Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Goodbye to All That (Burma 3)

((According to world news, a bad cyclone hit Myanmar several days ago--weather is one thing the generals can't control--with over a hundred thousand killed. Between destruction and suspicion, the West will have a hard time sending aid, and NPR's correspondent is staying anonymous and moving clandestinely, to keep getting the news out. The gentle Burmese people deserve a better fate... Meanwhile, visiting there in 1986, I was up country and ailing.))

June 28

Taking medicine, eating nothing, resting for long stretches. I roused myself sufficiently to tramp about for a few hours to visit eight or ten of the closer and more scenic jedis (pagodas). Some are massive, looming high over the dusty plains like Egyptian pyramids; others have baroquely ornate shapes and facades, like giant seashells; and many are compressed and crumbling away. The Buddhas sit unattended. Lizards and monkeys prowl the outer terraces and the stairs too worn to climb. But I did clamber up to the top of two huge platforms, to survey mile upon mile of scrub growth and hardpack fields, temples rising like tombstones in a giants' cemetery, distant smudges of mountain, and the flat, sluggish, meandering Irrawaddy River, so famous from the past, but looking just muddy and empty today.

Clearly my enthusiasm is minimal. Nothing--no design, no Buddha contemplating swarms of gnats, no breathtaking view of ancient structures stretching to the horizons--can rouse me from this drugged lethargy. Even the two metal statuettes I spent more illegal kyat on earlier, an antique opium-weight lion and a "good spirit" figure, seem just ridiculous this evening. So what? Now I must preserve the rest of my kyat to buy food (if I ever get back to eating), and my way out of Burma, come Monday.

June 29

Sitting at Pagan's dinky airport, awaiting a flight that stops here en route to Rangoon. Ordinary folk, including tourists, can be bumped off any flight if a government bigwig or other visiting fireman shows up wanting a seat; but things seem safely quiet here.

Still feeling punk. Out of illegal kyat, so I'm trying to decide if I should sell some dollars at the black market price for now ((which was about 30 kyat per dollar)), in order to get three times the amount back (in dollars!) at the time of legal reconversion. It's just crazy. Some people manage to slip around Burma spending as little as $10 legal by spending who knows how much il-legally, but I'll be out about $90 total since my sick, tired spirit demands an airplane return to Rangoon.

Well, between credit-card trouble ((I'd had Visa card removed from hotel "safe" in Thailand and a stack of forms run off, used for jewelry and other expensive stuff, that my watchful sister in the States noticed almost immediately, saving my ass)), kyat confusion, and crappy illness, I've about had it with Southeast Asia.

July 1

Stopover Delhi, about 4 a.m. My last days in Rangoon and then Bangkok seemed endless bus rides and waiting rooms and check-in lines, though I did have good conversations with an English cricketer, a Cypriot woman architect, a Scottish jewelry importer, an American farm-techniques Peace Corpsman, and a grand old dame (English) who sat next to me, Bangkok to Delhi, where she exited to head for the Taj Mahal.

Final thoughts on Asia: I guess I lack the requisite fatal attraction for the exotic East of Maugham and Conrad and company. I think one must be younger, less used to creature comforts, more flexible about dirt coating the skin, scabs dotting the legs, beggars in the streets, perennial humid heat and cold showers, smiling people eager to rip you off somehow. I'm tired of being stared at, laughed at, overcharged and under-rested. I'm ready to take on the different hassles of being an American in Europe in the summer of 1986 ((when Reagan had bombed Libya, outraging much of the world)). At least there I'll be less conspicuous, as long as I keep my mouth shut, anyway.

July 2

Yesterday's demented ravings before dawn convinced me I should concentrate first on sleep, but it eluded me for many hours more. Into Heathrow at 8 a.m., two hours getting through regulations and into the city via the Underground, then a half-hour walk lugging 90 pounds of pack and other bags to the hostel--but a good one, Holland House, an old Jacobean mansion at the edge of Holland Park, in the pricey area called High Street, Kensington. I checked in but couldn't get access to a dorm bed, had to try napping in a lounge chair.

No luck. At my nadir, 40 hours without sleep, my stomach aching steadily, feeling completely rotten, I decided to find the area hospital, for a check-up on leg and bowels.

But walking through the park got the blood pumping again, and I persuaded myself that exhaustion and lack of food might account for much, so I dragged myself to the nearby... yes, the High Street McDonalds, where I scarfed down two burgers, fries, and a cola (not a Coke, for some reason). Feeling full if not better, I strolled back to the park hoping to crash on the grass; but dogs and picnicking schoolkids had other ideas, so I returned to the hostel, where the warder studied my pallor and took pity--penciled me in as "sick" and let me go up to the bed area two hours early.

A nap worked wonders, as did the long-overdue clean-up and then a ramble around the park last evening. How civilized it is here! Soccer players and all-in-white cricketers, lovers lolligagging together on real grass, Arab-looking kids running, Caribbean men lilting and smiling, hunched old ladies mumbling to each other in their tired verbal shorthand, a popular and mobbed ice-cream seller, and--sounding forth, magnificently resonant over all--a live performance outdoors of Verdi's opera Un Ballo Maschera. I sprawled on the greensward for nearly an hour just drinking it all in. No ants, no mosquitoes, no filth evident; simply a warm summer's evening in a park in London.

I am a child of the West, however old now. There's no denying how much better I feel here than I did in Indonesia or even slickly Westernized Thailand. The hell with pretending any different.

((I guess I'm as biased and ethnocentric as the next ordinary schmuck.))

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