March 14, 2010

Burmese Days...Part I

Photo by Lyra Jakabhazy
Earlier this year (2010) I had a chance to visit an enchanted land...Burma. It is one of the poorest and, yet, richest country in the world. Burma, or Myanmar as it is known, is impoverished in the sense of possessions and political freedom, but very rich in the sense of humanity and authentic culture.

Once I got past the dense and dirty cities of Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay, I came face to face with the way the world must have been before it was shackled together with asphalt and railroad ties. Today, Rangoon and Mandalay are survive on the crumbs of civilization left over from what was once the crown jewel of the British Empire. Amazingly, the rest of Burma still holds onto what existed before the British arrived...

I was shocked by the diversity of the people...all sorts of ancient tribes and ethnic groups. Each one with their own language, customs, food, clothing and distinct physical appearance. I humbly believe that this is how the world looked before the modern era.

Burma? Myanmar? So what, you might say. Well...I am sure you have heard of George Orwell. It was Burma that made an indelible impression upon a young Englishman named Eric Blair. Eric spent a good part of his youth in Burma as an officer in the British Imperial Police. He had a promising career ahead of him, then, for some unknown reason, after 5 years, Eric abruptly turned in his uniform. A choice that would lead him to become one of the most influential literary forces of the 20th century who we know as George Orwell.

In Myanmar (Burma), there is a joke that George Orwell (“The prophet”) wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four according to Emma Larkin, an American author who wrote Finding George Orwell in Burma. Well...I don’t know, but it made a transformative impression upon me.

Interestingly, a new Nineteen Eighty-Four movie may be in the works thanks to Shephard Fairey...

unknown photographer
Today, I am reminded once again of the rich land of 50 million people because it is today that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed after having been imprisoned for 15 of the past 21 years.

Over my next few blog posts, let me try to give you a glimpse of my experience...

We did not have a solid plan when we got off the plane in Rangoon. In hindsight, I would not advise. In fact, I knew it was not a good idea when we attempted it. As soon as we hit the ground, we realized that we were going to be “trafficked” as prized possessions from person to person. Not quite hostages, but not free either. Luckily, we seemed to have guardian angels...

It was about midnight, as we hopped in a cab held together with duct tape and bondo with a guide and driver. We told the guide we wanted to go to the bus station to get to Bagan and that we needed to exchange money. Then the suspense started...he drove us too a dark alley where a dubious figure came out of the shadows with a large bag and jumped into the car. OMG! I was already swatting at the mosquitoes that I was sure were carrying malaria.

He promptly pulled out wads of old Burmese cash...of which we exchanged a few hundred dollars...we now had huge stacks of bills that looked like they were printed in the 19th century. I was figuring they were worthless...but I still held on to my faith in humanity as they drove us to the the chaos they considered a bus station. Trustingly, we followed them to a bus where we boarded. There were some unintelligible directions which I tried to follow...the main point being that we where going to Mandalay not Bagan...

Once on the bus...we were befriended by a group of university students...luckily...cuz the fun was just beginning. At about three in the morning, the bus stopped at a transfer point. Unknowingly, we had ended up in a restricted limits to foreigners! When we tried to board the second bus, the authorities guarding the bus station went ballistic and demanded our passports...of which we promptly handed over. Now we were in deep ^%#*! After about 15 minutes of yelling our current “owners” talked the authorities out of whatever fun they had in store for us and we boarded the bus.

Once on the bus, I noticed that the front seat was open. nice...leaving the front seat vacant for the foreign travelers. ;-) Then as we pulled away in the 1960’s era motor coach, I realized why the front seat was open.

In front of me were two hired men whose job it was to hold the broken windshield in place with pillows. That is because it so badly cracked that the duct tape holding it place was failing and the pillows were the only way to keep it from blowing back into the bus. Once the bus broke 60 kph, the guys started yelling because the window was caving in...and I am not talking safety glass! These where big chunks of half inch think daggers of death. Ah...thanks for leaving the front seat open... Argh!!!



Blogger Unknown said...

What incredible life experience! Thanks for sharing.

It's so strange to take for granted our freedom to say pretty much whatever we please and not have to fear facing harassment or imprisonment for it. How far we've come along as a race in just a few hundred years.

On the other hand, when I was in Nice (France) with my mom and siblings for her 50th birthday, I was struck with the contrast that we aren't "really free" when we walked through the park and saw people drinking wine and picnicking, enjoying the beautiful weather. If you brought a bottle of wine into a park here, you would likely get a ticket or a fine. I guess that just means we are still living in a puritanical country, despite what anybody says to the contrary.

Please, keep writing!

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow. I presume you are safe based on you writing this post after you came back, but still...I am envious of you going to Burma, i have always wanted to go, but there were too many places to visit when I was in Korea, one of these days...

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Guys! I will knock out a few more posts this weekend.

January 14, 2011  

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