Off the Grid in Burma, 2010 – Part 1

Yangon

     Outside the airport, under a hot thick early morning Yangon sky, an edgy taxi driver insisted the hotel recommended by my guidebook had been closed for two years. I wiped a bandana across my forehead and asked him if we could go take a look anyway. He shrugged, led me to his dinged up jalopy and off we went into a stream of honking clunkers. When we arrived, a handwritten “Closed” sign in the window confirmed the driver’s story. He glanced back over the seat with a set of crooked red teeth and said, “I tell you, closed. Now, I show you better place, very close.” Four blocks later he stopped in front of some barricades on a narrow side street covered with mounds of dirt and scattered construction debris. “Walk there. One hundred yards on left, Three Seasons.” Not wanting to cause offense by distrusting him a second time, I paid the fare, thanked him for his help, and banged open the jammed door with my shoulder.

     Behind a bent iron gate, a scarred dog slept at the base of a heavy wood door. I took a high step over her and entered an unlit foyer. A small man shuffled across the room muttering “Ming-a-la-ba.” An airplane magazine said this meant “hello,” so I returned it best I could. While beginning to doubt the wisdom of my courtesy with the taxi driver, a round woman pushed open a swinging door, flooding the room with light, exposing beautiful teak bookshelves and bright watercolor paintings on the wall. In cheery, well-educated English she said, “Good morning, you must have arrived on Airasia from Bangkok at 6:30. Welcome to Three Seasons. Would you like some breakfast before you shower?” Relieved of uncertainty, I set my bag down and began a nice short friendship with these two hotel owners, Ivan and Chotie. It’s not an especially easy place to move about in, or communicate in, but Burma offers many surprises like this that are well worth the hassles and inconveniences of heat, bad roads, dust, beggars, and bad information.

    Surrounded by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, Thailand, the Bay of Bengal, and the Andaman Sea, the country is hilly and mountainous except for a large flat river valley that cuts a broad swath through the central country from north to south. At this southern part of the river valley is a silty, fingery delta that eases into the sea.  Burma is a cauldron of 135 diversified groups of native indians spiced up with combinations of sweet, sour, bitter, and fiery flavorings from the peoples of neighboring countries. It’s a place where Buddhism had reigned for over 2,000 years, where wars have been raged and attacks on foreign lands have been launched.

    Not much can be written about Burma without regular mention of the dictatorial military rule that governs mind, body, and soul with an iron fist. It permeates all parts of the country as a heavy, invisible, and unmentioned weight on the minds of those who live here. Very little regard for the well being of the citizens is on display, because its existence is infinitesimal. The decades long on-and-off detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and daughter of a famed freedom fighter, is one headline example. The Nargis Cyclone of 2008 is another, where foreign aid was refused by the xenophobic leaders for almost 3 weeks, exacerbating the eventual death toll to over 200,000, and causing a chaotic displacement of over one million. Once you arrive and investigate a little, it’s easier to grasp the scope of difficulty and despair these people endure; water, medicine, phone service, broadband, education, libraries, gasoline, uplifting leadership, infrastructure, trash services, basic shelter for storm victims, jobs for most…. are all in extreme shortage. What people do have is a latent potential, but for now they sustain themselves by whatever meager means they can muster up, living moment by moment, day by day, following the teachings of Buddha.

    During the colonial period, prior to independence in 1948, Rangoon (Yangon) was the financial and trading center in Southeast Asia; trading rice, vegetables, fish, precious gemstones, jades, minerals of all kinds, exquisite carvings, silks, and lacquerware products. That standing began to crack and has steadily crumbled to near ruins since a coup in 1962 put an end to relatively free markets. One of the first idiotic acts by a new madhouse of military rulers was closing the airport to all except government controlled Myanmar Air. Pan Am and many others were shooed off and relocated in Bangkok, beginning the steady boom in Thailand, which has now spread into Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia, who are much more accommodating to private enterprise and thus have better educated, healthier, more prosperous people.

    You can find a Coke or Fanta if you look around, but forget about Carrefour, Tesco, McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, or an ATM. They simply don’t exist. To get around you need to bring cash and convert it to a wad of the local currency, kyats, of which the largest circulating denomination is a 1,000 note worth about one U.S. dollar. They come in various sizes and colors, but they all come crumpled, gritty, taped together, or ragged around the edges. Or, one can use dollars provided they are crisp and absolutely free of markings or creases of any kind. I saw several rejections to frustrated visitors who failed to understand the strictness of this policy.

    Yangon has some interesting sites to see, including leafy parks around shimmering lakes, thousand year old temples, crowded markets selling gems, handicrafts and rich arrays of foods, a neglected national museum, and a terrific gem museum, but the highlight of all sites in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This towering temple on a hill is ladened with gold and jewels, including a 76 carat diamond at the top of its spire. I came here at sunset to watch a hazy red ball slip back into darkness as the glittering gold of the pagoda was lit up by a flood of lights. The chanting and gongs move the soul, and many of the locals come here at sunup and sundown to pray and visit with monks.

    One morning I walked to the river to see if it was possible get a boat ride through the Irrawaddy River delta, into the heart of destruction caused by the cyclone two years earlier. There were signs all around the jetty announcing “No Foreigners Beyond This Point.” I clicked a couple photos and turned to walk back through town when two young boys approached and asked me to buy postcards. “What I really want is to go into the river delta on a boat, can you help?” With enthusiasm the younger one said, “You can’t do that mister, but we can take you to the fish market by ferry.” Asking how we would do that, the older one said, “We know the manager, follow us, but watch your bag.” Off we went through a crowd of eyeballs and into an office where a man with an official looking white shirt and blue epaulettes asked for my passport and 2,000 kyat before directing me to a barge that was filling to the brim with bodies, bicycles, and fly-covered food baskets.

    These boys, aged 12 and 15 were smooth talkers who spoke good intermediate English. They told me their family was killed in the storm, their house blown away, and now, since all the schools in the delta had been closed since the storm, had to earn money for food and water by selling postcards in front of the $500 per night Strand Hotel. Many days they would earn nothing, on lucky days they would make a dollar or two, on really lucky days they would escort a foreigner across the river to a fish market. During the short trip across, the boys huddled together and whispered to one another, occasionally smiling and asking slightly uncomfortable questions.. “Where are you from?..Oh, nice country…. You travel alone?… Where are you staying?….. Do you need to change money?” When we hit the dock, there was a mass of people offloading and another mass waiting to board. The boys again warned me, “Hold tight to your shoulder bag.”

    When traveling alone you have to listen to your gut and keep your wits. Sometimes you have to trust, but when a vague feeling of danger is present, just high tail it. My gut told me this was a high tail moment, so I said, “Thanks, fellas, this is far enough, I’m heading back on the ferry.” The older one put his hand on my elbow and said, “Good idea, there are many people watching you. Sorry, we are very poor people.” Back at the manager’s office, I retrieved my passport, gave the boys a very lucky day tip and wished them well.

To Mandalay

       The 6 P.M. bus would take twelve hours, perfect for a little reading, a nice long sleep, followed by a fresh new day in exotic Mandalay. Ivan and Chotie had made reservations for me, so I just had to show up and be escorted to the Golden Mandalay Hotel. The road was too bumpy for reading and the seats too cramped for sleeping, so most of the trip was spent adjusting my legs and chatting with the seats around me; three young men in their early twenties who were recent medical school graduates waiting for job assignments from the government, and a man in his forties traveling to coastal Sittwe, another 10 hours over the mountains west of Mandalay.

       I asked the medical graduates when they’d get job assignments, but they looked at each other and said, “We don’t know.”

“How about your jobs, where will they be?” I asked.

Shrugged shoulders, glances, then, “We don’t know… where we are needed.” Will you have a good salary? “It will be a steady job, that’s more important.” What do you think about the government? “It’s not something we talk about,” said the the skinny one. Do you like European football? “No time to watch these things.” Do you have television sets? “No, but sometimes we can see games at a restaurant.”

      The bus stopped at 3:30 in the morning and the older man nodded me over to his table at the cafe where he was eating rice with a fried egg on top. He gestured something to a tiny girl tending tables, and I was shortly presented with a 3 in 1 coffee, a plate of brown rice, and an egg. He wanted to ask me many questions… “Do you like Obama?… He’s better than Bush, right?…Is it cold in America?… Why don’t you come to Sittwe and meet my family?… Where will you go in Myanmar?…We need teachers here, maybe you could start a private school, government schools are not good.”  When it was time to go he insisted on paying for my meal. I was happy to accept his kindness.

Link to next article in this series: Part 2