Wednesday, March 18, 2015
There Once was a Man in Rangoon...
As my plane rolled the tips of its wings toward the earth, I saw the morning light flash from golden pagoda to golden pagoda, a sudden dash of color that burst from the dusty soil surrounding the city. This image, a single glimpse seen almost twelve years ago, was how I had ever since defined Yangon in my mind.
Today, however, if you were to say the name of the city, the first thing that would come to mind is traffic. Since opening up in 2012, foreign investment has begun to pour in, most notably from Japan. And Toyota appears to have led the way, as the majority of cars bear that logo. The affordability of these hand-me-down vehicles, coupled with the banning of bicycles and motorbikes from the downtown area, has clogged an already overwhelmed infrastructure. New streets were badly needed here, yet the labor and resources seemed to be instead going into the dozens of new high-rise hotels and service apartments being built across the city, dwarfing the quiet leafy residential areas below. But as the Japanese have a certain genius for turning yen into concrete, I doubt it will be long before we see the city's first elevated expressway.
I suppose if sitting for hours in traffic has an upside, it is that you can get a good look at things. Billboards announced business both new and upcoming, most of which were of Japanese or Korean origin, the Chinese money of the past thirty years lesser in evidence. I noted this as the taxi radio played a muzak version of "House of the Rising Sun," and boy oh boy was this city on the rise, lifted by cranes toward a sky that appeared for the moment to have no limit, potential wise. Ironically enough, the previous song had been a similarly watered-down version of "Yesterday," shades of which could still be seen. A few three wheeled bicycles puttered around, carrying a cargo of bottled water piled high, or transporting well-dressed women shaded by parasol and thanaka paste. Monks clad in scarlet strolled barefoot along pavement growing hot, carrying the morning's beggings in stacked silver tiffin. The drivers sped around them, along the right side of the road, where the Burmese have driven since 1952. The newer Japanese imports however steered from the right, which further added to the chaos. There was no apparent urge to conceal their previous owners, and my eyes took in small vans emblazoned with the name of a hotel in Kawaguchi-ko, or a former patrol vehicle from Suita; my ears caught a familiar high pitched voice telling me that the truck in front of me was about to turn left.
The buses were the worst however, beat up wrecks from which both limbs and parts protruded, looking as if they'd driven straight out of "Road Warrior." The doorways of these doorless buses opened directly onto the road, making for a perilous disembarkment. I smiled at the irony of the use of the honorific "U" in male Burmese names, since a large number of drivers would trace that same shape in the attempt to avoid a traffic snarl, but which would only cause them to become yet another obstacle. That said, there was a strange politeness to the driving here. It was the usual Asia chaos, though with turn signals.
We inched across a flyover, as a number of walkers strolled at a slightly faster pace along the railroad tracks below. Above them, a billboard written in the swirling curlicues of the Burmese script argued against the use of child soldiers in combat. (Nothing much was said about about the beating and jailing of student protesters not much older, though I wouldn't hear about that for another week.) Walled compounds marked where the moneyed generals lived, men who'd paved the way for the new wealth and the inevitable changes that this wealth would buy. A shrine outside one of these compounds had been spray painted with the words, "Hip Hip." Some of the newer apartment towers bristled with satellite dishes, encrusted with guano that served as a subtle comment on the quality of what was being transmitted out the other end. But I suppose it was a necessary evil in order to drown out the near constant honk of traffic below.
I decided to pass my first night at The Strand hotel, once a bastion of the colonials, and currently Chinese owned. I wasn't to enjoy its comforting aircon for long, before I headed back out into the heat, finding eventual reprieve at the Union Bar and Grill for lunch. Thus fueled, I wandered around what had once been the colonial heart of the city. Ironically this area was the most decrepit, as the previous military government had quite definitively turned its back on that period in the nation's history. The husks were there, and just when I decided that a building had been completely abandoned, a head would pop up in a window frame. Along the side streets, young boys played soccer in the shade, while the older men sat and gossiped. Those ages in between could be found in the Mahabandoola Garden, abustle with friends and young lovers on a holiday afternoon slowly cooling into evening. I moved beyond to the booksellers selling knowledge once forbidden, as the face of Aung San Suu Kyi popped up frequently within the stacks.
My stroll continued for the next couple of days, along a street that blended from Chinese to Burman, Indian to Muslim, the sidewalks ever crowded with stalls, as if the city itself was a vast market. Spices, flowers, incense, fish. The dull grey of jade, the bright palate of longyi. My feet and the overload only really came to rest within the confines of a temple: the rectangular neon gaudiness of Tin Hau, or the more circular chedi of Botataung Paya across town.
The crown jewel of course was Shwedagon. I made my way there as a full moon was pushing the sun out of the sky. Its tiled grounds were alive, yet bustle is far from the proper adjective. There was a slowness here as the people made their perambulations, stopping to pray at the altars corresponding to the day of the week upon which they were born. Small structures housed Buddhas of concrete and gold, before which the devout knelt, their feet bent out to the side like the fins of a fish. Smiley young monklets posed for smartphone cameras. Walking amongst this, I began to feel the place beginning to work on me, leading to the first true mental quiet I'd felt since arrival in country, as my own footsteps continued to slow and I let myself be washed over by the faith that surrounded me.
On the turntable: "Complete Keynote Collection"
On the night table: Norman Lewis, "Golden Earth"