Friday, August 21, 2009

The Beautiful Struggle: Burma

“Burma is indeed one of those lands of charm and cruelty”
Aung San Suu Kyi

It’s difficult to speak of Burma without first mentioning Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and general secretary of the National League for Democracy. She is the daughter of Aung San, a highly respected General who was monumental in bringing independence to Burma from the British in 1948. Her party, the NLD, won 82% of the vote in the 1990 – but the military junta (one of the most brutal and longest running military dictatorships in the world) refused to hand over power, and she has subsequently been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years (being accused of being a “traitor” in the eyes of the junta). Suu Kyi has recently been in the media, as an American man swam across the Lake to her home, uninvited, and therefore broke the terms of her house arrest. The junta gave her 18 more months of incarceration for this, which will consequently cause her to be out of the running for the highly anticipated 2010 multi-party elections. Local people affectionately call her “The Lady”.

Determining whether or not to go to Burma in the first place took some time – no matter how wisely that you travel some of the money still inevitably goes into the pockets of the junta. Ritchie (good friend from University in Amsterdam) and I made the decision to go and do what we do best while traveling anyway… tramp it. No domestic flights or government buses. Certainly no hotels or fancy restaurants. The local way would become our way; lock, stock and (2 smoking) barrels.

After a rowdy reunion in Bangkok we landed in Rangoon at 8 a.m., with 45 minutes of sleep on the plane under our belts and a slight buzz still from the never-ending night before. My friend Ei Ei is from Rangoon, but she used to work for an NGO here in Chiang Mai that my roommate also worked for. She came to the airport with her father to pick us up, was brilliant to see her again – we just looked at each other with colossal smiles and happy hearts, virtually amazed to be in each others presence once more, and in such an altered atmosphere from Thailand.

While Ritchie napped away his jet lag I went out wandering Rangoon solo for a few hours. It looks as if an earthquake hit the city as recently as yesterday, but of course nothing of the sort happened. The sidewalks are nearly completely destroyed and overturned, if you take your eyes off of them for more than a second while walking you are sure to end up injured in one way or another. Buildings are dilapidated and the little shack type stores set up everywhere are grimy and disheveled. I heard a “hey you!” from a young guy sitting at a table with some friends and he asked me to join them. His name is Tun Tun, and after a few cups of tea he walked with me back to our guesthouse. That night he took Ritchie and I to a place with decent Chinese food, a karaoke/fashion show and 50 cent glasses of draught Myanmar Lager. An interesting night, and after turning down his million requests to go to “the disco” with him, we managed to sleep peacefully over all the noise of dog fights, chickens and what sounded like tanks (but was probably just ancient buses).

I started to realize what I consider to be the “T’s” of Burma: tradition, thanaka, tea, tobacco and temples. The first thing is tradition, which permeates all of life in Burma. Women and men alike wear longyis, which is a long cloth that is worn around the waist and looks more or less like an ankle length ‘skirt’. If I had to guess I would say that 85% of the population wears a longyi. Rangoon has to be one of the only cities I’ve seen with men wearing ‘skirts’ and walking around barefoot in the country’s biggest metropolis. Another “T” that ties in with tradition is thanaka, which is a yellowish color paste made from the bark of trees. Women and girls wear this on their faces for cosmetic beauty, as well as for protection from the scorching sun. It’s quite charming and lovely and they have been doing this for nearly 2,000 years. Tea, Tea, Tea! I consumed more tea in 2 weeks in Burma then I have in my whole life. Burmese tea is incredibly sweet and carmel colored, but the most popular is a light colored Chinese blend. The best tasting glasses seemed to be near temples, although the cups we drank out of old motor oil jugs were not so shabby (fingers crossed they were washed properly... or at least have had enough boiling water in them to be non-fatal for consumption). Ahhh, the “T” that is tobacco! Everyone in Burma seems to smoke. The monks, the men, the teenagers…whether it is a cheroot cigar (tobacco rolled in banana leaf, costing about 1 cent for 3 of them) or the mildly grotesque betel nut, which is a scarlet red color and acts as a stimulant, chewed by more people then I’d care to remember and spit everywhere on the ground, giving the effect of puddles of blood everywhere, the Burmese people really love their tobacco (and apparently hate their teeth, as the betel nut does atrocious things to your mouth) . A slightly more beautiful “T” is temples, of which there is no shortage anywhere you go. I can’t get enough pagodas and stupas, so for me it was bliss, while for Ritchie it got to be quite a bore.

After a road trip with Ei Ei to Bago (the most fantastically kitsch Buddhist monument town I can imagine) we headed more north to Inle Lake, via a 21 hour ‘overnight bus’ ride. I couldn’t take my eyes off the countryside and the scenes we were passing – people squatting on the side of the road in the typical Asian stance, women with over sized baskets filled to the brim on the tops of their heads walking by, cow drawn carriages, water buffalo, triangle straw hats and women with babies wrapped around them in cloth… everyone in longyis and with thanaka on their faces. While Ritchie snored away next to me the entire time, I felt completely inspired by the sight of these remarkable people, so snug in the crutch of all the humanity.

Inle Lake is a tremendous place comprised of mostly self-sufficient farmers. The Lake itself is in a mountainous area, so to be able to grow crops more conveniently the locals have built “floating gardens” on bamboo bases all around the outer edge of the Lake. The beauty and efficiency of these gardens cannot be overstated, in my mind. The homes around the lake are made of wood and woven bamboo and stand on stilts in the Lake, some in better shape than others. We took a boat trip around the Lake with 2 girls from France and 2 Burmese guides – an unforgettable day filled with culture and life and an eye opening view of how so many people in the area live. There is grinding poverty everywhere and yet they live in an incredibly pristine place… such a strange juxtaposition! On another day in Inle we did a trek with a guide into the mountains – saw meditation caves where monks go deep into the complete darkness and spend hours in silent meditation, had lunch made for us in a village at a family’s home, peaked into homes where tobacco was being cured ($1/1 kilo), saw countless farmers and their families along the way, everyone working on the land but stopping long enough to intently stare at us for a few minutes with a big smile on their face. Small villages and friendly children made this day one of almost surreal enjoyment!

Hitch hiked to Kalaw, our first ride was a man who worked at a nearby winery. He took us there for the tour, it was a stunning place! Too bad it was 9 a.m., too early to enjoy the fruits of the land. In Kalaw, with the help of an incredibly friendly man (“a diamond Inle rough”), we got onto a local “pick-up truck” headed toward Bagan. We were privileged enough to get the front seat with the driver, while there was at least 15 people (including near infants) riding on the top of the back of the truck. Was a steep and windy road through the mountains, and 60 miles took about 6 hours. Made it as far as Meiktilla, and after finding a guesthouse which allowed foreign people to stay there we realized we were in what could possibly have been a converted insane asylum into a ‘hotel’, but had surprisingly pleasant dreams there and woke up lobotomy-free, which was nice. Left One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after breakfast and after countless more utterly overcrowded pick-ups we made it to Mt. Popa on the afternoon of my birthday. A truly picturesque place, Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano (considered the “Mount Olympus” of Burma) with a stunning pagoda at the peak, 777 stairs up. Monkeys run freely everywhere in the temple and the steep climb is worth the view from the top!

As we came on our own with random local transport, we ended up getting a bit ‘stuck’ there and the nearest guesthouse that allowed foreigners was a 2 mile walk away. While Ritchie was cussing profusely in English and about to let loose on a drunk Burmese man, a monk who had been standing nearby asked us if we would be interested in staying at the monastery with the other monks who lived there for the evening. Stunned at his impeccable English and extreme generosity, we hopped in a car with a local driver and all the sudden our ominous situation turned bright and we had big goofy smiles on our faces the way to the monastery. Met with the head monk who had lived there for 30 years, and some young novices as well… drank lots of tea and was expecting only that, as monks don’t eat after lunchtime. But we were treated with such reverence while we were there, and in fact they prepared us a feast for dinner – about 8 to 10 different dishes with tea and rice – delicious! Everyone sat just near the table and watched us eat, interested in what we thought of every single bite. Was the most unique and sober birthday I have ever had, and as the night ended sleeping on the hard wood floor I couldn’t contain the euphoric feeling that comes along with living a life of such minimalism.

A slight bit of food poisoning followed the dinner, but things like this are to be expected in foreign countries, and we made our way to Bagan after saying goodbye to our new friends in Mt. Popa. Had the standard long, local, jam-packed transport, and I realized if you close your eyes for more then 15 seconds, whether it be from dust or exhaustion, when you open them every single person on the inside of the truck (so normally about 18 people) is staring at you like you are the National Geographic special. Not the first time I’ve had this feeling, but bizarre nonetheless. Bagan is an ancient capital city with thousands of temples and it feels like you are in the middle of the African dessert peddling your bicycle around and seeing all the beautiful structures spread out over 16 miles. We watched a sunset from the top of a temple and the tranquil feeling from this moment is something I wish I could re-live every day.

Back to Rangoon for our last days (and Ei Ei’s birthday)! We met some captivating fellow travelers on the trip, and Ritchie and I both agreed that people who come to visit Burma are not your average yuppie Southeast Asian backpacker. Although there aren’t many tourists there, we saw the same few people popping up in a couple cities, and was nice to tie it all back together with them in Rangoon for the last night. We never felt any direct threats from the junta while we were there, and actually some good conversations came up about the true state of the Burmese people. Ritchie (and some others) believed that they generally had a good life and weren’t incredibly affected by the oppressive junta in their day to day world. People weren’t starving on the streets and no genocide was being inflicted.

For my own self, I found it difficult not to empathize and ache so much for these people – there are mandatory curfews (9 p.m.) and you are not allowed to spend the night outside of your home or you risk 6 months imprisonment. The junta is notorious for using forced labor and of the 50 poorest countries in the world they receive the least amount of humanitarian aid. Sanctions are imposed by the EU and the US because of the brutal government, and yet this directly pushes Burma into the arms of China and Russia and does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of the Burmese people. There are over 2,000 political prisoners in Burma’s jails… people are serving decades for ‘pro-democratic activities’. While the junta moved the capital to the middle of nowhere and put up a fortress around themselves, the average wage of a Burmese worker is between $25 – 40/month. The guide who took us on the trek at Inle Lake, when we were on a break in the middle of the mountains, took a stick and drew the voting process for us in the dirt. If you put a “check” mark that means you are in favor of the current military government. If you put an “X” that means you are against, and thereby for “The Lady”, Aung San Suu Kyi. If you put that "X", you are directly imprisoned for 2 weeks. Imagine if you have a family depending on you and as it is you make wages far below the poverty line… it is impossible for you to vote the way that you want.

I can go on and on with thoughts about Burma, and apparently I already have. If you are interested, check out some information, and as you see on many shirts and bags there, “Remember (name of city here)”. These are beautiful people who don’t want the world to forget about them – I know that I never will! There were times when I wasn't sure I would survive this country.... I thought my heart might burst with love!

To quote again a very compassionate leader…
“Many indeed are the uses of adversity, and one of the most valuable is the unique opportunity it offers for discovering little-known aspects of the human society in which we live”
Aung San Suu Ky

And as another wise woman once said…
“I’ve got my freedom, I’ve got the life!”
Nina Simone


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