The youngest initiate

Reflections on Yangon Part II

Reporting from somewhere in the Bay of Bengal…

There are three seasons in Myanmar: Summer (damn hot), Rainy (damn hot and wet), Winter (pretty damn hot). We visited in Summer. Of course.

That’s among the things I learned on our second day in country.

Again as yesterday, my education was aided by a guide — this time not a politically charged up young man — rather a charming, giggling between every other sentence, young woman.

Our Guide

Our Guide

Among other tidbits I came to know through her, and via my keen powers of observation:

  • The bottled “drinks” displayed in vertical wooden racks by vendors all along the road to Yangon are in fact filled not with lemon soda or iced tea as the vessles and labels would imply, but rather with petrol… to top up the tanks of the sea of motorbikes that ply the route.
  • The rise of a monied class of business people working in Yangon, along with rapidly escalating prices downtown, has led to a surge in upscale housing development in the city’s surrounding regions. Think: ’80s style condo complexes sitting hard alongside miles of shacks as context. As I commented yesterday, it’s a land of mixing realities.
  • Monks are required to go barefoot across the scalding ground when they make their daily rounds seeking alms (donations of food), so that they are viscerally reminded to stay in touch with the problems of everyday people. (Question: Could this work for Members of Congress in search of campaign contributions?)
  • Aggressive drivers are the same the world over. The captain of our coach showed great enthusiasm for the use of his horn, and would turn to glare over his shoulder at length, with menace and incredulity, at all who failed to live up to his standards of suitable road etiquette.

Some brief notes and observations from the day’s program follow…

We arrived back at Shwedagon Pagoda just in time to witness a coming of age initiation ceremony, with featured participants aged eight to eighteen, (the youngest crying, the eldest glowering) proudly accompanied by their relatives. I learned that it’s common to set the qualifying age so as to ensure that grandparents are able to witness the ceremony from this world, rather than the next.

Initiation ceremony

Initiation ceremony

It’s amusing to be the subject of reverse tourism. Ellie and I, seeking shade, found ourselves sitting alongside a group of local teenagers… who, with hesitancy that gave way to courage, proceeded to document us at great length with their mobile phone cameras as, presumably, examples of an exotic species from a far off land.

Next stop was at a downtown open air market, timed most cleverly to coincide with the peak heat of the day. Our guide suggested caution regarding the provenance and quality of goods on offer, and expanded, “The ‘Government Registered’ designation you’ll see on many shops means that they are selling what they claim, but carries no assurances on authenticity or quality.” Crystal clear.

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Ellie showed her creative pluck by entering one of the very few air conditioned shops, at the peripheray of the market, and negotiating — very slowly — without any intent of positive outcome — for the non-purchase of a piece of jade (a $2300 hand cooler of no distinguishing merit)… giving just enough time for the outflow of sweat from my brow to slow.

Our transition to the day’s next stop, lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel, was delayed by fifteen minutes (felt longer in the tepid coach atmosphere), by a couple who got caught up in an extended negotation toward the purchase of some local fabric. Their arrival back at the coach was met with steely glares.

That lunch, a buffet, memorable for its excellent food, blessed AC, and very pleasant chat with the Seabourn Sojourn’s captain’s wife, gave us the strength to power through the balance of the afternoon… which featured…

A photo stop at the larger of two downtown lakes in Yangon… cleaner for the workings of a pair of machines donated by the Japanese.

Lake in Yangon, view to Shwedagon Pagoda

Lake in Yangon, view to Shwedagon Pagoda

…The National Museum, with its modest but proud exhibits of early life in Myanmar…

… and a pavilion built to house “the fifth largest reclining Buddha” (one of three canonical poses).

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

On the way back to port, our guide elaborated on the astrologically focused, mystical side, of her country…

…How the week day of one’s birth (there are eight in Myanmar, with Wednesday being divided into AM and PM) carries great import in determining your nature. Each is aligned with a corresponding creature. I’m a Tuesday baby (a Lion), reportedly ambitious by nature, but marked by a ‘sharp tongue.’ I’m shocked and appalled…

…How baby’s names are traditionally chosen based on the alignment of letters of the local alphabet with those days…

…How a first born Saturday baby (‘Tar Tei Sa Nay Thar’) is thought to bring great risk to its parents, given its supernatural powers…

…How the truth of all of this was driven home for our guide by the fact that her astrologer fortold the need for her to deliver her baby by C-section.

We left Myanmar much richer for the brief time spent there.

The experiences we had over this past weekend, while packaged and choreographed (as these sort of things always are), will live on in our memories for a very long time as not just fascinating, but as deeply revealing of human realities, and fundamentally real in all of their complexity.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Reflections on Yangon Part I

13.793595 N, 92.890955 E
Bay of Bengal
Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands
En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…

Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.

Irrawaddy River Delta

Irrawaddy River Delta

I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.

The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…

Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.

Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.

And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.

Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…

Our Guide

Our Guide

We learned from him about:

  • The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
  • How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
  • How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
  • About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
  • How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
  • How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
  • How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions,  previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
  • How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
  • How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.

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Watchman’s Rattle?

Watchman'srattleCosta I read an interesting, if a bit quirky, little book a short time back called "The Watchman's Rattle," whose premise is that over the history of our species, societies tend to grow in scale and sophistication… to the point of inevitable collapse, as a result of our mind's inability to cope with the resulting non-linear expansion of complexity. At the time I filed it under "imaginative pseudo-science."

The events of the past few years give pause however: Financial meltdown, precipitated by a greed-begat swan of black color and petards self-hoisted by corporate dandys of all pin-stripes. Political polarization to the point of absurdity ("I am not a witch") and dysfunction (state legislators scurrying away to avoid a quorum). Religious tectonics along the north 10th parallel fueling non-stop spasms of violence in one part of the globe, and the inevitable geologic tectonics of another creating apocolyptic convergences of failure — all amplified in emotive power while drained of reason by our media priests. 

Where are the reasoned men, leading, teaching and serving as examples of the "practical wisdom" Aristotle pointed us toward?

Perhaps the complexities of our times simply overwhelm? If so, I believe it's because the noise, accelerating novelty and confusion sets up a fog, within which lesser men and ideas can maneuver and emerge into positions of power and influence.

We must learn to see through that fog.

Not with goggles that mask the realities and truths of our times, collapsing them down to kindergarten nuggets on blackboards using smarmy bombast posing as "truth."

Not with smarter-than-thou rhetoric that ignores basic values and fails to deal with the world as it is.

Rather, with a penetrating gaze that sees things as they are, and with the wisdom to choose leaders who apply calm and steadfast courage in mounting a reasoned response.

I don't hear a rattle. I hear a clarion call…