Friday, August 28, 2015

Impressions - Nothing More! - Of Myanmar

(Rambling Blabber of a Photo Essay)

*PART ONE!* exciting airport

Past vast brown expanse of flat floodfields, touch down on weedy strip. One-storey concrete terminal and, looming like the fake historics of Las Vegas but real, golden pagodas. No shadows.
Past desultory customs officers, disgorged into lobby. "Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?" Swarmed, taxi drivers crawling into ear-holes, eye-holes, nose-holes. I make myself small and seek money-changers. They will not change half my hundred, only all of it. This I can not do: for complicated reasons I cannot understand, I need dollars and Myanmar kyat. I try the five ATMs. Of the two that are in service, neither will accept my card. This will not change during my 28-day visit. I will come to rely upon Western Union. 
Stranded and unable to purchase so much as a bottle of water, I sit on my shoes. I hear people taking pictures of the foreigner meditating in the terminal. Do they know I'm contemplating how to get back to Thailand, how to buy a ticket without wifi? (The only card I have with a high enough limit is sitting at a temple in Chiang Mai.)
I find a money changer that will change half my hundo. I am in business. I enter a verbal contract with a taxi driver. He will drive me into the city for a sum. On the way, out of sheer sociability I take unidentified "medicine" offered by friendly driver. Hurroo!, Ee!

It rains a lot, and I fall in love with an Austrian. The streets are a disaster. Street stalls boil oil on charcoal fires. There are attempted poisonings by durian, which continues to be denied food or fruit status.

There is a two-and-a-half-week stay at Pa Auk International Forest Buddhasasana Centre - or something like that - in Thanlyin. It is an hour from Four Rivers Hostel by taxi. (If you want to practice there, email me for specifics.) Highlights: Kindness! Generosity! Solicitude! Goodwill! ! Air conditioning! At one point, I have 26 bananas in my room.

My A-hole roommate wouldn't shut up about his plans for the future.

The minor drone of a Burmese Morrisey blasting from (I can only assume) the tattered speaker of some forty-year-old megaphone transports me. I am inspired. I begin writing my "Small Boat Poems," on account of which I go on to achieve a tastefully moderate level of fame, though the expected remuneration never lands in this age of digital piracy.


Taxi ride from Thanlyin to Yangon!@ LIsten: Ladies ride side-saddle motorbikes wearing Third Reich-flavored steel pots, and it hits you that once you're outside Yangon it's impossible not to love Burma. The people are beautiful and surprisingly ethnically diverse. Thanaka (a white paste made from bark, I'm told) flatters the faces of all sexes and ages, creeds colors and kinds (not true but has a certain ring). The kids, who are everywhere in a country that one must presume has limited options for baby control, are so picturesque it kills you.

The music comes tumbling tinnily rusted from unseen public address systems and it is good. Even the modern-rock radio is okay, certainly better than in Thailand, Japan or Korea, places where Rock and Roll sells more soul than it bares. The language is easy on the ears, and though there are always certain human noises popular in Asia that drive one bazootsoid, you are learning to cope.

The food is rice and things, curries. It goes down smooth and easy, salt and greasy. Someday you will learn to make pea crackers. In the meantime you enjoy paying extremely low prices at places that don't have English menus:

- 30 centavos (US) for Shan noodles!
- 50 centavos (US) for kow soi (curry noodles), milk tea and "dough bread" (churros).
- 30 centavos (US) for a bottle of water or can of Yangon-bottled Coca Cola.
Otherwise, $1-2 for a veg meal, and maybe $1 for a fruit shake.


And I haven't even mentioned the weird things like motortruckcycles and Chinese trucktors:

Yangon streets choked with Japanese box-cars: The Probox, the Fielder, old Corollas. Retired Korean and Japanese city buses, sardined with kids and worn smooth with time, mudded, engine panels flapping like longjohn buttflaps of yesteryear exposing steampunk gears and hamstered flywheels beneath inches of clinging dust. Traffic cascades and spills around itself with an astounding and audacious fluid intelligence, a languid but propulsive shunt. Sidecar-ed rustbikes ferry patient ladies amidst black exhaust and splashing puddles. Elsewhere, otherbikes with sidecars strapped 270 degrees around with boxes, water bottles, or anything strappable. Lanes are not lanes and lines are not lines, Traffic sorts itself like paintballs in a hopper, shapes in a sorter.

The roads fade marginless into lush tropical verdure which, like its human and motorcar neighbors, overlays where it can. You want to wax philosophical and say, "Myanmar is a land of overlap," et cetera. You realize that you had been thinking of Myanmar as part of Southeast Asia, which it is not. Abutting Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, it's where South blends into Southeast. Everything has a half-Indian feel - and you realize quickly, gratefully, that it is the better half. A country that still uses sticks for things whenever possible, an entirely practical shameless frugality. Bamboo truck bed. No frills, often no conveniences where you expect them, like the ergonomically placed handholds on Thai songthaews. Yet you don't get the bleak sense that life is cheap as in India. These are happy people who love life. Wading through helter-skelter traffic is a serene act of trust rather than a fatalistic dance of death. Burmese "trust falls," society-affirming ritual done daily.


Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw are too lovely to write about, least of all in this silly irreverent mood. Here, have a look at these humans and things!

chewing spitting red teeth. Wading into traffic like warm water, child labor. Last minute culture captures in the taxi to the airport. Motorbikes improbably strapped to baskets, propane canisters, snacks, human beings...whatever the mode of transportation it has been loaded past credulity. You'd say "bursting at the seams," but there are no seams. As with everything in Burma (even its name), there's no clear definition. Looking out now across Mandalay's flooded lowlands near the Irrawaddy River, I see hillsides pimpled and peppered with golden pagodas. The taxi driver takes his hands off the wheel for a quick anjali.

No Conclusion.

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