I Never Learned the Burmese Word for Goodbye

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Saturday, March 5, 2005

I wanted to savor every last minute here. On my last full day in Rangoon I was already walking to the teashop for breakfast down Bogyoke Aung San Road a little before eight o'clock. Morning in Rangoon is the best time of day. The streets are relatively quiet at that hour and the sun wouldn't scorch the city until shortly after Noon and walking down the treacherous sidewalks without being jostled is a great deal more pleasant. I went to our table at the old teashop near the Central Hotel and ordered a hearty plate of four curry vegetable puffs and a cup of milky Myanmar tea. I watched an old couple impeccably dressed across from me; he in crisp white mandarin collar shirt and jacket with a navy lungyi and she in a form-fitting white lace blouse with charcoal lungyi stitched with vines of pink flowers that swirled at her feet. Her black and grey-streaked hair was pulled tightly into a chignon around which hung a lariat of tiny white orchids that fell to her shoulders. They were the epitome of grace and I could barely take my eyes off of them so then ordered a coconut puff for dessert and a watery cup of Chinese tea to cleanse the palette and watched some more.

Next was a yet another aborted attempt to respond to some emails at the nearby Internet café though I was able to write another entry to the travelogue. Swarms of people like to hover behind you here and try to read over your shoulders, which is odd considering that I feel pretty certain there's someone in the back room reading what I type at this very second. Yesterday at the teashop Cameron and I were talking to a Burmese whom we'd met earlier in the week over breakfast when I mentioned that I was certain that we've been trailed. He nodded and shrugged. Stating facts that patent must've seemed as superfluous to a native as if I'd said the junta choking their country wasn't exaclty on the up and up. Frankly I'm thrilled to be watched and have the government waste its money on watching me eat too much and hearing me bitch about how a return carfare was five cents more than the day before to the same destination. What a fount of riveting intrigue I am. A regular Mata Hari whose soul intent these past two weeks has been to uncover the best coconut puffs in town and eat every damn one of them by the fistfuls - curry puffs, too.

I walked over to the monastery for my last English chat with the monks. Many of them had already left on vacation and one of them for the first time was actually fully dressed and was waiting to go to class but he'd stayed just to say goodbye. We talked about different attractions in various countries I'd visited and I told them about Angkor Wats, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and the Statue of Liberty. I drew a map to show them where Cameron and I lived and where Lady Liberty is in relation to our apartment. One of them asked again about the Statue of Liberty so I began writing the quote at the base on his notebook for him. When I got to the last line, "I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door" I felt the knot again in my throat. I tried to explain carefully what it meant, "Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and what the date on the tablet means and relating our two countries as former British colonies. I've sworn to send them books and was asked to please send a picture of the allegory of liberty and I will.

Monk Siri took me for some "sightseeing" (a word he learned from Cameron) afterward to a pagoda complex that was the kitschiest I've seen yet. This place was the Myrtle Beach amusement park of Buddhalands, with it tableaux vivant of moving Buddhas, rotating miniature temples and the best of all was an encased Buddha that rolled from side to side on a fake river where giant Naga snakes jumped out. One is expected to throw money inside the moving objects but if you haven't yet folded your kyats into easy to toss triangles never fret -- you can exchange them from the lady behind the card table. I was surprised they weren't hawking cotton candy and coconut puffs and if truth be told a bit disappointed.

We were walking to the Laughing Lady's noodle shop when Siri stopped me and told me he had a present for me. He reached in his bag and handed me a tiny Lucite keychain with the Golden Boulder Stupa on it and an envelope with a purple beaded bracelet inside and a letter "to read later" he requested. I was overwhelmed. "Please don't ever forget me because I will never forget you." Like a watercolor in a monsoon his face was washing away and he continued, "I wish you a safe journey and I hope I can see you again in this life." He gracefully turned and I thanked him. When I stopped to look back he'd already turned the corner. I wiped my face with my sleeve, hung my head low and ducked into my lobby.

On my last night in Rangoon I made my third pilgrimage to the Shwedegon Pagoda. The first time Cameron and I went with Siri, the second time we ran into Monk Binyee-Bola and tonight I was looking forward to quietly sitting and bidding my farewell.

The first construction of the Shwedegon Pagoda began over five-hundred years before Christ. The actual pagoda that contains eight strands of the Buddha's hair is 14 acres but the complex of myriad temples and shrines scattered pell-mell within the complex cover over a hundred acres more. At the top a hti (stupa umbrella) is covered in half a ton of gold and over 4,000 gold bells surround it. The orb that perches above it is a little less than two feet in diameter and is covered in 4,351 diamonds the largest of which is the apex diamond weighing 76 carats. The Shwedegon compound stands atop a hill and is accessible by elevators, escalators and shop-lined stairways at all four cardinal points. The gigantic seemingly endless covered stairways stretch farther than the eye can see upon entering. The stalls on either side overflow with everything from incense, candles, lotus blossoms and statues under a ceiling of carved teak with murals and relief carvings depicting the life of the Buddha.

The pagoda itself is re-gilded from top to bottom every five years during which time the structure is covered by bamboo scaffolding. The cruelest hand of fate dealt us this entire journey is that we'd arrived during the re-leafing process. To say that we were crest-fallen when our cab approached the southern entrance and we looked up to see it covered would be understating it. We were shattered and it reminded me of when I saw the freshly restored ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but the Last Judgment was completely covered.

Even with the scaffolding mimicking the lines of the stupa the setting sun seemed to burn a golden hue on the bamboo. The magnificence of the rest of the Shwedegon however would overshadow our initial disappointment as the complex surrounding it was without a doubt the most astonishing I have ever seen. It is a marble floored futuristic village of the past teaming with tiny niche shrines and larger open temples containing tremendous Buddhas in bronze, white marble, painted plaster and gold. There are shrines within shrines and under banyan trees and soaring swaying palms. Walking around the complex the sounds seep through the skin: the chimes ping and chink in the breeze; a child picks up a log and bangs a bronze bell; a gong is struck, its metal thunder reverberating against a thousand statues and a few dozen women in white robes sit facing a block-long reclining Buddha bathing it in gloriously droning chants.

On my third visit I stumbled into several areas that were new to me and I stood before countless Buddhas I hadn't seen on my previous visits. I sat cross-legged in different areas for hours and watched the faithful shuffle around the pagaoda in the twilight, light bonfires of candles and armloads of wafting incense. In my near solitude amdist the swarming masses I looked up and sighed in awe.

There are eight days of the week in Myanmar with Wednesday the day the Buddha was born broken up into day and evening and there are shrines for each with their corresponding animal and a fount to bathe the Buddha. I'm a tiger, born on a Monday and yesterday I poured a cup of water for each year according to my age plus an additional cup over the Buddha at my shrine. Monk Binyee-Bola asked me if I knew why one pours an extra cup and I told him I didn't. "It is because of the time you were inside your mother's womb." He explained. "And will you tell me what you wished for Christina?"

I wished to return to Burma.

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