Travel bug

Last night, after a wonderful dinner of liquid gold gloopy tofu, tomato salad and Shan guacamole (Burmese food is maybe the best in the world!!) my hardened journo travel buddy developed a raging gastroenteritis, starting with a small, innocuous vomit on the side of the road.

Back at the guesthouse, things escalated at an alarming rate. We were up the whole night, KG alternating between very loud, violent retching spells and desperate toilet runs, letting out screams of “Fuck you, parasite!!!” and quiet sobs, “Pleease parasite, please leave me alone, pleeeaaase…” – me suppressing a recurring impulse to point out it was likely bacterial and that it’s not a good idea to brush your teeth with tap water in South Asia, if you have a choice. At 2am with her sitting up in bed hugging the vomit bin it didn’t seem a good time for a lecture. 

After several hours of deranged parasite talk I started to get worried. Judging by the bathroom noises she was losing a lot of fluid, but she couldn’t keep down any water and her pulse was sitting at 100 beats per minute. In one very dark moment she expelled the only anti-emetic pill I had brought (dammit!), which we had strategically administered in between stopwatch-timed vomits. At that point I thought we might have to venture out in the dark to try and find some sort of healthcare facility with an IV drip, which didn’t seem like a fun prospect in the middle of the pitch-black night in Nyaungshwe.

At around 4am the retching subsided and her pulse went down and by 5am we were asleep. It’s now nearly sunset, and the poor thing has been in bed all day. It will probably be another couple of days before she recovers her baseline vivicious strength.

One of the perils of trying to squeeze a trip to a place like Burma in 10 days is that if you get taken down by a pathogen of whatever nature, it puts a real dent in your travel plans. A boat trip down Inle Lake is off the cards for the time being.

‘Inside Burma’ – first impressions

IMG_5960

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.

IMG_6092

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

IMG_5111

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.

IMG_4329
 

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

 
IMG_4328
 
 

Everything seemed more vivid.

 

 
IMG_4484
 
 
 
IMG_4316
 
 

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.

 
 
 

IMG_2894

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.

IMG_4490

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.

IMG_3671

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

IMG_3646

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

IMG_5376

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.

IMG_5391

IMG_5397

IMG_5382

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.

IMG_5398

Happy New Year!!

Photo Essay – NYE, kite-flying and washing lines

It’s 7pm on New Year’s Eve in Mae Sot and I can’t bring myself to write down even one feeble dot point on what 2013 has taught me, or what I hope for 2014, or which recycled resolutions I’m going to pick out of the rubble of the dying year, and I’m trying very hard to squeeze in a 15-minute pre-party nap so my head doesn’t fall off after one Singha beer – but instead of a list, will mark this infernal (but still somehow ethereal…) ritualistic blip on the Gregorian calendar with a photoessay.

IMG_5011

One morning when I was stuck in my lonely funk last month I found myself at the SAW orphanage sitting outside in the diluted sunshine of a South East Asian cold season while these boys ran up and down the front with their kites constructed out of newspaper and plastic bags, giggling and weaving in and out of the washing line.

For a few moments I forgot all about my HIV woes and was transported back to the weightless, bursting exuberance of childhood.

I was also reminded about how ridiculous it is to buy kids expensive ready-made crap. Think this is the height of fun, even for adults.

kites

 

IMG_4968

 

kite-flying

 

kite-flying

 

IMG_4961

 

IMG_4960

 

IMG_4966

 

IMG_4969

 

IMG_5021

 

IMG_4979

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_4977

 

IMG_4974

 

IMG_4981

 

IMG_4984

The Office – addendum

N.B. I am a lot happier at work than I was in the aftermath of the needlestick injury, mainly because a handful of staff members made a point of letting me know they identified with my stress response (well, the parts they picked up on at least….). My procrastination buddy even smacked me on the arm when she heard about it through the office grapevine and exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me!!” – a small thing that made me feel much more connected and less alone.

For me, she’s like a human portal to this other, non-Anglophone, threatened-by-a-junta, displaced world with all its adversity and defiant cheerfulness, despite the confronting gap in our respective life experiences, and our likely futures.

If it wasn’t for her I think I would be feeling a lot more Lost In Translation.

The Office

To balance out last month’s needlestick-themed post I’ve decided to try writing some lighter, less disturbing updates from the border, starting with an exposé on The (Burmese) Office.

There are no David Brent-like figures hovering around the desks at SAW[1] but some things are intrinsically familiar:

Caffeine-dependence. Water is almost always on the boil for coffee, partly because the 3-litre boiling apparatus takes at least 30 minutes to start heating it up. This thing is no benign British kettle – once ready, it has to be handled with extreme caution. A broken spout necessitates artful removal of the top lid and even more artful maneuvering of the metal cup to lift out the water, like lowering a bucket into a burning well, and the whole procedure requires a lot of concentration. When lost in morning brain-fog, there’s the ever-present risk of blistering drops and vapors, or – if you forget to unplug at the wall – being zapped by a rogue electric current.

Another effective way to wake up.

AM death trap

AM death trap

N.B. For budget reasons there’s no fridge and in the first few weeks I resigned myself to ingesting sickly sachets of 50% über-refined sugar like everyone else, which meant I would flip from a state of bleary-eyed hyperactivity into a diabetic coma by 10am. But then I discovered ‘Coffee Mate’ and instant espresso became the new fulcrum of my foggy morning ritual – I almost can’t remember what it’s like to suck down a take-away flat white with those caramel-tinged whorls of dense, creamy foam on top (almost).

Internet-dependence. When the router goes down there’s a spurt of extreme collective annoyance paired with a collective problem-solving routine that transcends all specificities of context and culture: turn modem off; wait impatiently for one never-ending minute; turn modem back on; repeat Steps 1-3; bash modem; inhale and exhale; call Internet provider; stomp around emitting loud groans; repeat Steps 1-3 and so on and so forth…

Procrastination. The kind (there are so many, sigh!) that comes from the combination of WiFi – working or not – and an ever-proliferating list of laptop-based Things To Do.

threefloatyfaces8

One sticky, feverish afternoon, when the office was strangely empty and quiet except for the overworked fans, one of my Burmese colleagues slunk over to my desk bearing a look of downcast shame and confessed she had been avoiding her list by streaming a C-grade Ashton Kutcher comedy online.[2]

I nodded soberly and heaved out the Burmese-English dictionary to look up the word. In an exchange of wry, heat-stroked grins – a moment of compressed identification – our office friendship was cemented.

Work-Life imbalance. In the same vein as being a dedicated doctor or a devoted cog in the machinery of international Human Rights, working at a Burmese migrant women’s CBO with a self-professed social mission is more a vocation than a job. This has its benefits – moral fuel, solidarity bonds, a firm reason to get out of bed in the morning – and its stressful sides.

The latter isn’t really comparable. At the moment I’m the only member of staff who isn’t a Burmese migrant, and it doesn’t take long to realise that the vague and flimsy boundaries between work and life in this situation are less a matter of choice, or are at least more difficult to alter, than for middle-class professionals working at an NGO or hospital in London (for example). For instance ­– glaring lack of employment options aside[3] – most of my colleagues have only limited legal status in Thailand and therefore can’t travel freely outside of Mae Sot let alone jump on a cheap airline every few months for a long weekend to unwind and “recharge”.

At least now, with Burma opening up, going back and forth over the border is becoming relatively straightforward. This means it’s possible for people to visit friends and relatives they might not have seen for over a decade. But to get to Yangon cheaply still involves a treacherous 20+hour overland bus journey, including a night spent parked on some winding roadside in the mountains – not ideal conditions for a relaxing mini-break.

On the upside, I think the intrinsic rewards here are more concentrated.[4] And from a feminist perspective, it’s more evolved, mainly because there’s a lot more work-life integration. Small kids squealing, drawing on the desk or playing on the floor during staff meetings is a natural feature of a workday (and a mere blip of distraction compared to being sucked into a Facebook newsfeed vortex). Colleagues prepare and eat lunch together sitting on the floor around a tiny, low-rise table; often someone will be frying something in the kitchen for an afternoon snack. There’s a twice-daily cleaning roster and homey remnants strewn all over the place, like a bag of fresh eggs or a box of nappies sitting on the shelf next to documents and office stationary. It’s sort of like an ideal, functional, grown-up share house – one based on teamwork and a common value system. Some of the staff even sleep there, in a small side room out the back.

This domestication of the workplace – the much-maligned blurred line between workspace and “homespace” – doesn’t seem to come at the expense of productivity, or professionalism. As far as I can tell there isn’t really a downside. It saves time and money (not to mention fossil fuels). It bolsters staff morale. It takes some of the everyday hassles that sap away concentration and energy levels out of that pernicious, untenable work/life equation which is so widely adhered to in the First World and which over time can render highly competent, keen-bean employees into teary, twitching, highly ineffectual office drones that eke out a 9-5 by loitering in the corridors, hiding in toilet cubicles, googling RyanAir specials and meditation courses and drooling onto their keyboards.

Office jokes. As the only one at the office who can’t speak Burmese (yet) it drives me nuts when everyone else spontaneously bursts into a ROFL giggle fit mid-conversation. And it happens all the time ­– sort of like working with a bunch of waggish, old hand British nurses making merry quips in A+E on a Friday night when everyone’s wading through chaos high on Styrofoam cups of tea dispensed by the trolley lady.

Over the past 3 months, through personal encounters and direct observations, I’ve come to the conclusion that Burmese migrants are a funny bunch: quick to laugh, good comic timing, a flare for teasing, gentle mockery, self-deprecation and deadpan delivery. I think part of it is adaptive trench humor – like that of Jewish and Irish comedians – in this case, sharpened over decades living in exile while a cold-blooded military dictatorship represses, attacks and bankrupts one’s homeland. The handful of political prisoners I’ve met, or that I’ve realized I’ve met, have been especially irreverent and chuckle-prone, not to mention entertaining, although I struggle to find the funny in some of their jungle/prison anecdotes[5].

With this in mind, the frustration of not being able to take part in office jokes is giving me a strong incentive for doing my Burmese homework.


[1] Social Action for Women

[2] who, in her defense, works full-time while studying a Community Development course and raising her 5 year-old son (i.e. is entitled to the odd Ashton moment now and then).

[3] e.g. because of not being able to speak Thai, not having a work permit or recognized qualifications, or because of having one’s education interrupted by being thrown in prison or forced into exile.

[4] As opposed to financial or other external rewards

[5] like the ones involving heavy artillery fire, or pranks played on hapless fellow inmates involving fake loudspeaker announcements that a family member had come to visit – more heartbreaking than hilarious!