Aung San Suu Kyi--Live!
The New Light of Myanmar
Manual Ferris Wheel
Surviving on 40 Cents/Day
Life as a Rock Star
Follow the foot
I write a lot when I travel. I keep dozens of journal books from my trips. This is a small chunk from a month in Burma which is from a longer trip around Asia years ago. I purposely put the offbeat and the unusual so hopefully it won't make your eyes glaze over in boredom. (I am thinking of doing this for a lot of countries. Is it a good idea?) If I had any skill at writing this would be quite a treat for you!
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Rangoon--Aung San Suu Kyi--Live!
The speech was in Burmese. The only words I could pick up were "democracy" and "Pepsi". Pepsi is in a lot of heat here because they are doing business directly with the military government's generals and therefore helping prop up the regime. She was calling on people to boycott Pepsi products.
Peavey amplifiers should be pleased to know that they are the official amplifier of Aung San Suu Kyi. Think of the ad possibilities: a picture of Suu Kyi leaning against a big Peavey stack. "When I want to get my message across, I trust Peavey to carry it loud and clear..."
After the speech the crowd dispersed and she stood stoically, speaking to a few but mostly with an odd look of concentration and pensiveness. I got about 20 feet away and maybe got a good photo.
(Note: Soon after I was there (1996), the government stopped allowing Suu Kyi these audiences and I don't think it has happened since. It has been very rare for her to appear in public. I feel honored to have seen this incredibly courageous woman.)Mandalay--Burma Shave!
After this I strolled over to the market to look for shampoo. I'd read in the Lonely Planet book that the Burmese use a liquid of herbs and boiled bark and it leaves the hair all wonderful. I had the words written down in Burmese and went hunting around the market for it, purposely approaching women who were already with pen and paper. (I have learned--but sometimes forget--to do this so I don't embarrass someone who is illiterate by presenting them with something to read.) A few people made some vague pointing, but it wasn't until the fifth woman or so who sent a young girl to show me exactly where to find it.
Mandalay--The New Light of Myanmar
(Note: The government changed the official name of the country to Myanmar, but acknowledging the name change is akin to acknowledging the legitimacy of the military government, so everyone calls it by it's old colonial name, Burma.
How to describe it?
The paper is peppered with slogans. Most appear every day, such as "The Tatmadaw (armed forces) has been sacrificing much of its blood and sweat to prevent disintegration of the Union. All nationalities of the Union are urged to give all cooperation and assistance in this great task."
A typical article is about a meeting to discuss measures to raise the sugarcane yield, and there always has to be mention of the top government official for that department and how he is inspecting something. Always there must be mention of inspections. The minister was here, there, and there and met with these 7 people, all named with full titles, and then inspection of the crop, inspection of irrigation, and local officials agreeing to fulfill the minister's new requirements.
The salutations are always complete and can take up most of a small news story, not to mention photo captions. Typically it starts, "Chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services Senior General Than Shwe, looked into the requirements in functions of Diamond Soft Drinks of the Myanma Foodstuff Industries..."
The best articles have two sentences devoted to what the meeting was about, then the rest listing everyone who was there--and that's it. (The TV news in English does the same thing then pans around everyone in silence because nothing more is said.) The best photos have ministers in military gear inspecting archery ranges and grocery stores and glass factories. There are always photos of comings and goings at the airport, including a poorly picked one of the hapless looking editor of the paper as he arrived from what looked like a 100-hour flight.
Another newspaper fave is a usual page 5 headline: "Government not dictatorial one which wrested power." I like that. Who? Us? Just us generals? Why, we were just minding our own business when this government thing was thrust upon us. Honest!
Several of the newspaper's 12 pages are filled with innocuous international news (e.g. car crash in USA, Israeli politics, Cambodian fighting) but if the paper has got you down and you're considering investigating the TV or radio, The New Light of Myanmar suddenly looks sufficient. One day's TV listings (that rarely change) for the 5-hour weekday broadcast were:
4:45pm "Cute Little Dancers"
The radio offers no relief. Segments called "My Kind of Music", "Variations on a Tune", and "Portfolio for Easy Listening" are the bolder sounding shows, but anytime I tuned my Walkman in, I couldn't discern any difference to the music.
I take back what I said about Myanmar Radio. At this moment I can faintly hear the Allman Brothers. That's strange. I thought English language music was forbidden and I'm not near a border. Now I can hear a Northeast Indian station, but I'm not sure if it is the same one, although it's common knowledge that Northeast India is an Allman Brothers stronghold. Now I hear a Thai station. Now I hear another.Pyin U Lwin (Maymyo)--The Manual Ferris Wheel
The whistles really blast and everyone including the whistlers quickly climb up through the inside to the top of the wooden wheel and then to the right to get it to spin clockwise. A couple of guys jump off when it gets to the ground on the first revolution, but the spryest, littlest kids do all kinds of radical things as the wheel gets going and they stay on for complete revolutions--in their thongs and smoking. It's hard to follow the two things in motion. The wheel spins and a kid is on the inside above the metal carriage when it's at the bottom of the cycle, but then he might move quickly to the outside and ready himself to climb on to the outside of the cage just after the wheel has hit its apex. He's continually moving. Then he quickly grabs the carriage from the top or bottom (I'm not sure) for the last ¼ turn and just runs off when he hits the ground. But lots of others are doing other gymnastics and variations on this theme, and it's a trip to see all these people moving all over the ferris wheel. When they want to stop it's another routine where some grab on to one carriage and have it carry them up while others climb around on the inside of the ascending side, all the time the whistlers are blasting away.
The Shampoo Hunt
Bagan--Surviving on 40 cents a Day
Tonight Ioana and I were at Shwesandaw Pagoda again for the sunset. Afterward, she had her bike and I stood on the road trying to hitchhike the 5km back to the guest house. A big truck pulled up. It was the second vehicle to pass. I heaved up Ioana and her bike and myself in the back of the truck after the driver said he'd take us for free. A slight kid was the only one in the back with us. He wore a tattered tank top and longyi (sarong). He spoke English pretty well. He said he was working on one of the pagoda restoration projects. He asked us the usual questions but we were pressing him about his life. As the truck drove we had to squint because the dust was swirling around, whipping up into our faces. The sky was nearly dark but the streetlights mixed with the dust gave a soft glow to this kid's face that flickered after each light we passed. He was 17 years old and spoke English a little better than the average Burmese I have come across. I asked if his father was driving but he answered that it was his "master". Maybe it was a rush for him to speak English, because it was with enthusiasm that he told of working 7 days a week from 7am to 7pm. The question I let hang in the air; I was sure Ioana was going to ask it. She did. 1500 kyats a month. (US $12) I only said that he works a lot, to which he nodded. I asked him if he likes soccer and the World Cup. When the truck stopped to drop us off a couple of guys helped lower the bike down. I gave the master a San Francisco postcard and gave the kid my Cameroon World Cup t-shirt I was wearing that he had admired.
I'm still haunted by the kid I met in the truck. It wasn't just that he earned such a pittance. It was his demeanor and the lighting. I can still picture his face. The truck had bars across the top that Ioana and I reached up to hold on to. The kid was in the back, cornered by us gargantuans and the bike that my leg kept propped up. The kid had to look up to us to speak so when I looked at him I saw him chin up in the black background, dirt swirling. Through my squint his face comes and fades with the filtered streetlights. I hear him speak cheerfully of a seemingly miserable existence. He said something about his father being a manager, but it sounded like he was on his own, fending for himself. I didn't know what to say. I looked up, ahead of the truck to see the long line of streetlights on this lonely street.
There's scaffolding on dozens of pagodas with crews on every one. I initially thought that restoring these pagodas was a good way of providing work to the many idle people I see. (Truth be told, the entire population could be working on infrastructure projects, there's so much to be done.)
Random Page--Life as a Rock Star
And finally, the very pompous: This page © Copyright 2002, Kent Foster