Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mixed Up in Myanmar (2)

((Last post ended with me heading for the train to Northern Burma, speculating that the ride on wooden seats "should be interesting."))

June 26

That last remark qualifies as basic understatement of the week. Twelve hours of sleepless nightmare on slatted wooden seats too hard to relax on and too narrow to sprawl on, with four people packed in each facing pair. Since we tourists can't read Burmese numbers--my seat 29 looks something like "JC"--we need help right from the start. Then the train pulls out, racketing and rocking back and forth, the cloudy lights inside burning all night long, covered with insects right from the start. Metal louvers on the windows keep fresh air out, but admit bugs and rain. The toilets waft their aromas throughout the car whenever a door is opened. Yet nothing fazes the Burmese passengers, whole families travelling with every scrap of their belongings: bales, bundles, boxes and bags tied to the overhead racks and heaped everywhere else.

Gradually the bodies mount as well--determined nappers stretched across aisles, pretzeled into seats, hiding under seats, jammed among goods and feet. (I tried craning up straight, slanting across, curling down, and several other postures, to no avail.) But what a wonderful array of travellers! Dazed tourists staring blearily at nothing, mothers suckling two-year-olds, soldiers in Socialist Army olive-drab, venders scrambling over bodies and loudly hawking their wares, young girls checking their make-up, older men struggling to keep their longyis wrapped. (I was feeling like a character in Paul Theroux's famous book about Asian trains.)

Most affecting to me were a beautiful, sad-eyed woman tending her small boy, who handed me her copy of a Tourist Burma brochure, wanting me to keep it, wanting me to admire all the slick and pretty pictures of her (impoverished) country. (All this conveyed by gestures only.) And my seatmate, a handsome guy in his 30's, but with stubble on his face, violent tattoos on his arms and ankles, a blank despairing look, and bandages at both temples, as though he'd received some sort of electrodes treatment. Yet his pockets are full of rolls of kyat, and he offers friendly advice, in fair English, on Burmese numbers, expressions, even the right train station for my bus connection to Pagan.

But, before that, we watched dawn come to central Burma: dirt roads, woven-mat houses, women with baskets on their heads, boys squatting to watch the train pass, a man and his dog also squatting, but to shit. Scarecrows of flapping rags, horsedrawn carts hauling goods to market, clay pots (for water?) outside the doors of houses, stick fences around dust yards, patches of succulents and bushes and small trees, white Brahma cows pulling wooden plows, above-ground flat tombs filling the village cemeteries.

In Thazzi some of us transferred to a small mini-bus, six Westerners and 20-some Burmese all crammed in, on, and hanging off the van's slatted sides and roof. So we went, rocketing across the dusty plains for another four hours of severe discomfort--van ceiling bumping our heads, wind attacking our backs, hard seats cutting off circulation to legs, no room to stretch or avoid each other's sour breath... What can I say? I guess there's just no pleasing the ornery tourist.

June 27

And then, heaping insult on injury, after five safe months and with not many days left in Asia, last night I came down with a serious case of La Turista--cramps and diarrhea and no interest in food. Don't know whether I just got too cocky, or picked something up walking Rangoon's filthy side streets. Whatever the cause, I'm feeling listless and not real enthusiastic about tromping the ruins of ancient Pagan.

We arrived yesterday exhausted, and booked into various small guesthouses. Some tried to sleep, others to soldier on; I couldn't relax, so I walked out to explore, check prices, and wound up hiring a horsecart to take me to a lacquerware village where I swapped jeans, t-shirt, batteries, and spare cassettes for a nice plaque of Buddha, two shoulder bags, and some more kyat. So now I must go on a spending spree, once feeling better, to unload all the illegal money. What an odd system.

Last night in a stupor of pain, I had the possibly inspired revelation that the Burmese government really is slyer than given credit for. These Socialists have taken a reading on Western capitalist thinking and decided we are all greedy pirates of industry at heart; so the "pinko" bosses have devised the tourism system accordingly. Our visas are limited to seven days, which protects the Burmese citizenry from too much infectious contact with our decadent ways--and makes us think of a visit here as something special and desirable, yet kept so brief that we are easily channeled into the controlled routes to Pagan and Mandalay.

On top of that, the confusing kyat system: by turning a blind eye to our liquor/cigarette sales, goods trading, even most of the black-market dollar exchanges, the government accomplishes much more. The Burmese get enough (but not too many) Western goods, which the Socialists can disavow all responsibility for; and we tourists wind up with so much excess money that we must buy more food, drink, taxi rides, horsecarts, tour guides, and blessed souvenirs than we ordinarily ever would, thus providing economic support to both common people and cottage industries.

Diabolical, these Socialists! All the locals kept happy, all the travellers kept busy (and boring) with their scheming and dealing, working so hard to travel around for a week on, seemingly, next to nothing, laughing as they/we, uh, pull the wool over the government bureaucrats' eyes. In a pig's eye, says I! We're being led by the nose, all unknowing, every step of the way...

((Next time: seeing the sights of Pagan and bidding farewell to Asia.))

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