Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Burma, Chapter Six

Here is Chapter Six of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the summer (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Amazon.com. Photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Burma Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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

"Road very bad out there," he grinned, goldly.

Aye Chan ("EEE-Chan,") was a kid 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.

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

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 Burma, 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 Rangoon airport the road opened up to become almost African. An atrocious broken asphalt, open spaces, people with baskets on their heads, most of them barefoot.

Houses were thatch. Ladies raised parasols against the sun (although that was most un-African).

Burmatransport

 On the road in Burma.

At the World War II allied cemetery, the names of all 27,000 war dead under British crown command in the British Burma and Assam campaigns 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 was at work on the job. Barefoot women carried rocks in wicker baskets on their heads for crushing by big rolling machines.

Road work conscripts made 100 kyats (“chots”) a day for six hours of carrying rocks on their heads, with a meal included. That's a dollar. We read before we left of a similar project up in Mandalay where the public was used to build infrastructure for no pay.

Once we made friends with a couple named Agron and Besa, on a trip to Albania. This road work made us think of a program Besa described from her childhood under Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha, called the Albanian Revolutionary Triangle, which included physical labor as part of schooling.

But in Burma, pagodas dotted the horizon like the concrete military pillboxes Hoxha scattered across the Albanian countryside. And there was not a single military or para-military or teens-on-the-prowl-for-extorted-cigarettes roadblock. Not one.

People really lived outdoors more than in in Burma. Thatch and open rooms. It was the vast Mississippi flood plain with banana trees.

Out in the middle of rubber farms in the middle of nowhere, we were cruising along dodging the roadwork when suddenly, just before noon, 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, the tan Toyota flew down the road, and all three of us were blinded until slowly we realized the windshield had busted. We couldn't see a thing in the billowing dust and finally Chan coasted to a halt.

He anguished for a time. He wanted to be alone. There'd be hell to pay for busting his Dad's windshield. Mirja and I walked over to the roadside to let him grieve. 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 bird cawed a curious tune. Two men wandered out to look.
There was no choice but to bounce on 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.

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

An earthquake in 1917 sent the top of this thing tumbling. 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.

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

A musty amusement park atmosphere held sway in a languorous, sleepy way, with little gaily colored pavilions ringing the main pagoda like the different countries' pavilions around a really tiny Epcot Center. All of them were different.

The monastery next door revealed a portrait of Buddhists as pack rats – eight zillion little icons of Buddhas and pagodas occupied every inch of space. Seemed to me the impact of any one was diminished by being surrounded by so many others. The more the merrier, I guess.

The holy word had been inscribed on long stacks of leaves – for centuries, I guess. Monks' austere sleeping rolls, and a wood floor, comprised their quarters. Kids chiseled new wood adornments for the grounds. A woman sauntered by offering watermelon – by the slice, pre-sliced – from a tray on her head. And chomping on one herself.

•••••

Chan decided, yep, 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 privileged – he had a passport). Never been abroad – a lifelong Rangooner – but he could!

It said born 13 May 1973. It said he was authorized to travel to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Italy (?). And it said, "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 freely elected in 1990. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, admitted the results but wouldn't hand over power.

But to say "freely elected" is misleading. In the run-up to the election whole towns were dislocated, as we’ll see, in an attempt to un-track the Aung San Suu Kyi steamroller. Even through all this, NLD won convincingly. So now instead of fleeing to join her husband in London with the certainty that she could never return, Aung San Suu Kyi lived alone, surrounded by military at #54 University Avenue – across Lake Inya from the military leader.

Chan pointed out there was no military outside.

"Inside the gate," he said.

•••••

Burma was a place that really didn't work too well. It was a backwater – 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 from some date forward driving would be on the right.

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

•••••

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

People stared, but benevolently, and a few approached with halting greetings. "Philip," a seaman, greeted me and told me it was one kyat to do the ferry. So I put some money down and a got a wad of decaying bills back.
 
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 the foreigner. So we sat and smoked. What the hell.

Maybe 150 people were on board for the eight-minute trip to the village across the way, and maybe 40 people back. After we chugged up to the far side Mr. Eight Year Old and a co-worker gathered the little stools in a big pile for retrieval by the next batch of passengers.

Mr. Fifteen Year Old hopped off the boat and negotiated a Heineken for me 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.

Burmaadexec

Ad exec, Rangoon.

Alongside the Sule Pagoda in Rangoon, a sheet draped over an awning  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, whom I came to know over the next day as (Can you beat this name?) Mg Ko Oo. Pronounce that, roughly, mond-kuh-oooo. This slender, tiny guy worked his art like a science. With a razor blade he cut the hard plastic strips to length. Out of a wooden box he pulled a round, flat base maybe two inches tall. On this he placed the plastic strip.

He brought his wire-rimmed glasses down 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 name tag 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 – kept in a "Burplex vitamin B" bottle, and your name tag was done. Two for a dollar.

I left an order for more with all my friends’ names.

•••••

Chan was back the next day as our driver and brought Kyaw Win Maung, who came along to tell us what was what – for fifteen dollars. 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 was good enough.

"How did you do it?"

"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.

The plan was to get out on the Irrawaddy, and Chan headed for the lower Pazundaung jetty while we got to know Kyaw Win Maung (call him “Chaw”).
Kyaw finished school in '77 as a geologist but had always been a tour guide. Clear-eyed and soft-spoken with an open face, Kyaw was easy to like, and it didn't take much prodding to hear his whole story.

When he first started his tour guide job he was posted to Pagan, optimistically eight hours drive to the northwest and full of ancient pagodas.

He met and married a country girl, built a house himself, and settled back, he thought, to live out his life there. The sunsets were beautiful, he smiled. They had a daughter.

Then a man he'd met in his tour guide job invited him to visit the U.S. After saving enough to care for his family while he was away, off he went. For six months he stayed in the U.S. He saw his first snow in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

One day in 1988 he heard on Christian Science Monitor radio that his entire village had to move. The military government was trying to disrupt the elections in March of that year.

A week later he got a letter from his wife saying she had a week to tear down the house he'd built and move, along with everybody else in town, ten kilometers away.

He went back to Burma, gathered his wife and baby and moved in with his father in Rangoon. His brother died at 32 leaving two nieces for Kyaw to care for today, along with his wife, daughter and now, his elderly dad too.

His wife was a simple country girl. She had a small business selling candy to kids, cheroots, that kind of thing, when they met in Pagan and he didn't know how she'd do in the big city. So although he hoped to visit the U.S. again and had a standing invitation from his Pennsylvania friend, it would be some time before he got his nieces off to college and saved enough (at $15 a day) to provide for his dad, wife and child in his absence.

It was a longyi day. The day before Chan had been in pants, but today both Chan and Kyaw wore their traditional longyis, which are colored cloths worn as a sort of skirt by both sexes. They wear 'em from here west to India, but as Kyaw explained, they're "long – yee's" here, "lon – gee's" in India.

Kyaw had chosen a black and white print, and Chan looked elegant in a regal sort of gold and purple thing. At the bottom of each, hairy legs and thongs finished off the look.

In the morning the BBC reported on the hotel TV that Burma had released 20 NLD political prisoners. Kyaw said it wasn't on Myanmar TV, but that wasn't surprising, since SLORC denies holding any political prisoners.

Myanmar TV was one station. There was nothing else on the dial. Nothing. It broadcast a few hours in the evening, a few in the morning, too, and on weekends. Here's a schedule from the New Light of Myanmar:

View Today:
Friday (10-2-95)

5:00 pm
1. Martial music
5:20 pm
2. Disco Rally
5:40 pm
3. Songs of National Races
6:00 pm
4. Traditional Food of National Races
(Domestic Training School)
(Rakhine)
6:15 pm
5. Songs of Yester Year
7:00 pm
6. Children's programme
7:15 pm
7. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
7:30 pm
8. Agricultural Force – Country's Development
7:40 pm
9. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
7:45 pm
10. Beauty of the State, Dances of the State
7:50 pm
11. Songs in honour of the National Convention
8:00 pm
12. News
13. (something in Burmese – ?)
14. International news
15. National news
16. Weather report
17. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day (something in Burmese – ?)
18. The next day's programme

•••••

The Yangon – Thalyin bridge was three two-and-a-half kilometer, Chinese-built lanes – one paved each way and a rail track separating them in the middle. Having just one lane on a bridge doesn't keep anybody from passing, of course.

From China all the way around southeast Asia to here, the technique for driving is always the same: If you get out around the car in front of you fast enough, you present the oncoming drivers with a fait accompli: I am tying up the entire highway in front of you, so you have no choice but to brake and let me merge in front of the guy beside me.

Naturally the oncoming traffic plots to do the same. Seldom is there tranquility on the highways of Southeast Asia.

And amidst it all, whole Burmese families plodded by on ox cart or old blue Ford or Dodge "buscars" with men and boys stuffed everywhere inside, standing hanging on the back, and a dozen more piled on top. Invariably they all broke into wide smiles and waved madly as they plodded past.

A grizzled brown field worker walked out of a brilliant yellow-green paddy to trade some greens ("grass for soup") and two watermelons for one of Chan's Lucky Strikes. Here they had “brick factory,” “rice factory” and “vegetable factory.”

And more road work. The guys with the machines – it was their job. The conscripts – they got their 100 kyats a day and lunch. Yummy.

At Kyauk Tan village you hopped a little wooden dinghy over to the floating pagoda. They said it had never flooded and was thereby proof of the auspiciousness of the Buddha. People made pilgrimages for their "economy," or financial health.

There were these three rocks on stools, see, and if you picked up the green one on the right and it felt light, that was auspicious for your economy. It felt pretty light to me, which was good, because we were going to need some auspicious economy when we got home.

A vivid belief in spirits thrived in Burma. Kyaw gave a go at explaining the curious mix of animism and Buddhism. Banyan trees, for example, are known to have spirits. Wherever you find a banyan tree, chances are you'll find a spirit house underneath it. It’s just a little wood box with an open front. Inside you place bananas or pomilons or some other offering to the spirits.

So what happened when there was a banyan tree at a pagoda? No problem. You got a spirit house in the middle of Buddha's house. There was no conflict. Both belief systems were intertwined.

There is the story of a particular banyan tree on the Bago road, just before the British cemetery. The shamans under this tree blessed cars. New car owners moved their cars forward and back three times as if bowing to the car spirit in the banyan tree. Some people got a little insurance blessing each time they drove by. And who knows? We hadn’t stopped and an hour later we didn’t have a windshield.

Down at the water's edge beside the Floating Pagoda, fat catfish jostled one another for food the kids threw into the water. We took a spin out around the river, then a walk around Kyauk Tan village.

Nasty nasty nasty dried fish were for sale on a table. At the end of the street, a house that was the town theatre screened Burmese videos twice a day, five kyats. The people out here in the country liked Burmese tear jerkers, Kyaw said. In the big city smuggled videos from Thailand were all the rage.

Kyaw reckoned they came over concealed amid legal goods in trucks. They were strictly illegal. The government sanctioned only good ol' Burmese entertainment.

On videotapes smuggled into Burma you didn't get subtitles. That's why Chuck Norris and Rambo were so big. It had to be action because they didn't understand the words.

A guy made tin pots by an ancient method involving spinning a wheel that I just didn't understand. One girl just stopped dead in her tracks and stared at us, holding a watermelon slice from the tray on her head. Machines ground sugar cane into a sugary drink.

We drove over to the dock. Chan bought some betel in an unspeakably filthy wood hut they called the waiting room. The betel leaf in Burma is green, wide and round. They slathered it with paste and sprinkled a few betel nut pieces on top. The paste and nuts are bitter. They're for calcium. The leaf is a mild amphetamine.

You could buy branches too, inside of which some God-forsaken larvae nestled. Yep, you bought the branch, plucked the thing out and popped it in your mouth. Tasted like butter, Kyaw said, except crunchy. This was more of a Chinese practice than a Burmese one, he assured us, and he'd only tried it once.

My God, these people were eating worms out of trees!!!

The boat wasn't due until 4:00, it was 2:30 and evil hot, so we drove home and never got the boat ride we set out for.

Burmariver

The river near Kyauk Tan.

In the main hall of the international airport assembly area were five wall clocks. It was a quarter of six in Hong Kong, a quarter of six in Singapore, a quarter of five in Bangkok, a quarter of ten in the morning GMT – and four fifteen in Burma.

At the top of the stairs the dark glass door reading "Thai Air" swung open. Three hostesses were wedged between the open door and a wall, smiling welcome. We squeezed past them into a minuscule dark room with three couches. Two were taken, so we put our stuff down and sat on the other, sort of between the lounge and the  hallway.

"Hello sir. Would you like Pepsi, 7 Up, coffee, tea?" Dazzling smiles.

"Well, how about a beer?”

"No beer."

Stifled grins from the couples on the couches in the dark.

"Oh…ok."

"Sir outside you can buy beer and bring back here. Cost five dollars," she smiled through the darkness.

"Good price," I remarked.

"Yes sir," brightly.

"Well, okay, you have Pepsi."

"Yes sir!"

"Do you have that in a can? Can I have a can of Pepsi?"

"No sir."

Bright teeth shone.

"Well, what do you have it in?"

"Pepsi, 7 Up, coffee, tea."

"Do you have water?" Mirja tried.

"No ma'am, no water. Pepsi, 7 Up ……."

We opted for five dollar beers down at the bar, and squeezed past two new guys waddling down the entrance way. Wished 'em well.

"Five dollars is a lot for a Heineken, eh?" I asked our big ol’ waitress.

She shook her head and clucked, "Government price."

Jammed thick onto the viewing platform, families craned and waved at kin walking up the Silk Air ramp, Singapore bound, probably on the first flight of their lives, craning and waving madly back.
Poignant. You couldn't really afford to fly if you were common folk and we couldn't help but think they had saved and saved for those tickets, and maybe the fervent waves were because some of those guys weren't coming back.

•••••

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