Observations from an adventurous and aging type 1 diabetic woman in transition. Join me on the journey.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The Roads in Myanmar
After a long day of fording rivers, jouncing along dirt roads and winding our way into the mountains, we reached the chilly alpine town of Mindat just before nightfall. A trio of girls and one boy scuttled ahead of the minivan to wait on the ledge of a small stone bridge, watching with interest as we disembarked and our guide walked up to the government office to register our presence with the authorities. I took a few steps forward to say hello.
These government signs are all over the country, but most have a more practiced paint job.
The lacquered bamboo baskets on their backs were suspended from a single woven band across their foreheads and filled with branches of autumnal foliage. I held the plant to my lips and questioned its edibility. Four heads shook side to side. I used it as a broom and they shook their heads again. As I was trying to figure out my next move, one girl clasped her hands in the Buddhist prayer gesture and all became clear. The children, all under ten, had gathered the branches of the plant to sell door to door for the Buddhist altars in the homes of this large village perched on the top of the serrated forest-covered mountains in the Chin State in Northwest Myanmar. This is an area closed to the casual visitor; our guide had to secure permits well in advance.
Development aid in action. This system wasn't functioning, but other taps dispensed water that was cleaner than what came out from the taps in urban hotel rooms. Gwen's UV light water purifier/magic wand said so.
We were away from the “Big 4” towns (Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon) to trek in the hills where people have lived for generations, farming the land, trading and living without electricity and running water. The Chin people are some of the poorest in Myanmar. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that 73% live below the poverty line in a country where the average median income is about $380 a year. After years of foreign sanctions and an obstinate regime that refused aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the budding emergence of what seems to be a more tolerant military government has generated evidence of foreign aid reaching communities that were a day’s trek between Mindat and Kampalet. There were Save the Children educational posters with images of hand washing and reading, a new water system with UNDP and the Danish Aid organization’s logos on the community faucets and UNICEF bookbags carried to school in the mornings.
The first time the van got stuck. Nice view stretching out for miles.
I was still struck by the images illustrating both a lack of outside influence and tremendous internal fortitude. A bamboo school house on stilts with forty students and two teachers just down the road from the transfer station where the hand pumpers filled oil drums that were loaded onto cargo trucks (300 a week) and sold to the refinery.
Down a steep and narrow dirt road off just south of the summit of Mount Victoria, everyone wore grimy, faded and well-worn western clothes. One pantless toddler had the telltale distended belly of kwashiorkor. His mother ground the corn from the hillside fields in wooden mortar, thumping the five foot high wooden pestle in an up and down crushing motion. There was little foreigner traffic in this area.
At the summit trailhead. Our guide Saw is reviewing a hand drawn map with the local people. His fancy pants are a real contrast to the bamboo gathering basket/knife and old rifle used for protection against big cats that the local people are carrying.
After the van got stuck on the rough roads for the second time, Gwen and I walked through the upland forests of the Nat Ma Taung National Park, a “sky island” that maintains an ecosystem more typical of the Himalayan forests of the north. When our guides Saw and Ion caught up to us, the tow rope was tied to the front rear view mirror. Saw laughingly (in a giddy relief kind of way) mentioned the village men had helped pull them out from the front when pushing from the rear wasn’t generating action.
Bagan landscape... not my photo.
The mountains were a welcome relief from the dusty crowded streets of Bagan, were we’d spent the previous day touring the stunning pagodas and ancient brick chedis.
The tour buses discharged their large groups of gray haired charges at these sites; Gwen and I followed at a reasonable distance to glean the interpretive highlights. I found myself fending off persistent children that approached us to sell postcards in a laminated flip out cascade. Some of the more entrepreneurial had created their own designs. One small boy recited his desperate, rapid fire English pitch while a more practiced older girl prepped me for the hard sell at her sister’s gift shop. Just outside the door of the lacquerware factory shop, I was surrounded by eight youngsters between five and ten years old who were bemused by my intentionally comical obstinacy about purchasing, but happy for the attention to review the colors of their clothing and share some English adjectives. Toward the end of the day, we grew tired of temples.
No cameras allowed at the National Museum in Bagan, so I drew "field notes."
In the cavernous exhibition halls, gleaming marble floors and towering peaked roof of the National Museum in Bagan, I sensed the undercurrent presence of the military’s 40 year regime in the country. The displays featured large paintings, grimy dioramas and sentinels of Buddha statues that showed the power of Myanmar’s ancient history, the social life of the surrounding early people and royal hairstyles of elaborate braided projectiles that extended far beyond the scalp.
The history we saw was just one facet of the story. What isn’t told is the repeated battering that the people of Myanmar have sustained for over 150 years. When the British determined it was strategic, they sailed up the Irrawaddy River to claim the royal capital of Mandalay, deposing the seated King to India and later setting fire to centuries of archival records in the royal library. After a very brief period of independence and democratic rule, a military fueled coup occurred in the year I was born. The military began their rule with promoting a disastrous foray into socialism that created starvation in a economy that had been the largest exporter of rice in the world. In various forms since, the generals continued their suppression and truth re-telling by quashing resistance, developing new initiatives to control and building their internal coffers. Like Bagan’s nearly 3,000 ancient chedis that were systematically rebuilt (not renovated) over the years, the military authorities have created their own truth of Myanmar’s past history and current reality.
Ancient statues inside a chedi in Bagan.
Whether to call this country Burma or Myanmar is just one facet of the story. From my research, Burma is a British interpretation of the name of the Bama people, the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the country.
Without any input from the people, the Generals who led the State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name to Myanmar in 1989. Renowned Yangon author Ma Thanege says that there is an ancient tablet in the Museum of Bagan, datable as 1235 CE, that provided the earliest mention of Myanmar. Thant Myint U mentions that strong horseman people, after surviving numerous campaigns of empires in both China and Tibet in the 800’s, relocated south to the fertile rice fields near present day Mandalay and called themselves “the Myanma.” Daw Aun San Suu Ki prefers Burma, but everyone we talked to used Myanmar to describe the language, culture and themselves. In this country, everything is nuanced with a context that, as foreigners, we can’t understand.
Hotels have to be registered by the government to accommodate foreigners. We completed a form each time we registered. With over a million tourists expected in 2013, there's a shortage of hotel rooms. We heard more than one story of tourists sleeping in Pagodas, storage closets and the hotel lobbies in Inle Lake during the balloon festival.
What I do know is that my skin color and physical stature (Burmese people are very small) presents an opportunity and an obstacle. On our last leg of the trip, we climbed from the shores of Inle Lake to the hill town of Taunggyi, which hosts an annual Ta Suang Tine balloon festival. Our car pulled up and we were promptly charged $6 to sit in the special “Foreigner Booth”, located just in front of the Burmese equivalent of porta-potties.
Thousands of people from across Myanmar attend to see the paper balloons, go shopping at the booths and ride the rides. The ceremony is similar to many Asian fire festivals that occur in November and reach full force on the night of the full moon, when Gwen and I had arranged to go. We made our way through the teeming crowds, past the charcoal fires that fueled the woks filled with boiling oil and drunken boys dancing in a line with their hands on their friend’s shoulders, to watch the scene at one of the brightly-colored neon ferris wheels.
The young male carnies move the wheel around through sheer body weight, quickly scaling the wooden scaffolding to the arc, and moving their way to the perimeter to launch the momentum. The wheel picks up speed and they move to hang from the swinging seats for a few seconds, then reach a perfect position to land a few feet off the ground and duck out of the way of the falling chairs. Stunning in its risk and poetry, the action captivated a crowd of young Burmese onlookers. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement on the ground. A five year old darts out to pick up an a stray coke can, stashing it in his large rice bag of recyclables before disappearing back into the crowd.
We move to the large staging area, watching one version of a ritual that occurs through the evening. The crowds amassed around the trucks holding the paper balloons and carefully offloading and unfold it. Men holding towering batons of gas soaked torches appear to climb under the balloon and light the fires that inflate the structures. Moment by moment, the warm air begins to define the shape; some balloons are decorated with elaborate lights and others with paintings. As the balloon reaches the full height, the team attaches a basket of fireworks, lights a few charges and sets the inflatable alight. In a perfect process, the fireworks begin to eject their explosions as the balloon soars above the crowd and continues the unusual show high into the sky. I’m so used to see fireworks come up from the ground that it’s magical to watch them shooting downward from above.
At nearly midnight, while we were on the ground watching, a balloon advertising a construction firm appears to have trouble. The team fastens the firework basket and sets it off anyway. It halfheartedly drifts across the thronged stadium, scattering crowds in its path as it litters the ground with shooting colored flame throwers, before reaching a now deserted viewing platform. Gwen has a group of boys who are using her height and her camera lens to see the balloon crash into the side and exploding into a fireball punctuated by rockets and projectile globs of flaming fuel. The fire trucks race to the scene, which appears to be well-rehearsed, and there is no evidence of surprise in the crowd around us. It is a singularly spectacular way to end an evening. We had an early morning flight back to the biggest city that is not the capital.
My travel companion Gwen standing next to the absolute biggest gong I have ever seen. The Shwegadon Pagoda is a very special place.
The next day, our taxi driver picked us up at the Yangon airport for our final preparations. We went back to see the magical, sacred Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, taking care to ascend the steps, barefoot, to the top as Barack, Hillary and the Secret Service did on their recent visit.
Over yet another noodle dinner on the street side café across from the hotel, Gwen and I chatted about our “themes” for the trip. I began to take small steps back into the internet and sift through my thoughts and my notes.
We waited in traffic on departure day. Our driver passed back the Burmese paper and launched an atypically emotional tirade about the horrifying photos on the front page of the newspaper. Monks, who were severely burned in a military-led skirmish while protesting a copper mine in Monywa in the northwestern part of the country, led to an angry outburst in heavily accented English. He criticized the government for their force and their relationship with China, scorned Tony Za, Myanmar’s richest man, about his cronyism with the powers that be and held reluctance about any real change as long as the military was in power. When I asked him about how he felt for the immediate future, he mentioned Japan’s move to pay off Myanmar’s significant national debt, the increase in international aid money and the 2015 elections that are a chance to restore democratic process and remove the vestiges of the military’s power. Then we stopped at the National League for Democracy headquarters for some shopping.
As we reached the airport, I remembered our early morning flight to Bagan on our first day in the country. In the pre-dawn hours, a boy selling flower garlands approached and gave me a remnant of fragrant yellow flowers and a long white thread. I thanked him profusely and bustled for the check-in, tucking the flowers into the back of my notebook to press them. Children work hard in this country; Gwen and I found them waiting on our tables, carrying their infant siblings with fabric strapped across their back, helping their parents at the market, gathering firewood for their families, scavenging for recyclables and dressed in the traditional longyi on their way to school. In hindsight, I wished I’d sat down next to the boy selling flowers. I wished that I learned his name, told him that there was hope for his future and bought all his garlands to distribute at random in the terminal.
Just before leaving Cambodia a couple weeks ago, I completed research on the extent and strategies of development assistance currently being proffered to Myanmar. In 2013, many countries are doubling and tripling their commitments and I estimated that at least $350 million would be invested between 2013-2015. Policy pundits fear the “fire hose” affect, which could create a chaos of duplicative projects, increased pressure for housing and office space and a drain on Myanmar’s English-speaking professionals away from their work serving the people. Foreign investors are lining up to access Myanmar’s ample natural resources of oil, gems and old growth hardwoods. Tourists are streaming in on large motor coaches that belch next to horse-drawn carriages, oxcarts and sunburned Caucasians teetering on ill-fitting bicycles. Taxi drivers can speak their mind.
Daw Aun San Suu Ki’s charismatic political presence, continuing the legacy of her father, represents one facet of change for this country. But that fact is that the Prime Minister is a former General and the military still retains absolute power in the constitution. There is still ongoing violence. In the Rahkine state, thousands of muslim ethnic minorities are starving, homeless and living in squalid refugee camps in the western part of the country.
The currently inflating balloon could sail up high into the sky or crash to the ground. The ground crew of the Burmese people will do their best to stand by as the momentum builds for their flight. The Burmese people have long suffered, patiently persisted and rebelled through virulent word of mouth and overt protest. They will continue to hope for a better future where human rights are respected, freedoms and expected and a time where no child has to sell garlands at 4:30 am. As for me, I'll be standing on the ground waving them off on their journey, like the dozens of people we passed on our road travels through Myanmar.