Why Go There Right Now?
Burma is the primary country that borders both India and China. Shaped like a kite with a long tail pointing toward Singapore and Indonesia, it’s the same size as Texas, with more than twice the population.
Buddhism came to Burma from India 2,000 years ago. General Kublai Khan invaded Burma’s various kingdoms in 1271. The first Westerner to visit was Marco Polo, who published his travelogue in 1298.
For centuries the area was a constantly-shifting mélange of kingdoms struggling for supremacy. Dozens of local tribal cultures came under the authority of one or another would-be emperor, but were never fully assimilated. Meanwhile, grand cities and temples were built across Burma’s broad river plains and dramatic mountain valleys, hundreds of which still stand.
The British conquered Burma’s territory in a series of three 19th-century wars, and administered it as part of British India. George Orwell lived there as a British constable, and hated every minute.
After World War II, Britain agreed to Burmese demands for self-rule. But the popular nationalist Aung San was assassinated in 1947, just months before he was to become president. The country immediately fell into chaos; “order” was only restored by a military dictatorship, which eventually closed the country to the outside world. The military created an isolated, desperately poor country out of what had been a cosmopolitan, self-sufficient crossroads of Asia.
Aung San left a 2-year-old daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a political activist and later spent decades under house arrest. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” In 1997 the U.S. and E.U. imposed drastic economic sanctions on the country (although China continued to buy or lease as much of the country as it could), impoverishing it even more. Finally, less than two years ago, in return for substantial economic incentives from the West, the military dictatorship began lightening its hand, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and opening the country they’d renamed Myanmar.
I immediately started planning this trip. I want to see the transition for myself. How are ordinary people living side-by-side with the informers, secret police, and petty bureaucrats who imprisoned their families and killed their children? And how are China, India, and the West vying for influence there—a critical new focus of intense international commercial and political diplomacy. The stakes—oil and gas, control of shipping lanes, the future of the Arab world 2,000 miles away, China’s military ambitions, America’s reliance on India’s fledgling navy, the fate of the world’s two largest Muslim nations—couldn’t be higher.
The country also has fantastic food, colorful ethnic traditions, working elephants, and beautiful lakes. Travel with me for three weeks and hear more about this fascinating, troubling place. Just scroll back to the top, enter your email address on the right, and click the SUBSCRIBE button. If you prefer using an RSS feed, just click here. [ https://martystravels.wordpress.com/feed/ ]
November 30, 2013
ARRIVAL & HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
A year ago, after a half-century of brutal repression, the military junta relaxed its grip on everyday life in Burma. That’s when I bought a ticket to come here.
It takes two days to get to Burma. After clearing customs I was met by two local physicians who bundled me into a car, and off we headed to visit their reproductive health clinics. At 10am it was over 90 degrees, and traffic was already at a standstill. Welcome to Yangon, developed by the British (as Rangoon) to accommodate a few hundred thousand people. It now bulges with over four million.
For one thing, people sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic without a single horn blaring. If you’ve travelled outside the West, you know how peculiar that is–almost like watching a silent movie of a traffic jam. Maybe it’s the Buddhist foundations of the culture. Maybe the complete absence of motorcycles reduces the sense of urgency and sensory overload. Maybe this first generation of Burmese drivers are still learning what their cars can do.
Unlike Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, and their municipal peers, Yangon has neither skyscrapers nor an Old Town filled with buildings centuries old. Bulldozers, humidity, and neglect have almost completely erased any evidence that Rangoon was once a sophisticated pearl of colonial architecture and commerce. After the junta took over, no other country could invest in Burma’s infrastructure; with the West’s economic sanctions of the 1990s and 2000s, only the world’s newest superpower, China, could invest money and talent here. More on the results of that later this week.
The clinics were simultaneously depressing and exhilarating. The professionals I met were unfailingly friendly, optimistic, and ragged around the edges. Their clients were either poor or desperately poor. Condoms, IUDs, Depo-Provera, and oral contraceptives were on sale for pennies, subsidized by international donors (and indirectly the staff itself, who worked for either nothing or almost nothing). The whole operation–1,500 tiny clinics around the country–is the life’s work of my hero Phil Harvey, a retired Maryland businessman who spent 40 years selling sex toys, porn videos, and condoms, and giving away the proceeds to Third World men and women via Population Services International.
Scanning the patients sitting shoulder-to-shoulder waiting their turn, I wondered why these middle-aged women wanted birth control. Doctor Zayer smiled. “They aren’t middle-aged. This woman [who looked 45] is almost 30. That woman [who looked 55] is under 40.” A life of poverty will do that to a woman’s face, hair, teeth, and bones, not to mention her overall health. The doctor reminded me they also treat TB, dysentery, and other diseases of the poor.
After seeing the clinics, I had just enough time to check into the old and gorgeous Strand Hotel, wash my face, and head back out across town to the headquarters of the National League for Democracy. Chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD has been the main opposition political party, whose members have endured jail, torture, and exile. It was tremendously exciting to walk into the nondescript office and see, well, a normal political office. The t-shirts and coffee mugs with her picture, the volunteers working the phones, even the snack-time litter was a testimony to how far the NLD–and the nascent democracy movement–had come in only two years. As recently as 2010, just walking into this building would have put someone and their family at risk of arrest.
I met with U Tin Oo, an 86-year-old former general who was now the party chair. Sitting in a sweltering room on an old chair, he enthusiastically answered my questions about the history of Burma’s dictatorship and the country’s future. He recounted a small meeting he and Burma’s president attended in the 1960s with Chou En-Lai, in which China made clear their opposition to American involvement there. U Tin Oo was the Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s army during a brutal crackdown on student demonstrators after the funeral of U Thant. But in 1977 he was purged and sentenced to 7 years hard labor. A subsequent voice of concern over socialism’s ruining the country, in 1988 he improbably became the vice chair of the NLD. He is perhaps the single most knowledgeable person alive about Burma’s post-WW II history.
After bidding him a grateful farewell I went downstairs, out the door of the decrepit office, and back into the street, my head swimming. This is exactly why I had come here. I needed time to absorb it all–along with the quiet bumper-to-bumper traffic, toothless not-so-old women, and the tropical heat.
December 1, 2013
BOOKS REALLY DO MATTER–ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU CAN’T GET THEM
The day started calmly enough. After breakfast we went on a walking tour of Yangon’s colonial architecture–which, it turned out, didn’t take very long. The few buildings that haven’t been razed by order of short-sighted, paranoid government officials are crumbling. I saw beautiful Doric columns on 90-year-old buildings whose plaster has crumbled away. Bricks on old British office buildings are streaked with mold. The wrought-iron gates that welcomed the King’s civil servants in crisp white linens are half-scavenged and half-disused, peeling and lopsided.
In contrast, up and down the wide streets were office buildings and condominiums in various stages of construction. Shirtless and shoeless young men were carrying sacks of cement on their narrow shoulders, as others crawled up and down bamboo latticeworks several stories about the ground. Still other men sat on their haunches digging out the ground from beneath the uneven broken sidewalk. All in heat and humidity both in the 90s.
Alternating with the workers moving into and out of would-be buildings were booksellers. Laid out on mats on the sidewalk, occasionally in bookcases, a cacophony of used books was displayed for sale. Gardening books, old Readers’ Digests, mystery novels, and physics textbooks sat side-by-side. One young man was selling new-looking books about George Orwell, as well as his novels. Where had the man gotten these? Through my guide, he told me he had photocopied them himself from Thai originals. A person could purchase them much cheaper this way, he said proudly. Looking at a guy living on less than $100 per week it felt churlish to think about “intellectual property rights” and “copyright piracy.” The important thing was that these people could now sell any book they wanted: no fear of the police, or thugs, or informers inhibited their selection. Regardless of title or subject, the books were no longer dangerous. I felt like buying them all, or at least like congratulating every single seller for surviving.
A few minutes later, we passed a public library. I had to stop in. It was humming with activity. In response to my questions, the librarian said a person could now read anything they liked. Before 2011, it was impossible to find books on subjects like politics and history. My guide added that if a person back then asked for such books too energetically they’d hear from the police. Keeping people ignorant–is there a greater crime against humanity? And is there a better way to prevent people from asking questions, or from expecting too much from a government?
There was plenty more to see in Yangon: I went to the country’s only synagogue, spoke with the caretaker, and saw the Iraqi Torah. I went to a Chinese temple and mindfully tolerated being swathed in incense. We saw the incredibly garish (not that that’s bad) Hindu temple. And everywhere the incredibly gentle, polite, and friendly people were spitting betel nut juice on the ground.
The highlight of the day lasted less than a half-hour. My guide May had said we needed to be at the riverside dock at 4:00. When we arrived, an enormous old boat (I kept thinking of the phrase “tramp steamer”) was pulling in, eagerly anticipated by an enormous crowd. When the boat finally stopped and the gate was opened, people poured on–with whatever produce, auto parts, meals, children, or crates they had with them. It was a third-class ship, a slow (read “cheap”) overnight boat to villages many miles to the south. It had already been sailing for days. Slack-jawed at the color, sounds, and smells, I was thrilled. But the fun was only starting.
“Want to look around?” May invited. I was inches behind her as she clambered on board. We then walked through a churning mass of people looking for their spot, their friends, or refreshments. At the back of the ship I waved to an engine operator, who proudly pantomimed that he was 70 years old. He climbed up from the engine pit and insisted we take a photo together.
I then followed May downstairs. The below-deck had been divided into numbered sections of floor about 8 feet by 8 feet. Every floor section was covered by a group, whether family or friends. They stared at me in amazement as I walked by. May said that many had never seen a tourist, and none could imagine why on earth I was there. I felt large and conspicuous and very white. But as soon as I smiled and said hello, they smiled, too, and shook my hand or showed me their babies. With May translating, I found out how old people were, where they were from, and in one case, how long they had been married (40 years).
The floors pace was divided lengthwise into three segments. I walked up one aisle and returned on the other, my head swimming from the heat, the smells, and the overwhelming sense of welcome from these total strangers, to whom I was incalculably wealthy. I wished them all a safe trip, successfully kept from bursting into tears, and walked back out into the muggy riverside air.
I loved every single one of these people.
December 2, 2013
WHEN TRAVELLING, ALWAYS STOP AT A WEDDING
“Yes, we can take a ferry across the river,” my guide said, “and take a tri-shaw around the village if you want.”
After two days in Yangon, the sweltering heat, constant traffic, and fading buildings had started to lose their charm. So I wanted to get away from it all, and suggested we deviate from our program (yet again). After breakfast we walked to the river, bought a foreigner’s ticket ($2 each way instead of $0.25), and got on the commuter ferry to Dala. I was the only whitey among the 400 passengers, and the only one not carrying produce, livestock, children, car parts, or all four.
My guide charmed our way up to the top level where we smiled and gestured to the young crew. The river was alive with boats–little 6-seater motorized wooden canoes (holding 10 people), rusty overnight riverboats, and a container ship flying the Liberian flag (as almost all ships wanting to avoid inspection do) waiting for customs clearance (or war-on-terror inspection).
Within minutes we disembarked, gang-planking over a few hundred yards of moist earth–which is covered by five feet of water during monsoon season. No building right up to the shoreline here. We immediately found ourselves in the middle of a yelling, pulsating, chewing, spitting, laughing, eating, frying, selling, buying, crowd.
Walking resolutely through and around the crowd, trying not to get distracted by all the novel sights and smells, we settled on one of the many stands offering rides on tri-shaws–taxis consisting of a bicycle with a welded-on side compartment in which a person sits next to the “driver.” May found a couple of sturdy bikes, negotiated a price, and each of us clambered aboard.
My driver had very few teeth, all of which were stained red from chewing betel nut half his life.
The ancient bicycle was held together by duct tape and phone wire. The original pedals had long ago been replaced by roughly hewn wooden ones, and every moving part was rusty. And off we went, on an almost-paved road through the village.
I peeked into the tiny huts as we passed. In front of each were usually one or more adults, doing chores, caring for children, or chatting with neighbors. When they saw me they usually waved, encouraging their kids to do so, too. Continuing, I saw adolescents pumping water from various public wells. The girls giggled–most shyly, occasionally more boldly. Adults on bicycles periodically passed, always waving at me.
Male or female, every adult and child over five wore a cotton longyi, basically a sack open at both ends that knotted around the waist. The only difference between the male and female garment is in the pattern–locals can tell which should be worn by a male and which by a female, and they rarely wear each others’. My guide said she owned about 20 longyis, and that she washed them after just a few wearings.
Our bucolic ride was suddenly interrupted by tremendously loud music off to our left. Although my ears said “turn right!”, my travel instincts took over and we headed right for the sound. Soon enough we turned into a lane festooned with balloons, streamers, and large photos, and were greeted by a line of dressed-up relatives–a wedding! We were enthusiastically hustled through a paper archway, past a table piled high with gifts.
The couple were a 22-year-old and a 30-year old, dressed in matching yellow. Like all wedding couples, they beamed with delight. Various relatives dragged us about, showing us off to their neighbors like some visiting dignitaries, enhancing the family’s status. Dining places were quickly set for us on a rough wooden table, close to the recorded pop music that was so loud I could no longer hear the Burmese sentences that I couldn’t understand anyway. Some of the food looked good–coconut noodle soup, I think–and some, well, certainly there were delicacies on offer that I was unable to fully appreciate. Patting my stomach over and over and saying “big breakfast,” I beat a hasty retreat after admiring babies, old men, and a few blushing pre-teens. But first I had to submit to being photographed with one attendee after another. Oh, and another detail–a small gift would be the perfect etiquette. Three thousand kyat–three dollars–was the perfect amount.
Finally, a toast. Upon finding out the bride’s mother was 39, I raised a glass, and looked at her and the young couple: “I hope the bride is as beautiful at 39 as her mother is.”
And with a throng of Burmese wedding guests waving, I was out of there in a flash, back onto my waiting tri-shaw, lumbering back toward the ferry.
December 4, 2013
SO THAT’S WHERE FOOD COMES FROM–THE EARTH
It was time to leave Yangon and see the rest of the country. The 70-minute flight north to Heho was uneventful, and stepping out of the tiny prop plane I could really breathe–it was ten degrees cooler here than in Yangon, and the gentle breeze made me smile. A waiting car whisked us away, and soon we were bumping, swerving, and jostling on the best road in town, zooming along at 25 miles per hour. That’s transportation in Burma: barely moving in Yangon and Mandalay because of traffic, or barely moving in the countryside because of bad roads.
We were in the western part of Shan State, which borders on Thailand, Laos, and (mostly) China. In the geographical center of the country, we rumbled through a fertile valley bursting with cauliflower, cabbage, avocado, and other crops. Lacking either trains or a reliable road system, however, the produce has no efficient way to get to market, and so it’s used primarily by locals, limiting their income and diversity of diet.
After a half-hour we saw activity in the fields to our left, and pulled over. We walked about 200 yards and found 10 people threshing rice in the powerful noonday sun. It was undoubtedly a replay of how they had done it last year, and how their parents and grandparents had done it in previous years. Two people carried huge bundles of rice stalks (on their heads) to the group, which stood in a circle. Each person then grabbed a handful of stalks and beat them against stones, releasing the kernels of rice into an enormous, growing pile. The empty stalks were then tossed onto another pile, and later used as food for the animals that had helped plow the field in the first place. The process was repeated endlessly until the field was harvested.
With May as interpreter, I conversed with the head guy. Age 48, he looked many years older. He owned the land, and ran it as a semi-cooperative with these workers. This rice would feed each of them and their families through the winter. Members of the Pa-O ethnic group, none of them had ever ventured more than 25 miles from this spot, and most not even that much.
They had questions for me, too, asked against the constant thwacking sound of the threshing. Where was I from? Did they have rice there? How often did we eat it (they ate rice three times a day)? Did we harvest it with the same animals they used? How I get here, anyway, and why had I come? Good questions, all. None of them had ever seen a tourist or non-Asian person, and one of the women reached out to touch my skin. It felt like skin, I suppose, although somewhat softer than she was used to. I took off my hat and gestured that she could touch my hair, but she declined.
Getting back into the car, we slowly climbed into the mountains. We were soon about 3,000 feet above sea level, switchbacking through lush green trees and red earth, dramatic valley views below us. These very forests had provided precious teak and other exotic woods to Europe for a century, until greedy and stupid over-logging dramatically disrupted the natural balance of the area. The forest had angrily responded by producing less and less of what the colonials and Burmese generals wanted. While it was hard to imagine that a panorama of literally millions of trees could be mismanaged and collapsing, I know that it’s true. It will take generations to restore the health of the forest–if it happens at all.
The Amara Mountain Resort was originally part of a Colonial Hill Station, where fortunate British officers were able to go each year to escape the summer heat down below. I checked into the hotel, far more basic than the lovely Strand. But the staff was friendly, and much of the menu features produce grown right on the property. And every room comes with mosquito netting, no extra charge.
We still had some daylight, so May suggested we visit a local monastery. We wound our way up to the top of a small hill, and saw a dozen mangy dogs lying in the sun in front of some equally mangy buildings. And, as if placed there by central casting, under a tree sat two old monks talking quietly. We approached and when they looked up, May asked if we could talk a bit. They said they were pleased to do so, so I asked a few questions.
One was 84, a relatively new arrival since his wife died. The other was 62, who had come three years ago after the last of his four children married and set up his own household. They both loved being here. I asked what was the biggest surprise of life in the monastery, and the younger one said there were no surprises–he thought it would be serene, and it is. And what did he do before he came here? He was an X-ray technician.
“Oh,” I said, “You’re still in the business of looking inside.” When he heard May’s translation of my words, he smiled broadly.
December 5, 2013
WHY YOU CAN’T USE ELEPHANT DUNG FOR FERTILIZER
Tucked away in the Shan Mountains, an hour from the small town of Kalaw, is a wonderland of elephant rehabilitation and reforestation. After a twisting, bumpy mountain ride past oxcarts, bicycles, motorcycles, and ancient, overloaded trucks, we turned into the Green Hill Valley Elephant Preserve. It was to be a day of intimacy.
Tens of thousands of elephants have worked the forests of Burma (and Thailand and Laos). Especially during colonial times, most have been mistreated, basically used up and then thrown away. Others have been injured, either while working or while living in the wild. And some of these highly social animals have been separated from their families by war, natural disaster, or other events.
GHV is doing what they can for these elephants. Started only three years ago, they take in injured, diseased, or aging animals. Loving care, organic food, and an innovative tourist program restore the elephants to health, both physical and emotional. A land-banking program combined with assertive forest management and tree-planting is restoring the health of the physical environment. The GHV owners see the two–elephant rehabilitation and forest restoration–as two aspects of a single project.
After an introduction to their program, I was taken to meet the seven elephants, ranging in age from 5 to 62 years. Each one has its own mahout (trainer), who also range in age from young to old. The obvious connection between these specially trained mahouts and their elephants is thrilling, almost too intimate to watch. I was handed a basket of bananas and invited to feed them (the elephants, not the mahouts). One by one, their strong trunks grabbed the treats and shoved them into gaping mouths. The huge beasts took turns sniffing me, and with our friendship confirmed, I had the chance to stroke them, look at them, talk to them. Their skin was tough, sparsely covered with coarse hair, and warm to the touch. Their eyelashes were enormous.
I also learned that you can’t use elephant dung as fertilizer. This is because they have weak gastro-intestinal systems, and only digest about 50% of what they eat. That’s why they eat so much. So half of what comes back out of them hasn’t been chemically converted to anything usable. Given the enormous piles of dung that elephants drop periodically, discovering this must have been enormously disappointing. So working elephants have earned their keep by working rather than by fertilizing the fields that ultimately feed people. Take it or leave it, humans.
My GHV guide Perrin gave me a change of clothes and flip-flops, and we walked two of the elephants about 400 yards down to and into the local river. At his instruction, I waded waist-deep into the water right alongside them. Did they have a good time bathing! Swaying, braying, and spraying, they did everything but dance. I was given a rough cloth and encouraged to scrub them–they love it, and apparently it’s good for them. And so scrub I did.
The experience of splashing around with a large-as-life elephant is, well, one of great immediacy. I now know–and cannot possibly ever forget–the exact color of an elephant. That close to an eight-foot tall animal, you can’t not see it, smell it, or hear it, no matter which way you turn. There is absolutely nothing else to pay attention to.
It’s a glorious feeling–the exact opposite of the distractibility and lack of focus we now call “multi-tasking.” In fact, that’s been one of the great things about this entire trip to Burma: with no telephone, TV, or CDs, very limited Internet, and no to-do list, I’ve actually been paying attention primarily to what I’m doing. I’m very much disconnected from what I’m not doing, or should be doing, or from what others are focused on (i.e., on what’s “trending,” a new word that we really didn’t need). It’s a great pleasure, and, surprisingly, a great relief.
And it makes me wonder how I’m going to live a healthy life after I’ve dried off, come home, and can’t see the elephants.
TWO WAYS TO TRAVEL: BY SCHOOL AND BY TRAIN
It was free, quality, compulsory education that made twentieth-century America great. It integrated tens of millions of immigrants, taught a common set of values, made literacy the norm, and created “Americans” out of a bunch of disparate tribes, both ethnic and geographical. (The abandonment of public schools by upper-middle class liberals and Christian conservatives has just about destroyed that educational system, but let’s not dwell on that for now.)
Although I have very little contact with children in my daily life, I always try to learn something about the schools in countries I visit, and always try to see one or two while travelling. Today I had that chance, right outside the elephant camp.
It was the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, with three separate classes being taught–1st, 3rd, and 5th grades. My guide had been there before, and we just waltzed in, unannounced. The teachers were pleased to see us, and each instructed their group of students, in turn, to greet us. I had no idea what the kids were singing, but I thanked them and smiled. Then we distributed the new pencils and blank notebooks we had brought–there are kids in Burma who don’t go to school simply because their families can’t afford the supplies.
When the kids got back to work, the din was awful. The classes were only separated by a chalkboard, and so any teacher teaching or student reciting could be heard by everyone; and since a lot of the teaching involved rote repetition, two or all three classes were sometimes reciting at once. I asked each teacher a question or two, but it was impossible to have a conversation, and so we soon left. May did say that the some of the students were kids of the mahouts, and that the people running the elephant sanctuary had shown a real commitment to upgrading the school–part of their vision of interconnectedness between elephants, forest, and people.
I give my guide May credit–she has really figured out the kinds of non-touristy things I like to do. So on our way out of town, heading toward Inle Lake, she asked if I wanted to see the local train station. “No train coming now,” she said, “but if you like to see the old station…” Sure I did, so we walked about 20 minutes through town, past shops selling plastic buckets and bags of oranges, past tiny bars selling “Myanmar’s Best Beer,” past a motorcycle repair shop with dangling electrical wires everywhere, past a barber shop…wait, I need to get my shaggy, 9-day-old beard trimmed, so we stopped inside. The barber was about 35, and the shop featured a single chair, which looked like it had been reclaimed from the Titanic–after the iceberg. But the almost-toothless barber proceeded with seriousness and professionalism, and 10 minutes, my face was perfectly neat and symmetrical. Well, my beard was, anyway. Best two bucks (including tip) I ever spent.
We continued on to the train station, and as we approached, we heard a train whistle. Smiling at each other, we broke into a brisk power walk, and arrived just seconds before the train: the overnight from way down south that was spilling over with peasants (mostly spitting betel from red-stained mouths), bewildered children, squawking livestock, and an amazing amount of trash. People had been living on the train for almost 24 hours, sitting or sleeping on seats that looked like 30-year-old park benches. The train carried neither first-class nor-second class cars; it was steerage class all the way, and three hours late, at that. The rural folk looked at me just as curiously as I looked at them. I had the camera, but their eyes were just as photographic.
The train lingered some 10 minutes, long enough to load sack after sack of local produce, along with families, itinerant travelers, and even a motorcycle. Neither Fellini nor Chaucer ever dreamed such a parade in their wildest moments. These pilgrims apparently had another 12 to 24 hours to go on this iron oxcart which averages 20 miles per hour on a good day. Third World travel writer Paul Theroux once said he never saw a train without longing to get on it. I’ve always agreed with the feeling, if not the practicality of it. This cheerful slum on wheels challenged my long-held sentiment.
Inle Lake, Mynamar
December 7, 2013
The drive east and south from Kalaw to Inle Lake takes two hours, even though it only covers 40 miles. If you MapQuest the trip, it takes you on roads that have no names; it says things like “turn right after 1.1 miles.” And quite ominously, it says of most segments, “portions unpaved.” Have you ever seen that phrase on MapQuest before?
We wove our way through farmland and not-even-villages, and eventually came to a small lakeside dock. Eager hands took our stuff from the car and I was suddenly plopped into a longboat, an old-fashioned beat-up canoe-type thing about 22 feet long powered by an ancient outboard motor. I put on a life vest that was first used on Noah’s Ark, pulled my hat on tight, and set off for, um, someplace.
Inle is Burma’s second largest lake, with 1/4 the surface area of Lake Tahoe. While less deep than Tahoe, it is 1,000 feet higher. I don’t know much about lakes, but this one is beautiful, with floating villages around its perimeter, local vehicles of various sizes putt-putting across carrying passengers or cargo, and virtually no trash. A gentle breeze helped us along for about 20 minutes until we turned into a channel, and we then slowed way down as we came to a single hut on stilts.
A young man gently hopped on board as we passed by (we never stopped), and, balancing on the very rim of the boat, started rowing with the unique Inle Lake one-legged style. The boat’s motor was shut, and so all we could hear was the rhythmic slap of the oar and the birds in the increasingly narrow channel. It was gloriously relaxing.
And then, as a bonus, we reached the Princess Hotel, my home for the next 3 days. And what a deluxe home it was–a high-end bungalow colony, with each cottage facing the lake. No extra charge for mosquito netting on the bed, nor for the outdoor shower (in addition to the indoor one) that provided a fun way to start each day. The tropical grounds were gorgeous without being manicured, and the staff was attentive without being obsequious. Internet service was so unreliable I soon gave up in frustration–perhaps the best feature of the place. Vacations are for reading books, right?
I spent most of the following day in and out of the longboat that I soon came to love. We motored and rowed to villages near and far, which means that we alternated the relaxation of boating and the stimulation of meeting villagers, seeing how they live, and asking them questions (through intrepid interpreter May). We visited a weaving factory, in which women hand- (and foot-) worked creaky wooden machines to create the most splendid silk material. I even saw a young woman taking raw sticks of lotus branch, expertly break them and pull out the natural fiber, which she rolled into thread. Upstairs, the lotus thread was combined with silk to make cloth that was breathtaking in its rich colors, elegant in its nature-inspired design.
I also met the factory owner, a woman about 45 who operated the factory’s retail shop. She was taking dollars as fast as tourists could hand them over; I saw a German-speaking tourist attempt to bargain over a few bucks so clumsily that when the woman gruffly threatened to walk away from the whole $108 deal, the owner shrugged and moved her attention elsewhere.
I also went to a silversmith factory and adjoining retail outlet. First floor: shoeless craftsmen making a few dollars a day; second floor: several million dollars’ worth of inventory for sale. I saw a lovely 10-inch silver replica of the longboat that was giving me so much pleasure. For $950 (less 15% bargaining discount) I could have had it.
All these places–the workshops, restaurants, homes–were built over the lake on stilts, and swayed ever so slightly with the water’s movement. Lovely on a warm afternoon; somewhat less lovely in a storm, I imagine. But storms were the last thing on my mind today. Instead, my mind was a riot of import-export schemes, gifts for friends, a desire to understand the story of emerging capitalism. The only reasonable response? Back in the boat for another watery stroll, the breeze replacing the urgent demands of the mind.
December 8, 2013
FROM TEAK TO JADE TO GOLD
Today is Pearl Harbor Day in the U.S., a fitting day to be in historic Mandalay. Before we get to World War II, however, a little history.
In 1857, the penultimate king of Burma founded a new capitol in this area. The former lakeside palace in Amarapura was dismantled and moved west to Mandalay, which remained the capitol for 27 years. The final king of Burma moved the royal apartment out of the palace complex across town, converting it to a monastery in 1880. When the British invaded in 1885, sending the king into exile, they converted the palace (NOT the monastery) into a military headquarters, so in 1942 the Japanese bombarded and destroyed it.
Today I toured that fortunate monastery, a masterpiece of carved teak. Most of the delicate gold leaf has worn off with time, but the life-sized figures enacting Buddha’s life, surrounded by geometric patterns and motifs of nature are splendid. Slowly circling the immense temple, I saw each side in a completely different light–one in shadow, one in full sun, the other two in between. With almost no other tourists there, I could just about see the elephants dragging the cut logs out of the forest, imagine the oxcarts hauling them into the still-new city, and hear the steady sounds of thousands of craftsmen freeing the mythical figures and powerful supports from the lumber. While well-carved is an artistic marvel of its own, carved teak, weathered by time, is warmer, somehow more human. A person and a knife is all wood carving requires–no machines, no teams. Just a barefoot person in quiet concentration with a few tools handed down by his grandfather.
More history: in 1981 and 1984, huge fires destroyed swaths of the city, including 9,000 buildings, leaving 60,000 people homeless. Chinese immigrants and businesses poured in, purchased the empty land (with the collusion of the military dictatorship), and shoved Burmese locals to the outskirts, where they remain to this day, eventually doubling the size of the city. I had been learning of the massive Chinese influence in Burmese culture, economics, and politics–and here in Mandalay I saw it up close.
And saw it in a special way today when I went to the jade market, an intense square mile in which thousands of people buy and sell millions of dollars worth of jade every single day. And many, many of these traders were Chinese. I spoke to some of them and watched them hustle. Using modern high-beam flashlights, they expertly examined every kind of jade, from raw hunks of mineral to hundred-thousand dollar rings down to dozens of finished bracelets. They saw flaws I didn’t, of course, and beauty (that is, value) I couldn’t. They were friendly and business-like at the same time, chatting with me while bargaining with customers. As usual, I attracted a crowd that jostled each other, but not me; as always in Burma when in public, I felt conspicuous and surrounded, but safe. And while “the Chinese are buying and selling Myanmar” has been a common trope for several years, here in the market I actually saw it happen. For a century the colonial British stripped Burma of its jade. The Chinese have raised the looting to a level the Brits never imagined.
May took me around to workshops focused on various stages of processing. I saw a man examine a three-pound hunk of stone, determining the best planes on which to slice it. I saw barefoot teenage boys using deafening old buzz-saws follow his lines, creating gorgeous slabs I could recognize as jade. I saw boys and men carve the slabs into designs, or saw the pieces into bracelets, easily the most common shape. The colors were amazing–from light to dark green, from violet to amber to pearl. And a $30 flashlight–in the right hand, with the right eye–was the ultimate tool in determining price.
I ended the day at the gold-pounders market, where shirtless teen boys used sledge hammers nine hours per day to pound gold into postage stamp-size sheets so thin that they didn’t even register on a scale–it takes 3,000 of them to make an ounce. Pious Buddhists buy the pure gold foil to apply to statues of Buddha.
The gold was pure and beautiful, and far less expensive than the jade. But the jade was for the real world–to be worn by real people with beating hearts, some generous and some selfish. I like the jade better.
December 9, 2013
TWO MONKS WALK INTO A BAR
Every city and town in Burma has at least one monastery. Mandalay is home to many, including some of the country’s largest. Today we visited one that houses 300 novices–boys between the ages of 10-17.
The monasteries (and nunneries) function as boarding schools, with strict daily routines and religious orientation. Remember, this is a country where even primary school is NOT compulsory, and many families can’t feed their kids, much less afford to send them to school. So the monasteries and nunneries function as a parallel educational system alongside the government school system. The result is not entirely unlike the situation in the U.S.: the stronger the alternative to government schools, the weaker the support for a modern, effective public education system.
Poor people here face a terrible dilemma: they want to eat. They want their kids to have good lives. Religious institutions offer their kids food, shelter, and education. And everyone here has been trained to respect the wisdom of the people who run them. How can you turn that down?
May had arranged for us to get to the monastery just as the novices were lining up for their lunch–their last meal of the day (and no late-night snack, either). Two students clanged large iron bells, and then hundreds of red-robed boys and young men, all with shaved heads, quietly lined up. Identical maroon lacquer bowls slung over their shoulders with yellow cotton straps, each quietly shuffled toward a long series of tables on which sat huge institutional-size vats holding hundreds of pounds of plain cooked white rice. As usual, a dozen volunteers had assembled to gain the blessing of feeding the monks–and, to get the experience, I was one.
As the novices filed by, they uncovered their bowls and received a portion of rice from one of us. I had hoped to have some kind of emotional contact with some of them as I ladled out their food, but all were totally impassive, most not even making eye contact. No one returned my smile, and I soon became impassive as well, just a simple participant in an ancient tradition.
After receiving their rice, students went into the large dining hall, where they sat on cloth mats at long tables and silently ate. The senior monks sat together at a few round tables near a large statue of Buddha. A few privileged volunteers fanned them as they ate.
After eating, each boy rose, left the hall, put his sandals back on, and had a few minutes off to wash, read, or rest. After all, they had been up since 430am, when they started fanning out into the neighborhood to beg for breakfast and money. May had arranged for me to meet the monastery’s 48-year-old abbot, apparently quite the honor. After a few minutes he emerged from his room, and we sat on his porch. After, that is, May fell on her knees and prostrated herself in his presence, forehead on the ground.
I think worshipping a god or a statue is silly. I think worshipping a person is a desecration of the human spirit. Respecting wisdom or good deeds is one thing; allowing (which is to say, encouraging) someone to debase him- or herself because you’re supposedly holy tells me you aren’t. You’re not in the business of empowering people, which is all you need to know about any religious tradition.
Watching him tolerate May’s obeisance had me immediately disliking the greasy little guy, but I was polite and we chatted for about 20 minutes. I soon asked him what had changed since he’d come to the monastery decades ago. “The Internet,” he replied. The monastery had a few old computers, and he was concerned because the students were wasting time playing computer games. We agreed that the Internet also offered information, but he felt computer games were “bad.” He could have been talking about pornography; it was exactly the same energy. I agreed that kids and even adults waste time on computers and iPhones (wryly gesturing to the several people surrounding us who were looking at their mobile phones that instant); what did he plan to do about the problem?
“Give the students less time on the computer. We will cut it down to 30 minutes per week each.” Wouldn’t it be better to teach the students how to use their computer time better, rather than restrict their time and leave them vulnerable to foolish choices? “Easier to just limit computer time,” he said.
Computer literacy. Internet literacy. Media literacy. Porn literacy. That’s what young people need–more skills to navigate a complex environment, rather than pathetic attempts to limit their learning, actually making negative outcomes more likely. The whole idea of limiting computer access was particularly galling in a country that until just two years ago prevented over 99% of its citizens from accessing the Internet. No Facebook, no Wikipedia, no CNN. No outside world, no challenges to the received wisdom of the military dictatorship. And now this guy, with his privileged access to books, travel, and computers, fanned and worshipped by devotees, wanted to limit the access and skills of a whole generation.
In the 1976 Tom Robbins novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, a guru challenges a would-be follower, saying “I believe in everything, nothing is holy. I believe in nothing, everything is holy.”
December 10, 2013
Four hundred years before Columbus, while Europeans were mired in the Dark Ages and then the Crusades, the rulers of local kingdoms here in western Burma constructed over 10,000 pagodas. Time and earthquakes have left us only 2200, still an enormous number covering a wide plain named Bagan.
The landscape is both eerie and calming. Interspersed with small buildings that had mundane civil functions, the sacred stupas are, to a Western eye, oddly shaped. They have few right angles, come to a not-quite point, and the conical part is generally undecorated brick. And here in Bagan, they go on and on, sitting quietly in the humid breeze.
Each one has an east-facing entrance. Inside is a vestibule big enough for a few small people, beyond which, on an altar, is a sitting Buddha. Made of teak and often painted, some have recent offerings before them–flowers, cakes, rice. Non-Buddhists would call them statues. Buddhists call them Buddhas. Like the Mona Lisa, the facial expression is not-quite-smiling, certainly-not-dour, kind of an abiding look of contentment, and patience with being observed. One gets the feeling that Buddha does not judge. Is that also Mona Lisa’s enduring attraction?
We casually walked around one and another stupa, admiring the brickwork and iconography. I saw similarities with the contemporaneous Hindu temples I’d seen in India–the decorative carving, not so much the architecture.
At my suggestion, we had walked into the complex about a quarter of a mile before the entrance, for two reasons: I wanted the experience closer to how it would have been back then, plus I didn’t want to add to the vehicle exhaust damage to the buildings. The authorities stupidly allow buses, cars, and motorcycles to drive right up to the main building and park there. Aside from diminishing the aesthetics, the vehicles’ exhaust fumes eat away at the brickwork and the acacia gum used as mortar.
Talking to bus drivers, trinket sellers, or whomever happened to be there, a uniformed guard lazed at the entrance to the main pagoda. His single job seemed to be ensuring that people took off their shoes before going inside. Burma and Buddha alike would be far better served if he instead ensured that drivers stayed a thousand yards away.
Since I’d enjoyed the Bagan treasures so much, May insisted we visit Dhamma Ya Zika. Built in 1197, the large pagoda is unique in that it is pentagonal. It was the equivalent of a main cathedral–kings were crowned here. The coronation always included a promise to serve the people. I told May that in classical Christendom, the coronation always included a promise to serve God. Whether or not Burmese or European monarchs kept their promises, they were, in fact, different.
We stopped by the adjacent village, where people were eager to show me their huts or workshops. One woman gave us a bag of peanuts she’d recently harvested. Another proudly showed us the photo of her daughter becoming a nun. No one here had running water or reliable electricity. One ancient-looking resident asked us into her home. I assumed the friendly, toothless woman was about my age, but she actually was as old as she looked–over 80. Through May we shared several simple life stories. The electricity that came to the village a few years ago? She preferred the quiet of the old days, but she does appreciate that they now have a truck that gets produce to and from the market so easily. We agreed that we both could do without the blaring radio in the background.
December 11, 2013
WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVING: ALL ECONOMICS IS LOCAL
Thousands of pagodas are scattered over several dozen square miles of the Bagan plain. There is no single entrance to the area; many footpaths and a few dirt roads go between the pagodas, and some lie a coconut’s throw from the odd tea shop or fruit stand.
Driving out of the area toward the “new town,” we came across some figures working what looked like a barren field. Stopping the car and walking a few hundred yards in, we saw a half-dozen women crouched and slowly moving on the sandy ground. A friendly middle-aged woman looked up and, through May, explained that they had already harvested the peanut field, and were now going back over the field digging up leftover peanuts. One by one, with hand trowels. In 90-degree heat.
The woman responded to my questions in a straightforward way: She owned seven acres (inherited from her family), and sold the crop each year for money to buy clothes, fuel, etc.. Yes, she had had many recent offers to buy her land–the last one for $50,000. This was a big increase from several years ago–under the military dictatorship, they were forced to sell their crop at government-set, rapaciously low prices (the Generals then sold warehouses full of peanuts at market value, pocketing the cash). With the new government, farmers could sell the crop at market prices, and so the value of the land had leaped several-fold. “I will not sell, it’s all I have,” she said seriously in Burmese.
And was her daughter (a 24-year-old working next to her) looking forward to owning the land in the future? No, she was studying at university–the distance program that involved a few days attendance per month, focused on completing that month’s exams. The question is, when the younger woman gets a job, and the older woman can’t work the land any more, will one more plot of farmland be converted to a new tourist hotel, requiring more water, more energy, and more waste removal than this farm ever used? And where–and how–will this woman live?
I went to the car and brought the women back a few bottles of water, which they eagerly accepted. We asked each other more questions (they wanted to know what I eat every day, and how my skin could be so soft), they laughed at the idea of peanut butter (even May was baffled by the idea), and then it was fond farewells and back into the car for my next visit into some stranger’s life.
We next stopped at what May called a roadside “palm sugar factory.” Gesturing to the sky with a circular sweep of his leathery hand, a man from the village explained that he rented 60 palm trees. His cousin was climbing a bamboo ladder up one such tree, taking down two coconut shells filled with sticky liquid and replacing them with two empty shells. The sticky liquid was used in several ways: they boiled it over and over to make sugar, which they mostly sold (another cousin sat on the ground tending a big vat on a blazing homemade fire vat). Some of it they worked with some coconut to make candy. I nibbled the size of a pea; it was incredibly sweet. And finally, they fermented some of it with sticky rice to make “moonshine,” said May. Put into recycled whisky bottles by a sister-in-law, it smelled like strong stuff. Neither May nor the locals knew the derivation of the word moonshine, and when I explained it to her, and she to them, they laughed and laughed.
We sat and chatted–why had I come to Burma, what did I eat, etc.. Like every local with whom I chatted, they were surprised and delighted that I took the time to ask questions. I told May I was surprised that anyone would come all the way out here and not ask questions.
Moving up the economic ladder from farm and one-family factory, we next stopped at a lacquer ware production facility that employs some 40 people. Young men and women sat at several long benches designing, painting, sanding, and otherwise working products made completely from bamboo. You know these as shiny black plates, trays, boxes, even furniture. The process is incredibly painstaking, requiring the finest of brushes and old X-ACTO knives, and as many as a dozen firings over several months. The showroom, of course, featured objects of every size, color, and motif (and price), from elephants to Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
And from the most delicate bracelet to the sturdiest dresser, it all started with the splitting of bamboo into thinner and thinner strips, ultimately so thin that they can be flexed into a series of concentric circles or rectangles. Bamboo and the Burmese: strong, lovely, and infinitely bendable.
December 15, 2013
ENDING AT THE BEGINNING: THE WAR CEMETERY
Several days in a villa on a tropical beach on the Bay of Bengal, some 700 miles east of the Indian coast, passed rather uneventfully–bliss to experience, but boring to write or read about. On Sunday I flew back to Yangon, was met by May, and it was time for one last fling before a midnight flight home.
With only two hours of daylight remaining, we eschewed the one-hour, traffic-addled drive back downtown, and drove in the opposite direction to the Taukkyan War Cemetery. Some context:
As a student at the start of WWII, Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) and his comrades looked abroad for help in liberating the country from the British. They received military training in Japan, and became the first troops of the Burmese National Army to enter the country with the Japanese invasion of 1941. In less than a year of fierce fighting, the combined British, Indian, and Chinese nationalist forces were on the run. But the gratuitous sadism of Japanese troops troubled Aung San, who complained to Japanese Army headquarters: “I went to Japan to save my people, who struggled like oxen under the British. Now we are treated like dogs.”
Aung San and the BNA eventually switched sides, helping the British overcome the Japanese in what would be some of the very last, and bloodiest battles of the war. Less than two years later, Burma was free.
In 1951, the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission opened the large Taukkyan site. It includes the graves of 6,374 Allied soldiers who died in the Burma and Assam (northeast India) campaigns. Names like Smythe and Reginald, as well as Kumar and Singh, adorn plaques marked with regiments like Royal Fusileers or Queen’s Engineers. There is also a neoclassical memorial with the names of 27,000 soldiers who died with no grave, featuring the five non-English languages the many non-British troops spoke.
The place is hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity. It offers a rare green open space in an overcrowded city in which every inch of unused space is quickly destined for either a high-rise or a hovel.
And so–incongruously to a Westerner, but logically to a Burmese (especially a Buddhist)–the place is a destination for outings. Families and groups of friends (and a few daring couples who want some privacy) come here, often driving hours to relax and see the place. Among the people who appeared to be on an outing were several dozen young people wearing the same blue t-shirts. I strolled over and asked May to find out who they were.
They were all students at a local Technological College, celebrating the birthday of a classmate. Eager to practice their English, every single one said they wanted to be engineers after graduation. I told them I was from Silicon Valley, and they literally oohed & ahhed. “Apple, Yahoo, Google–my neighbors,” I smiled. Instant celebrity, followed by calls for photos. I even received a class t-shirt as a gift.
“I can see the future,” I said in reply. “I am looking at the future right now,” I gestured at them, “you–about to build a strong country.”