Meet the military junta

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Saturday, February 10, 2007

The boat from Mandalay to Bagan is soothing - warm sunshine, pleasant river views, the sounds of water. We talk American politics for the umpteenth time, this go-around with an older German couple who, like everyone else we've met everywhere on this trip, still can't understand how the U.S. elected Bush for a second term. We don't have an answer, but I charm them instead by slaughtering their language with my kindergarten-level Deutsch.

Though everyone else raves about Bagan, we're underwhelmed. It is an amazing landscape of ancient brick and plater pagodas stretching off to the edge of the horizon. But we're instantly turned off by the vendors and hawkers we encounter at every temple, and though they're cute in a devilish kind of way, the child vendors who continue their sales pitch into the temples and follow us around make us wish we were back in the hotel room instead. I begin to play a game of trying to cut them off at corners or run them into the solid brick walls, which they think is funny. They feign surprise and sadness when we don't buy their postcards, then just as quickly bring back the smiles when we leave and the next tourists arrive. Masters of their craft. Though I'd like to believe otherwise, I've come to realize that many of the smiles and laughs one gets here are far from genuine and more another part of the polished Disney-esque sales pitch.

On another day, we enjoy the freedom of bikes, and take off to explore the pagodas by our own pedal-power. We visit a local school in a tucked away village off the main drag. The headmaster is visibly excited to host two foreigners, and the dollar signs are shining in his eyes as they show us the textbooks and explain that there are 23 children from poor families who will not be able to buy books next year. We make a donation then move on to explore more of the village. On the way back, my bike chain breaks in front of the same school. The headmaster immediately comes over and walks me all the way through the village to the bike repair guy, who I never would have found on my own, then helps him fix my bike.

When we leave Bagan, we're very excited about what lies ahead. A new Burmese friend from Mandalay has given us family contacts and a personal letter to his family, who live in a village and he's promised us that, since they're teachers, they would love to welcome us into their home and give us an opportunity to volunteer teach for a few days. Near Mt. Popa, we arrive at the "village", which is actually part of a good sized city. The truck driver directs to the guesthouse, and as we walk the two blocks, the locals'eyes are popping out of their heads in disbelief. The guesthouse is no licensed for foreigners and we're quickly informed that there's nowhere for us to stay and we'll need to move on. A bit perplexed, we invite the guesthouse owner to lunch with us. While choking down greasy fried rice and pepper-flavored watery chicken soup, we naively share our friend's letter with our host, hoping he'll be able to point us in the direction of our friend's family, and our mistake becomes apparent when he recommends that we visit the civil police. After retrieving our letter, we mumble our way through the rest of our quick meal and dodge his questions when he tries to peg us down on which way we've decided to go. We somehow manage to slink away and decide we'd still like to pay a quick visit to our friend's family before moving on. It becomes more and more apparent that there's a thick fog of government-induced paranoia here. We meet a family who knows where we're trying to go and her son begins to walk us through town. When we pass the school, the kids at recess form a swirling curious mass to watch us go by. We finally reach one of our contacts, who we think is our friend's uncle. Though they tentatively welcome us and sit us down for tea and cigars, our friend's letter has them stumped. We get a number of concerned, unhappy side-long glances from one of the women. Some of the neighborhood boys come over, eager to practice their English on us. Communication is nearly impossible. The uncle, who has left school to find out why these strange foreigners are reportedly invading his home, has nothing to say to us. It's obvious we're not welcome here. I find myself choking back tears as we leave, overwhelmed by the government's complete control over these people and our frustrating inability to break beyond the tourist surface. I feel doomed to pay government entrance fees and to visit tourist-riddled pagodas forever, which is not at all why I came here.

We locate the bus station, but when the first bus stops by they refuse to accept foreigners and take off, leaving Todd and I literally in the dust. We're definitely off "the circuit" here. The family that runs the bus station informs us that the only bus we'll be able to take is an overnight bus that won't leave for another six hours. We settle in. People eventually get curious. Again, no one is speaking English, but finally someone quietly mentions "Aung San Su Kyi...?", the formerly elected leader of the democracy movement here who has been under house arrest for many years. I don't now what to say, this place is so inconceivable, so I just nod my head, unable to tell if they support her or revile her. We finally manage to mutually communicate that we're on the "same side". Another man approaches, this time more communicative, and shares his views about how hated this military government is, how difficult they make life, and how much he would like to live in America. Even the staid monk who has been sitting next to me for hours tucked away in the fold of his robe eventually asks me about America with a depth in his eyes that tells me he's asking more than he's asking. Then he asks me how much it costs to rent an apartment in New York or California.

After ten hours, the bus pulls up to the station. It's a "local" bus. When we climb aboard, we discover that every inch of this ancient vehicle is jammed from floor to ceiling with people and 100-pound sacks of this, that, and the other. Since they're charging us double, they've been kind enough to clear a seat for us. We squeeze into the allocated space. The seat cushion is so think that it buckles and flexes underneath us as the cardboard inside barely holds it together. The floor space is packed with more bags, leaving our knees propped up just below our chins, and the leg room is barely enough for Asian-sized legs, so we turn to the side to prevent our super-sized Western legs from grinding into the seat in front of us. There's not an inch anywhere for our overloaded daypacks, so those stay in our laps.

There was a time during my first one-month group meditation retreat when I was confronted head-on by a rush of hot, panicky claustrophobia, when the pain in my knees felt like dull needles being inserted under the kneecap, when my speedy monkey mind became so unbearable to watch that I wanted to scream and make a big scene and run from the room as fast and as far as possible. And in just 12 hours, the local bus took me right back there. Several times. So my thanks to the Myanmar government bus service for the powerful post-meditation opportunity.

We also have an interesting development on the bus. Fresh with disappointment after our downcast exit from our "host" family, we're tapped on the shoulder by the guy jammed behind us on the bus, who turns out to be a former monk who speaks excellent English, wants to practice, and quickly gives a thumbs up to the Aung San Su Kyi sidebar in our Lonely Planet as he's paging through it. In a surprise turn of events he invites us to stay and teach English at his village, where he is on his way to now. Despite being crammed like sardines in a rusty tin can, we're thrilled. And when we check and then double-check with him if it's ok with the government for us to visit, he says "no problem!" He tells us that his village has never had a foreign visitor and that he's very excited. We're excited, too.

In the morning, in Pyay, we explode out of the bus like a clown-car packed full of arthritic elderly folk, everyone's joints searing from the night of public transport torture. Todd and I are the only two Caucasians in sight. Everyone is staring, some people give us a shy chuckle. Two curious wide-eyed boys burst out laughing when I catch them staring and ask them their names, in Burmese.

From the Pyay bus station, we take a quick tuk-tuk ride to another place, where we'll grab a quick lunch. We eat at a picnic table tucked away in a courtyard, surrounded by a group of Burmese who can't believe we're eating and actually enjoying (or at least pretending to) their food. Halfway through our meal, a government official sits down. He writes down our passport and visa info, asks our friend where we're going and why. Though it's all Myanmar mumbo-jumbo to us, when he suddenly holds up his index finger, it's clear he's saying we can stay in the village one night and one night only. Fine with us! We're just happy to have any opportunity to get off the same ol' tourist track that everyone in Myanmar seems to be stuck on. We give him our biggest, cheesiest American smiles and shake his hand warmly for not throwing us in jail.

After lunch, we board the cab of a lawnmower-sized tractor pulling a wooden cart filled with village women who have never seen a foreigner in person before. I snap their picture (with their permission...) and their 4th-of-July-style ooh's and aah's when I show them the digital camera view screen cracks me up. Forty-five minutes down a deeply rutted dirt road, we're apprehended by several more government officials on motorcycles they've ridden from town. More questions. The passports and visas come out again. They ask our friend more questions. More big, cheesy American smiles, handshakes, and we're off again.

At last, the village! We met our friend's family. And his extended family. And all of their friends. And their friends' friends and families. They form a big semi-circle around us on the wood-beam floor and smile and wait, like they're expecting us to deliver a sermon or levitate. We break out our pictures from home - oooh, we miss those mountains! They ask to see what American money looks like. We show them a $1 bill and a $20 bill and they're quietly surprised when we tell them the value of the $20 in kyat. It's a movie and a popcorn for one of us. It's a new wardrobe of ten complete outfits or more than a month's worth of food for them.

Our friend says it's time to go visit the school, but on our way he mentions we need to take a small detour to visit the government immigration officer, and just before we arrive he quietly tells us that when they ask our motivation for why we want to see the school we're to tell them we want to donate pens. This was true. In part. I had mentioned wanting to buy pens earlier. But "to donate pens" is quite the change from "to volunteer to teach school kids English". Something was amiss.

Once inside the dark interior of the officer's building, we're seated before a quiet, bloated, self-righteous man. Behind us sits an arrogant, hawkish man with a broad sneer and a spiky eighties buzz cut that would have made Tom Cruise's nemesis in 'Top Gun' proud. The aroma of the air is palpably filled with a full load of sanctimonious bullshit. This is round three for us. We know the procedure. Passports. Visas. Questions. Only this time the questions get more probing. Our questioner's hands are shaking visibly. Though they don't want us to see it, they're very unhappy with our friend. They scribe a one-page handwritten statement in Myanmar (Burmese) and make him sign it. He's visibly shaken but making every effort to hide it from us. We're not the slightest bit afraid for ourselves, and we're very, very concerned for our friend, and everyone is pretending, so again we paste on big, fat, cheesy American smiles, hoping that somehow this will at least keep things from getting worse. I notice myself coming back to my breath to stay collected. At one point, Todd gets a bit miffed and I quickly dissuade him. From what we can tell, at least one of the government guys speaks English, and Todd doesn't speak German. I'm desperate for a way to talk with Todd in a way they won't understand. It's ridiculous, bu I even try pig Latin, which Todd's never learned either.

Mr. Immigration changes the date on the paperwork and states that we'll be unable to stay in the village. They continue to question our friend. I ask Mr. Immigration if it was bad to visit this village. No reply. I ask him how we're supposed to know where we can and cannot go. No reply. They ask us where we're going next. We tell them we don't know. This is like a stupid kindergarten game, a stupid kindergarten government. Their sweaty paranoia is electric in the room. Their only way to hold onto their control of this country is through fear, intimidation, and guns. But two American tourists visiting a village of stilt houses and rice paddies for one night is perceived as a threat. Then again, when I look around the room at the crowd  of villagers that has gathered to watch, and feel my smile grow wider, and meet their eyes with kindness in my own, and wave at some of the kids and they shyly wave back, I realize that maybe we are a threat. Our kindness and openness is a weapon against the oppression. Over and over again throughout Myanmar we met countless people whose livelihoods, freedoms, and culture had been stolen from them, and the one thing they all shared openly with us was a complete opposition to the government. I wonder if the government forcing us to leave, two happy smiling foreigners in front of a crowd of villagers, actually creates the exact opposite impression that the government wants to instill in these people's minds.

When the questioning was complete, we left for the school. As we approach the schoolyard, the Immigration Gang arrives on their motorcycles. They escort us into the building and sit on both sides of us. The kids are so excited about our visit. The headmaster and the kids make a huge show out of our donation, vastly different than the quiet moment on the side I was hoping for. When we hand over the money, the entire room suddenly hums with a Buddhist seed syllable chanted three times by everyone present, and the headmaster explains that it was a Buddhist blessing.

Soon we're hauled away from the village on motorcycles, since they've promised to imprison our friend if we're not back in town by 5pm. Again we're greeted and interrogated by police. Passports again. Visas again. When the same questions start, again, I sharply reply that we've already answered these questions and ask if this is the impression their government wants to leave on tourists.

We've had enough. We've seen radically different sides of Myanmar. We're done with tourist sites here. We change our plane tickets for an earlier departure and book it out of here back to Bangkok. I still worry about our friend.
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