This is Burma

I’m nestled on a bench in the back of a truck between a young woman, her face swirled with golden thanaka, and an old man, his sarong-like longyi knotted at the waist, woven rice hat on his wrinkled brown head. Our conductor hangs off the back of the truck, his longyi, too, whipping in the draft, shouting at pedestrians, suggesting they might want to get on his truck, with an urgency typically reserved for wartime and natural disasters. Someone signals something, and the truck jolts to a halt; everyone falls on everyone else, and then springs back upright. Four teenage boys clamber to the roof of the truck, followed by two sacks of rice and a bicycle, and we lurch back into motion. Here in Burma, where cars drive and drivers sit on the right side, we make a daring swerve around a stopped truck overflowing with pineapples, and driver thankfully finds no oncoming traffic save a few motorbikes and an old woman with a basket on her head who obligingly dodge us, and we’re speeding onward.

Twante (Twantay? Thwan Te?) is a small town a few hours from Yangon notable primarily for a substantial pagoda that may or may not have three hairs from the Buddha’s own scalp buried deep within. We pulled into the town square, and I stumbled down the road toward the pagoda’s golden spire, jutting above the soot-gray cement-block buildings in the town center. The people of Twante looked on with perplexed amusement, and I smiled ingenuously back. I did not get far.

Kyaw Soe is a driver (motorbike) and tour guide (specializing in rare white people) in Twante. He is a devout Buddhist, taking every shrine and temple as an opportunity to explain that ‘my Buddha is very powerful.’ He takes a keen interest, also, in the miracles of ‘your Yesu’, who, he generously notes, is also very powerful. Twante, he explains, has Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, but no fighting. He is justifiably proud. Kyaw Soe is small, but claims to be able to swim across the Twante canal and back again without taking a break. His friendly smile has one black tooth, and the rest are stained red from his occasional habit of chewing betel.

He took me around Twante on the back of his motorbike, showing me where the town’s potters crafted and fired their work, and taking me to a cotton-weaving house, where three adolescent girls sat at looms in a small nipa hut, their hands and feet pulling strings and levers on the bamboo contraptions in practiced rhythm, weaving shoulder bags to be sold in Yangon. The bags are strikingly beautiful, in bold colors, with designs drawn from the crafts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. They can each make four bags in one long, hot day.

Kyaw Soe has a wife and two children, and also supports his in-laws—both his parents died a few years ago, in their 40s. His father died from drinking too much whiskey. His mother died from walking to the fish market every day for 40 years, which, Kyaw Soe illustrates via gesticulation, caused her insides to fall apart. They are buried together in the town cemetery. Kyaw Soe is unsure if they gave enough money to the monastery to ensure a trip to the sky.

We went to the market, where Kyaw Soe seemed to be very popular among the fish ladies, who ribbed him and cackled at his jokes as they lopped off fish heads with machetes. One expansive woman, squatting behind piles of uncomfortable live ducks tied up at the feet, her midsection spilling out over the top of her loosely wrapped longyi, suggested to Kyaw Soe that he give me to her for the afternoon. I am not exactly sure what she wanted to do with me, but I’m glad I wasn’t turned over.

Kyaw Soe had no idea that America was on the other side of the earth from Burma, and was flabbergasted to learn that it was nighttime in New York when it was daytime in Yangon. He demonstrated that he can say ‘thank you’ in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and then asked how we say it in America. He thought it odd but fortunate for us both that we Americans choose to speak English. He asked whether America was near Italy and sought to confirm that New Zealand and Switzerland were neighbors. He is also a die-hard Manchester United fan, adores Wayne Rooney, and thinks David Beckham is a prettyboy. Premier League football: the common human experience, if there is one. (N.B.: Among the European football jerseys I saw walking around Burma, Arsenal kits easily outnumbered all others combined. We’ve got a beachhead, boys.)

We went on to the docks, where the morning catch had already been brought in (and had their heads chopped off). Workers sprawled idly in the humidity, waiting for the afternoon boats and the break in the heat the day’s rains would bring. An ancient woman in a low bamboo hat smoked a green cheroot and cooked noodles over a coal fire, hurling threats and insults at the kids horsing around on the dock. Inside the fish house, a serious, mustachioed man sat counting money, piles of cash burying his desk. On the next dock, shirtless boys played soccer, the goal two wooden posts at the end of the pier. An errant shot—or a goal—meant a leap into the Twante canal, which connects the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy River, and is part of the network of waterways that reticulate Burma’s delta region.

The whole delta region was, until last year, quite closed to foreigners, and Twante would have been a tricky place for someone of my complexion to visit. The Burmese government had hoped to hide from foreign eyes the devastation and destruction left behind by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but evidently redevelopment has progressed enough to reopen. This was just the last in a series of suspect policies following the cyclone. The first and most devastating was the junta’s initial refusal to accept any international assistance, which was followed by grotesque incompetence in the government’s own response. As a result of this proud posturing, about 140,000 people died before the junta decided they had better stop counting.

Devastated by the plight of their countrymen, many Burmese from Yangon and elsewhere rushed to the delta region to help in any way they could. But the government took affront to this, as well, and threw many of these would-be volunteers into prison. This fiasco came less than a year after the 2007 uprising, in which high gas prices led to popular discontent, which led to angry protests, which led to a crackdown wherein Buddhist monks in their saffron robes were shot in the street by scared teenagers in military uniforms under orders from their general and president. I met university students who were detained for aiding the victims of Nargis, and then convicted of participating in the uprising. They spent over three years in Insein Prison along with the bloggers, journalists and political leaders who had organized and publicized the Saffron Revolution; they were just recently released, and can now continue their studies, though hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up.

Kyaw Soe and I got on famously, and at the end of his standard tour, he offered to take me to a temple where, as I understood from his description, the Buddhists had been using the same latrine for 1,000 years. We rolled out of town, his motorbike coughing and hiccupping, and rolled past fish farms with rainbow netting and verdant rice paddies. After a brief stop to review the husbandry practices of Burmese fish farmers (evidently, to ensure production of sufficient eggs, the farmers net together one female fish with two males; Kyaw Soe gave a lurid laugh at what must be going on in the muddy water), we pulled into the walled garden of a rural monastery.

He led me up into an ancient teak building sitting on stilts beside the canal, and introduced me to an aged monk who sat shooting jets of crimson betel juice into a spittoon. At the front of the vast room were walls of glass, and behind that wall was a small glass case surrounded by plastic flowers and colorful blinking lights. Inside the case were two bronze Buddhas, no more than a foot tall, beautiful and roughly worn. My confusion was revealed: when digging a new latrine for the monastery, the monks had driven their shovels into these two Buddhas, which turned out to be over 1,000 years old. After admiring the Buddhas and sitting for a spell with the monk, I was escorted outside to take a look in the pit where the Buddhas had been found, preserved as a hole in the ground for years.

The afternoon grew dark, and a cool wind signaled the impending daily storm. Kyaw Soe offered to spare me a return trip in the tin can truck, and drove me back to Dala, where I could catch my ferry to Yangon. As we drove, the skies opened up, immense raindrops smacking us in the face. We swerved through a herd of buffaloes crossing the street, and dodged the jets of betel juice emitting from the windows of passing buses. When we arrived, soaked and dripping, Kyaw Soe suggested we dry off in the roadhouse and have a beer. So we sat, rain pounding the tin roof.
As we sat, I showed Kyaw Soe my driver’s license, which he interpreted as a sort of union card, and was thrilled that he and I shared the same profession. He eagerly asked how much money a driver like me earned in an average day, and then subtracted out my estimates of necessary living expenses in Washington Township: 30 dollars per day for a house, 20 dollars per day for food, and figured that I probably profited more than the four dollars he might bank on a good day. Then he asked how much money Wayne Rooney makes per day, and resolutely disbelieved my estimate. Then he asked how many townships America has. We went on and on.

We sat for hours, drinking Mandalay beer, snacking on fried prawns and peanuts. The Olympics came on—it was morning in London—and the whole bar turned to watch, in live HD, the first heats of the two-man rowing competition. The bar hooted at the failings of the Americans, rooted tepidly for the Chinese (not out of any particular fondness for Burma’s sometimes imperial patron to the north, but more out of Asian solidarity), and watched with indifference as brawny European men won race after race. Eventually, I bid Kyaw Soe farewell (and paid him for his services), and boarded the ferry back to Yangon, where a freshly tidied room waited for me with clean sheets on a king-sized bed.

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