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Friday, 03 July 2009

New Year's Eve in Burma

Written by Janis Mitchell
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New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellIt is the last day of the year and Pam, Judy and I are in Bagan, Myanmar. Until about ten years ago, it was impossible to enter the country, formerly Burma, for more than a week. This ensured a minimal influence from the outside world. The near absence of transportation guaranteed outsiders could not venture far beyond Yangon, the capital. But with an eye on the tourist dollar, the outrageously repressive military government extended its visas for up to one month. This extension played a large role in ending Myanmar’s preparation for the advent of tourism.

I had yearned to visit someplace undiscovered, someplace uncorrupted by Western influence, unpolluted by KFC’s, Hyatt Hotels, and tour buses filled with hordes of Japanese or German tourists attached to hugely phallic zoom lenses or with video recorders glued to their eyes.

And I found exactly that. But what I also found was a country virtually devoid of hotels, restaurants, public transportation, even postcards. Unless you could be persuaded and pressured into hiring a government-sanctioned official tour guide who would stick to you like glue and show you only the sanitized, government- approved tour of their country, you quickly found yourself scrambling and struggling for the barest necessity. And three foreign women traveling alone felt unheard of.

To begin with, the ever-present corrupt military regime had made it clear to the Burmese populace that they were not to discuss conditions in their country with outsiders. Neither were they to drive outsiders from one city to the next without several substantial bribes procured during frequent, unexpected roadblocks during which a number of soldiers would surround your car with pointed rifles. The only other option was to fly Air Myanmar, whose fleet of planes was the oldest, and whose crash rate was the highest in the world.

As one of the poorest countries in the world, few Burmese outside of the capital city owned a watch, much less a car. Few Burmese had traveled within their own country, and almost no one seemed to have an extra ounce of meat on their bones, I soon learned that for tourists and Burmese alike it was only through the black market that you could obtain what you needed, be it a room for the night, enough gas to get you from Mandalay to Bagan, or a cow to plow your field.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis Mitchell



Most of the population had scant education and worked tirelessly in the rice fields or open markets, selling undersized produce and scrawny chickens. Meat was a luxury nowhere to be found.

Life in Burma was the hardest I’d seen in the world. This was a country where slavery still existed, where countless women built roads by hand after being kidnapped as forced labor to produce highways for future tourists. This was a country where people disappeared without a trace, and where families dare not attempt to find them; where hundreds, maybe thousands died by torture each year because they were ethnic minorities or pro-democracy.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellNo waiting for the next Burma Shave sign to pass like when I drove across the desert as a kid. Instead, giant billboards ominously warn to OBEY THE LAW AND LOVE YOUR MOTHERLAND. And just like the Motherland of your childhood, here was a whole country where punishment might come at any moment, where love and obedience did not guarantee safety.

And yet, what I found in Burma was a country of people who smiled easily, and carried themselves with dignity, grace and serenity stronger than that I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Traveling with my friends Pam with her fair hair and striking features, and Judy, with her natural Scandinavian blonde hair that most Americans lose by the age of five, the three of us were followed like movie stars everywhere we went (I, small and dark-haired, attracted somewhat less attention). A regal and beautiful school girl shyly approached me, smiling silently as she reached out her hand to offer me a white rose. Little children, their faces painted with sandalwood paste to protect them from the sun, giggled as they surrounded Pam and Judy who knelt so the little ones could take turns touching their hair and cheeks. Even adults, who dislike disturbing other’s privacy, timidly approached to share their peanut candy or favorite pastry: fried balls of sugared dough.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellA government and its people may be as different as night and day, and nowhere was this truer than in Burma. And nowhere in Burma more so than Bagan. Bagan, forty square kilometers stretching back from the great Ayeyarwady River, is among the holiest of Buddhist sites. A breathtaking and other-worldly panorama of hundreds of immense temples climbed towards the sky. Glorious pagodas of every size and shape dotted the empty fields dating back to the beginning of the Christian era. It was impossible not to be moved by the peaceful grandeur and its timeless tranquility.



New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellFor four days the three of us were accompanied by Aye-Aye, a gentle and slight Burmese young man we hired to collected us each morning and drive us in his horsecart to the most revered and exceptional ancient shrines. There we slowly and carefully scaled the hundreds of steps to the top, where we stood awestruck, marveling at the majestic vistas in every direction. Little children of three or four, carrying younger siblings wrapped in a pouch on their backs, scrambled fearlessly up to join us.

 

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellAt times we all sat on the steps together to watch the sun set, and sometimes I’d leave the others behind to climb down and sit in the shade giving an English lesson to Aye-Aye, who had never been to school, but had taught himself. Aye-Aye, we learned, had been supporting his mother and sister since his father died when he was six years old. First as a fisherman, it had taken many years to save up enough to buy his horsecart. He rented Madonna, the horse, for three dollars a day, and, only earned five dollars a day as a driver. It is hard to imagine how he supported his family on a two dollar daily profit.

Finally it was time to return to Rangoon (now Yangon) and the twentieth century and the plane that would carry us to Bangkok and home. Though Aye-Aye had never been outside of Bagan, he had a more affluent friend who not only owned an old car, but had the connections to locate enough gas to drive us to the capital city the next morning. A deal was arranged by Aye-Aye, and the next day the three of us stood surrounded by our luggage and tried to remain calm as the battered, creaking jalopy pulled up to get us. Aye-Aye popped out of the passenger seat proudly introducing us to his friend, the driver, who beamed at us with a mouthful of beetlenut that, from long use, had stained his lips, tongue, and teeth a grotesque blood red. Though most Burmese adults chewed the mild stimulant incessantly, its startling appearance came as a shock each time we saw it.

After our gear was stowed in the trunk of the car, I unstrapped my cheapo $10 Radio Shack digital travel watch and put it on Aye-Aye’s slim wrist. Rummaging through my back pack until I found the tiny instruction booklet, I wrote my address on the back and questioned how he would ever figure it out, since I hadn’t. First, I supposed, he’d have to learn to read the numbers which were different from the symbols used in Burma. The confusion on his face made me realize this was probably the first gift Aye-Aye had ever received. Each day, he promised, he would pray to Buddha to protect me and one day bring me back to his beloved Bagan. He had had someone write his address in English for me: Aye-Aye, Horsecart #5, Bagan, and pressed it into my hand as we formally shook hands and said good-bye.

Looking out the back window as we rattled noisily out of town, I watched Aye-Aye grow smaller and smaller, his hands pressed together to his chest, bowing again and again and again until I could no longer see him.

The drive to Rangoon was an experience in terror. To begin with, our driver, I discovered, hadn’t slept in two days, having just returned from another chauffeuring job. No amount of beetlenut could compensate for his exhaustion, though he kept stuffing wads of it into his mouth. Opening his door and leaning out to spit the last wad onto the road without so much as slowing down, we sped bumpily along the dusty, potholed dirt road, trying to dodge the chickens and cows ambling along. Once, when there was a clog in the fuel line, we pulled to the side of the road and watched our driver lift up the hood, disconnect the fuel line, put it into his mouth and suck until his cheeks were filled with gas, then casually spit it out, problem solved.

 


 

If daytime driving conditions seemed precarious, they were nothing compared to the hazards that arose when the sun went down. Burma was an amazingly dusty country, even without the ton of dust we stirred up as we tore down the endless dirt road. Turning on the headlights only made visibility worse, surrounding the car in a sea of millions of swirling specks. The solution: no one in Burma used their headlights.

To make matters worse, another particularity of rural Burmese life soon became evident to us. In the absence of cafes, restaurants, or large lodgings to congregate with friends and families, the Burmese seemed uniformly oblivious to the danger of squatting in the center of the road for a long evening chat. Farmers leading their herds of goats, ducks, and sheep down the road were similarly ignored. Honking the horn had absolutely no success in moving anyone, and it was clearly understood that it was the driver’s job to go around them.

As one may react in uncontrollable life and death situations, I reacted by being overcome with sleepiness and began to nod off in the back seat. I was just settling in to a good, long nap when screeching brakes and the car careening wildly out of control brought me fully back to reality. Just missing a group of old women and sending a terrified collection of goats and ducks scattering for safety, our luck seemed to have run out as we charged helplessly towards an enormous water buffalo which was the size of the car, pulling a cart and family behind it. I will never forget the look of terror in that giant animal’s eyes as it reared up on two legs, its massive horns flashing within inches of our window. How the whole lot of us was, instants later, frozen still without a scratch in total silence, save the beating of our hearts, I will never understand. As the dust settled, I noticed that the whole village had gathered around us, equally amazed.

Even our driver had been scared half to death, so much so that he drove very slowly the last hour until we could find a place to sleep for the night. Once in our room, Judy pulled out the remains of a bottle of Johnny Walker and the three of us toasted the New Year, only minutes away, surprised and grateful to be alive. As we sat in that dilapidated room in that nameless village, I was overcome with the joy of having just escaped death and a hunger to hold on to every minute of life within my power. There was so much of the world yet to see.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis Mitchell

© Janis Mitchell

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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