LETTER FROM MYANMAR
I had only been here for a few hours when I noticed that our apartment, which we share with our hosts, smells like phenol. I hadn’t smelled phenol since I visited the Soviet Union, in 1968. It must be the Communist disinfectant of choice.
My first impression of Yangon is that it’s dark and steamy. As the flight from Bangkok landed, I couldn’t believe we were landing in this country’s main city. Where were the lights?
Our hostess, Hla Hla, had her students meet us at the airport, and then we all packed into a taxi, which had seen better days, and drove into town. They drive on the right side of the road here, but the steering wheel is on the right, as it is in places like Thailand, or England, where they drive on the left. The driver drifted from lane to lane, seemingly oblivious to any road markings.
Our apartment building is newish, and a soldier with an AK-47 guards the front gate. It looks to me like a Soviet apartment complex, only a little nicer. No graffito. Our windows are open because of the heat, so mosquitoes come and go as they please. Someone has been banging away on a rock or a pipe all night long, rhythmically, as if they were working, but dispassionately, as if they were working for hire. When dawn comes, the paths are full of people shopping for breakfast ingredients. There are also a lot of cut flower vendors.
The night we arrived, we walked along a lake, which is apparently the nicest spot on town, and Hla Hla pointed out the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous person in Burma, winner of the Nobel peace prize and one who has emerged after fifteen years of house arrest to engage once more in political life. This is the same lake that a psychotic American swam a few years ago on a delusional and self appointed mission to rescue Aung San Suu Kyi. With some intervention from the Americans, he was eventually set free. When I asked if the lake was swimmable, my hosts replied that the water was not clean.
Since I don’t speak the language, I can’t tell if people here are as friendly as they are in Spanish-speaking countries. As we walked down the path that rims the lake, we passed several couples trying to eke out a place for romance, and they didn’t greet us on the way, but I forgave them for their preoccupation.
So far, if I had to compare Burma to a place I’ve already visited, I’d say it reminds me of Nicaragua. I’m probably just getting that impression from the similar lack of development. I don’t know if “poverty” is the right word, because poverty implies a severe lack of something needed, and although this country is certainly less developed than say neighboring Thailand, here the common citizen may be not really that much poorer.
Here, people smear something that looks like pancake batter on their cheeks before they go out in the morning. Almost all young women do it, and many young men, as well. It’s supposed to be good for the complexion, but it’s not something you wash off. They think it looks good and keep it on all day.
Many men wear wraparound skirts, tied in the front with a big not over the navel. If they have a wallet, they tuck it in the back, where it looks dangerously perched to fall. I don’t know if they wear underpants. I haven’t been bold enough to ask, and besides, I don’t speak the language.
Just when I thought I had the country and the city of Yangon pegged as hopelessly backward, I visited a fancy shopping mall in the center of town. There, in a camera and computer store, I saw three Buddhist monks, clad in crimson robes (unlike their Thai brothers who wear saffron) and debating the pros and cons of an Iphone. Beneath them, in a glass case, stood a tiny statue of Steve Jobs, who had his arms stretched upward, imploring them to join the wave of modern computing.
There’s no McDonalds or Burger King in Yangon yet, but “yet” is the operative word. The nicest part of town is that which surrounds a huge, golden temple, which sits like a burnished Hershey kiss coated in pure gold. It’s not just painted gold, it’s made of gold. In this humblest of nations, that’s one big chunk o’ patrimony baking in the sun, surrounded by a lush park. I imagine McDonalds will opt to place the golden arches as close to this landmark as possible.