Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Tea That Strikes the Dust, Part 2

As we traipsed across Myanmar, we entered into another era of travel, one before ATMs and the Internet. The unpaved roads that criss-cross the country go over remote brooks, where the traffic is slowed by parades of white bulls, their horns garlanded with jasmine and chrysanthemums, a procession of the town's virgins carrying golden vases. It wasn't so much that the technology was more primitive-- this was something I'd anticipated-- it's how obviously entrenched each town was in its local culture, in its rituals and traditions, its superstitions and conventions. And when we entered into a remote town, we could count on a cup of green tea.

The tourists are slowly trickling in. You see the kids with backpacks checked into cheap guesthouses on 25th Street in Mandalay, on Mahabandoola Road in Yangon, in little towns like Kalaw, Hsipaw, and Nyaung Oo that are starting to develop a reputation for mellow vibes and cheap beer.

If you believe the press, the country in a "state of transition." Sanctions are being lifted and political prisoners released. The Tatmadaw, the military government that deposed U Nu in 1962, things that resemble what the international community thinks of as elections are being conducted.

But the people's trepidation remains. "The generals have just changed their uniforms," a Shan princess told me in the parlor of her decaying palace. "In my country, no reason, no democracy," a boozy Tamil-Catholic surveyor told me at a restaurant in the frigid hills of Pyin U Lwin.

A video plays for us on the bus, repeated Buddhist prayers in sung Burmese and whispered English, 30 minutes of a dharma talk filmed on a Camcorder, an anti-drug use anthem, followed by a military parade down Sule Paya Road in Yangon: stultifying religious dogma followed by something that looks cribbed from every Americans' elementary school don't-cave-to-peer-pressure-and-do-drugs seminar, washed down with a healthy dose of paranoid fascism.

And in Mandalay, the old royal capital memorialized by that great imperial apologist Rudyard Kipling (who never visited the city), you see the traces of the profoundly anti-democratic: boulevards that can accommodate tanks, Orwellian concrete nightmare buildings falling to pieces in the oppressive heat, bronze statues of generals smeared with pigeon shit, and the surviving banners: TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION!

And beyond the central state, there are the multiple civil wars on the fringes, the many flavors of ethnic strife that occur when groups with long, bitter histories-- Mon and Wa, Rohingya and Rakhine, Chin and Kachin, Kayin and Kayah-- together have to deal with finite resources. It occurs in waves, with the current horror being the purges of Burmese Muslims.

Visual media have made the image of violence universal and distant. But then, as I pass through the burned down remnants of what was once the Muslim Quarter of the town of Meiktila, and see a girl staring out from a charred doorway, all of that universality and all of that distance collapses into immediate delirium and nausea.


Yet the persistent violence only existed on the peripheries of my trip, making itself known through palimpsests. And in my personal interactions, it all melted away, and I was greeted by a consistently kind-hearted and generous populace.

I spent much of my time reading Patrick Leigh Fermor on buses and trains, and it felt a little like we were in the old Europe of inscrutable tradition and generous curiosity towards the few travelers who passed through. And, as with Fermor along the Rhine, there were the constant small gifts en route. We were given plates of chicken and rice at a Yunnanese temple, a cup of coffee from an old man, preserved plums from a group of schoolgirls, jellied candies from a shopkeeper, the bowls of rice wine offered to us by Shan villagers, a tube of epoxy to fix a broken shoe. And, after a day of hiking, we were offered a ride back from a waterfall outside the little village of Anisakan.

Up around that part of Myanmar, it gets quite chilly at night, even in the sweat-drenched depths of the hot season. And in the back of the truck, with the wind sweeping our faces, I sheltered myself behind a canvas flap.

On one side of the road, a bright vermilion sun sank into the haze of the burning rice fields in the valleys far below. And on the other side, an equally vermilion full moon rose from above the pines.


There will always be that next valley, that next river, that next point on the map-- a town with an inscrutable name, the triangular symbol representing a mountain, the slightly different shade indicating a new province where the people's palms are tattooed with mandalas and compass points, or where they eat oxtails simmered in a thick turmeric sauce, or where the laurel trees sway in the high winds at the base of a snow-capped mountain.

For the map isn't just a diagram, it is a web of possibilities, a reminder of the million pathways that spiderweb out from the point at which you stand.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Tea That Strikes the Dust, Part 1

This is how it went every morning. In little shops, selling samosas and noodles and instant coffee, the waiters, often no more than ten years old, went through the same ritual. A few drops of green tea are poured from the carafe into white porcelain cups, swirled around to remove the stray grit and dead insects, and then tossed out into the street, slightly wetting the red dust that blows about.

What can I tell about a trip I took? To put it all in chronological order would make it plodding and false, to merely snatch impressions here and there would betray the material reality of the route I took. My traveling partner, Ms. H., captured photographs of temples and lizards, whereas I stuck to my notebook, and hoped that, somehow, I'd be able to convey to my friends back in Bangkok, America, wherever, what I felt about the benighted country wedged between Thailand and India.

Myanmar is a country of dust and iron-- it is embodied in the clatter of horses' hooves on a dirt road, black exhaust clouds from World War II-era Willys Jeeps, the intricately patterned ground sandalwood that graces the cheeks of the children, the disfigured chassis of old trucks cut down to chassis on wheels and dragged by men in wifebeaters and longyi, the red-brick pagodas that jut from the plain, their teak Buddhas too dried out to rot, pressed with gold leaf by the faithful, and the cast aside pieces of bamboo and crushed sugarcane. Its color profile is olive and gold and beige: sunlight and statuary, cacti and woven rattan, tea leaves and cigar butts,  the thin layers of spice-colored oil that float on top of the food in the steam trays.

The visitor is left dehydrated, urine turning into a gamboge thickness, mouth drying out with every breath. Your only respite is in the tea shops, where strong black tea is served viscous and sweet with condensed milk. Even the drinks seem somehow deprived of water, like the last fruits of summer withering on the vine.

Amid this, the local religious doctrine makes absolute sense: all life is suffering and decay, and the only way to escape the endless cycle of samsara is to release attachments. It is embodied in a wooden folk-art statue on Mandalay Hill, the faces having the sort of misshapen harshness you see in Grünewald's famous altarpiece. Inside a dusty cubicle, is an old man, a sick man, a sadhu, and a corpse, vultures devouring its flesh, maggots writhing in its eyes. All is watched over by the young prince Siddhartha Gautama, who, sad-faced, has to leave the idyllic palace grounds of his youth.

Yangon, the previous capital, since replaced by Naypyidaw-- a sort of military-Buddhist Brasilia of pagoda rooflines and empty condos, opened at an astrologically auspicious time-- lies at the junction of the Yangon and Bago Rivers, a city dug deep into the muddy delta of the Ayeyarwaddy, a tropically Gothic place of broken spires and caved-in porticoes, clock towers that haven't told the correct time in 40 years.

And above all else, it is a city of secrets, its narrow streets lined with six- and seven-story colonial apartment buildings, steel grates on shopfronts half-shut, dark faces puffing cheroots and staring out at you, hot, late-afternoon sunlight alternating with remarkably cool shadows. In every building, a steep, unlit staircase leads upstairs to quiet, darkened hallways, open at one end, crows nesting in mildew-darkened Victorian moldings. There is the infinite tangle of pagodas and mirrored tiles at the Shwe Dagon, the gilded hallways shaped as an eight-pointed star inside the hollow stupa of the Botataung. As night sets, the handful of streetlights turn on, but mostly it remains dark, groups of men sitting in the shadows, smoking Ruby Red cigarettes and drinking tea, a sole candle flickering at the shop where a woman in a sari wraps betel nut and loose tobacco into pungent, loose quids. The power goes out, and hers is the only light.


We cross the vast chaparral of Lower Burma to the town of Kyaiktiyo, and climb the trail that goes to the top of the mountain in the Tenasserim Hills. We cross tumbling, rock-strewn streams, water jars for weary pilgrims, shops offering cold drinks and rich Burmese curries, shrines with blocks of sandalwood, flayed snake skins, preserved giant centipedes, and the complete heads of Himalayan deer, perched atop bamboo baskets like the heads of French aristocrats.

And at the top, there are the men with folded hands praying to the stupa that sits atop a massive golden boulder perched on the first emergence of real topography after the ironed-flat lowlands. Balanced, in legend, by a hair of the Buddha, it is, as the structuralists would say, a microcosm, a metaphor for all sacred space in the form of a vertical structure, balanced and swirling around the idea of the Buddha-- represented by an object and emphatically not an image-- on the rupture point of the mountains and the plains.

The pilgrim-tourists are camping out on bamboo mats on the massive marble floor for the night, scooping rice from massive pots and unpacking tiffins of fish soup and tea-leaf salad.

You smell the food cooking, see the smoke rising from the little charcoal braziers and the palm oil burbling in cast-iron woks, and imagine yourself reclining in one of the canvas deck chairs on a high mountain aerie, the taste of a cold bottle of Mandalay Beer almost touching your lips, and think about how, at some point, you could stay here for a very long time, stretching your weary limbs, staring out over the soot-clouded sunset, under a sky filled with emerging equatorial constellations, over the chanting of the monks, the birdlike songs and laughter of the Burmese girls that giggle as you walk by.


As we moved up and down the country, we charted our course by moving from remnant to remnant, leapfrogging back and forth across centuries.

In a town once called Maymyo-- "May's Hill," for the English colonel who founded it-- we drank plum wine at a lakeside restaurant, looked at the dried butterflies in an Edwardian botanical garden where the men wore pith helmets and the women wore broad-brimmed straw hats with silk daffodils. As we walked to the center of the town, we passed red brick churches and half-timbered summer lodges and horse-drawn white coaches, before arriving at the tidy clock tower, the bells of which still play Anglican hymns.

At Bagan, we cycled through the desert from decrepit temple to decrepit temple built during the reigns of-- and eventually bankrupting the empire of-- Kings Anawrahta and Kyanzittha. Despite the intermediary years of war and strife, they have survived, many complete with whitewashed walls and graceful paintings of war elephants and charging buffalo, sky nymphs and angels blowing trumpets, monks gathered around a radiant Buddha, his head surrounded by nested halos in the colors of the rainbow.

And we went to the old city of Inwa, adrift on an island in the broad Ayeyarwaddy, one of the last capitals of the Burmese Empire before its final capitulation to the British Raj. Tourists are taken to see the damaged palace tower that leans perilously to one side and the teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung. But outside further ruins lurk, unmarked and seemingly forgotten. This place was burned and captured, re-burned and re-captured, by the Shan, the Bamar, the Brits, all leaving their traces. Who built these? From what dynasty, what era? Someone more knowledgeable could comment on lintels and ogive arches, but I am left with nothing. Among the piles of brick, I mumble the words softly under my breath.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.