Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Burma: A Monk and a Nurse

Burma is behind me now as I move forward in my travels, back to the dazzling future as I mosey about the sparkling modern streets of Kuala Lumpur. But the people and sights of that motley land will vividly reside within me forever.  Especially, the people. 

A crash course in current events, first, for those who aren’t savvy regarding the unjust climate that permeates the air in Burma, much like the damp mold that saturates the buildings of Yangon. Burma is run by a military government which holds an iron tight fist around the freedoms of its people. Any books deemed threatening are banned, news that doesn’t favor the govt’s ideals isn’t reported, citizens are hardly allowed to leave the country, internet usage is restricted and monitored, and hundreds of political prisoners sit in jails for the crime of speaking their minds. Government informants are everywhere, leading to a population that lives in constant fear and censorship. ‘Democratic elections’ are occasionally staged, but are merely a farce put on as an attempt to appease international pressures; they always end the same way, with the same people sitting upon seats of crushing power.

Yet, the people smile. And laugh. And love. And live. And hope…

On the outskirts of a modest village named Hsipaw, my partner and I dismount from our rented bicycles and stroll up the steps to an unassuming temple. It is the day of a new moon, and thus a minor celebration day, as the ancient traditions of their ancestors dictate. Several women dot the stone floor that circles around the bell shaped structure, eyes closed they sit in various positions of prayer and meditation. When their stillness is broken, we exchange warm smiles and eventually follow their footsteps down a winding staircase that leads to another temple enclosure below. Many had gathered in this simple room, and as we timidly entered, the sounds of devotion we could hear found the bodies that were producing them. A lean monk dwarfed by his billowing robes led a small crowd in hypnotic chanting. Once the spell was concluded, the awareness of our presence spread fast. Faces beamed at us, thrilled to have outside guests join their tight knit community. Little English was spoken in this room, but that didn’t stop anybody’s effort to connect. We ate with them. We drank tea with them. We played with their bashful children. We were honored to receive gifts from the monk… for each of us a string of prayer beads, and for each of us a copy of the Dhammapada, written in Burmese and English. We learned from this smiling congregation how to use our prayer beads, holding them in both hands and gently thumbing along each bead while chanting ‘Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha’. We sat with the Monk as he enthusiastically opened up page after page in the Dhammapada and animatedly tried to communicate his interpretations. It was hours before we managed to tear ourselves away from their enveloping warmth, and when we did, it was with a certain lightness in my step as if an unperceived weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Photo by David Simon

On another day, in a suburb of Mandalay that sees hoards of day trippers eager to catch a glimpse of a massive and unfinished pagoda, we managed to find some space away from the tourist stalls and souvenir hawkers. A brief mention in the Lonely Planet of an infirmary for the elderly, and the nurse who runs it, piqued our curiosity and so we ambled up to the crumbling, inconspicuous buildings. It wasn’t long before our unsure wanderings were met with the heartfelt welcome of a smiling middle aged woman. We introduced ourselves, and she began to tell us about her work. This was a home for elderly people who needed care, and who had no family or home for themselves. Twenty five years ago she had begun her work there, and to this day she still runs it completely on her own. No other nurses… no doctors… only her, and the 82 +/- patients that live there.  Seven days a week she relentlessly works, struggling to care for the plethora of crucial needs that she is responsible for, because if she doesn’t nobody else will. Sleep is rare. Funds are few, and none are from her country’s government. More shocking than all of that, is the expansiveness of the smile that radiates across her face as she relays all of this information. Really… radiates. I mean, in the best of circumstances, her line of work is extremely difficult and trying both physically and emotionally. Yet, there she stood, up against a veritable mountain of adversities, with her impenetrable positivity.

Startled into awe by her spirit, I managed to ask her, “How do you keep your smile?” To this, she emitted a resounding laugh from her rounded belly, and could barely get the words out between her chuckles and chortles. In essence, she replied that whenever the tribulations loom over her in daunting towers, when she feels she might cry from the ordeals and and hardships that she faces… instead she laughs. She thinks of each trouble and laughs. She laughs and laughs and laughs until her heart is light again. Then, she gets back to work.

In the midst of circumstances truly unfathomable to anyone growing up in a land of freedom, the people of Burma find strength not just to carry on, but to truly live with spirit and happiness. This indelible will calls to mind the people of another nearby country, who lived through a horrific genocide, and came out the other end still retaining softness in their smiles, and generosity in their hearts. The courage and resilience of these people is humbling beyond words. It certainly puts into perspective the comparatively minor difficulties that mange to distress me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Burma: First Impressions

Those who have traveled throughout the dusty roads and sleepy river towns of Burma, almost unanimously agree: although impressive and intriguing sights are not hard to find, it is the people of this country that truly make it a standout destination. I am not here to disagree with this tried and true wisdom. In-depth conversations with interesting and inspiring characters have graced my ears as I’ve meandered through this controversial and cut off country, but first impressions were solely focused on my eyes’ intake.

Local men, showing that men can wear skirts too!
The only way to travel in Burma is to fly in to its capital city – Yangon (Rangoon) – as all the land borders are closed off by the military government. Without the option of a gradual journey, I was plopped straight into the hub of this mysterious country. As soon as I placed my flip flopped feet upon the ground of this next ‘new’ country, the people were indisputably the focus of my wandering eyes. Immediately apparent, the traditional fashions of this country ate up my preliminary glances. Men and women alike are almost unilaterally clad in longi's: a large tube of fabric that is wrapped around the waist, twisted into a knot at the front for men, and pulled and tucked to the side for women. The other obvious trend here is the application of a thick paste made from tree bark, (called thanakha), on the faces of women and children. Described as ‘sunscreen’, but used more as decorative face paint, I was completely enthralled with the creative splotches and designs that adorned the faces around me. These strange and unique fashions were a welcome change to the western mimicry so often on display throughout SE Asia.

A line of women wearing longi's as they tidy the grounds around Shwedagon Pagoda

Women selling, and wearing, thanakha
It’s sad to say, but the people that occupy these far-away corners of the world, rarely wind up dressing strikingly different than people I know back home. Sure, different T-shirt designs might be popular, but so few places in this part of the world actually display a pervasive sense of their own traditional clothing or beauty trends. (The sari’s of India being another exception, and an equally enrapturing sight.) How much longer this tree bark paste will last as the preferred cosmetic in Burma is hard to say. Already, whitening creams are on display everywhere, ‘NIVEA’ ads seem to dot the entire landscape, and Burmese entertainment depicts its most ‘beautiful’ protagonists as carbon copies of Western ideals, while relegating the tree bark paste to comical, lower-class characters. What a shame that in this world, one culture has such a dominant impact over every other. To my eyes, a copper skinned Burmese women clad in her own colorful longi, proudly showcasing a face expertly decorated with cream colored paste, is unarguably far more beautiful than her country’s cookie-cutter pop-stars.

Next impressions to ponder over revolved around the incredible variety of faces that smiled at me. Something I never realized before became very obvious: Burma is a melting pot of Asian races! Over two hundred ethnic lines can be spotted within Burmese borders. This diversity is nowhere else as apparent as along the streets of Yangon. If I had entered Burma on a direct flight from America, perhaps the array of features would not have been so immediately striking. Their eyes are all brown, after all, and their hair is unerringly dark. However, after wandering through Asia for several years and sometimes experiencing a much smaller range of features, Burma seemed to be a turn of the century Ellis Island mixture of attributes. Almond eyes, oval eyes, narrow eyes, wide-set eyes, high-browed eyes, deep-set eyes… all stared back at me, most with the gleam of a smile lighting up their irises. 

Wandering along the bustling cargo docks of Yangon’s riverfront, crowds of these wide eyed stares and eager grins followed us as we carved our way through the flurry of activity. Women sellers claimed minuscule squares of the narrow pavement, displaying betel chew, noodles, pots of oily curries, cigarettes, drinks, fish, and any other popular products. Processions of shirtless and tattooed men, hoisting heavy packages of goods on their muscular shoulders, snaked their way from boat to truck, or from truck to boat. Benches dripped with groups of men whose cheeks bulged with the blood red betel chew crammed into their mouths. Small children darted in and around the teeming paths, alternately smiling in excitement or crying in fear as their eyes alighted upon the strangely pale foreigners. People shouted, horns blew, engines roared, and in the midst of it all... I began to fall in love with Burma and the people within her borders.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Last Tribute to Phnom Penh

**Unable to add pictures at the moment. Right now, I'm just grateful I figured out a way to access my blog at all from Burma, even in a compromised form!! :)

Before I move on to writing about my adventures in Burma, there's one last wringing of the towel to be done, in order to squeeze out the last few droplets about my time in Phnom Penh. Having left now, as I look back on the three and a half months I spent in Cambodia, a well of odd curio memories assemble themselves into a hodge-podge jigsaw that encompasses everything from the consuming sadness of the S-21 museum, to the ever smiling faces of the tuk tuk drivers that hung out in front of our apartment. Before time moves too quickly forward, swallowing the minute details of what it was like living in that one-of-a-kind Asian metropolis, I aim to pay one last tribute to that city like no other. Phnom Penh... this is for you.

My first impressions consisted of wondering how to construct a unified understanding of a city that simultaneously displays some of the grimiest streets, most marginalized poor classes, and most underdeveloped infrastructures compared to other SE Asian cities... right alongside a shocking abundance of flashy SUV's proudly declaring in huge block letters: 'LEXUS', as well as the disconcerting amount of gated mansions, and the ever increasing development of posh towers looming over the cramped alleyways below. More than once, I actually saw a brand new HUMMER power its way through streets barely wide enough to fit its cartoonishly monstrous size. Yet, the vast majority of PP's residents zip around its claustrophobic lanes on small engined mopeds, gracelessly squeezing in and around the myriad of obstacles that lay in wait. The result on one's perceptions is that Phnom Penh seems the perfect microcosm of the economic reality that exists everywhere... but rarely so obviously. You know, that reality that less than 5% of the population controls 90% of the money (or whatever that statistic is). In Cambodia it happens to be that way because the millions of dollars of aid money that comes into the country rarely reaches the intended destinations, but instead amasses in the pockets of very few, very corrupt, individuals. (Good thing such injustice doesn't occur in the more developed parts of the world! Ha. Ha.) I once asked a couple who'd been living in Cambodia for quite some time, 'Are there any honest rich people in Cambodia?' The answer was given without hesitation: No.

Moving past the classlessness of its upper class, the words 'Phnom Penh' stir up a flood of uncategorized images and sensations, all forming their own little piece of that city's puzzle. The images appear all at once, one on top of another, and then circle around, each taking its turn in the spotlight of my mind. I see babes with bronzed skin fully exposed as they splash about in murky street puddles of rainwater mixed with mystery substances, unaware of anything beyond the cool delight of being wet. Next comes a street lined with open mechanic shops, their greasy machinery spilling out onto the streets, the smell of oil and petrol filling the air, and the permanently blackened hands of the sun-wrinkled men who work there, expertly coaxing dinosaur aged engines back to life. Another street scene follows, this one speckled with candy colored hair salons, the youthful employees there sporting a much different look while they listlessly mill around their shop fronts looking as if they're waiting to be discovered; an aura of 'cool' wafts around their manicured coifs that defy gravity, cemented into place by unknown chemical combinations.

Smell replaces sight for a while as the unmistakable 'flagship' smell of PP takes over all other sensations... durian fruit. Forbidden in many public places for its all-consuming aroma, that spiky fruit occupies countless roadside stalls in that city, filling the very air around with an inescapable attack on the nostrils. If you've never experienced it, and in your mind you are now trying to imagine it's smell by calling to mind the smell of other fruits... melon perhaps, or maybe a pile of apples, or strawberries or bananas possibly... all I can say is: stop. You're not even close. There’s really no way to describe it. The best I can do is to say: it is pungent, and it is unpleasant. Unfortunately, as long as nostrils are in control, the memories are rarely pleasing. Outdoor markets are in abundance, and wherever their colorful umbrellas abound, the smells of produce left out too long in the heat battle with the slimy aroma of half-alive fish gasping their last breaths. Once the sun finally makes a blessed retreat, (taking with it the aromas it extracts from everything it touches), one only has to battle with the scent of rotting piles of garbage that are swept out into the center of the streets, where they await collection in the dark hours of the night. I can't say that my nose will miss Phnom Penh.

But there's more swirling around, waiting for its place centerstage! All manner of mopeds continually and carelessly rocket around, interweaving themselves between each frame. Rarely are they topped by a solitary individual. No no no... 3 or 4 bodies on average are draped atop their narrow seats. Many times I saw 5 people, and with mounting excitement I would occasionally count up to SIX human beings precariously whizzing past on one little motorbike. SIX. (I've heard tales of seven, but sadly I never witnessed such a miracle myself.) Of course, many times I would see a motorbike occupied by just one person... and a washing machine perhaps. Or maybe a live pig, or another motorbike strapped on top. Or stacks and crates of goods so long, wide, and high as to push the driver up against the handlebars, leaving him with not even an inch of his seat to rest on, being held up instead by the pressure of his body against the front bar and the pressure of the goods upon his back.

Following the trails of their laden down wheels, my mind alights upon another curious sight: the carcass of an entire cow, casually rotating on a massive spit, in front of a corner restaurant. As if that's a perfectly normal thing to see in a country's most 'cosmopolitan' city. And then one of my personal favorites comes rocketing into the forefront of my mind: public aerobics classes! In the cool hours of dawn, they gather. While there is light enough to see - but not enough to drain ones desire to move - hundreds of residents collect in parks, and wide pedestrian boulevards. Massive speakers are set up, an impossibly energetic instructor takes his position down stage center, and the show begins! Young, old, those committed to fitness, and those who are there merely to socialize… all are welcome. And in the evenings after the sun releases its stranglehold, hoards again accumulate for round two.

Like many major cities in Asia, a thriving expat community can be found in Phnom Penh. Though, I don’t think many other cities can claim some of the unique qualities found within the PP’s scene. Say, for example, the fact that every other Monday night several hundred of them gather up for a strange event called ‘Nerd Night’. Or, perhaps it’s the fact that 90% seem to be working or volunteering for some sort of NGO. (Cambodia is home to well over 200 NGO’s, a staggering amount for a country of it's size). Whatever it is, they’re certainly a lively, friendly, and unique crowd.

Finally, I would like to conclude by paying a special tribute to the exuberant drivers of motorbike taxi’s and tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh. Though your relentless prodding’s drove me absolutely batty at times, I believe I can officially say you are the most dedicated drivers in all of Asia when it comes to encouraging business. After three years in Asia, having traveled through countries like India, Thailand, Nepal, and Vietnam… Phnom Penh is the only place where I have been asked if I wanted a tuk-tuk, while I was being driven past in another tuk-tuk. And just to put aside any doubt as to whether or not this phenomenon was a fluke: it happened to me twice.

Though more than one corner of the world may claim to dip its chips into some of the preceding dips, I do believe there is only one place in the world where the whole smorgasbord is available to sample. A city that is truly like no other - Phnom Penh - you will always remain a strange delight in my memories.