In Myanmar, men still ride oxen-pulled carts.
Pagodas, or Buddhist temples, appear at every turn. Many predate the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Dark Ages.
People often shout, but they’re not angry. They’re just talking.
Driving skills are alarmingly poor. People drive like teenagers—oblivious to their surroundings, sporadic in their decisions, and careless in their inexperience.
Trucks everywhere belch forth acrid, black smoke.
A motor scooter fits an entire family.
Mosquitoes are an inevitability of life.
Littering is rampant.
Tea is ubiquitous.
In the countryside, a man’s wealth and success is measured by the number of bulls and cows he owns.
Men wear “lon-gyi” instead of pants—a long piece of traditional cloth wrapped about the waist.
Every morning women and children apply “tha-nat-kha” to their face. The golden substance, ground from the wood of a specific tree, serves as an ancient form of makeup, skin care and sun protection. It reminds me of elegant war paint.
Little girls sell strings of fragrant flowers that hang on your rear-view mirror.
People everywhere stare at the face of a foreigner. Many have never seen one. My secret weapon is to smile a big smile. It usually cracks distrust and curiosity into toothy grins. Children are almost always the first to smile back.
In Myanmar, a long line of monks accepts handfuls of rice from an old woman. The last monk, a boy of six, puts his hands out, but the rice is gone. He hoists up his dark, burgundy robes to catch up with his monk family.
An ancient woman, gnarled and wizened and shrunken and milky-eyed, begs for money.
An old teacher gives me a green mango. She is due to retire next month.
An elephant paces back and forth, tied up casually in a side yard.
A lone worker repairs a pothole in the road. Kneeling, he bends forward to compact black, sticky asphalt into the hole with his bare hands.
A young woman deftly rolls cigars in a room full of women rolling cigars.
A truck screams, swerves, corrects itself too violently, and runs off the road. It falls on its side and rolls, over and over.
A stern old man gently feeds three stray dogs when he thinks no one is watching.
A young boy in the country holds my camera respectfully, like its treasure. He has no father, but he has curious, bright green eyes. I find good pictures on my camera when he gives it back.
A woman walks by a busy tea shop, bird cage full of singing finches balanced perfectly atop her head.
A dozen skinny chickens peck their way around the dirt yard in the countryside. With a jolt I realize that before lunch, there must have been thirteen.
A small child, barefoot in the dirt, jumps up and down with pure excitement. Hands up high, happiness clearly animates his entire being. His gaze is fixed on something behind me. After a moment, the traffic clears and I see another young boy cross the street to our side. The child laughs, arms in the air, and runs to his brother. The brother picks the child up with a hug, kisses his cheek, and carries him home.
A setting sun lights up golden fields of corn.
In Myanmar, I’ve been lucky enough to meet nice, down to earth people who show me the Myanmar they know and love. I’ve seen many glimpses into Myanmar’s culture, history, and countryside. A friend is a wonderful thing, especially in a foreign world.
Deep in the country, a man spots me in the passenger seat of our car, and runs out to flag us down. He shakes my hand, and walks me onto his farm. Hundreds of ducks quack in suspicion as I enter their territory. He proudly shows me the extent of his land—perhaps 30 feet by 50 feet—and shows me his home—a bamboo shelter under a thatched roof. It’s just him, his ducks, his shelter, and the simple clothes he wears. He rummages around, puts five fresh duck eggs in my hands, and tells me that I am welcome back anytime.
A young girl begins to wobbles on her moving motor scooter. She over-corrects, and crashes hard onto a country road, not twenty feet in front of me. As the motorbike falls, her head and face smash onto the asphalt. My stomach lurches, terrified at what I am seeing. I instinctively close my eyes. There are some things I don’t want to see.
We pull over to help and, miraculously, her face and brains are all still intact. She has minor road rash on her body, but no serious wounds. A helmet in Myanmar is a rare sighting, especially in the country, but she happened to be wearing one. I don’t think she has any idea how lucky she is to still be alive and unscathed. As we drive away, I take a deep breath, and say a little prayer of thanks.
The five o’clock dawn brings a cacophony of sounds. A caged rooster cries his morning ca-caw over and over again, not five feet from my head. Other chickens chortle and squawk, pecking their way around the sandy yard. Birds chirp and sing to each other, distant and close all at once. An ancient looking gramophone, perched at an alarmingly inconsiderate angle, blares pre-recorded Buddhist wailing at full volume from the neighbor’s window sill.
My stiff body and foggy brain, lying on hard bamboo underneath a palm-leaf roof, reject these wake-up calls. Five hours of sleep are too few. But, there’s no ignoring the morning symphony blaring around me now that I’m awake. And besides, the concrete rainwater basin, complete with little feeder fish, awaits my morning shower.
I am staying in a remote village with kind, simple people for a few days. I am the first tourist that has ever been here, as long as anyone in the town can remember. Aside from a few modern items–the gramophone, an overhead light hooked up to a battery, a bicycle–the year could just as well be 1017 instead of 2017.
An agitation stirs in the minds and conversations of the people we meet. Two years have passed since the new government came into power, and people discuss the many, many new problems in dark, commiserate voices.
Countless public bus routes cut. Tolls, taxes, and tariffs levied at every turn. Crime rates up. Dirt poor villagers forced to sell their last bulls or cows in order to pay taxes they don’t understand.
Stories of monasteries flooded with orphaned children, because their families were killed for refusing to move from their ancestral homes that happened to be in the way of a pipeline. Or an emerald mine. Or a gold deposit.
I visit one of these monasteries that now bulges with over 1,000 orphaned children, or three times the normal capacity. I meet many of these mini-monk orphans, shave-headed and garbed in burgundy. They play soccer. They pray solemnly. They look at me suspiciously, then smile when they see I mean no harm. They are just kids.
Talk of corruption in government. Officials that, two years prior, had never owned a piece of property now boast Lamborghinis, $200,000 watches and $30 million dollar mansions. Misappropriation of resources—a storm leaves 250,000 people homeless, and local people all around the country send rice, water, supplies. When does government aid arrive? Five weeks later.
Issues with lending at exorbitant rates. Insufficient banking regulations. Nepotism. Illegal seizure of assets. Selling of national resources to the highest bidder, without thought for replenishment.
I listen to these conversations with a bitter taste in my mouth. Why is it that human greed always ensures that the poor suffer the most? As a student of history and economics, I have an outsider’s perspective that these people don’t have, and my heart goes out to them. These crimes all sound too familiar.
Three young girls walk down a dirt road after school in the country. We offer them a ride home, and they hop in the back seat and chatter away the four miles it usually takes them over an hour to walk every day. None of them have ever been outside the local township. I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Two dream of being teachers. One says her dream is to become a doctor. A minute later, when we drop them off in their village, they fumble with opening the door until we show them how to use the handle. I see them laughing in the sunny dusty road in the rear-view mirror.
I hope their dreams come true.
While traveling in Myanmar, I became more bold about asking people if I could take their picture. Most people were happy to oblige. I think geography, history, culture and landmarks all make up a society’s identity. But, I think that the people themselves make up a society’s soul.