‘Inside Burma’ – first impressions

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We landed in Shan State before dusk and caught at taxi down to Inle Lake with a strange oversized Italian man in his late forties. We had acquired him, somehow, in the Heho domestic airport terminal, and he sat in the front seat emitting a strong twin scent of nicotine and mental fragility.

Gazing out the window I was struck by the ochre and maple-streaked fields passing by, the lime green fronds scattered on the messy fringes, the random blooms of electrified blood-red on top of dried branches with warm light filtering through like sparkling beer  – by a sense of being somewhere very different, like watching a foreign film on a crackling projector. As a backdrop, the sun was quietly dropping behind an inky line of mountains. The faint remnants of cloud looked like stickers on a blue board, and the atmosphere was lit up a pale, diffuse gold-green which was reflected in cold triangles of water embedded in the rambling landscape like a fine, shiny lacquer.

I have lacquer on my mind after two days spent in Bagan, a string of 3 small towns in central Myanmar – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung Oo ­– known as a ‘mini Angkor Wat’ for its scattered concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, wats and pagodas (still not sure what’s what), many of which date back to the 11th and 12th century.

Temples (Old Bagan)

Temples (Old Bagan)

It also has a lot of lacquerware. In Old Bagan, a temple hotspo), women sell lacquer-covered bamboo cardholders, pots and jewelry boxes as souvenirs outside the pagoda entrances and family-owned lacquerware businesses pop up on the roadside almost as much as the rust-coloured ruins.

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Lacquer pots on the roadside

I’m in Burma/Myanmar with a journalist friend, KG. We’ve known each other since preschool. With my trusty bundle of Burmese phrases and her forthright interviewing skills, we make a good travel team. The locals we encounter all seem very inclined to talk and have been providing rambling answers to our rambling questions, which KG has been recording on her digital SLR with the view to doing some radio stories when she gets back home. One hotel owner seemed to think we were VIP and drove us back to our guesthouse in the company car. It feels like we’re somehow already in the loop 9not that I’m sure what The Loop is, but I think we’re in it – woo!).

That being said, we are very much on the tourist trail, and it’s starting to become a tourist multi-laned highway. Unexpectedly, there’s WiFi everywhere, and being ‘on the grid’ with all our needs attended to, despite the rumors, invokes a sort of disappointing relief. In Bagan there are painted signs advertising fruit shakes, air-con, foot massages and Indian, Chinese and Western food sprouting up like capitalist weeds on the sides of the dust-covered streets, not to mention a ubiquitous supply of horse-drawn carts with leathery, bored-looking Burmese drivers and underwhelmed-looking flubby white people sitting unsteadily on top. It’s sort of charming, sort of naff. With things changing at an at an ever-increasing rate since the floodgates opened three years ago, I guess more and more tourist traps will be an inevitable side effect.

The sense of excitement at being in Burma at the moment – the last ‘Asian Frontier’ aside from North Korea – is mixed with a mounting anxiety that very soon it will be just like everywhere else in the globalized world. That you have to see it now, now, NOW – before it’s too late and the oversized digital Gucci billboards pop up and McDonald’s start pumping out the Happy Meals and there’s nowhere left to explore on earth without being part of a million-strong expedition of fellow chump tourists. Would-be travellers. It’s a disturbing thought.

Digital photo shop - the times they are a changin' (slowly)

Digital photo shop – the times they are a changin’ (slowly)

But for the purposes of this 10-day trip, we’re embracing the tourist thing. We even sensibly picked up a photocopied version of Lonely Planet Myanmar in a Yangon street market, which KG refers to tenderly as ‘the LP’. The chapter on Inle Lake mentions a jumping cat monastery and a ‘hot spring with tofu’ but we’re consciously adopting a non-committal/skeptical attitude to these sorts of intriguing but suspect prescriptions. The plan for the next 2 days is to eschew FOMO, wandera round, interview some more locals about what they think of all the changes that are happening, rent cheap rickety bicycles with no brakes instead of those shiny motorized “e-bikes” by way of resisting modernity, and visit the lake.

Everyone says it’s breathtaking but I’ve learnt (the hard way) that in these situations it’s better to keep one’s expectations low.

Days of Activism

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On 10 December, International Human Rights Day, I went to an event held in the Burmese migrant community to start off the annual global campaign, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. The stalls were run by local organisations, including mine, with support from international partners – iNGOs like the IRC and donors like USAID – and there were crowds lined up waiting to play games like ‘throw the bucket on the can of coke’ or ‘stick the pink post-it on the wall’. The main draw card of our stall was to pick a question out of a hat like ‘It is ok for a husband to beat his wife sometimes. True or false?’ then – if you get it right – you get a tub of jelly and a packet of chips! It was kind of like a cheap, slightly warped amusement park with a social justice theme, and no rides.

Everything was in Burmese so I found it all a bit disorienting. At around 3pm I wandered over to the plastic chair area where some teenagers from my organisation were gathered, half-watching a blaring outdoor rock concert that was playing at the front. I sat down and watched them open their ‘showbags’, filled with things like booklets on Healthy Sexuality. As the girls flipped through their booklets, a Thai pin-up babe in short-shorts and a red bra was jumping around on the stage discharging erotic ‘yip! yip!’ noises into the microphone at regular intervals. I had a funny feeling this might have been the entertainment highlight of everyone’s week.

On Monday, back at the office, I noticed that my work friend TT was looking tired. When I asked her how the rest of the stall had gone she let out a dark, bemused chuckle, rubbed her temples and told me that a few men had got the questions on domestic violence wrong. What do you do with that? Shame them in front of the rest of the line? No pink post-it note for you? Where to begin?

Photo Essay – old leaves of 2013

2013 was in many ways a fucker and I’m glad it’s expired. But there were also many new leaves scattered throughout the Year I Turned 30 – literal foliage, emblems of self-regeneration, seasonal changeover and the transient nature of being with all its green, diaphanous possibilities.

There was also a mound of festering mulch. Some of that has been cleared up, set alight or raked to the side to make way for the freshly falling, non-rotten leaves of another new year.

In writing class I learnt the phrase ‘dead metaphor’ and although I think I might have murdered this one, I’m not going to let it go.

leaf, lēf/ noun: leaf; plural noun: leaves.

1. a flattened structure of a higher plant, typically green and bladelike, that is attached to a stem directly or via a stalk. Leaves are the main organs of photosynthesis and transpiration.

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When I arrived here in September, I was struck by the size and variation of the plant-life in South East Asia.

 
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Everything seemed more vivid.

 

 
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There is a lot of stray rubbish in Mae Sot (see the scrap of red in this photo) and no apparent recycling system. In Burma, it’s even more of a problem. Development seems to invariably bring with it an influx of garbage.

 
 
 

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These lily-like fronds are in the garden of Borderline, the place where I go to stave off anxiety and try to write. It doesn’t have WiFi. Nuf said.

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Like leaves in nature, walls are a feature of the built environment that have been attracting my attention. This one is a stained, mouldy, colour-streaked part of someone’s concrete fence in the Burmese migrant district, at the tail-end of the rainy season. I miss bike-riding through those mud puddles.

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I spent Christmas visiting relatives of friends in a refugee camp south of Mae Sot.

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Young sugar cane

Before they arrived over 7 years ago, my friends’ brothers were farmers in Chin State, Burma, and they’ve managed to secure a a small plot of land just outside the camp perimetre. The vegetables they grow and sell in the camp market are the sole source of income for the family.

Cabbage patch

Cabbage patch

Selecting something for Christmas dinner

Selecting something for Christmas dinner

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Towards the end of the year I started researching small-scale agriculture, income generation and sustainable livelihood initiatives with the view to expanding the Kitchen Garden Project – a plot of land, part-owned, part-rented, on which the organisation I volunteer for grows some extra food for the women and children in its shelters.

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I dropped the new leaf metaphor to my colleagues in the middle of a brainstorm for a draft funding proposal. They liked it – the Burmese language is well-supplied with nature metaphors – so, if it eventuates, it will be called the New Leaf Project.

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Happy New Year!!