Exploring the Streets of Myanmar
The next morning we met at 7:30 am in the lobby of our hostel, which John had set up for us the night before. John’s smiling face greeted us, his eagerness to start the day clearly evident. The morning was cool. A refreshing mist graced us, providing no need for coffee or any other artificial stimulus. Soon enough we were standing in the city-center. A large mosque, Church, and Pagoda were all visible without moving the eyes, a portrayal of the 3 largest religious presences in Burma. The city hall, constructed decades ago using both British and tradition Burmese styles, used to house the capital. As 2010 came and went and the borders were opened to foreigners, the government decided to move its main offices to the northern region of the country, so as to avoid the ensuing flood of foreigners, quick to judge any system they deem too drastically different from their own. The day was beautiful, the sky a soft blue. From a raised walkway I saw glistening pagodas flexing their golden smiles for miles around. We headed to the ferry station which would take us across the river to a village John knew of. Here, he said, we could witness the unfiltered lifestyle of the majority of the Burmese people.
As we walked the village I did my best to keep my large DSLR camera tucked away, so as to escape the notion of me being there for the sake of poverty tourism. I did, however, take some videos on my GoPro, which I felt would better capture the entire moment and not solely a specific frame I deemed most relevant. As we were walking down a path we heard a call from a shack nearby. “Hey you!” a man yelled, emerging from beneath a blue and orange tarp. We cheerfully said “Mingalaba!” and, before introductions were made or country-of-origin was known, he invited us to sit for a cup of coffee. He worked as an engineer aboard a naval ship and spoke very good English. We talked about music, movies, and politics, a conversation far more normal than any I would imagine having with a poor villager in rural Burma. Though his language, culture, skin-color and daily life were all in stark opposition to my own, we still found ourselves engaging in effortless conversation. A conversation I would struggle to have with others who possess all the similarities listed above. The man, with nothing more than a tattered tarp above his head and no barrier below his feet, had successfully re-woven a segment of my web, a neuron and dendrite pathway in my brain. Unbeknownst and without any effort to him he had accomplished what so many could not. He, alongside his friend Koko, changed me. We continued to talk for the better part of 45 minutes until John informed us it was time to leave so that we could catch our flight in a few hours. Dear Koko and family, thank you.
We issued farewells to our new friend John and exchanged emails so that we might one-day reconnect. We discussed opening a dive company in the south of Burma, peacefully nestled in the 800-something island archipelago. If this were to happen we vowed to work to find a perfect balance between exploitation and the raw experience I encountered while in Burma. We agreed we never wanted Burma to dissolve into the tourist-fueled, heavily-scripted experience many know as Thailand. John spent nearly 12 hours of his time graciously showing his beautiful city to us uneducated travelers, and yet the only currency we exchanged was in the form of a handshake and a teethy, genuine smile. As we pulled away in a taxi I turned my gaze to the rear. His face was gleaming, his smile capturing the unparalleled beauty of the day, which I can only hope will remain for many days to come.
Our plane touched down just before sunset. We approached low, making a long, sweeping turn what felt like mere meters from the ocean’s surface. Seconds before landing we passed over a large outcropping of rock which threatened to rip the landing gear from the fuselage, dooming the plane to a fiery finish. As is probably evident, this did not happen and we gracefully touched down, coconut trees whizzing by on either side. A local man was waiting for us and we piled into his van, destined for the Diamond Hotel, located at the southern-most tip of Ngapali Beach. The benefits of this location would only become known to me hours later. Ngapali Beach is described in travel books as perhaps the most beautiful beach in all of Southeast Asia. The photos we were able to find on Google images depicted a place with warm, soft sand and aqua waters clearer than the milky-way from space. These promises were dutifully fulfilled without fail, but the true portrait of Ngapali Beach cannot be found in any travel book, google-image-search, or magazine. This may be seized only by the eyes of those willing to cast aside any filters previously employed through the encouragement of the Western world. Every photograph has a border, an end-point, a cessation of action. Where this border lies strictly governs the viewer’s interpretation of the visual image. The villages of Ngapali would challenge me to grab these borders by their ornate, wooden frames, and snap them into a million tiny splinters, unable to ever be reassembled again. Such was the challenge the aura of this magical place bestowed upon my shoulders, and for the next four days I would try, with every bone in my body, to achieve just that.
The van rattled down the dusty road, passing many seafood restaurants and gift shops filled with crafts made of materials from the sea. The buildings were never more than two stories in height. They were constructed mostly of wood and sheet-metal, with the nicest ones having red-brick walls. As we made our way through the small town, I thought that maybe the entire area looked like this, but this soon proved far from reality. Locals on motorcycles, bicycles, and the traditional transportation method, which resembled a mix of a pick-up truck and a tricycle, passed in both directions, horns blaring. Although the tones of the horns were similar to those heard elsewhere, their purpose was entirely different. Here, they were often greetings, or a friendly notice when coming around a blind curve. Their intentions were rarely negative, both the giving and receiving parties wearing a smile. Such was the mindset of nearly all the locals I met. After a few miles we turned a sharp right, past a small sign advertising our hotel. In the distance a lovely blue filled the horizon, interrupted only by equally beautiful fishing boats, their hulls painted in yellow, red and turquoise. The Diamond Hotel was for more luxurious than I had imagined. We were greeted by a woman carrying a tray with fresh fruit juices, which we graciously took, quenching our thirst. Before checking in we strolled down to the beach to catch the tail-end of the sunset. There was a small island a few hundred yards from the beach and it was behind this piece of land the sun made its final departure for the day, providing a handsome palm-tree silhouette. The sand, soft as cotton, greeted our tired feet and embraced them in a warm, therapeutic hug. To the right were fancy western-style resorts that extended all the way up the beach. But to the left, shyly peeking out from the tropical flora, was the fishing village, in front of which lay massive straw mats with thousands upon thousands of fish laid out to dry in the sun. But how could this small village catch so many fish? The boats bringing the fish to shore contained no means of catching them; no nets, poles or traps. Further, only a few men would accompany these boats to shore; far too few than would be needed to catch such a load. The beach harbored other mysteries as well, present in the countless lightbulbs scattered about and the soft glow radiating from the horizon long after the sun had set. Such mysteries I eagerly wanted to answer, and as luck would have it, on my third night, miles out to sea, while clinging to a heaving boat with no railings, the secrets of Ngapali would reveal themselves.