Aung San Suu Kyi--Live!
Burma Shave!
The New Light of Myanmar
Manual Ferris Wheel
Surviving on 40 Cents/Day
Random Page
Life as a Rock Star

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Burma: Pages from the Journal

      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!

A Brief Guide to Viewing this Page:
      If you see a little photo that looks interesting, click on it and it will open up to its full size. It's a wonderful thing, this html. At the same time, I am kind of disappointed that the photos don't appear as good as I have them in my photo album. I don't know if it is the scanner or monitor or--gasp!--human error. In fact, often just a thumbnail is enough. It is asking a lot of you to click on every single picture (and if you are using a modem you won't have the patience). You are very, very busy people and I want you to have enough time to enjoy other parts of my website such as the Hungarian Pig Killing exhibition or the new South America section or even toilet photos from around the world. That said, if you are dying to see my Photoshop handiwork, by all means, click away.
     The photos at the bottom are extras that I like. I am too lazy to write about them.

Rangoon--Aung San Suu Kyi--Live!
Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

     Every Saturday and Sunday at 4pm President-elect, Nobel Laureate, and the world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, gets on a platform from behind the gate to her house and speaks for about 20-30 minutes. I'd estimate over 1000 people were there to listen, including 20 or so foreigners. Lots of police, but not as many as I'd have thought, were there mainly to keep traffic flowing and people off the street. There's only a narrow strip between the gate and the street, so most spectators are across the street.
     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!
Open Blade
     The great things I did today were to get a haircut, shave and buy shampoo. The haircut and shave occurred under a banyan tree on a busy street corner by a guy in a dirty t-shirt and longyi (sarong). Moreover, he had obviously been on the betelnut chew for the good part of the day as his mouth was bright red and his eyes a little lazy. Nonetheless, he was great. I didn't even mind when he dropped the comb in the dirt and then used it again. 25 kyat (US 20 cents) for the haircut and 25 kyat for the open-bladed shave. I really thought the shave would be my end. Another ferociously hot day, at a minimum I expected my face would break out in the Mother of All Rashes.

     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.
     She led me down a narrow alley of the market, a darkened corridor of mud and haphazardly placed bricks where people cautiously walked. The smells were toxic: dried fish and some sort of fermented shrimp paste or god knows what mixed in with soapy smells and acrid, pungent, industrial, brain-cell-killing odors of unknown origin. A long way down this path we finally came to a group of women selling the magic liquid. It was a brown fluid with bits of bark and plant in it. I was told to use the whole plastic bag at a time (about 300mg, almost as much as a Coke can). The cost: 2 kyats (US 2 cents). As with my barber, I got a picture together with the women.
     It was a great scene at the market. People were over-the-top friendly, even outdoing the unbelievably friendly everyday folk one encounters on the street. Ran into one amazing looking guy who said he was a Buddhist missionary. He said that Bill Clinton was a good friend, as was "James Bond, zero zero nine."

Betel Nut

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.
     -Sub-note: "Myanmar" is actually a British spelling of "Myanma"--in case you are fascinated by such things.
          --Micro-sub note: It's hard to read small text in italics, isn't it?)
Post Office
     I came up with a great idea. Instead of sending postcards to friends, I'm going to send a copy of the government mouthpiece, the daily English language newspaper. It apparently will cost only 20 kyats (US 16 cents) or so to send and the paper is absolutely unbelievable. A college student on his third day awake couldn't come up with the contents of The New Light of Myanmar. I thought China Daily from the People's Republic was classic, but this sets new boundaries.
     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"
5:00pm "Kung Fu"
7:10pm "Myanma Mangoes"
7:30pm "Song Variety"...

     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.

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Pyin U Lwin (Maymyo)--The Manual Ferris Wheel
A similar ferris wheel in Rangoon--but motorized.
It was too dark to get Maymyo pix. Deepest apologies.
     The highlight of this day was witnessing the manual ferris wheel at the festival. There were two good-sized ferris wheels with 12 carriages each, but the kicker is that it's manually operated. It was truly amazing to see. I had heard about this from someone at my hotel, but as we approached we saw the wheel spinning too fast to be done manually. It had to be a motor--but no! As we got closer we finally noticed that it really was man-powered. It's mind-boggling to see. Two guys with whistles blow in code for the other 6 or 8 or 10 guys to follow instructions. Few words are spoken. After they've hustled the crowd and filled up all the carriages for 10 kyat (US 8 cents) each, the fun begins.
     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 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
     I like this funky shampoo I use. The tree bark smell doesn't stimulate me, but half the fun is looking for and buying it. Today it was in the deep, dark recesses of the labyrinth market, past the women selling fish who are losing the battle against the zillion flies. This shampoo woman had a ladle in a big ceramic pot that she spooned into a plastic bag. Then she got some of the bark, chopped it up and added it. Voila! Burmese shampoo. Of course, all the women nearby had a great laugh at me wanting this stuff.

Bagan--Surviving on 40 cents a Day
Brooding Traveler

     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.)
At one site I stood and watched and thought twice about it. Young girls stack up to 6 long bricks (approximately 10" x 5") on their heads and climb a bamboo ladder with uneven rungs. They could do this without ever touching the stack on their head. They'd feel their way up the ladder until they reached the top where a guy would take the bricks. Younger girls not much taller than my belly button carried pans of mortar up another ladder. No men did any great lifting. It was as mesmerizing as it was disheartening. Again though, it seemed all the girls would smile and giggle and stare at me like they were just having a fine time. However, once the buzz of my presence wore off and I was forgotten, the looks on their faces as they slowly went to and fro were of a different expression.
Shy Boy
      At another site, this one for building a useless cement wall on a useless new street, a group of girls yelled "Hello!" as I pedaled by. I came back and tried to speak but only one knew a little English. It looked like ugly, hot work and they were dressed like dusty Bedouins, all flowing clothes wrapped around them, only their faces showing. They wanted me to take a picture of them and were laughing the whole time. That is actually the amazing thing about Burma. Every single person, every single solitary person is friendly and smiles. Curiously, in a photo they often look solemn.

Random Page--Life as a Rock Star
       When I leave my guest house, anywhere I am, I feel like a rock star emerging in public. Suddenly everyone stares, smiles, says hello, or wants to start a conversation. Everyone. And like a publicity-conscious rock star, it's poor form to ignore, rebuke, or hide from the fans. At a minimum I smile. If someone says hello, I say hello nearly always--and that's a lot of hellos. The people are that friendly/inquisitive, possibly exceeding that of the Vietnamese and Indonesians. My face seems in a constant state of smiling. The hellos are incessant. I don't mind it, but sometimes I feel like a zoo animal being poked at with a stick. Say hello to the foreigner! See him speak! The "Where you from" and "Where you go" follow-up questions serve usually just as a ruse to get an answer rather than a point of information. So, when I meet a Burmese who really wants and can maintain a conversation, I'm all ears. I'm sure lots of Burmese wish their English was better for just that purpose. Other travelers, I can see, get fatigued with the foreigner-as-freak deal, but that is more a reaction from being travel weary, I reckon. They probably wish they could be a little more anonymous here, but it's not going to happen.
     On the other hand, there is not a lot to discuss; our lives are so incomprehensibly different. The topics that would really spark a conversation, the political situation or life under the generals, are taboo.

Random Photos
Public Transport
City Bus
Charter Bus
Another Bus
Headless Cow
Cow Loading
Burmese Roadsign
3 Girls

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And finally, the very pompous:      This page © Copyright 2002, Kent Foster