Overwhelmed in Myanmar
Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
54Trip End Jun 15, 2007
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On the way to our guesthouse, our enthusiastic taxi driver givesa us a great introduction to this city of 5 million people, points out landmarks, and informs us about the going rate we should expect for money exchange on the black market, which is the only place one should exchange, since the airport and designated exchange booths are a complete rip-off at less than a third of the going rate. And after we decide to look at a second guesthouse and mention our second choice, the taxi driver takes us there, for no additional charge - again, with enthusiasm. I kept waiting for the catch, and there wasn't one. He was just a really nice guy. We're definitely not in Bangkok anymore, where our last taxi driver decided our guesthouse was too far, pulled over near a busy market, killed the engine, acted like the car wouldn't start again, and asked us to pay for part of the fare (which we didn't) and find another cab (which we did).
After a quick trip to our hotel, we take to the streets to explore on foot. Completely new and unfamiliar language, filthy crumbling buildings, uneven sidewalks with gaping holes to the sewer below, buses jam-packed with people literally hanging off the back, children with big sad eyes gently touching our hands and asking for money. A severly disfigured man says hello, stretches out his hands, quietly says "please", then follows us around the market for five minutes. As soon as he's gone, a mother carrying her daughter takes his place and follows us down the aisle.
Everywhere we go, every person we pass turns and watches us with eyes full of surprise and they often smile with amusement. Even the one guy who seemed disinterested and who looked like he might pass without looking shifted his eyes toward us at the last possible moment.
We pass through the Indian quarter - lots of men with turbans and button down short sleeved cotton shirts, streetside vendors selling everything imaginable - eyeglasses, fingernail clippers, batteries, watches, barbecue chicken, curries, clothing - along every inch of sidewalk, kindergarten-size plastic tables and chairs set with silver teapots and tumblers of massala chai tea.
Men everywhere are wearing longgyi, the traditional Burmese long skirt made from patterned cotton or handwoven silk, and always color coordinated to perfectly compliment their shirt. A vendor cheerfully demonstrates how to tie it around your waist, and when I mention that I could never wear this back home, he immediately comes back with, "tablecloth!"
By late afternoon, we're frazzled, exhausted, confused, overwhelmed, and up to our eyeballs in culture shock. This morning, I notice myself pretending to still be asleep, afraid to go out and face it all again. Todd admits he's doing the same thing. Something about acknowledging it makes it more manageable and we motivate enough to cross the street to the internet place.
We try Gmail. It opens, kind of, but every time I click to read an email it throws a weird error. There are a lot of staff. They're watching us. We can feel their eyes on our monitors, on us. Finally one of them approaches, quickly types a different URL, tells us to log in again. It's Gmail but not Gmail, and it works. Turns out they're watching to see if they can help us with a "creative solution". Our little technical problem is just a teeny tiny glimpse into the everyday reality that an entire nation is faced with while their country crumbles around them. We learn more but I'm not saying it here. I tell Todd this is weirder than any bizarre Hollywood sci-fi plot and it's actually happening.
We meet an older man whose English is fantastic. He shares the story of what happened here, how all this craziness came to be, what it's like for the children growing up here, what has happened to the schools. Over coffee, he tells us all about Vippassana and his Theravadan Buddhist practice. Before long, we find ourselves at his favorite tea shop enjoying delicious Indian and Chinese snacks washed down with spicy Indian massala tea and the entire bill comes to less than $2. He takes us to his meditation center, spends hours sharing his heartfelt connection with Buddhadharma, his devotion to his teacher. His eyes light up when he mentions his dream to do nothing but ractice meditation all the time and to one teach one day. If he weren't so genuinely excited, if he hadn't just left his workplace in the middle of the day to take two strangers to his practice center, if he hadn't just paid for the taxi ride here, I may have written him off as a wacky proselytizer. But he actually did do all those things, then bought me a book by his teacher and paid for the taxi ride back across town to our hotel. Someone genuinely living the Dharma, I thought to myself.
Just before sunset, we arrive a Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Our guide helps fill in a few of the many gaps in my knowledge of Theravada, and afterwards Todd and I walk the grounds on our own. It's a powerful place. As the sky changes from blue to black, we gaze up at the towering golden pagoda shimmering overhead. Young monks in burgundy robes pass by, smile at us and we smile back. We stop and sit for a few silent minutes at the "wishing area"- I think of a few people in my life who maybe can use a bit of extra love, wishes for health, peace of mind.
I'm reminded of how much there is to be grateful for.