Chinese Market

My first morning in Yangon, I woke early and found the Chinese market, where people slurped noodles or read prayers while they set up and waited for customers.

woman reading prayers

Trying to imagine facing a day selling vast piles of roasted… let’s call them “crickets”… in searing sun.

bored grasshopper lady

Markets are markets are markets, anywhere it seems, fruits and fish and meat and…

fish and meat 2

popcorn… and some sort of coconutty thing that seemed to be a magnet for a cluster of soldiers the first time I passed this corner.


The man with the cleaver and the carcasses was far more intent on his work than the cricket lady, and I got a little too close and found myself splattered with guts.

meat chopping man

I jumped back with a bit of a loud grimace, and recovered my equilibrium at the powdered and ground chilis. You know where you are with spices.

chili spices market

I looked up a lot more than I looked down in the market streets, noting a cat jumping into a 6th floor window, a woman on a mobile wearing a shower cap and wrapped in a red towel with footballs all over it, young guys with bleached spiky hair and strong smelling cigarettes pulling carts into the workday, child nuns in their pink robes asking for alms, still cheeky girls.

Most surprising, the open support for the NLD. When I ask about “the Lady,” as they call Aung San Suu Kyi, my guide glows a kind of quiet joy. “You can buy a film about her on dvd, in the Bogyoke Market. It is so good.”

signs of change

Openness here is a fluid thing I’m trying to pay attention to. Much has changed in the past two years, but what it is is opaque to me.  My guide answers my careful questions, carefully, but doesn’t ask me any.  She quietly acknowledges feeling a kind of freedom.  I know I can only dip my finger into understanding.  I observe girls braiding each other’s hair, their faces wearing the squares of dhanakha paste made from a kind of bark that about half the women and children spread to protect their skin.  I look into the eyes of the man and boy in the teahouse on the mountain who crouch over my shoulder looking at a few photos I offer on my iphone of Canada, France, Uganda and Texas, smile at the boys spitting betel juice and smoking at the next table, the wizened elderly monks and the muscular young ones.  The young boy in the traditional medicine shop who massaged my legs with oil rich with herbs.

leg massagMy curiosity is always about how people make meaning, what logics form for them and how.  I know I only understand hints of it, the clouds around me on the mountain.

I can’t travel without an ethnographer’s eye, but I try to resist drawing any conclusions from glimpses of people I see, try not to interpret too much through my westerner’s lens, try to use what I’ve read before for insight, not as a map.  I wonder whether my guide’s lack of curiosity was shaped by decades of stricture, by the  “rules and regulations” she tells me her tour guide training consisted of — or maybe she’s just not interested in me, yet another person in her life for 36 hours.  I am as confounded by the young British guy who was at my hotel at breakfast, who shadowed me down the mountain, and appeared again in the blaring midday sun of Bago looking at enormous Buddhas with me, but never once met my eye or let me greet him.  Is he resolutely uninterested in talking to other travellers, or am I invisibly middle aged?

I’m still feeling my way to my own rhythm on this trip, trying to figure out how to shape this journey that is me on my own, simultaneously wanting self-driven, solitary adventure and constantly bumping up against the anxiety that comes with not knowing how to navigate.  Wanting the undiluted space of solitary thought, and not wanting to fully disconnect, needing the “conversation” of writing in a way people might read, part of my way of making meaning of what I’m doing.  Appreciating being able to flow in my own time.

I had a guide for the first day and a half, and now it’s just me. Coming back from Golden Rock, I was supposed to return to my first hotel for two nights, but I wanted something a little more peaceful and pastoral than the cramped, windowless room above Chinatown.  Opting for ease, my less intrepid self taking hold, I ended up at one of the fancier hotels in Yangon for my next two nights, a large international hotel beside Inya Lake. Openness has its price — my room was three times what it was 18 months ago.  Thursday, when the jet lag abates and if I can sleep more than 4 hours at a time, more Yangon.


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