Hurtling Unwisely Through Burma: A Story

Burma01The more things change….

We spent a few days in Burma in 1995, and just like today, Aung San Suu Kyi was in internal exile at number 54 University Avenue in Rangoon. Her return to exile this week has had Burma briefly back in the press, and has prompted me to go back and find what I wrote about Burma at the time. An excerpt follows:

*****

In Burma, people really live outdoors more than in. Thatch and open rooms. It’s the vast Mississippi bayou with banana trees.

Smoke from wood fires hung in stratified ranks and the good people of the Irrawaddy delta tended to their livestock and their morning chores. Out in the middle of rubber farms in the middle of nowhere, cruising along another bad road, the world exploded before us. The whole earth went splintery and kaleidoscopic with a terrific bang.

Chan kept his heavy foot on the gas for four or seven seconds, our little Toyota flew down the road, all three of us were blinded in the billowing dust until slowly we realized the windshield was gone. We couldn't see a thing, and Chan slowly coasted to a halt.

He anguished for a time. He wanted to be alone. There'd surely be hell to pay for busting his dad's windshield. Mirja and I walked over to the roadside to let him grieve by himself. He pulled some of the big glass chunks out of the windshield and I got up and helped, both of us cutting our hands a little and scraping the glass off the seats and wiping the sweat off our brows.

A crow cawed a curious tune. Two men wandered out to look.

*****

Aye Chan, a 22 year old competitive bicycle racer, once raced from Rangoon to Mandalay and back. He fell and lost both incisors to gold teeth.

The day we met, Aye Chan grinned goldly, "Road very bad out there."

Aye Chan ("EEE-Chan,") was a child of relative privilege, a third-year vet school student with parents with government jobs. His dad was Chinese, a doctor working in Burma on a leprosy project. His mom was a philosophy teacher at Yangon University. A family album he kept in the car was chock full of smiling brothers and sisters.

We hired him as our driver, and on Tuesday the seventh of February or, as the newspaper The New Light of Myanmar called it, the eighth waxing of Tabodwe, 1356 ME, we set out for a drive into the country. He borrowed his dad’s tan Toyota with tinted windows.

First on Chan’s Tour of Rangoon Hotspots, “That's military headquarters.”

Did the leadership live there?

"Not live just work."

There was the parliament building far across a lawn. It was not possible to visit the parliament building. You can tour the White House, the Kremlin, the Great Hall of the People, but not the Myanmar parliament. Up next came Myanmar Television and Radio, and then, "ice factory."

Guides have their peculiarities. A man we once hired in Beijing forever wanted to try out his English.

"That is tree. Tree?" Zhong from Beijing would ask.

Here in Rangoon, Chan was factory infatuated. Before the end of the day we saw: ice factory, milk factory, brick factory ("you want to take picture?"), rice factory and garment factory.

Past the airport the road opened up, almost African. An atrocious broken asphalt, open spaces, people with baskets on their heads, most barefoot. Houses were thatch. Ladies raised parasols against the sun (although that was most un-African).

At the World War II allied cemetery, all 27,000 war dead under British crown in the Burma and Assam campaign were inscribed in stone alongside long, well-manicured rows of graves. Names like Wrigley and Hicks, Collins and Stark, and also Singh and Gurung and Pun.

The road remained “under renovation” all the way to Bago, and the whole local population worked on the job. Barefoot women carried rocks in wicker baskets on their heads for crushing by big rolling machines.

International organizations wring their institutional hands about whether this exists, but we can tell you that road work conscripts made 100 kyats a day for six hours of carrying rocks on their heads, with a meal included. When we were there, that was a dollar.

We heard about a similar project up in Mandalay where the public was used to build infrastructure for no pay at all, sort of like our friend in Albania Besa Shapllo and her Albanian Revolutionary Triangle (remind me to tell you that story, too), which included physical labor as part of schooling.

Come to think of it, pagodas dotted the horizon like Hoxha's Albanian pillboxes. There was not a single military, para-military or teens-on-the-prowl-for-extorted-cigarettes roadblock. Not one.

There was no choice but to bounce on and grit it out the last 25 minutes to Bago. Little by little, shards and chunks fell from the windshield frame and they flew, along with the dust and never before emission-inspected exhaust straight into our faces.

*****

An earthquake in 1917 sent the top of Bago's Shwemawdaw Pagoda tumblin'… enterprising little cusses built a small pagoda right on top of the fallen portion at the base of the big pagoda and put up a sign commemorating the event.

It’s true – Burma means lurching from pagoda to pagoda, and now we came face to face with the "Great Golden God" pagoda. Taller than the Shwedagon at Rangoon, they said, but it was deserted on this day, which was good for dustin' up the bottoms of your feet for a walk around.

Teak and Jasmine trees dropped their tiny ivory blossoms before us. There were tablets of stone that predated Buddhism. Competing Buddhist evangels shouted into microphones soliciting money for improvements, which was just about as unusual a thing as you'll see. One little independent fellow farther down the road just solicited in general, under a revival tent that'd do a southern Baptist proud.

An amusement park atmosphere held sway in a languorous, musty way, with little gaily colored pavilions ringing the main pagoda like the different countries'  around Disney’s Epcot. All of them were different.

The monastery next door revealed these particular Buddhists as pack rats – eight bazillion little icons of Buddhas and pagodas occupied every inch of space. And long stacks of dried leaves – the holy word had been inscribed on them for millennia, I guess. A library.

Austere sleeping rolls, on a wood floor, comprised the monks’ quarters. Boys chiseled new wood adornments for the grounds. A woman sauntered by offering watermelon, by the slice, pre-sliced – from a tray on her head.

*****

Chan decided, Yep, for sure, his dad was gonna kill him. His only hope – stay with a friend and work all night to figure out how to fix the windshield. Said he knew a guy with a glass shop.

We studied his passport at lunch (AHA! We KNEW he was government – he had a passport). Never been abroad – a lifelong Rangooner – but he can!

Born in 1973. It said he was authorized to travel to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Italy (!). And this instruction: "This passport must be surrendered by bearer upon re-entry into Union of Myanmar."

*****

Back in Rangoon, Chan turned down University Avenue. This was where Aung San Suu Kyi lived, behind a yellow and green picket fence at #54. She's the daughter of the national hero Aung San, and her National League for Democracy was elected in 1990. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, admitted the results but wouldn't hand over power. (The SLORC was later renamed the State Peace and Development Council, SLORC apparently sounding too evil even for SLORC.)

To say "freely elected" would be misleading. In the run-up to the election whole towns were dislocated, as we’ll see, in an attempt to untrack the steamroller. Even through all this, the NLD won convincingly.

So now instead of fleeing to join her husband in London with the forced promise she'd never return, Aung San Suu Kyi lived alone, surrounded by military at #54 University Avenue – across the lake from the military leader.

Chan pointed out there was no military outside.

"Inside the gate," he said.

*****

Burma didn't work too well. It was a bustling little backwater, true enough, but just where was it bustling off to?

Driving was on the right, a gift from SLORC, which also changed the name Burma to Myanmar. Britain was the colonial power and left driving was the rule until SLORC woke up insecure one day and decided to reassert control by decreeing that driving would be on the right.

Fine. Suddenly, one day to the next, buses dumped their passengers directly into traffic.

*****

Just before sunset I figured out which ferry goes back and forth across the River Yangon and climbed on. Darkness was creeping up.

People stared, benevolently, and some approached with halting greetings. "Phillip," a seaman, greeted me and told me it was one kyat ("chot") to do the ferry. So I put some money down and got back a wad of decaying paper money.

The "Autobus 1" had three bare bulbs overhead and a pile of eight-inch tall wooden seats that you grabbed and sat down low on, so I did. Pretty soon I was surrounded by three boys, maybe 17, 15 and eight. Didn't really speak English and I ain't got a lick of Burmese. They just wanted to sit with a foreigner. So we sat and smoked. What the hell.

Maybe 150 people took the eight-minute trip to the village across the way, and maybe 40 people back. After we chugged up to the far side my eight year old buddy, and his colleague, gathered the little stools in a big pile for retrieval by the next boatload of commuters.

I motioned whether a beer was possible. 15 hopped off the boat and negotiated a Heineken from a man with a cooler who sat by the light of two candles on the dock. Directly across the river, line of sight from the downtown of the capital city of Burma, there was no electricity. Just candles.

"How much?" I asked 15.

"95 kyat," he told me, but he wouldn't let me pay. "Present," he said.

*****

Alongside the Sule Pagoda back in Rangoon, a man in a skirt (they call them longyis in Burma) draped a sheet over an awning. It displayed pins and icons in the national colors: green for agriculture and white for purity. Alongside them were piles of green and white plastic tags with Burmese
writing.

Were these name tags? They were. Can you do my name, in Burmese? We can.

So U Bo Gyi took my order. I spelled out "Bill" and "Mirja" onto his pad and he painstakingly wrote these in Burmese characters. He handed his work off to the craftsman two booths down, Mg Ko Oo. Pronounce that mond-kuh-oooo. What about that name!?

This slender, tiny guy worked his art like a science. He cut hard plastic strips to length with a razor blade. Out of a wooden box he pulled a round, flat base maybe two inches tall. On this he placed a plastic strip.

He brought his wire-rimmed glasses down to four inches from the working surface and peered intently ahead. With an awl he carefully chiseled the circular Burmese letters from the plastic by turning the nametag away, then back in circles round the base.

He rubbed a grease pencil hard over the grooves to make the letters white, then wiped away the excess with a cloth and brought out sandpaper to smooth the sides of the plastic. A bit more plastic, a safety pin, and a spot of glue – he kept it in a "Burplex vitamin B" bottle – and your nametag was done. Two for a dollar.

I left an order for all my friends’ names.

*****

Next morning, Chan came by again and brought Kyaw Win, who went along for the day to tell us what was what. I rushed outside and around the corner and found that Chan had By God (Buddha?) Done It! Between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. Chan had got a brand new Toyota windshield installed. In Burma!

He didn’t understand high-fives, but backslapping made the point.

"How did you do that?"

"My friend has a glass shop," he grinned. "We finished last night nine o'clock."

This was the greatest news. His dad wouldn't kill him.

(From the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey by Bill Murray. There's a little detail of Kyaw Win's heartbreaking story of his town's – and his family's – dislocation in the run up to the 1990 election, and more about Burma from CS&W, here. The rest of the story will have to wait for the book. Also note that we've only used part of our friends' names.)

(Photo of a shopkeeper in Rangoon from EarthPhotos.com. See more photos from Burma in the Burma Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.)

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