Impressions: "A Bouquet in My Boat"

January 14, 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

"Min gala ba" . . . Hello, I could begin my long letter

THIS WAY: "Jan, an American man, is sitting with Nori, his wife, Nana, and their friend Yumi, all from Japan; and Lorenzo, from Switzerland. We are watching a young waitress debone a Peking Duck in the Western Park Chinese Restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar."

OR THIS WAY: "I am sitting at a small café at a busy intersection of downtown Yangon (Rangoon), dizzy from the dust and the teeming traffic, munching on breaded, deep-fried greens (don't ask) and washing down my oily snack with an energy-boosting glass of juice, freshly squeezed from a stick of sugar cane. Add a splash of fresh lime."


"I am eating an Indian dinner across the street from The Unity Hotel in Mandalay: Chapati, freshly kneaded, rolled, and grilled by an assembly line of men and women, chicken curry, potato curry and Chinese tea."


My favorite image of the first two weeks in Myanmar:

"I am sitting in an eight meter long, narrow wooden motor boat. My driver, Tun Win, is navigating the slender channels of Inle Lake - floating farms on all sides. Suddenly I hear "Hello." A young boy tending the "fields" in his own small wooden boat, paddles over to me, smiles, and tosses me a bunch of purple and yellow daisy-like flowers." This is Myanmar: Kind. Friendly. Polite. Helpful. Shy. Curious. Considerate. Tolerant.

To be honest, this is not a trip for the finicky, picky, faint-hearted, demanding, impatient, sanitation conscious tourist. I do believe that Myanmar is the poorest country I have visited.

Millions live in small apartments or homes behind their shops, or on the street, or under a cart, or in a hut, or in a bamboo and wooden house on stilts, bathing in the river or in public baths.

The cities and small towns are just plain dusty. Main roads are paved but shoulders and side streets are dirt. Dust migrates around town following the swirl of traffic, coating all the green leaves red. Everyone is sweeping. Sweeping. Sweeping.

Restaurant dishes and glassware are washed on the street in tubs of soapy water. Used tea cups are simply rinsed in a small bowl of water and left in the bowl on the table for the next customer. Most hotels are neat and clean; some are not so neat and clean.

Many streets by Western standards are filthy.

As in other places in Southeast Asia, you turn off your light to go to sleep knowing that there are colonies of little ants behind the faucets in the bathroom, little lizards on the wall, licking their little tongues looking for little ants, and little mosquitoes buzzing in flight looking for a midnight snack. And sometimes, squirrels scampering about and squeaking in the ceiling. There are almost no traffic lights or street lights in Mandalay, a city of 800,000. There are frequent, brief power blackouts.

Years ago the Third World was called "Undeveloped." Now, it is politically correct to use the term "Developing." Well, Romania is "Developing." Vietnam is "Developing." "Peru" is "Developing." Sadly, I must report that Myanmar is "Undeveloped."

And, to be honest once again... I love it here!

I am having fun, carefully threading my way on the streets near the markets. The sidewalks are littered with merchandise -whatever you may need: batteries, books, oranges, watermelons, bananas, brassieres, boxer shorts, shoes, orange and pink party dresses for little girls, tee shirts - all too small for my XXL frame, longyis, assorted new and used tools and electronics, pots, pans, toothpaste, tooth brushes, tooth picks, cigarettes by the pack or Lucy's, luggage, soccer balls, plastic toys, audio CD's, karaoke CD's, VCD's and cassettes. Balloons.

In the midst of this mercantile madness sits a multitude of little teas shops, with tiny plastic chairs and tiny plastic tables with a thermos of hot Chinese tea. Men sitting around and chatting about whatever Myanmar men chat about. I sit amongst them.

The boys and the teenagers all have a great laugh as I mispronounce "jee nuay" about six or seven times. Until I finally get my teeth and tongue in the proper position. For "jee" the teeth are almost touching. Air is passed through the clenched upper and lower jaws as I try to order more "water" for my tea.

Myanmar is a colorful place.

Thanakha. The yellow sandalwood-like paste made from bark. Each morning, almost all of the women and children, and some of the men, gently powder their face with a thin film, sometimes in a creative design. Thanakha acts as a sun screen, a skin conditioner and decorative make-up. Everywhere on the sidewalks and streets are large scarlet splotches of dried spittle.

Do you remember the song "Bloody Mary" from the musical "South Pacific"? "Bloody Mary is the girl I love . . . . Bloody Mary is the girl I love. Bloody Mary's chewing betel nuts . . . . She is always chewing betel nuts." I remember the song well. My parents brought home a large box of 78 rpm's when they saw Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza on Broadway.

Betel, the nut of the areca palm, is the national addiction. It's a mild intoxicant. Most adults have "bloody" teeth from constant chewing. And at the appropriate moment they simply spit out the "juice" wherever they happen to be. Usually followed by a nose-clearing snort and a throat-clearing second missile to the street. "Ach- tooy."

If I am brave I will try it once. On second thought, Dr.Chumphon, my DDS, will go ballistic!

Another song from "South Pacific" comes to mind: "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." My guess is that when the song was first performed back in the 1950's it brought out lots of emotion, and not the good kind. The theme of the lyrics is that young children are naturally friendly and tolerant of everyone. "They've got to be taught to hate and fear....You've got to be carefully taught."

Happily in Myanmar the exact opposite is true. Parents encourage their infants and young children to greet and wave to strangers and foreigners. As I take my strolls I am cheered by choruses of "Hello's" and "Goodbye's" and animated, bright smiles of genuine affection. "See you later alligator" followed quickly by "After a while crocodile" are the favorite parting words of the young shop girls. How enchanting. I am moved by all this happy talk.

And so, I am planning my return to Mandalay. Maybe in April. Maybe next year. To see once again my new friend Thida, a kind and lovely woman who works at the Reception Desk of the Unity Hotel. And to teach English once again at the monastery school Thida attends.

The evening class was filled with about thirty happy, bright, energetic, appreciative young men and women. After I taught a two-hour class, covering geography, colloquial expressions, religious terms, grammar, spelling, homonyms and back again to colloquial expressions, the Monk invited me to stay for dinner. Shall I put aside my retirement? I just hope the monk doesn't expect me to wear a skirt next time!

That's one of the things I noticed when I arrived in Yangon. Everyone wears flip-flops and everyone, women, girls, boys and men, everyone wears a skirt, or sarong or longyi as it is called here. The longyi is an ankle length, dark print, or sometimes colorful cotton cloth that is wrapped around the body and tucked at the waist.

The women tie the cloth demurely at their side. The men tie the cloth in front, with a big knot protruding and hanging from the belly. (Is there a Freudian in the house?)

I figured out the practicality of the longyi:

Women can sit or squat modestly with their legs in any position. In the cold weather, the longyi keeps you warm. In the hot weather, as air circulates, you keep cool and hygienic, and protected from mosquitoes. And for men, never the "wedgie." The longyi can be used as a blanket, a towel, even as a small hammock for the kids.

And then, in Myanmar, there are the faces: Small Asian noses, large noses, very large noses, very long noses. Asian eyes, and features; Caucasian eyes and features. Tan skin, dark skin, very dark skin, black skin. By contrast, in Thailand, with the exception of a few Pakistanis hawking custom-made suits, almost everyone looks Thai. In Vietnam, almost everyone looks Vietnamese. Here in Myanmar, some look Burmese, but most look like something else. Where am I, anyhow?

Let's check a map and read a little history:

Myanmar has five neighbors: Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand. Nepal is not far away.

Burma was conquered by the British Army and became attached to Greater India as part of the British Colonial Empire. Indians and Nepalese were brought here as soldiers and administrators. Others came to escape problems at home or to do business. Today, Myanmar is a heterogeneous nation with descendants of immigrants from China to Malaysia, from Britain to the Near East.

The proper name of this country is "The Union of Myanmar." The national flag has a red field with a circle of fourteen white stars against a blue background in the upper left. Fourteen states with a multitude of indigenous tribes and cultures. Mon, Shan, Kachin, Bago. Almost sounds like Iowa, Dakota, Minnesota.

From the terrace of my room I can see the large dome and minarets of the mosque nearby. I can count on a "wake-up call" every morning as the muezzin calls out to the city.

While strolling the streets and sitting quietly in the temples and climbing the towers of Yangon and Mandalay, I have heard the tinkling bells atop Buddhist pagodas; I have admired Chinese architecture; I have been welcomed by young men and given a tour of Muslim mosques; Christmas and New Year's Greetings decorate Christian churches of several denominations; I have craned my neck (when I forgot to bring my binoculars) to view the small pastel carvings adorning the outer walls of Hindu Temples. And, founded in Yangon more than one hundred years ago by Iranian Sephardi Jews, the blue and white stucco Moseah Yeshua Synagogue on Mahabandoola Street grew to 2500 congregants.

Moses Samuels, the Caretaker, proudly accompanied me around the sanctuary. About an hour earlier, the Levine's from London signed the guest book. Services are held only on special occasions for the fifty Burmese Jews remaining in Myanmar. A Rabbi comes up from Bangkok for the High Holy Days. I will try to see Moses again before I leave.

Folks don't own much here. Their treasure lies with family and friends. On any street, on any day, young mothers are nursing their infants, boys walk with their arms around their brothers, girls walk hand in hand with their friends. And gentle, smiling men offer me their taxi or horse cart or tri-shaw. Tell me fellow travelers, where else in the world can I take a horse cart to an airport?

And so my friends, "Saddle up." Another temple to see. Another Buddha to contemplate. Another tower to climb. Another mutton curry. Just one more Tiger Beer.

I love it here.




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