Monday, January 5, 2015

Photos uploaded?

If you're on Facebook you can definitely now find photos on my Facebook page. If I'm feeling ambitious, I might try to upload some videos in a day or two.

If you're not on Facebook, I've tried to upload photos to an album on Picasa. But Google seems to be trying to get more Facebook-y, which is making it harder to figure out simple things like how to share a link to some photos. But I think you can see the photos if you follow this link:

Let me know if you try that and it doesn't work.

It's now nearly three in the morning and I have to teach tomorrow. I was supposed to be sleeping and getting over jet lag. Oh well...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Winding Down

I'm in Singapore's airport, about to start the long journey home. I really enjoy spending time in airports. They're in-between places where everyone is simply killing time. The habits and demands of ordinary life are mostly suspended, and so there's that much less to distinguish how I might choose to pass the time from how a Saudi businessman or a Korean housewife might. We all amble about a little aimlessly, read, chat, hear the same Muzak, eat from the same limited selection of eateries and browse and shop in the same limited selection of outlets. Nowhere else in the world do I ever spend any time looking at luxury goods. My friend Eddie has become a devotee of wristwatches. This evening I spent fifteen minutes looking at $1000+ wristwatches. They're very beautiful objects. 

Airports are also great places for winding down, and so this makes a good place to continue the wind-down that's been going on for three days. Since last I wrote, I took a longer-than-hoped-for bus ride from Hpa-an to Yangon, followed by a very long taxi ride in from the bus station, which left me with only a few hours to have a last look at that city, which got far too little of my time. The bus station is way out near the airport, and traffic in Yangon is terrible. Unlike Mandalay, which is choking on motorbike fumes, Yangon is all cars--and apparently the number of cars on the road has quadrupled in the last four years--which clog things up quite badly. I never got a definitive answer to why motorcycles are banned in Yangon--I doubt a definitive answer is possible considering the political situation--but one rumour has it that a feisty motorbike rider gave the finger to a car carrying one of the generals, who then insisted that the damned things should vanish. 

I had time for two brief stops, while also wandering the lively and endlessly fascinating streets of the city. The first stop was the Bogyoke Aung San Market, the country's biggest market, and packed with everything from women's underwear to objets d'art for the tourist market. And then I swung by Yangon's synagogue. Settled primarily by Iraqi merchants in the late 19th century, at its peak the Yangon Jewish community had 3000 members. That number has now shrunk to 20, who still maintain the colonial-style building in better nick than most of the structures in Yangon. The only Burmese Jew I saw was an old man speaking through one of those throat microphones that serve as the most effective anti-smoking ads I've ever seen. He looked Indian, and would have been an inconspicuous member of that large minority if it weren't for the kippah on his head. Inside the synagogue, a number of placards present the history of Burmese Jews--apparently Burmese president U Nu was the first foreign head of state to visit newly independent Israel--and insist that the Jewish community has friendly relations with the larger Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian communities in Yangon. 

And then I rounded out my time in Myanmar in true colonial fashion with a few cocktails at the Strand Hotel while reading through the Penguin Essays of George Orwell. I really love Orwell. I admire the clarity both of his prose and of his political vision, and I admire his flexibility, with an essay here assessing the political situation in Europe, an essay there on contemporary poetry, and another offering a perceptive analysis of the crude comical penny postcards sold at stationers' shops. But I also owe a debt of gratitude to Orwell that extends beyond the quality of individual essays. I read Animal Farm when I was about twelve, and I don't think I'd exaggerate if I said that I discovered literature through this book. That is, I discovered a book could be about something, that it could have a purpose higher than just entertainment. Orwell taught me that books can matter. A year or two later I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, in retrospect, was a seminal moment in turning me in the direction of philosophy. My life of the mind began with Orwell. 

By the following afternoon I was in Singapore. It's hard to imagine a greater contrast with grubby Myanmar than the pristine streets of the Lion City, and my time in Myanmar helped me appreciate all the more the achievement of keeping Singapore clean: I've now seen what a humid, tropical climate can do to buildings. They must have to scrub every bit of concrete in this city obsessively in order to keep the mould off. But I guess every city has its own particular challenges with upkeep. Every summer, for instance, the streets of Toronto are blocked off with road maintenance crews, as the extremes of hot and cold tear the asphalt to shreds. Chicago has the same climate, but it's broke and Americans don't believe in public spending, so the Chicago roads are riddled with potholes. So I guess Chicago helps me appreciate the achievement of Toronto's road maintenance crews just as Yangon helps me appreciate the achievement of Singapore's cleaning crews. 

And this left me with a day and a half--including a New Years celebration--with Mei Pin.  We went out earlier in the evening to Marina Bay, which is a hub of civic activity. This was where the fireworks would go off to welcome in 2015, which is also Singapore's 50th anniversary year. Preparations for "SG50" are everywhere and Singaporeans seem to be justly proud of what they've achieved in the last fifty years. Far from the stereotype of the authoritarian state where you risk severe corporal punishment just for littering, Singapore feels like a lively, open, and warm city--and there's even a bit of litter here and there. They've also worked wonders in turning themselves into a prosperous city-state with full employment. An island state with occasionally rocky relations with its neighbours, it faces a raft of challenges and meets them with great ingenuity. For instance, they've developed a state-of-the-art system for converting waste water back into potable water, reducing their dependence on Malaysia for fresh water imports. 

It was also weird being outside on New Year's Eve. I don't think I've ever seen in the new year in a warm country, so I'm used to huddling inside with a selected group of friends. But the festive atmosphere of New Years goes well with warm weather, and it was really nice mixing with the happy crowds in Marina Bay. And then we were back in Mei Pin's luxurious apartment with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot before midnight. 

Today we returned to Marina Bay to visit Gardens By The Bay, a massive botanical garden, which includes the world's largest greenhouse as well as Cloud Forest, a magnificent towering structure that replicates a tropical mountain ecosystem. It also came with a great audio guide, which made me wish more botanical gardens had that sort of thing. I really like plants, but I understand them far less than I'd like. It was nice to be able to really learn a thing or two rather than just admire the flora. And, unlike at a zoo, I didn't have to agonize over how unhappy the plants looked. So far as I could tell, they seemed mostly content. Whatever that means. 

But above all, it was just really nice to spend time with Mei Pin. We didn't stop talking the whole time we were together, and it still felt like we left far too many stones unturned. I didn't plan the trip to Myanmar so that I could find an excuse to visit such a dear friend, but I'm hugely grateful that Singapore isn't so far from Myanmar. 

An especially after several weeks on the road, it was hugely edifying to see someone I know and love. Backpacking can be a lonely business, in the same way that being friendless in a city is far lonelier than being genuinely alone. In fact, I quite enjoy aloneness, and I think one reason that travel appeals to me is that it feeds the introvert in me, who often gets suppressed in the course of my normal social existence. A month without a single social obligation to anyone that matters to me? The bliss! The freedom! But at the same time, I don't spend this month alone, but rather in the constant company of other backpackers, with whom it's very easy to form acquaintanceships but very rare to form genuine friendships. In my month here, I think I've met one person that I'd bother to pursue a friendship with if we lived in the same place. And even there, since we don't, I won't. 

And backpacker acquaintanceships can get dreary after a while. The same stale conversations about where you've been, what were the "best" experiences you've had, whether such-and-such a place is worth visiting, and how many days are needed to "do" it. I think "to do" is the most abused verb in the backpacker lexicon. People talk not just about "doing" particular towns, but even regions or countries: now that I've "done" Southeast Asia, I think I'll try to "do" South America next. This talk of "doing" is nakedly consumerist, and transmits a mentality that's been so fashioned by consumerism that entire nations become goods to be guzzled down and the wrappers discarded. My friend Reihan once slyly noted that, for all the left talks about American cultural imperialism, they don't acknowledge the equally hegemonic force of American counter-cultural imperialism. From Berlin to Bangalore, people express their revolt against global capitalism and Americanism by means of hip hop, ripped blue jeans, and the language of Noam Chomsky. Likewise, much as modern backpacking is a descendent of the hippie trails that led to Kashmir and Kathmandu, its dropout ethos has been transposed to the key of mainstream consumerism. 

I don't want to paint all backpackers with the same brush--not without taking a long, hard look in the mirror first. Like any group of people, they're a diverse bunch, and some of them are truly lovely: the sorts of people who think it's worthwhile to live with no more than they can carry on their backs for months on end, endure hardship, discomfort, and hassles so that they can visit corners of the Earth where people live differently from in their own tend to be curious, open-minded, and free-spirited. But, as with any general tendency of character, the upsides come with downsides (actors are capable of astonishing freedom and honesty of self-expression but also astonishing levels of self-obsession). And the downside to the backpacker's freedom of spirit is irresponsibility of spirit, even arrogance. A white person on the streets of Yangon has none of the responsibilities to others, is constrained by none of the conformity or social mores or the sense of shame, that a white person on the streets of Chicago is (and here it might be worth noting that the backpackers of Europe and North America are unrepresentatively white). Some people are primarily drawn to backpacking, I think, because it provides an opportunity to chuck the world, to concern themselves with no one but themselves, and have the added arrogance to think themselves better than the stuffed shirts back home for having done so. In Mawlamyine I overheard a guy boasting about how he needs to get off the antibiotics before New Years so that he can get "fucking drunk": talk about first world problems in the third world. Another woman I met spent hours (literally hours--I left the conversation to have a shower and eat dinner at a nearby restaurant and when I returned the conversation in the guest house common space hadn't shifted, and she was still the one holding forth) complaining about how high the prices are in Myanmar and how everyone's always trying to cheat you and are discriminating against you (yes, she used that wording) because you're white. To spend several weeks in this desperately poor country and to come away feeling like you're the victim requires a level of self-absorption that truly boggles the imagination. (Fascinating how quickly professedly left-wing people can start sounding like tax-dodging plutocrats when they find the shoe on the other foot.) Like I said, many backpackers--a healthy majority, I'd say--are lively, curious, and unusually gifted at looking outside themselves. But on the road you're also liable to encounter some of the most egomaniacal plonkers you could hope to meet outside a Goldman Sachs boardroom. 

One of the surprises of this trip was the discovery that Myanmar has already become a major backpacker destination: this country that had a near-non-existent tourism industry five years ago has now become an only slightly eccentric branch of the well-trodden Southeast Asian backpacker circuit. And one of the frustrations of the trip was that my short time here kept me very much on this backpacker circuit, and I feel I never got more than a very superficial view of the country. I've remarked in pretty much every blog post how picturesque and photogenic Myanmar is, and, as I noted after my time at Inle Lake, this is symptomatic of the problem: pictures show us the surface of things. And Myanmar has a very beautiful surface, which hides a very perplexing and troubled core that I've barely glimpsed. 

I recently read an excellent book called Finding George Orwell in Burma, where the author, Emma Larkin, also remarks on the difficulty of seeing inside the country. She travels around the country, retracing Orwell's steps and reflecting on how his time in the Imperial Police in Burma shaped his outlook, while also reflecting on how contemporary Burma (the book was published before 2010) has fulfilled so many of the dark prophecies of Orwell's dystopian novels. Despite speaking Burmese and spending so much more time there, Larkin remarks frequently on the difficulty of getting to know people, getting their true minds on the state of things, when they never know who's an informant and what Military Intelligence knows. Myanmar may be an unusually difficult country to get to know, but that makes the tourist experience of it feel that much more hollow. 

(Because I love jokes, I'll take an aside to tell you the two Burmese jokes in Larkin's book that made me laugh. In the first, a poor fisherman living across Inya Lake from General Ne Win's palatial mansion catches a large fish and rushes home in delight. He thinks he might fry it up with tomatoes and onions but then realizes he has no tomatoes and onions. Okay, might as well just fry it on the pan, then. But the fisherman has no oil. Roast it in the oven? But no, the fisherman has no fuel for the fire. Realizing there's nothing he can do with the still-flapping fish, he disconsolately returns to the lake and throws it back in. As it falls toward the water, the fish cries out, "Long live General Ne Win!")

(Second joke: a man makes a long, arduous overland journey on foot and crosses into Thailand to find a dentist. The Thai dentist who sees him is amazed at the lengths he's gone for dental treatment. "Don't you have any dentists in Myanmar?" he asks. "Oh, we have many fine dentists," the man replies. "The trouble is, we're not allowed to open our mouths.")

For all I'd be able to discern, Myanmar could be a happy, decent, and fair country, with a blossoming little tourist industry to welcome in foreign visitors whose hard currency will help them on their happy way. Far less than Iran--and in Iran I had the added benefit of spending a lot of time with locals who could speak good English--you wouldn't guess from the surface that this is still an authoritarian state, and is only starting to emerge from one of the most brutal dictatorships of the second half of the twentieth century. I think maybe I have a mistaken impression of what an authoritarian state looks life, since my education in the optics of authoritarianism came mostly from Cold War films that depicted an eternally grey Moscow where everyone sleepwalks about with faces gloomy with despair (but then I suppose Russians wear faces of gloomy despair regardless of their form of government). It's easy to forget that, outside of certain periods of emergency, people just get on with life. Even in Stalin's Russia, only a small minority (overwhelmingly represented by an intelligentsia who could write eloquently of their experiences) actually languished the the gulag or Lubyanka prison. Most people put up with shortages, moaned a little, and did their best to get by with what they had. So too here: what should I expect Myanmar to look like? Especially as a tourist, the people I'm going to meet are ordinary folk trying to make ends meet in the only system they're allowed to know, not the brave dissidents who risk arrest or worse for trying to change that system. 

Culturally too, Myanmar remains strangely opaque. The best example of this opacity is its Buddhism--and it's hard to begin talking about Myanmar culture without talking about Buddhism. If I knew nothing of Buddhism before I came to this country, my experience here wouldn't give me the slightest attraction to the religion. If anything, the Buddhism I encountered here was faintly repellent, with its superstitious investment of tremendous wealth in totally useless merit-making activities (it's not as if a new pagoda gets erected even to serve an internal need, like the fact that this community doesn't have one yet) and its gaudy bigger-is-better aesthetic that results in 500 foot long reclining Buddhas whose aesthetic merits rest almost exclusively in their size rather than in the expressive possibilities of the sculpture itself. But none of this should serve as an indictment of Buddhism, or even of Burmese Buddhism, any more than a brief view of hysterical pilgrims at Mecca should serve as an indictment of Islam (if you want more substantial reasons for finding Islam distasteful, try reading the Qur'an). The point is rather that Buddhism in Myanmar, like so much of the rest of the country, remains opaque to me: my time here hasn't let me see deeply enough to see the profound wisdom of a religion that has won me over with the very same texts and teachings--and even chants and prostrations--as are practiced here. 

One thing I have been struck by, which I doubt that a more extended acquaintance would dislodge, is the exceptional gentleness of the people here. Even in crowded places, I never get jostled, hardly anyone has tried to overcharge or cheat me--and when they have, they've been fairly unambitious about it--and the people smile easily and frequently. And even though the music videos and comic films on the bus rides tend to be quite violent, the violence itself is laughably contrived, as if the choreographers only knew of violence as a vague rumour of what deranged people apparently do sometimes (by contrast, Hollywood films could make one imagine that America is so awash with violence that only the most gruesomely realistic portrayal could pass the giggle test). At the risk of stereotyping, I might say that the people are like the landscape (and I suppose that's true to some extent everywhere): warm, gentle, and radiantly beautiful. It's hard to believe that this is a nation that's spent the past half century having its face ground into the dirt by a military boot heel, even less that this is a nation that could produce nearly half a million military boot wearers. 

Saying that such-and-such is "a place of contradictions" is one of the most worn cliches of travel writing, and unlike some more respectable cliches, it didn't have any meaning to start with. If all that expression means is that the people in a place exhibit tendencies that aren't always compatible with one another, all it says is that it's a place of more than rudimentary complexity. What would be really fascinating is the place that doesn't contain contradictions. 

All of which is to say that I won't conclude by saying that Myanmar is a land of contradictions, but I will conclude by remarking on one contradiction. After all, I think the temptation to the "place of contradictions" cliche is that it sets the writer up to present some contradictory tendencies, which can be a succinct way of drawing attention to the distinctive complexities of a distinctive place. And in this respect, my contradiction of choice is the frequent sight of Burmese monks taking selfies with their smartphones. Buddhist monks are emblems of the struggle to overcome the ego, and the selfie emblematizes the lurid egotism of the age of social media. Part of the fascination of visiting Myanmar just now is to witness this tradition-bound and isolated country stepping out into the global village--and meeting the likes of me. Meditation and chanting the suttas don't make one immune to the fascinations of Facebook, but the availability of bomber jackets doesn't make one chuck out the longyis that still outnumber blue jeans as the male lower garment of choice. 

If all goes as planned, I'll be home by early evening on Friday. I have to be ready to teach on Monday, so prep will take priority over sorting through photos, but hopefully I'll have photos posted before the weekend's over. I'll post them to Facebook, but I'll also post a link here to a Picasa album for those who don't have a Facebook account--unlike the seeming majority of Burmese monks. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lookin' Lazy at the Sea

Kipling only spent three days in Burma, but during that time he managed to pen the most famous poem in the English language about the place. Its opening line runs:

By the old Moulmein pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea

Which is exactly what I did two evenings in a row. Rangoon, Mandalay, the Irrawaddy river, Burma itself, and now Moulmein: this country is full of evocative names that conjure up the dreamiest images of the British Raj. All but one of those place names has since been changed--Moulmein is now Mawlamyine--in a move that could be interpreted as the nation reclaiming its own names from bastardizations imposed upon them by brutal colonizers, or an Orwellian move on the part of the military junta to erase the country's past and seize control of the very words in the people's mouths. (Of course, these two interpretations aren't mutually exclusive.) Speaking of Orwell, he was hardly to be outdone by Kipling in producing memorable writing inspired by Moulmein: during his time stationed there, he famously shot an elephant and witnessed a hanging

Mawlamyine was the first capital of British-controlled Burma, from 1826 until they shifted west to Rangoon/Yangon in 1852. As a result, it shares that latter city's mouldering colonial architecture, although on a much smaller scale. In general, Mawlamyine feels a bit like the city that time forgot: the pace of life is slower here, with a quiet bustle in which no one seems particularly fussed about getting things done. Its seaside location makes it hotter and much more humid than the other places I've been, a climate that discourages vigorous activity. As I come toward the end of the trip, Mawlamyine made an ideal place to chill out for a bit, so I ended up spending two days here getting up to not a whole lot. 

My main occupation was hanging out at tea shops, reading and writing. The Burmese tea shop is a noble and ubiquitous institution. Almost every street has one of these little shops, tucked into one of the corrugated-sheet-metal-roofed shacks that line most streets, with plastic tables and little plastic stools spilling from the shade out into the street. The standard tea is a thick, sweet mixture of strong, black tea loaded with sugar and condensed milk. Along with your order, you get as much free, cheap Chinese green tea as you can drink, dispensed from a thermos. Ordering was a bit of a challenge for me, though, as the accepted way to get a waiter's attention in Myanmar is to make kissing sounds, which I just can't bring myself to do, just as I couldn't bring myself to summon waiters in Ethiopia with the customary snapping of the fingers. (Being served by poor black people is uncomfortable enough; getting them to serve you by snapping your fingers is one step too far.)

My hosts invariably plied me with little deep-fried snacks as well. The first tea shop I stopped in was a bit off the main strip so my visit was quite an occasion. Not only were seats shuffled around so that I could be given the most comfortable plastic chair, but the proud owner even sat down at my table for a couple minutes and, in his broken English, asked where I was from, how long I was in Myanmar, etc. The owner was of South Asian origin, as are quite a number of residents of Mawlamyine, where you can hear the Muslim call to prayer along with the various Buddhist chants. The South Asian presence is no doubt partly a consequence of British rule, but also due to trade around the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea that predates the British arrival by centuries. At any rate, it's a bit odd meeting South Asians who speak Burmese, a tonal Sino-Tibetan language that's not at all related to the languages of the Indian subcontinent. But I suppose it's no odder than the fact that I have a number of friends of Asian descent whose first language is English. (And indeed, my grandmother's Hungarian has no more in common with English than Bengali does with Burmese.)

I only did two even vaguely touristy things in Mawlamyine. One was to visit Kyaikthanlan Paya for two sunsets in a row. Kilpling's old Moulmein pagoda, it sits on a ridge overlooking the city and the sea beyond. And oh, the sea! I sometimes forget that I miss the sea. But as soon as I saw it when I arrived in Mawlamyine my heart surged. I last saw the sea in August before I left Vancouver for Chicago, with its decidedly un-sea-like Great Lake. There's no actual beach in Mawlamyine--although a pleasant seaside Strand Road with a sea wall overlooking the water--but it's more the sight and smell of the sea than the feel of it that tugs at my heart. And, with enough imagination, Mawlamyine could pass for a tropical Vancouver: not quite mountains, but certainly hills rise up from the shore all around, and the view out over the Andaman Sea is speckled with little grey-green islands out to the horizon. And like Vancouver, Mawlamyine faces the sea westward, which makes it a great sunset-viewing spot. 

My other touristy activity was a short visit to Shampoo Island, so named because, allegedly, the ancient kings of Burma would engage in an annual hair washing ceremony using water drawn from a spring on the island. It's a little island with just enough room for the mandatory handful of stupas surrounded by a monastery. And one of the monks from that monastery provided me with my strangest encounter in Myanmar. Shortly after I arrived, I was approached by a sweetly smiling little monk--he couldn't have been over five feet tall--who spoke no English but clearly wanted to show me around the island. He was also keen to encourage me to photograph various not-very-interesting-looking things on the island. The first time I got my camera out to indulge him, he leaned boldly in, making as if to try to see the image on my digital camera's screen, and brushed his hand near my crotch as he did so. Once might be an accident, but the second time I was sure it wasn't, and didn't take any more photos. Next he encouraged me to sit with him on a bench in a shady, secluded spot, and encouraged me to touch his shaved head, which he then compared to my beard stubble by touching my cheek. Up I got in a hurry and on we walked, his sweet smiles turning increasingly fawning and gut-churningly saccharine. Eventually he mustered a "you beautiful," which I brushed off bashfully. Soon afterward, he gave up, and left me at the toilets, where he went off to do I-don't-want-to-imagine-what. 

Had I the right combination of fetishes, this could have been the most exciting moment of my life. Unfortunately for the monk, it just made me deeply uncomfortable. But more than discomfort, what afflicted me was the thought of how oppressively lonely this man's life must be, all alone and in the sea of life literally enisled

But tourism aside, Mawlamyine made a great city just to wander about in. I most enjoyed the large covered market near the sea, overflowing with smells, colours, smells, and strong smells. The huge baskets of yellow spices and bright red chiles couldn't compete in the sensory overload department with the piles of dried fish, reeking of salt and the sea. Regal matrons would squat on low stools as if they were thrones, sternly surveying their little kingdom of produce, and others would be sprawled out on mats behind their wares, snoozing like dogs in the sun. This went on for blocks and blocks, providing a comforting scene of commerce unfolding without any fuss. 

Walking along the Strand in the evening, I passed large conglomerations of plastic tables and chairs, where half the city seemed to be gathered, gossiping and munching on tasty-smelling eats grilled up by street vendors. A couple hours later, the streets were empty besides small gatherings--quite a number of them--of teenagers singing gentle rock songs with acoustic guitar accompaniment with Western-sounding melodies but Burmese lyrics. 

After a couple days in Mawlamyine it was time to move on. And so I took the four-hour boat trip up the Thanlwin River to Hpa-an, where I'm typing this now. Like my earlier trip down the Ayeyarwady, this one took me past small fishing canoes and riverside villages where children would burst through the foliage to wave frantically at the passing foreigners. As we got closer to Hpa-an, the horizontal lines of river, field, and trees came to be complemented by vertical lines of upward-thrusting rocks. Besides the lack of mist, I really could have been looking at a Chinese landscape painting, with its impossibly precipitous cliffs rising up from nothing. 

And indeed, it's this landscape that makes Hpa-an worth visiting. The city itself is nothing worth writing home about (but nevertheless...), but the surrounding countryside is full not just of magnificent rock structures but also caves. And this being Myanmar, the same enterprising souls that don't seem able to build cities that can go three hours without a power outage have packed a number of these caves with hundreds of Buddha images (there may be power shortages, but this country will never experience a Buddha shortage). The most impressive of these was Kawgun Cave, where little red stucco Buddhas in the thousands sprawl all over the cave walls, and are joined by more substantial Buddhas, serenely overseeing the scene. 

More enjoyable than the sculpture, though, was the scenery itself. A boat trip on the far side of Saddan Cave took us through a natural tunnel in the rock and then along canals dug among rice paddies. Rice grows a bright rich green, much brighter than wheat or corn. And so I slid gently through this deep, deep green landscape, surrounded by rocky cliffs lazily draped with creepers: sometimes, this whole country feels like an oriental fantasy. 

The day ended with a scene that felt like it came right out of the BBC Natural History Unit. After climbing a cliff to watch the sinking sun paint the countryside in soft hues, we descended to the mouth of a cave just in time to see bats in the thousands swarm out into the evening. It felt like I was watching popcorn pop: I could hear the squeaking, and then saw one or two bats circling near the mouth of the cave, then more and more, all winging about at the mouth of the cave but not yet heading out into the evening air. And then pop, out spurted one, it did a quick little circuit in the air and returned to the crowd gathering in the mouth of the cave. Then pop pop, two more did the same. Then a couple more, then a few started out and didn't return. Then more and more, and soon the cave was vomiting forth bats in uncountable numbers. But I tried counting nonetheless, and by a very rough estimate, I saw about one hundred thousand bats shoot out of that cave over the course of twenty minutes. I don't think I'm exaggerating. 

A hundred thousand bats is bad news for insects (and so good news for mosquito-aversive humans), but there was bad news for the bats as well. We humans weren't the only ones aware of this evening ritual of the bats, and as they started to swarm out, the hawks that had been circling patiently overhead started dive-bombing the bat swarm, and flapping about amongst the swarm, trying to pick off an evening meal. One bat, injured but not caught by a hawk, landed painfully not far from me, where it heaved in agony. We left as it was getting dark, and the cave still wasn't empty. 

And now I really can feel this trip coming close to ending. I have to be up very early tomorrow morning a bus back to Yangon, where I'll have half a day before boarding a flight to Singapore the following morning. The wi-fi at the hotel here is uncharacteristically good, so I thought I should shoot this off before I return to the unreliable Internet of Yangon. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas in Bagan

Christmas has always been my favourite holiday. When I was little, the excitement of anticipation was so great that I would struggle to fall asleep and would be up at the crack of dawn, gazing wide-eyed at the glittering tree heaped about with presents and the bulging stockings hanging over the fireplace. The family rule was that we weren't allowed to start opening presents until everyone was ready, and I had to wait till some unconscionably late hour (probably something like 7:30) for my father to get out of bed and stagger downstairs. As if to provoke me, he also needed to casually brew a cup of coffee before coming in to the living room where we could get started on the stockings. (Apologies if I'm getting any of this wrong--that's how it's lodged in my memory at least.)

One reason I need to remember to be patient with children is that nothing in my life occasions that kind of excitement anymore. But I was nevertheless up before dawn on this Christmas morning, although I needed an alarm clock rather than just the thrill of the coming day to do the job. I was awake at 4:45, out of my hotel and on my rented bike before 5, and at Shwesandaw Paya before 5:30 to beat the bulk of the crowds and get a decent sunrise-viewing spot. There was still no sign of dawn by the time I arrived, and a little light pollution aside, I had a good view of the stars, including the Big Dipper, which is normally hiding below the horizon in the early evening, preventing me from using it to locate the North Star, as well as a luminous Jupiter almost directly overhead. 

Over the next hour, I watched the dawn come up much more gently than thunder, starting with a slightly less dark shade of blue behind Dhammayangyi Pahto on the horizon. The dark blue expanded outward followed by progressively paler shades of blue, gradually unfolding a rainbow of yellow, then orange, then pinkish red sky on the horizon. That rich rainbow then flattened out to pastels and then to white as the first rays of sunlight peeked over the distant hills. The gradual increase in temperature conjured mist from the ground, creating a panorama of mist-shrouded temples with rays of silky white light streaming between them. As the light expanded, the hulking Dhammayangyi and other neighbouring temples seemed to grow, as if the dark had shrunken them and they were blossoming forth in the light. 

As the sun came up, so did the balloons. I counted a squadron of twenty rising far off to the northwest and drifting lazily toward us. Costing between $320 and $380 for a 45-minute flight, a hot air balloon ride was too rich for my blood, even at Christmas, but I'm glad others laid out for it (by my estimation, there was over $50,000 in the air that morning) because they took the view from magical to otherworldly. They passed us close enough that we could hear the deep whoosh of the flames firing up, like heavy breaths, so that these massive, bobbing beasts seemed like a passing pod of flying whales. And then they drifted past us into the southeast, rotund silhouettes against the pure white of the rising sun. 

That's how I began Christmas Day in Bagan. Bagan (aka Pagan) is probably Myanmar's best known tourist destination, and you've all seen at least one image of it, even if you don't know it yet--I lifted an image of Bagan to use as the background for this blog. Bagan was the Burmese capital from the 11th to 13th centuries, and is Myanmar's answer to Angkor Wat. (I've never been to Cambodia so I can't compare the two, but tourists I've met who have been to both say that Angkor Wat is indeed more impressive, but also overrun with tourists in a way that Bagan isn't--yet.) 

Bagan got its start under Anawrahta, the first Burmese king to adopt Theravada Buddhism (before that time, the Burmese people practiced Hinduism, and--interestingly, given that Theravada is the more ancient tradition--Mahayana Buddhism). The legend has it that Anawrahta was converted by a monk sent by the Mon king Manuha from the southeast of present-day Myanmar (where I'm headed as I type this). The monk made a violently enthusiastic convert of Anawrahta, who insisted that Manuha send him some sacred texts and relics, and, when Manuha refused, Anawrahta sent an army, plundered the Mon kingdom, took all he wanted, including a troop of monks and the captive king Manuha himself, back to Bagan. There's such a thing as being too successful in your ventures. 

Over the next two and a half centuries, Anawrahta and his successors oversaw the construction of over four thousand structures on the roughly 25 square kilometre plain of Bagan. Some of them are 15 to 20 foot tall stupas, just large enough to house a small shrine, while some of them are cathedral-scale temples ten times that height. At the peak of temple construction, a new building project began about every other week.

No one's quite sure what brought the Bagan period to an end and prompted the move of the royal court to the Mandalay area, but the most likely guess is Mongol invasions, real or simply threatened. (It says something about the destructive reach of the Mongols when you consider that I've witnessed effects of their raiding in places as far flung as Myanmar, Iran, and Russia.) I don't know if you need such a violent explanation for the decline of the Bagan kings. I would have thought that eventual collapse is inevitable if you pour most of your resources into merit-making conspicuous consumption. 

Bagan lies in a seismically active area (Maybe another reason for Bagan's literal collapse--I think I felt a slight tremor on Christmas morning) and the temples have been shaken around a lot in the last millennium, most recently in a devastating quake in 1975. Restoration has been a bit haphazard, so that some of the structures look like they were built from scratch in the last few decades (because they were), others have been repaired with a more conscientious eye to preserving their original form, and some have been left to crumble. 

I arrived in Bagan on the boat from Mandalay on the evening of December 22nd, as I recounted last time, and after a busy couple days in Mandalay I felt the need to unwind. So I invited myself to dinner with a pair of English women and a Dutch man who were celebrating the end of their stay in Bagan, and stayed on as the party shifted--one feature of the backpacker circuit is that acquaintances are everywhere and everyone is sociable. I ended up staying up past midnight for the first time since I left Chicago and woke up hung over the following morning to join a tour with Laura (England), Brittany (USA), and Mathew (Hong Kong). Compared with the rest of Myanmar, which is quite lush even in the dry season, Bagan is arid and dusty, with succulents as well as trees and a searing midday sun. Not the best place for a hangover, let me tell you. 

Our tour took us to some of the more far-flung temples of Bagan on e-scooters, little battery-powered numbers that are to motorbikes what frilly lace shirts are to muscle tees (if you were wondering what could make a scooter feel less manly, the answer is a nearly soundless battery-powered motor). A couple of the main roads in Bagan are paved, but a lot of the driving is on sandy tracks where you have to be careful to find the rockiest bits of road for fear of sliding uncontrollably on the thicker sand. Sand and dust get everywhere. The following morning I had a sore throat and a hay fevery itch in my eyes. 

Besides knowing which temples to go to and a couple bits of interesting information, our guide was useless. He spoke in a rapid and incomprehensible English, which he uttered with the insistent cadences of someone who's certain that the site of the communication breakdown is in his audience's ears and not on his own tongue. Figuring out what he was saying became an interesting intellectual puzzle in itself, as the four of us worked together to decipher, for example, "pestle" as meaning "pedestal." The once-again disappointing tour got me reflecting on the misfortune of an inadequate education. It's not just that this guy hasn't had adequate training in the English language. The deeper problem was that he hadn't had the education to know how to frame a narrative, to make sense of Bagan as something more than a series of memorized names and factoids. I didn't learn much from his tour because he gave me nothing to feed my imagination. And I got the sense that I was able to have an imagination that wanted feeding and that he was unable even to grasp what such a want might feel like because, unlike me, he had never benefitted from an education that taught him how to think. One of the things I like about travel is the way that it teaches me to see things that are normally so seamless that I take them for granted. Infrastructure is the big one--in the developing world, every telephone pole suddenly stands out as a work of human ingenuity brought about with a great deal of effort--but basic education, and its effect of prying open the imagination, is another. If a prerequisite for political change is having the political imagination to envision such change, it should come as no surprise that authoritarian states tend to leave education to moulder. (Although credit to the Soviet Union and Iran for investing in their people's education. I suppose that, unlike Myanmar's generals, they know--or at least care--that a country can't rise above abject poverty without an educated populace.)

Almost all of the temples are made of red brick, although remaining--or in some cases reconstructed--fragments of plaster hint at the fine stucco moulding that would have originally covered the brick. Many of them also have frescoes on the inside, but surprisingly most of the frescoes are very crude, in sharp contrast to the elegance of the structures themselves. There were a few exceptions, mostly lavish comic-book-like row-upon-row and column-upon-column depictions of Jataka stories or scenes from the Buddha's life. Unfortunately, almost all of the finest frescoed temples didn't allow photography inside (presumably so as to maximize the profits of the ubiquitous hawkers selling reproductions of the frescoes outside) so you'll just have to trust me that some of them are good. 

Bagan matches Inle Lake in tourist circus terms (so I can only imagine what Angkor Wat is like if this is low-key by comparison), and on our lunch break, we were ushered through a "traditional" village where we got to see various handicrafts being practiced with traditional methods, from weaving to peanut roasting. It all felt so contrived that I couldn't help but wonder if the prominent National League for Democracy signage was for our benefit as well. The National League for Democracy is Aung San Suu Kyi's party, and whereas you couldn't openly display your support for her five years ago without asking for a world of trouble, NLD banners are now all over the place, as are posters of "the Lady," almost always sharing the frame with her father, General Aung San, in military hat and greatcoat. Although the daughter is far more famous in the West than the father, it's thanks to her father--who led Burma to independence and was assassinated in 1947 shortly before he could become independent Burma's first leader--that Aung San Suu Kyi attracts such reverence from the people of Myanmar. And indeed, it's not just that she's his daughter--she also bears an uncanny resemblance to him, so that pictures of the two side by side really bring home the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi stands for Burmese independence. All of which is a bit awkward for the generals. Their propaganda machine had long touted Aung San as a national hero--after all, he too was a military man, conferring legitimacy on the military's claim to power--so it was uncomfortable in the extreme in 1988 when his daughter suddenly appeared to make a far more legitimate claim to his mantle in opposition to the generals. Since that time, the junta has gradually downgraded Aung San's place in the national mythology, but there's only so far you can downgrade when half the country's large public places--like the national stadium and Yangon's central market--are named after him. On the other hand, as "Yangon," and indeed "Myanmar," suggest, the generals aren't shy about renaming things. 

But I was talking about my guided tour. Our day ended where my Christmas morning began, on Shwesandaw Paya, which is one of a handful of the big temples that people are allowed to climb up on (Shwesandaw looks vaguely like a Maya temple, with steep steps on four sides leading up to a series of terraces). The sunrise gets healthy attendance, but the sunset is a zoo, with every tourist in Bagan crammed on to one of four or five temples. Alpha males jostle for space with their telephoto lenses that would give the Washington Monument a case of penis envy. But despite the occasionally irritable (and irritating) crowds, the sunset, like the sunrise, is too perfect for mere mortals to spoil. The late afternoon tumble into evening is consistently spectacular in Myanmar, but Bagan takes the cake. The sky pinkens, reddens, and then darkens, casting long shadows from the hundreds of temples across the plain, all a brooding red set against the dusty green. Sunset and sunrise in Bagan are two of the greatest shows on Earth, and, unbelievably, they happen every morning and evening. 

That evening, the four of us had a less hedonistic time of it before parting ways and staggering off to bed. The next two days--Christmas Eve and Christmas Day--I had mostly to myself. I hired a bike and took in a range of other temples, most of the big names plus a few unknown ones--not hard to find a temple that's not marked on the map when there are more than 4000 of them--that afforded some isolation. I've been impressed by the number of parents with young or youngish children with them, but I can see what a treat Bagan must be. I loved clambering about the castles on the Welsh border when I was young, and Bagan is a treasure trove of adventures waiting to be dreamed up. 

And now I'm on the night bus to Yangon. If all goes well, I'll arrive in Mawlamyine (aka Moulmein) by tomorrow afternoon and find a reliable wifi source with which to post this. The plan is to stagger off my bus in Yangon early in the morning and then find another bus for the seven-hour stretch to Mawlamyine. Call me a sucker for punishment, but time's running short and there's a lot of Myanmar I've yet to see. 

Facebook seems to get very clingy when I don't log on for a week. I'm now getting daily emails alerting me to things my friends have posted (it doesn't normally do this) with messages like "a lot has happened since you last logged on to Facebook." Damn straight a lot has happened, Facebook: I've been to Bagan. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On the Boat from Mandalay

Rudyard Kipling, who never visited Mandalay, immortalized it as a dreamily exotic place where "the dawn comes up like thunder." George Orwell, who did, was less flattering, calling it "rather a disagreeable town--it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes." I'm afraid Orwell was a little closer to the mark--Myanmar's second largest city is a noisy, stinky, dusty grid of mostly forgettable architecture, most of it thrown up after the city was heavily damaged in the Second World War (but in December at least the weather is tolerably warm)--but it also has a lot to offer to visitors, and I've had quite a nice--and quite a busy--time here. 

Mostly for astrological reasons, Burmese kings had a habit of moving their capital about--a habit perpetuated by the country's military leaders when they spent billions relocating the capital in 2005 from Yangon to the built-from-scratch Nay Pyi Taw in the middle of the country. (There were also no doubt strategic reasons for moving the capital to the heart of the country and away from prying eyes, and no doubt similar motives supplemented the astrological ones back in the royal period too.) Mandalay was Burma's last royal capital before the British took over, but three adjoining towns--Sagaing, Anamapura, and Inwa (aka Ava)--have also taken turns as the royal seat, making the Mandalay area historically significant from at least the 14th century. 

I had two days here, so I split them so that my first day was a day of excursions from the city and the second day I spent in the city. Let's see if I can get through the highlights. 

For my day of excursion, I hired a young guy to drive me around on the back of his motorcycle. I'd met Mo Ye the evening before (a bevy of would-be motorcycle taxi drivers hang around outside all the major tourist hotels) and the following morning he met me still in his traditional longyi and with red betel-stained teeth, but wearing a white button-up shirt and a worn black blazer--here was a man who took his job seriously. And indeed, one reason for hiring him is that the ride I'd had with him the evening before had felt reassuringly safe. Mandalay is nothing like as traffic-choked as many Asian cities--I suppose poverty keeps many people off the roads, and by far the dominant mode of transport are cheap, stinky motorcycles--but it still has the same worryingly "anything goes" approach to traffic: just put yourself in other people's way and trust they have enough time to slow down or dodge you. But that said, I haven't felt too imperilled on the roads. People drive fairly slowly here (it helps that the motorcycles top out at about 50 klicks) and seem genuinely concerned not to kill the people they're sharing the road with. 

Our first stop was Mahamuni Paya in south Mandalay. One of the holiest sites in the region, it focuses on a seated Buddha with an obsessively polished shining face atop a body grown thick and lumpy from all the gold leaf applied by devotees. (Rubbing gold leaf--which costs between $3 and $7 depending on the size--into sacred objects is a common form of devotion in Myanmar. Or at least, I've seen it practised in a number of places.) The reverence of the scene was very moving, with a long line of (only male) devotees waiting for their turn to apply gold leaf, while all around, men and women both bowed and prayed. 

Maybe even more fascinating were the surrounding marble workshops. Myanmar has more stupas and Buddha statues than you can shake an incense stick at, and the area around Mahamuni Paya houses many of the workshops where these statues are made. Row upon row of shop exhibited hundreds of seemingly identical Buddha statues, as well as half-finished ones, for instance with fully formed bodies but just a shapeless block for a head. As I watched the craftsmen work away at these blocks of marble with power tools, I reflected on the prayerful reverence given to the fruits of this muscular and noisy labour. I'm not sure how it works in Buddhism, but I assume there's some process of consecration by which a carved hunk of rock is turned into a sacred object. 

Our next stop was Sagaing, a bit south and across the Ayeyarwady (aka Irrawaddy) River from Mandalay. Sagaing had two runs as Burmese capital, once in the 14th century and once in the 18th, and its rolling hills contrast with Mandalay's flatness. The hills are dotted with stupas and small temples--even by Myanmar standards, Sagaing is stupa-mad--and the hills speckled with white and gold make an impressive sight from across the river. A series of covered walkways lead up and down the hills between holy sights, looking a little like a miniature not-so-Great Wall of China. Shaded benches along these walkways seem to be a prime spot for adolescent canoodling. Sitting shyly in pairs seems in general to be the most popular teenage pastime in Myanmar. Youths without much by way of prospects have little to do but "drink and dance and screw," as Jarvis Cocker puts it. Myanmar isn't exactly the land of opportunity, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of drinking and dancing among the youth. 

Our next royal town was Inwa, known as Ava to the British, which has taken four turns as royal capital between the 14th and 19th centuries. Now it's a quiet backwater of dusty tree-shaded streets and rice paddies set amidst atmospheric old structures and persistent hawkers. If crumbling stupas amidst rice paddies wasn't dreamy enough, I got driven around town in a horse cart by a spindly old timer who could probably remember Inwa's first turn as royal capital. The ancient red brick stupas gave me a foretaste of Bagan, but what impressed me most was Bagaya Kyaung, a 19th century teak monastery that's still in use. I'm a sucker for carved wood, and this was just the first of three ornate and delicately-proportioned teak monasteries I visited in Mandalay. 

And then our last stop was Burma's penultimate royal city of Anamapura, famed for U-Bein Bridge, which, at about 1200m, is the world's longest teak footbridge. The thing to do is to watch the sun set over Taungthaman Lake from the bridge, and half of Mandalay had come out for the sight. My dislike of crowds got my back up a bit as I jostled onto the bridge, but far enough along the crowds thinned out a little. And the sunset really was the kind to make you forget sharp elbows. Myanmar continues to be absurdly photogenic, and this is particularly so in the late afternoon light. It's a shame it lasts such a short time out here. Across the lake from the bridge stretch out damp, lazy grasslands partly cultivated with rice, with the occasional shrug of a stupa breaking up the otherwise flat horizon blanketed in a light mist. On the bridge I was approached by three novice monks, one quiet and pensive, one brash and extroverted, and one happy in the role of sidekick. The brash one was particularly keen to practice his English, and insisted that the sidekick get a photo of me with him and his pal using his smartphone camera in its Chanel-branded case. I confess I get a bit of a kick out of surprising monks by throwing a bit of Pali at them. Probably not exemplary of mindful speech. 

So that was my day of excursions. The next day was my day inside Mandalay itself. (You can tell this is going to be a very long blog post.) I hired a bicycle for the day, since Mandalay's too big to cover on foot, and hiring a taxi would give me less flexibility. If I'd been doing it for my health, I could have achieved the same effect on my lungs by staying in my hotel room and smoking a pack of cigarettes. The air in Mandalay is terrible, and my Q-Tips came out black after an end-of-day shower. 

Heading southwest from the tourist ghetto, it quickly felt like I'd left the city behind and entered a large village. I could only move my bike at walking pace through unpaved roads hosting bright and noisy markets. Eventually I made my way to the bank of the Ayeyarwady before circling back around to visit Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery, the second of my teakwood delights. This one's a little out of the way and so had relatively little tourist traffic despite the exquisite wood carvings. 

Near the monastery is the sprawling jade market. The gems of the impoverished northern Kachin State are one of Myanmar's leading exports, especially to the Chinese market, and the jade mined up north is shipped down to Mandalay to be carved and crafted or sold in chunks. Kachin State is in the grip of a heroin epidemic, as overtaxed miners turn to drugs to see them through their grueling shifts. Many believe that governmental attempts to stamp out the drug trade are so half-hearted not only because they profit from it--Myanmar is also the world's second largest heroin producer after Afghanistan, and much of the north consists of essentially mini narco-states controlled by heavily armed ethnic militias--but also because a drug-addicted Kachin population is less able to carry on that state's struggle for greater autonomy. With all this as background, the Mandalay jade market was appropriately seedy. Dense alleys of shacks housed small workshops where youths polished bits of jade on foot-powered wheels, tea houses where shady-looking figures discussed business, and the occasional showroom where smiling ladies presented jade jewellery for sale. 

Leaving the jade market I cycled away from the quiet backstreets of the city's southwest and back toward the traffic-choked centre. The next stop was the gold pounders district, where I visited one of the workshops that produces the ubiquitous slips of gold leaf applied by the faithful to sacred objects. Muscular youths hammered away at anvils in a steady rhythm while women used thin buffalo bone instruments to lay slips of hammered gold onto sheets. 

I also dropped by a shopping mall near the gold pounders district. Consumerism is a recent import to Myanmar, and the mall was still under construction and only half full. Mostly Asian brands--although Adidas and DKNY are both represented--and mostly geared toward young women: clothes, perfume, and various accessories. Wandering through the mall, I was as much out of place by virtue of being a man as by virtue of being a foreigner. 

The afternoon saw me head east and north around Mandalay's gigantic 4 sq km fort ringed by imposing walls and a wide moat. The royal palaces on the inside were bombed to pieces in the Second World War, and while some replicas are still open to tourists, most of the fortress is a military barracks, as it was under British rule as well. An ominous bilingual sign outside the gates reads: "The Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military] shall never betray the national cause." Depending on how you understand it, that statement is either tautologous, since the Tatmadaw regards the national cause as the entrenchment and expansion of military control over the country, or plainly false. 

Near the fortress, I visited Shwenandaw Kyaung, the third of my nineteenth century teakwood monasteries, and perhaps the best of the bunch. Among the exquisitely ornate carvings were a series of dreamlike scenes from the Jatakas ringing the central altar. The Jatakas are folktales telling of earlier incarnations of the Buddha on his path toward Enlightenment. I read a collection of Jatakas a number of years ago--in a translation by Sarah Shaw, who I believe is reading this blog--and am ashamed of how little I remember. But I didn't need to know the stories to be enchanted by the various scenes playing out above, below, and around one another, not unlike some Medieval European paintings, except these were all carved delicately out of wood.

The penultimate stop on my city tour was Kuthodaw Paya, which, along with neighbouring Sandamuni Paya, holds 729 (that's nine cubed for those of you without mathematical instincts--nine is an auspicious number in Myanmar) large marble slabs on which are inscribed the entirety of the Tripitaka, the canon of Pali Buddhist texts. The collection is touted as the world's largest book, although that attribution depends on how important binding is to your definition of a book: each of the 729 slabs is housed within its own little stone pagoda. 

And then I joined the half of Mandalay that wasn't at U-Bein Bridge by climbing Mandalay Hill for the sunset. Mandalay itself is flat, but the 760 ft hill to the city's north breaks up the plain's monotony and affords spectacular views over the surrounding city and countryside, all the way out to the Shan hills rising in the east. Like in Sagaing, the climb takes place on covered staircases, meaning that the full view only suddenly becomes available at the top. On the way up there are various shrines and hawkers, as well as two imposing standing Buddha statues. I was joined for about half of the hike by Mo No, another novice monk wanting to practice his English. This seems to be a popular pastime among the young monks, as nearly half the tourists I saw also had a saffron-robed companion. 

The dawn might not come up quite like thunder here, but evening certainly falls with a crash. Having watched the solstice sun drop a little after 5:20, it was already black out by the time I returned to my bicycle at 6. Fortunately I'd brought my headlamp with me and had some illumination on the ride home through Mandalay's poorly lit streets. 

But wait! I've only told you about the day's events in Mandalay. I've yet to say anything about the evenings. During the royal period, Mandalay naturally attracted artists and craftsmen seeking patronage, and it remains the cultural capital of Myanmar to this day. Naturally, I had to sample the offerings. (But let's not get carried away in praising Mandalay's urbanity: it's also home to Ashin Wirathu, the outspoken monk who's at the forefront of the Buddhist supremacist 969 movement, which has been responsible for inciting discrimination and violence against Myanmar's Muslim minority, not just in the troubled Rakhine State out west, but also in Mandalay itself. I passed by Wirathu's monastery near the jade market, but declined to enter.) 

On my first evening in Mandalay, I went to see the Mustache Brothers, Myanmar's most notorious a-nyeint variety troupe, who offer a mixture of stand-up, dance, and slapstick. They gained international attention in 1996 when their politically bold satire earned stiff prison sentences for two of the three brothers. The senior member of the troupe died last year, but they still offer nightly shows in English for a tourist audience. Watching it felt more like visiting a tourist-oriented museum piece than politically relevant theatre, although what do you expect when the show's in English? A lot of recycled jokes (the government cracks down on thieves because it doesn't like competition) that was mostly redeemed by comedian Lu Maw's sprightly wit and wicked grin. 

Less political but also less moribund was the pwe I waded into a block away from the show. Pwe are Burmese street festivals, which are seemingly ubiquitous in Mandalay--we passed three or four on our twenty-minute drive out to see the Mustache Brothers. The one I saw centrally featured the odd juxtaposition of rebellious and over-sexed rock music amidst Buddhist paraphernalia. The rockers share the stage with more traditional dancers and other artists over the course of the evening. And there was also loads of street food, little pavilions depicting scenes from the Buddha's life, fortune tellers, and gossiping crowds huddled over tea. One of the pwe I passed on the way down even had a bouncy castle for the kids. 

And then on my second night I went to see Mandalay Marionettes, a troupe that also plays mostly for the tourist crowd in Mandalay, but has toured internationally as well. The marionette show I saw in Nyaungshwe held up against this one, although the show in Mandalay was certainly more polished, and had the added virtue of an accompanying band, which was heavily percussive with melodies hammered softly on a xylophone-like instrument or shrieked out on a manic horn. They also had a couple human dance numbers and the highlight for me was a human-marionette duet, where the curtain was lifted so that we could see the puppeteer controlling the marionette while another puppeteer stood above the human dancer and made as if she were controlling the dancer with strings as well. Like with Indian dance, traditional Burmese dance involves extremely intricate and stylized movements of the fingers, hands, and wrists. 

This overlong blog post wouldn't be complete if I didn't also mention that I finished reading Burmese Days, Orwell's first novel, during my time in Mandalay. (The joke is that Orwell didn't write just one novel about Burma, but rather a trilogy: Burmese Days deals with the colonial period, Animal Farm deals with the transition to military rule, and Nineteen Eighty-Four deals with the reality ever since.) It isn't as captivating as his later novels or his best essays, but it's engaging nonetheless, and Orwell's keen political vision, unpolluted by ideology or sentiment, is on full display. But it was also interesting to see how even Orwell displays a hint of colonial-era racism in this bitterly anti-colonial book. Critics have complained that the Burmese characters come off badly, but I don't think that's fair since pretty much all the British characters come off even worse. But I was struck by some of the animal imagery. In particular, two different Indian characters are described at different times as having the liquid eyes of a dog. And it struck me that, although Orwell and other European writers can and do frequently use animal similes to describe European characters, they would never describe a European as having the eyes of a dog. The eyes, after all, are the window to the soul, and it betrays an uncomfortable othering to describe those windows in terms of a subservient beast's. 

I'm now on the boat headed down the Ayeyarwady toward Bagan (I'm so glad I twigged to the fact that I can type up these blog posts while offline and then publish them later), which is a much more pleasant--and much more expensive--means of getting about than by bus. As if to reaffirm that Myanmar is a place of too-good-to-be-true visuals, we glided into Bagan as the sunset revealed the awaiting plain of numberless stupas. The Ayeyarwady is Myanmar's main waterway, with its headwaters in the mountainous north, and its mouth in a delta in and to the west of Yangon. (The delta region--which during the colonial period exported half the world's rice--took the brunt of Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 138,000 people in 2008, and caused damage costing more than a quarter of Myanmar's GDP.) The ten-hour chug along the brownish river took me past large, sandy banks (this is the dry season and the already broad Ayeyarwady must swell considerably in the rainy season) with intermittent forests and cultivated land, along with occasional primitive villages with waving, smiling children (smiling seems to be the national sport in Myanmar). River traffic included a number of heavy barges as well as fishermen in dugout canoes and straw hats. The boat trip comes with a free tacky souvenir t-shirt. I might have preferred a slightly cheaper fare. 

I can tell that the tourist mentality has polluted my soul because, along with joy and relief, I felt a pang of disappointment when I read the news that America would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. I was hoping I'd make it there before McDonald's did, and indeed, I was thinking of going either next winter or the following spring. But I guess witnessing the transition of the country could be just as exciting. At least I got to visit Iran while the ayatollahs were still in power. Now may Allah deliver Iran from the ayatollahs posthaste. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On the Road to Mandalay

I'm typing this offline on my iPad as my bus rolls out of the hills of Shan state in the direction of Mandalay. We're delayed over an hour because a bus broke down on the bumpy, single-lane highway, meaning that traffic each way had to take it in turns descending into the switchback-carved valley the bus had stalled in and back out again. The road between Mandalay and my departure point in Hsipaw extends out to the Chinese border, and the facing traffic consisted almost entirely of heavy old trucks crammed full of watermelon mostly, but also bags of cement and a wide range of agricultural produce. One truck was stacked full of cages of uncomfortable-looking chickens, whose suffering no doubt will soon be ended.

Bus trips bookend this blog post. I last wrote shortly before leaving Inle Lake for Hsipaw on the night bus. I had luck on that ride, as a free seat meant I could stretch out a little and get a bit of rest before our 4am arrival in Hsipaw. We had a couple of hours before dark (I'm always amazed at how quickly night falls in the tropics, and in this heat it comes as a surprise when the sun drops well before 6 and I'm reminded that we're in the depths of midwinter) and I could admire the rising Shan hills in the late afternoon sun. Myanmar is shaped like a bowl, with highlands rising on three sides of the central plain. The central lowlands are the home of the ethnic Burmans, while the surrounding hills are home to a wide variety of ethnic minorities. At a bit under 10% of Myanmar's population, the Shan are the largest of these minorities, and their homeland spills over into neighboring Thailand and Laos. Their language is also more related to Thai than to Burmese. Both Inle Lake and Hsipaw are in Shan state so I'm only now heading back into a Burman-majority area. 

I've seen quite a few Shan flags here (and indeed, a Shan nationalist army has been fighting for independence on and off for decades) with green, yellow, and red horizontal stripes and a central white full moon. By contrast, besides on government buildings, I don't think I've seen a single Myanmar flag, even in Yangon. What I see everywhere--far outnumbering even the Shan flags--are the five-striped flags of Theravada Buddhism, representing the five Theravada nations of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Buddhism, then ethnicity, and only then the state seems to be the order of priority. 

Long-haul bus trips in the developing world seem to have a lot of similarities across very different countries, at least in my limited experience. This trip had a number of signature features: the TV at the front playing music videos and cheap comedy programs; the rest stops where bleary-eyed travellers congregate at plastic tables under harsh fluorescent lighting or buy snacks at surrounding kiosk shacks; the drab window curtains that look like they were made in a cheap factory in the 1970s and haven't been washed since; and of course the rows of small villages of thrown-together shacks under corrugated sheet metal roofing (whoever makes corrugated sheet metal must be very rich indeed) that serve as a reminder of the impoverished lives led in between tourist destinations. The TV on the bus can be a bit distracting when you're trying to sleep--although on this trip they were decent enough to turn it off at around 9 or 10--but it can also be a great cultural education. The music videos on this trip all featured adorable young things mugging and pouting their way through contrived love stories. I don't know how much of Myanmar's recent history I should read into this, but these videos had a disturbing tendency to get violent, one ending with a murder-suicide, and another involving a youth taking a makeshift baseball bat to the jerk who was canoodling with his girl. That one ended happily: the cops handcuffed the youth and then the repentant girl gives her unconscious would-be paramour a kick for good measure so that she and her boyfriend can go lovingly off to prison handcuffed together. Cutesy smile, fade to black. 

Hsipaw is mostly a launching point for treks into the surrounding hills, and that's how I used it. I managed to get a couple more hours of sleep in a proper bed after my very early arrival, then had breakfast and met with a tour coordinator to arrange an overnight hike on which I joined an English couple and a German woman. We set out before nine with our guide, Jo-Jo, who was 23 going on 14. A little guy (even by Myanmar standards, and I've yet to see a local who's taller than I am) with a huge smile that reminded me of my nephew James, he had the kind of irrepressible humour one sometimes wished he would repress. I like this independent travel thing, but the one upside I can see to package tours is that they come with fully professional guides. Jo-Jo spoke fairly good English, and was fairly knowledgeable, but he was so eager to please and entertain that he would rather exaggerate or make things up than simply not know or simply not be the focus of our attention. I recently taught Plato's Apology, in which Socrates recounts how, after being told that he's the wisest of all men, he converses with craftsmen, who surely have the wisdom of their craft over Socrates' professed ignorance, but Socrates quickly finds the craftsmen also claim to know a wide range of things about which they're entirely ignorant, so that their ignorance far outweighs their wisdom. I found this to be the case with Jo-Jo, with the additional downside that he couldn't stop telling lame jokes--preference for jokes that give him an opportunity to use the word "shit"--and laughing loudly. Apologies to anyone for whom this description reminds them a little too much of me. 

The trek itself began pleasantly enough, rising along a red, dusty track through hills cultivated with sugarcane, banana, wheat, gourds, and other produce, and became beautiful in the afternoon when the track narrowed to a path and we headed into the woods. I'm very fond of trees and it makes me very happy to spend time in their proximity. It's been fun looking at these tropical forests and trying to discern their differences from the forests I'm more familiar with. There are obvious differences, like the abundance of vines and creepers and the various tree-sized monocots, like bamboo, banana plant, and occasionally Palm trees, although they were more common in the lowlands. (Quick botany lesson. Almost all flowering plants--magnolias are an interesting exception--are either monocots or eudicots. Where I come from, the monocots are mostly represented by grasses and a few flowers with grasslike leaves, like daffodils and tulips. Unlike eudicots, monocots can't form woody parts, so that the trunks of Palm trees are actually less like wood and more like very thick and very tough bundled blades of grass. Here endeth the lesson.) But the trees themselves are also different. The fir and cedar of the Pacific Northwest are magnificently solid, and austere in their use of branches, but the trunks of many of the big trees here seem more like a thick, upward-flowing liquid, with smooth bark and a riot of boughs. They often look less like they have a single trunk, but rather a fused-together jumble of thinner trunks wrapped around by a smooth sheeting of bark. The trunks, especially on the banyan trees, are also wonderfully thick, with roots spreading out from a couple of feet above ground. That, along with the fairly low point at which the boughs detach from the trunk and start flowing outward, makes them great for climbing. And then there are the teak trees, for which Myanmar is famous (and for which it has been plundered for over a century), with huge leaves and straight, dignified trunks that really do give an impression of solidity. 

We spent the night in the Palaung village of Manlwe (on the trek, my Burmese "hello" and "thank you" were of no use, and Jo-Jo had to teach us these two expressions first in Shan and then, higher up, in Palaung, an ethnic minority of fewer than 100,000 souls). The villagers are familiar with Western guests--we saw a couple other trekking groups overnighting there--but they haven't tarted things up at all. We were put up in a typical wood-with-corrugated-sheet-metal-roofing hut (there was a downpour in the night, and man did that roof make a din) where our hosts sat around a fireplace in the middle of the room and served up the best food I've had so far in Myanmar. One upside to these hill villages is that they're all vegetarian, and they served up a variety of dishes to be eaten with rice that were unlike anything I'd ever eaten. Highlights included tea leaves with nuts and some sort of stewed gourd, and all of it was subtly spiced to perfection. 

Our hosts also had terrific faces. Leathery with age but perfectly smooth besides long spidery smile wrinkles extending from the eyes, the result of decades of big toothy smiles that bare an orthodontic horror (in general here people seem to have unusually big teeth). They eventually retired and we curled up on a row of thin mattresses topped generously with warm blanketing. One nice thing about walking all day is you get to eat heartily and sleep soundly. 

Oh, and the stars! The clouds that erupted into a nighttime downpour were already rolling in, but with a fairly new moon and little light pollution I got a terrific view of the Milky Way and even caught a shooting star. 

The following morning we filled up on an equally delicious breakfast and set out back in the direction of Hsipaw. We got back late enough that, once I'd showered and settled in a little there wasn't really time to explore the town, but I guess a trip like this is bound to be full of such disappointments. I had some tea down by the river and an evening meal before returning to read George Orwell's Burmese Days on the balcony of my hotel. A group of happy-clappy Christians--including a very skinny Shan Santa Claus--were moving building to building down the street singing a combination of what I assume are Shan Christian songs (the only word I recognized was "hallelujah") and heavily accented Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a guitar. Apparently Myanmar has the third highest population of Baptists in the world thanks to the efforts of a particularly diligent 19th century American missionary. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflections on Aesthetics and Tourism at Inle Lake

So far, this country is ludicrously picturesque. In Yangon, I marvelled at the crumbling colonial architecture and Shwedagon Paya (by the way, just yesterday the New York Times ran an article about efforts to preserve and restore Yangon's architecture). The last two days I've been on and around Inle Lake, where it feels less like I'm visiting a real place and more like I've been immersed in some sort of virtual reality tourism documentary. The flat, placid lake merges almost imperceptibly into wetlands, which merge almost imperceptibly into dry land, and many of the surrounding villages are perched on slender stilts over the water. The local ways of life feel like they were designed for a tourism brochure (and they do now indeed feature in countless such brochures), from the floating gardens, where waterborne horticulturalists tend trellised vegetables that, like their homes, are raised on stilts above the water, to the Inchon fishermen, who perch on one leg on the sterns of their long, flat dugout canoes, holding large cone-shaped nets with both hands, and paddling the boat by wrapping the other leg around a long paddle.

Yesterday I had my tour of Inle Lake: along with two other couples, I got in one of these canoes that had been fitted with a primitive outboard motor, and spent the day touring the lake and the surrounding villages. The wetlands extend several miles in from the lake itself on most sides, and we chugged up channels of water cut through the swamp till we arrived at one stilt-raised village after another. If we'd had a mounted gun on the boat I could swear we were participating in a reenactment of Apocalypse Now. 

The tour took in the lively market town of Inthein, behind which were some crumbling ancient stupas that gave me a foretaste of what awaits in Bagan (as far as I can tell, "stupa," "zedi," and "pagoda" are used interchangeably here to describe the bell-shaped religious structures--I'll stick to "stupa" from here on in, as it's familiar in English, and unlike "pagoda," it doesn't mean something confusingly different as well); a couple monasteries, including the massive and stilt-raised Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, with an impressive collection of artful Buddha statues; and a number of workshops of traditional handicrafts: silversmithing, silk weaving, and cheroot cigar manufacture, packed with crushed star anise rather than tobacco. Our guide also chugged us slowly through some floating gardens and slowed to a crawl as we passed some of the Inchon fishermen, so that we could get some great photos. The fact that each chug of the motor gave the whole boat a gentle kick is only a partial excuse for the fact that I didn't get a single outstanding photo on this day of obscene photo ops. I encourage you to look up images on Google. 

Let me return to that word "obscene." The whole experience was a bit uncomfortable. It doesn't take a poetic soul to find it unseemly to click away at fishermen like they're animals in a zoo (it takes only a slightly more poetic soul to find it unseemly to click away at animals in a zoo like they're animals in a zoo). But even the workshop visits made me uncomfortable. And this despite the fact that they were excellently curated: an English-speaking guide would lead us through the workshop, leading us through the manufacturing process, invite us to interact with the craftspeople, and gently steer us toward the workshop's sales centre without any heavy pressure to buy. Just the sort of experience that inclines one to buy, since one has made a more personal connection to the crafts one is buying (and buy I did). But you have to be economically retarded not to realize that there's a complex system of kickbacks involved here, where our guide gets a share for taking us to just these workshops, the hotel gets a kickback from the guide for setting up the tour, and so on. Nothing wrong or corrupt with any of that. But, despite (or maybe because of) how pleasantly arranged the whole thing was, the whole experience felt incredibly packaged. 

And I think what made me uncomfortable about all this had very little to do with how staged my experience was, but rather with the effect my presence was having on the local economy and way of life. Until very recently, tourism was a very minor part of Myanmar's economy. I'm part of the first wave of mass tourism in this country. And while tourism can be an economic boon to a region, it also has all sorts of adverse effects, from setting up a skewed economy, where the English-speaking, hotel-owning gatekeepers control a flow of money that trickles unevenly down, setting up new and not always healthy hierarchies of wealth and power, to commodifying traditional ways of life, to the point where the locals themselves no longer know whether they're fishing that way because it's the best way to catch fish or because the tourists want to see them doing it. 

And these reflections tie back in to my remarks above about how picturesque Inle Lake is. I'm sure the Inchon fishermen don't go about their daily rounds thinking, "gosh, how wonderfully picturesque my way of life is." More likely, they're thinking, "gosh, I hope I catch some fish so that I can feed myself and my family." It takes an outsider to find a way of life picturesque (I didn't find it picturesque to be racing across Christ Church's main quad to get to my tutorial on time, but the tourists photographing me did--and perhaps regretted that I wasn't wearing a tweed three-piece and an academic gown). Beauty in some sense is in the eye of the beholder, and it takes a visitor like me to find Inle Lake beautiful in this particular way. But the presence of me and people like me is also not-so-slowly transforming the beauty of the lake into a display: we want to gaze upon the authentic living article, but our gaze risks turning it to stone. I don't want to deny that the locals can also respond aesthetically to their surroundings and way of life, but they certainly don't find it exotic. And maybe the lesson here is that certain forms of aesthetic response are inherently morally corrupt. I'm in some sense wrong--aesthetically, morally--to find Inle Lake beautiful in the way that I do. I said the whole place feels like a virtual reality tourism documentary, and that kind of response turns it into one: I'm seeing the place theatrically, and that way of looking at it turns it into a theatrical make-believe. 

On the other hand, I can't easily wish myself and my fellow tourists away. It's not just that, despite what I said, Inle Lake is very beautiful and worth visiting. It's also that the locals now depend on us. I'm staying in the gateway town on Nyaungshwe, which is under heavy construction of new hotels and restaurants and the like. A lot of people have bet their livelihoods that tourism in this area will only grow, and the local economy--all the way down to the quaint fishermen and floating gardeners--will suffer a great deal if the money pump dries up. 

All of these musings are familiar to anyone who's done much travelling in the developing world and thought at all about the impact of their presence. But it's hitting me more here because, I'm interested to find, Myanmar is much more on the "beaten path" of tourism than Iran or Ethiopia, which were my last two destinations. Iran in particular has an economy and prosperity that depends not at all on the presence of tourists and it was accordingly very easy there to get to know locals and see sights without feeling like it was turning into--like I was turning it into--a show. And it's fine and good for me to say that I prefer to be off the beaten path of tourism. But all that means for the most part is that I'm part of a vanguard that's making the path a little more beaten. 

All that said, I had a much less uncomfortable, if more low-key day on my first day here. I rented a bike and did some cycling around the northern part of the lake, which involved dropping in on some hilltop stupas as well as a forest monastery about a half an hour inland from the village of Maing Thauk. Forest monasteries tend to be much more remote, so this was a fairly tame affair, but it was also incredibly pleasant and peaceful. The two monks I encountered seemed genuinely happy to see me, even though the cynical part of me realizes that here I really am part of an advance guard that will gradually turn these monks into tourist attractions. Here, as at a couple of other points on my trip, I was amused to realize that my limited exposure to Pali gives me a common language with Burmese Buddhists, I guess like a Chinese scholar with limited exposure to Latin showing up in the Vatican. My knowledge of Pali doesn't exactly allow for small talk, but I was at least able to surprise and delight the monk by telling him that I take refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the dhamma, and the sangha. He then offered me a cigarette. 

And then at the end of that day I got some "authentic" theatricality. There's a small traditional puppet theatre in Nyaungshwe, where I and four other tourists saw a delightful series of short performances by a third-generation marionette artist. He explained that his was a dying art form--the young people today aren't interested in puppetry and prefer movies and TV--so that it's only really kept alive by tourists. So I might be turning the Inchon fishermen into performers, but at least I'm helping the real performer stay afloat as well. Although I suppose it's Western influence more broadly that's turned Myanmar youth away from puppetry in the first place.

I now have a quiet half day ahead of me before leaving this afternoon on a night bus that should get me to Hsipaw at 4 in the morning. Why it can't leave in the evening and get me to Hsipaw at a reasonable hour, I don't know. At least I got two good nights of sleep the last two nights. But the main consequence of that is that I only yesterday started to feel just how sleep deprived I'd been.