write on banana leaves). At one point, the letters started looking like little people to me, which makes for some funny stories if you “read” your interpretation out loud (“So this pregnant woman gets on her knees before losing her legs…”
5. What an amazing difference from India, which we had just seen two days earlier! There wasn’t nearly as many cars and people, and the countryside seemed so much cleaner. Was this in fact representative of Myanmar? The country has twenty times less people than India, but I’ve been told about the extreme poverty and the American diplomats warned us of the “veil” of Myanmar, where tourists are able to visit without having any idea of the political turmoil of the country. Was this part of that veil?
6. Things were unbelievably cheap in Myanmar. A dollar is worth a lot in that country. The local currency doesn’t have much teeth.
7. I thought, “I bet this is what Thailand looked like 40 years ago.”

I’d say that we surprised most of the people there. We got off the bus and no one came out to us. Of the people we did talk to, they were extremely gentle and seemed almost intimidated by us. After five days in India, we were shocked to see vendors not be pushy, accept “no”s, and not try to sell you much. It was amazing to see a transformation in five days, because the vendors and peddlers became much more aggressive by the last day in port. Why? Because it works, and every time you buy from a pushy person, it becomes an incentive for them to do it again. Though to be honest, it seemed most SAS people didn’t mind when you’re asking 25 cents for a shirt priced at 50 cents. And I’d say most people didn’t mind pumping some money into the informal economy.

Chris, Jason, and I decided to hang out the first day and improvise Yangon. We took a Lonely Planet, and started walking out and about, looking completely lost, when Mr. Toe approached us.

Mr. Toe. He’s like Red in the Shawshank Redemption. He’s the man that gets you things. Myanmar only gets 300,000 tourists a year (compare this to Thailand’s 12 million visitors), but Mr. Toe is one of the few tour guides around. He walked to us in the middle of an intersection, asked us what we wanted, and we wanted food. Authentic food. Cheap food. Good food, which wouldn’t make us sick later. He told us he would take us there. Since we hadn’t agreed to pay him anything, we took his advice, and sure enough, the restaurant fit all of the criteria. We needed to pay in Kyat (pronounced “chiat”) but the official government rate is 450 kyat per dollar. The black market rate is more like 1300 Kyat per dollar. Instead of going to a bank, Mr. Toe took us to the back of a t-shirt shop, asked us to cover our money, and we discreetly exchanged our money. I’m not sure why we had to be so discreet since EVERYBODY exchanges their money in the informal market, but we did as told.

The money lasted a while. Our dinner, with drinks, was around US$5. Chris got a haircut for 40 cents. At one point, Mr. Toe looked at Jason’s bag and noticed it was all ripped, so he took us to this alleyway where a shirtless tailor was working on a 100-year-old sewing machine. Seeing how fast the tailor fixed – actually, made stronger – Jason’s bag, we started looking for things we needed worked tailoring. Chris needed to fix his expensive Canon camera straps – the man whipped out some leather (that sounds bad) and fixed them. I had a missing zipper on the side pocket of my expensive REI short/pants (shants), and without having to take them off, I had a brand new zipper in no time. Total cost for all this: $2, paid in Kyat.

By this time, we had started to develop a funny bond with Mr. Toe, and the video of us singing “Killing Me Softly” in Burmese proves it.

(By the way, why does every country have it’s own version of “Killing Me Softly”? And why does the entire world enjoy Celine Deon? And why does the entire western world wear speedos? Why?)

Mr. Toe then took us the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest place in Burma and one of the holiest (if not THE holiest) place in Buddhism. (We liked calling it the “SchwearToGod Pagoda”). The pagoda is huge, some , covered in billions of dollars worth of gold that accumulated over the centuries. For such a beautiful place, there was one thing in particular that never seemed right by western standards – the flashing colored Vegas lights that they put behind the heads of the Buddhas. To us, it looks tacky, but it must mean a lot to them, because these lights were very common in Myanmar (I didn’t notice them that much in Cambodia).

We watched the sunset at the pagoda and got in a long conversation with a monk who somehow learned amazing English in his one year in the monastery and was much more progressive than we’d been told to expect. (Women, for example, were told not to look a monk in the eye, yet they kept coming up to the SAS students and engaging them in conversation. There are some really nice people in Myanmar). As someone who speaks English as my second language, I’m amazed at how well people can learn English around the world without being immersed in the language. This is particularly obvious of the little children on the street, who often speak English perfecty.

We had another cheap dinner with Mr. Toe, and gave him some money for being such a quality guide in the eight hours+ we were with him. If you’re ever in Yangon, ask for Mr. Toe. If you look lost at the intersection near the Trader’s hotel, he’ll find you. Tell him you know Chris, Jason, and Rico. He’ll take you around.

We took the last shuttle back to the ship to get some sleep and get ready to fly to Bagan the next day.

I hadn’t seen any evidence of the evil Myanmar that was on everybody’s mind. They asked us not to engage in political conversation with the locals as to not endanger them and have them questioned by the police later on. We were afraid to ask, for their safety. But I wanted to. I would have to wait until Bagan.

(I’m in the Union writing this as the choir is practicing “America is Beautiful” for the first time, to be sung prior to arriving in the U.S. I just got chills. The trip is coming to an end…)

I woke up the next morning, a little too late to be able to go to Yangon and back and still make it to my flight. So I decided to explore the nearby area on foot. I made my way out of the port, towards some oxen in a muddy rice field towards some straw huts I’d seen from the bus. As I got closer, an 18-year-old (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) came to greet me, and I spent the next hour or so talking to him, asking a million questions, learning quite a bit about the poor people in Myanmar, getting angry at the government who makes things worse for them, and thought a lot about a time when my parents were going through serious financial difficulties and had no one to turn to. I hate to compare the experiences because the conditions are obviously very different, but I thought back about the feeling of helplessness, and the inability to understand why people are unwilling to help. This brought me right back to my experience in India, and in my mind, all the sudden all the beggars have a background story – such as, what got them to the point of having to come beg at a dirty station – and I began to understand, I think, the feeling of helplessness they must feel when a “rich” individual goes by. Why won’t these people help me? Can’t they see I hungry? Can’t they see I can’t help myself?

Why is it that even though we spend thousands of dollars on elaborate trips around some of the most exotic locations around the world, some of the most meaningful moments happen alongside a non-descript road within walking distance of the ship?

I said goodbye, and hitchhiked a ride back on a truck carrying teek (sp?) and was dropped off just feet away from the ship. I joined the group, went to the airport, and headed to Bagan, home of some 2500 ancient stupas and pagodas. There were no lights visible as we landed, so we knew we were in the middle of nowhere. I won’t spend too much time describing our plan of action because I’d be summed up like this:

Pagoda, pagoda, stupa, pagodas, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, pagoda, Buddha, stupa, stupa, pagoda, stupa, Buddha, stupa, pagoda, Buddha, stupa, stupa, stupa,. And another Buddha. Please don’t underestimate how cool that is, especially by someone who’s never been to a Buddhist country. Some of the highlights:

1. Going to some really cool resorts on the river. I thought the hotels they put us in Varanasi and Delhi were overkill, but these seemed to fit the trip. They were really nice.
2. Climbing the temples and seeing the view from the top of them. There really are thousands of ancient temples all over the place in Bagan. They should shoot the next Indiana Jones here.
3. The city is still not tourist-friendly, which is great. There aren’t many people there, most streets are still unpaved, and it isn’t hard to find large empty temples to explore. I’m not sure long this will last – the country is spending a lot of money doing out-of-place constructions in the area, and rebuilding a lot of the ruins, with modern bricks. I’m not sure what their motivation is, but I think they should just leave the temples as found. See Bagan now before it is too late.
4. Best Idea Ever – renting bikes. We had some free time, and this girl Jamie and I decided to get the bikes and go exploring. It was my favorite part of the entire trip.
5. The city is dead at night. I left our resort to meet up with a friend at another resort, and asked at the reception if it was safe to walk around. “Be careful,” they said. “Many snakes.” I was thinking I’d have to worry about some government operative, but instead they gave me the nice tip that Cobras make a hissing sound when they attack. Vipers, on the other hand, are completely quiet. When I left the hotel, it was completely dark, but I could see the very faint silhouette of the temples as I made my way past them. And I saw many huge flying foxes along the way. Good times.
6. Stargazing on the shores of the Ayerwaddy River in Bagan is one of the coolest things ever.
7. The welcome reception was jaw-dropping. They lit one of the largest ancient temples entirely by candlelight as the locals came out holding torches and playing the drums. Just one of those moments you had to be there to understand, but that by itself made the trip all worth it.
8. Finally having the political conversations I wanted. The locals we talked to asked us not to let anyone know that they had talked politics with us, and there were a lot of revealing statements. They are scared of the government, and one guy in particular believes there will be a revolution in the next few years. “No one thought Nelson Mandela would be president of South Africa someday,” he said. So true. So true.

Upon return to Bagan, I still had two days in Yangon, which I made to good use of. As soon as we got back from Bagan, Sony and I decided to walk with the goal of getting lost. In the process, we saw all of the poverty and slums that we hadn’t seen in around the tourist trail. Poverty is poverty is poverty, no matter where in the world you are. The saddes sight was of these old men swimming in the sewer looking for possible objects of value that could have been dropped in there. A few hours later, we made our way back.

I met up with some students, booked a room in $3-a-night hotel, hung out with staff and students until very late, and I met up the next day with my adopted son, Ashish (long story – I have an adopted son and three adopted daughters on the ship), and we explored Yangon and ate and ate and ate all day long. Ashish is Hindu, and since India was fresh our minds at the time, we spent several hours talking about the subcontinent. Sounds boring, but for someone who knows little about this stuff, it was fascinating.

Remember when I said there was a severe rationing of water? We couldn’t take in new water in the river, and people didn’t reduce the amount of water while on the ship, so by the time we got back, they shut off the water except for a short time in the morning and evening, including flushing of the toilets. And since we spent another half day in port, some people were really stinky by the time we hit the sea, present company included.

Myanmar was wonderful. I think it is a much easier country to travel in than was believed before we arrived there – you can see they are trying to make an effort to up the tourism in the country, and I don’t doubt that it’ll be at the same level as the other southeast asian countries someday. But the government needs to change. Though embargo is not the answer.

Thank you, Mr. Toe.

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s.i.a.m. said...
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