Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Myanmar: Arrival

Mandalay, December 8th - 9th {notes from journal}

We arrive. The airport comes into view as we taxi down the runway... earlier in the plane, through gashes in the blanket of gray clouds, we could see the patchwork of earth, like anywhere when seen from a plane -- browns, greens. The palette reminded me of a Girl Scout cookie box (thin mints)... (I am obsessed by strange food cravings these days, after 9 months on the road). I am struck by the lack of things seen from the air -- no housing developments or networks of pavement -- the orderly shapes of farming plots and purposeful lines of trees fill the view. The airport comes into sight. It's empty -- entirely -- looking deserted. On the tarmac, a few busses await our prop plane to ferry us to the terminal. If it wasn't for these, there would be nothing to signify that the airport is more than a figment of my imagination. There's no other sign of life, so unusual for an airport, what with their flock of giant flying machines and people waving orange sticks and small trucks carting baggage to and fro. There is nothing of this.

We enter the airport and immigration checkpoint -- a dim place with half of the lights turned off -- and aside from the 2 lines of passengers from our plane and a handful of men behind desks, there are no other people here. There is no activity, none of anything associated with the bustle of airports, which are always throbbing, pulsing, chaotic in the middle of the day. A line of baggage carousels beyond remain quiet and still. It is so strange, like a building in a movie about the sudden disappearance of every living soul on Earth or a building in a zombie movie, spooky in its noiseless immensity. It's spooky in the way that empty churches and schools and hospitals are -- it's why they are commonly featured in horror movies -- places this big, this public, and with usually high amounts of activity are eerie when deserted.

It's obvious the airport doesn't see much traffic. This flight from Chiang Mai is made only once per week, on Thursdays. There are internal flights throughout Myanmar, but I'm guessing they are infrequent as well... who can fly in Myanmar? Tourists. And how many of them are here? Few.

The airport is 40 km from Mandalay and a ramshackle taxi costs $5.00 per head. You could put 2 people in the same car as 4, but there's no economy when the price is by person. So, we said farewell to the British couple we met at the baggage carousel and with whom we'd planned to share a taxi into town. We motored our way along quiet roads towards Mandalay -- a light rain threatened to fall from the clouds, fields of sunflowers hung their heads without sunshine to look towards, the occasional backfire from our shoddy transport the only sound the quiet countryside.

It's not going to be cheap in Myanmar -- one would think that travel in such a poor country would be less expensive than in, say, neighboring Thailand. A country that is, indeed, cheap but still modern and developed. Many of the attractions are pricey, with $5-$10.00 entrance fees (and this money unfortunately goes to the government). The guidebook reports that when people complain about the prices, the prices are raised as rebuttal. We are foreigners in Myanmar, therefore we are rich and can afford anything -- prices are 5-10x what locals are charged... a 'tax on the rich' if you like. It's not unique to Myanmar, this notion that foreigners should pay more for things. It happens all over Asia. I wrestle with both sides of the argument: at home I am not rich, but compared to the people in the poor countries I've traveled, I most certainly am. It's no use denying my wealth (and seems absurd to do so) when I can leave my country and visit others and these people can only dream about doing the same. So many times on this trip I have been told I am 'lucky' by people, even those with 'good jobs', because I can travel and they cannot -- they can just barely put food on the table or afford much more than basic necessities.

We are dropped off at the corner of 80th and 26th streets and found our hotel quickly. The rain has finally broken free from clouds now barely visible in the evening sky. Three times I have been greeted with, "Hello!" and I have only taken three steps from the curb. Yes, Myanmar is living up to its reputation already: the people are friendly.

Our hotel room reminds me of one where we stayed in the Nevada desert: like a grandmother's spare room... a grandmother down on her luck (a well meaning lady, though -- the plastic flower in the vase is a thoughtful touch). We found dinner around the corner at a place called 'Devi Restaurant'. The guidebook states that it's a hole in the wall. It was. We asked for a menu and were answered, "No menu. Chicken curry, vegetable curry, fish curry." We take the chicken. The woman is Indian -- black skin, petite figure, curly black hair. The rest of her family are watching TV in the back room, which opens up to the dining area: mother wrapped in shawl, sister, several sons. The seafoam green walls, concrete streaked with stains of time, remind me of sitting in a dank, but inhabitable, basement or garage. A young English man enters, looks around, and asks about the food and upon my recital of the 'menu', he remarked, "So that's what's on offer then?" and took a seat behind us. Soon his table was filled, like ours, with a number of little metal dishes filled with curry, veggies and dahl.

Myanmar is a unique blend of cultures and food, traditions... Indians and Nepali Gurkhas came with the British when Myanmar was colonized. The Brits suffered through three wars to conquer Burma, the first war happened around 1820 and with the last in 1886, Burma was finally and completely controlled by England. In fact, when the British occupied Myanmar, they deemed the nation a province of India, their neighboring colony. Because of this, Bamar cuisine (the Bamar are the largest Burmese ethnic group in Myanmar) is a blend of cultural influences from India and Nepal. You order rice with curry (vegetable, chicken, mutton, and fish -- because of the Hindu belief in the sacred cow there is little beef and because of the Burmese belief in that Nat (spirits), there is little pork eaten -- the Nats are offended by the ingestion of pork and no-one wants an angry Nat on his case). Curries are served with an array of side dishes, sometimes up to 6, that are constantly refilled as you dine. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants, too. The Chinese came to Burma at the same time as the Indians and if you really want some beef or pork, it can be found with the Chinese.

Our first day in Mandalay: we took a walk around town -- the old palace and fort are just around the corner... but the original buildings were destroyed in the war with the British. In fact, many of Mandalays 'attractions' were destroyed in the war. We find the city a tad depressing. Not only is the moody weather dampening, the place lacks atmosphere. It's utilitarian rather than attractive. Walking down a street, its difficult to discern a restaurant from other shops that don't seem to really sell anything. There may rusted springs for sale hanging from the every square inch of the ceiling and walls or boxes of TVs stacked in a gray, concrete cell or a paltry collection of odds'n'ends from another generation inside glass cases coated with dust. There are no shopping centers or retail stores like you see elsewhere: there appears to be no 'retail industry' at all. You don't see money changers (banks must have special permission to change money) -- travelers use their hotel or the black market to exchange dollars for kyat. Buildings have fallen into disrepair, the roads are pot-holed, and there are frequent power outages every day. Entire city blocks fall dark in the night when the power goes out. The notion of a post-communist Eastern European country has entered my mind, but I don't really know what they were (are) like.

In some ways, Mandalay is a lot like other SE Asian cities -- women walk the streets with giant baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads, blood-red pools of Betle nut spittle linger on sidewalks and roadsides, children in school uniform and backpacks walk hand in hand down the street, bicycle trishaws await passengers, boys play soccer on the sidewalk or a Burmese form of 'hackey sack' with woven bamboo balls, vendors roast corn along curbsides, sidewalk and street-bound restaurants fire up their grills...

Tomorrow we are off to Bagan, by bus...


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