Myanmar is the most authentically non western country/culture i have ever seen or been in. fields with over 1000 buddha statues 4 or 5 times life size. reclining buddha statues the size of ocean liners that you can walk in like the statue of liberty, only MUCH BIGGER. monks everywhere. children everywhere. pagodas in caves, stupas on seemingly unreachable pinnacles, mountaintop villages that can be accessed only by foot and that must be what Shangri La was intended to depict. 85% of the people are engaged in agriculture, ox carts, 1940 chevy trucks, women with yellow caked faces, men wearing longyis. even in the cities people cook with wood and charcoal. refrigeration is rare, mostly styrofoam and ice. even on the moving train they cook with wood. the sense of government oppression is nowhere visible or apparent to me other than in whispered fears and resentments, and some crazy checkpoints between states. non-burmese minorities do not have equal access to government positions. the people are immensely fascinating and somewhat alien; their “innocence,” grace, kindness, effusiveness, generosity, ease of laughter, delight, warmth, and wish to be of help are a stunning contrast to american impatience, reserve, distrust, and paranoia. there is also wretched and immense poverty, and direly unsanitary conditions, but no homelessness or starvation. a family of four can live “adequately” on 5$/day. i got my head shaved for 50 cents. i bought a dozen kids ice cream cones that were individually sculpted by the vendor artist - baboons, flowers, turtles - for a dime each. i keep giving things away, bracelets, necklaces, trinkets, and the next thing i know they are being returned in some other form from some other source. loren was openly revered as if a movie star. women touching his blond arm hairs, men squeezing his biceps. one cute waitress told him openly, “i love your body.” it was not a come on, just a statement of positive feeling. you cannot believe the number of people who seem to think it is okay to pat my belly. and forget opening my laptop in public because it draws a crowd of avid onlookers and commentators: monks, kids, cabbies, women with babies. i’m really enjoying this place … and i absolutely love the city of mandalay with its immense palace grounds, markets, lovely people, and quiet lanes.
the internet here is so problematic that i’ve had to send these myanmar entries to sam in the states so he can post them. and forget sending photos from myanmar, or accessing additional funds beyond what you came in with, since the government refuses to permit the use of credit cards or travelers cheques anywhere and there are no atms allowed either. but notwithstanding these mostly petty inconveniences, and the fact i may end up in india flat broke and praying for a money changer who will honor my credit card for a fee, myanmar continues to amaze me in ways i can barely describe. so would the fact that i helped wash a 16 foot long python today and then had it slither on its wet belly slowly across my shoulders behind my neck and down onto the floor qualify? or that joy and i visited olden pagodas on the other side or the irawaddy river while being driven around on an ox cart and at the end the ox cart driver asked for an extra dollar as a tip for the oxen? or the time i was eating a freshly fried burmese pancake from a street seller of an early evening in the poorest section of mandalay, served to me on very absorbent pages filled with penned lessons pulled from the vendor’s daughter’s lined school homework book, when a sparrow fell as if out of nowhere dead at my feet and lay there motionless in the street on its back while the vendor’s daughter pulled gently on the sparrow’s tail feathers to get it out from under me as i was eating (or trying to) and after about two full minutes the sparrow righted itself in one swift motion and flew fully functionally away? or the people who come up to joy and me and want to have their pictures taken, or their kid’s pictures taken, waving to us from passing motorcycles, smiling with betel juice stained teeth, such as there are teeth left in their mouths, monks who want to talk with us, students in their last year of medical school eager for conversation, random taxi drivers who give us directions and unsolicited suggestions of places to visit not necessarily seeking a fare. myanmar is a frustrated anthropologist’s paradise. and as the burmese man who lives in the one room bamboo hut without electricity or running water told me in broken english today, “life is here so free.” or perhaps even more to the point, the t-shirt being worn by the kid walking hand and hand with the monk that read on the front, “this order is the important secret which must never be omitted …” and on the back read, “time passes indifferently.”