Posted February 16, 2013
We're taking an unintended rest day as the overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay has left us very tired and we're nauseated by, we assume, either our anti-malarial meds which we took later than usual today or the lime juice (or the ice that was in it) we drank at the bus station last night. Also, I managed to slip in the tub as soon as we got to our hotel room here and smash up the entire left side of my body. So the 45 minute barefoot walk up Mandalay Hill seems better left for tomorrow. There's a free tradtional Burmese puppet show on the rooftop terrace of our hotel later tonight, so it won't be a total loss, Burma sight-seeing-wise.
I was telling Raj earlier how I'm having trouble coming up with adjectives for Burma. It's just so beyond anything a word or a few words can say. But if I add some of Raj's pictures, that ought to help me along.
Burma is friendly.
Everyone here has been very welcoming, but the children in particular shout "Hello!" and are delighted when we say hello in return. This girl, along with most likely her sister, was selling post cards the way children do anywhere there are tourists. A boy came over, maybe their brother, to help them and ask where we are from. "USA," I said. "USA! I love USA! I love Obama!" This is fairly common. Everyone here loves Obama for having visited their country and helped promote tourism. This boy looked at Raj and motioned big guy, then said, "Muscle man!" He then pointed out how sweaty Raj was. It's true that Raj sweats as much as any three people and, without hair to stop it, it rolls off his head and drips off his face. But we've also noticed that the Burmese people don't seem to sweat at all. This despite temperatures in the high 90s and rampant humidity. Another girl, who was trying to give me a plastic bag for my shoes (temples are entered barefoot) argued back and forth with me for a while, "You're beautiful." "No you're beautiful!" before indicating both Raj and me and saying, "No, you are beautiful!" Then she looked at him and said, "Sweaty." He always asks if he can take their pictures and they have overwhelmingly been excited about it.
Burma is sensory overload.
Yes, it often smells like fish. And garbage. And grilling vegetables and flowers you are meant to buy to take into the temples and frying bread and a million other things. And there are the horns, the constant, relentless horns. Lanes don't really exist here as a recongnized concept when driving, so horns are invaluable for letting fellow drivers, bicylists, and pedestrains know that you intend to invade their space, so look out. If you're familiar with DC's Dupont Circle, imagine pushing a bicycle loaded down with large bags and possibly your kids through the middle of it, except there aren't any traffic signals and everyone is driving cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side. You also hear the bells rung by street vendors, music from everywhere (including, I am sorry to tell you, a Burmese cover of Justin Beiber's Baby) people, stray dogs and screeching birds. You see the golden domes of the payas, or pagodas, rising above modern glass buildings across the street from wooden lean-to tea shops, patrons squatting on low plastic stools in primary colors.
Burma is complex.
This is the nicest view I've ever experienced during dinner. That's the lit up dome of Shwedagon Paya, the largest pagoda in Yangon. Up close, it's got a thousand tacky touches, like neon ligths behind the Buddha's head that take away from the majesty, but lit and from a distance, it is beautiful. We were able to enjoy this view and some very good food at the Kandawgyi Palace hotel. The complexity comes in when you know that this hotel is owned directly by the junta, so that's where the money goes. We directly supported the military government. There's no avoiding doing so while visiting Burma - even if you're careful about your hotels as we've tried to be, there's a tax that goes to the junta, as do entrance fees for a lot of the attractions. We were really torn about eating there, but it was nearby, we were very tired, and it was lovely. They do employ a lot of people, which hopefully helps in some small way.
Burma is delicious
Here we are on Wednesday, eating our first Asian food since arriving in Asia on Sunday night. This was worth the wait. We ate in a small Burmese style teahouse on a busy downtown street. This meal, including Raj's noodles, soup for both of us, and a Crusher orange soda I had, came to about $2. Those noodles are among the best I've ever had. I've loved pretty much everything I've eaten here, though there was one vermicelli salad that had my lips and tongue burning for quite some time after.
Burma is revealing
There's nothing to make you feel like a spoiled, priviledged American quite like your cab driver fanning you while you eat the food he ordered for you because you can't speak the language. In order to see a couple of small towns outside Yangon, we hired a taxi for a half-day. (This cost under $30.) Unfortunately, our driver didn't speak English, so we couldn't get to know him at all. He dropped us off at a pagoda and when we came out, he was eating here, across the street. We communicated as best we could that we'd have what he was having. (Unrelated: if you feel you might be on the verge of heat stroke, there is nothing in this world like drinking the water out of a freshly cut coconut.) As soon as he finished eating, he began fanning us. Raj told him several times that he didn't have to, but he continued. It was uncomfortable, mostly because it reinforced that we are spoiled, priviledged Americans, even if we try not to let that define us.
On the other hand though, Burma reveals just how much of our human expeirence is universal. Drivers mutter at other drivers. Teenaged couples argue in parks. Parents act foolish to get their babies to smile and look at the camera. Little boys pick up sticks to swing around like swords. Smiles are returned, kindnesses appreciated, and compliments, particularly to a cook about her meal, are warmly received. What is travel for, if not to be reminded of this?