Burmese Days

In the airport on the way to Inle Lake, I talk to a woman, a psychologist from New York, who has done work with political prisoners in Thailand, and on the Thai Burmese border. She looks… tired, pensive. I can barely hear her over the blare of the television in the departure area in Nyuang U’s tiny airport, and I shift myself closer.

She talks about how difficult it is to bring what she knows about capacity building and development to a place where stories and truth are slippery. She tells me the people she is training as mental health workers – a jazzed up term in a country that has no such thing – simply don’t believe the stories of former prisoners. Hard to create validation and recovery for people with trauma if no one believes them. She talks about increasing alcoholism, especially among women, and how capacity building needs to be different, and she doesn’t know what it is. She has deep experience, but this culture, the impact of the decades of totalitarianism, is hard to figure out.

I think about truth, and fact, and how hard it is not to think of this country as having an Orwellian superstructure. My guide in Yangon was adamant that the name of the country changed to Myanmar in 1962, not 1989. She is about my age, so she would have been an adult. George Orwell did in fact spend a few years in colonial Burma in the 1920s, and his book Burmese Days is “the” classic English language novel about the place. Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma deftly and compellingly draws contemporary parallels.

Rules defy logic but are fixed. In Yangon, no one can ride a motorbike. Guy Delisle in Burmese Chronicles says it’s because a general was once hit by one and they were banned. In Mandalay, everyone rides motorbikes, and many are taxis that take locals and tourists. In Bagan, locals can ride motorbikes but foreigners are forbidden.

I have noticed that people here cannot imagine. In Uganda, when I ask an 8 year old where he would go if I gave him all the money in the world, he has a fantasy place, Canada or New York or England or Brazil. Here, everyone I’ve asked has simply said, Myanmar people cannot travel, we cannot pay. The “what if I gave you…” fantasy simply isn’t interpretable. What is immediately in front is what is in front. The dreams go a bit beyond the borders, and that is it.

I think about how I didn’t know what to expect, because everything I read was from before the last couple of years, the opening up. Things are apparently much more open than I thought they would be – there is internet access, although sketchy, and no one searches your luggage coming into the country. An Irish woman I met in Bagan who is here for her tenth visit confirms that the casual entry is new. I had been worried about a book in my carryon, and almost left it, paranoid, in the departure lounge in Singapore. The only reason I didn’t is that it’s extremely hard to leave something surreptitiously in any departure lounge these days. And, there were definitely some strange monitoring type activities in my computer access in Bagan, strange windows asking for my password as I tried to access my gmail, my blog getting the error message “URL invalid.”

The psychologist’s weariness permeates the peace I found in Bagan, and I remember where I am. I remember that despite my darting about like one of the striated swallows circling the payas at sundown, most of the country is closed to foreigners, and those given special permission need to be accompanied. She talks about how much of Inle Lake is owned by the generals and by cronies, the parallel private sector realm that keeps the regime intact. The rickety airline is owned by one of those cronies. I notice that the boarding pass promises to give $1 for every ticket to a vague development charity. We talk about the hotels, and who owns them, and she recommends a place halfway down the lake owned by a cooperative of local Pa’o people. I’m already uneasy about my hotel, since the first two booked by my travel agent were terrible, and one was definitely government. Mine isn’t listed in the Lonely Planet, which is the rosetta stone for me here, as I try to make sense of things.

I’m straddling a line between being guided and being completely on my own, and sometimes I get it right, like my day cycling around Bagan’s temples, or my following my instincts in Mandalay, and sometimes I get it wrong. Today, my airport transfer is just a driver, with very little Engish, no interpreter, and I don’t have the right information. I suddenly realize that the hotel I thought I was going to isn’t the one I thought it was (I confused Paramount and Paradise) and mine isn’t on the map or in Lonely Planet. This got me in trouble in Mandalay and Yangon with hotels, so I ask the driver, Who owns this hotel? Is it government? Yes, he says, government. I create a flurry of trying to make a change, enlisting the men on the jetty in helping. It’s a self-generated Amazing Race task with unclear directions. One of the men gets the mother of my travel agent on the phone, and she tells me it’s not a government hotel. I’m not sure what to believe, at all, how much this conversation is a result of bad English, how much is bad information, how much is my worry. A more frugal and pragmatic person would go to the original, paid-for hotel, and just accept it. A more seasoned or attentive traveler wouldn’t be in this pickle in the first place, having asked more questions in the booking, or done it herself.

I try to think it through, wanting to look at the hotel, but it seems it’s in the lake, and I can’t quite explain to anyone that I want to look at the booked hotel before making up my mind. I end up somehow phoning the co-operative hotel the woman on the plane recommended from a phone in an office on the jetty, and they say there is room, and I ask my driver to take me there. And suddenly, I am in a wooden boat, with a driver who speaks no English, heading into Inle Lake, wondering if I have done anything at all sensible here.

I arrive at a stunning place, a floating hotel, rooms on stilts, a monet painting come to life. And I find that the phone call I made was to some other office that hasn’t passed it along. But yes, they have a room. In fact, I am the only guest. In a hotel in a lake that is a bird sanctuary, hundreds of herons, egrets, ibis, anhinga nesting behind me, with no birding fieldbook.

(Wifi far far too thin for pics – it took 45 minutes to get to the posting page of my blog. Bagan posts to come when pics possible).

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