Exploring the Streets of Myanmar
Get involved. In Myanmar, this means donning a loose, beige-colored shirt, traditional men's wrap, and painting one’s face with Myat Bhoon Pivint, which serves to both protect from the sun and provide a means of self-expression. This lotion also claims to clean the face, though only time will tell just how much truth lies in the labeling. Upon first glance, Myanmar is dusty. A fine powder of rusty clay cakes the majority of surfaces, the true inner-beauty of everything requiring a second glance. The people, cheerfully walking the streets, faces painted with a thin layer of Myat, strategically make their way along sidewalks barely classifiable as such, an unimaginable purpose behind every step. An eternal smile hangs in the air, happily fueled by many a passing local. “Mingalaba!” They exclaim in a tone that also says “Welcome to my country.”
The neurotic, ever-present government force we were warned of is nowhere to be found. Semester at Sea did a fine job of preparing us for the worst, though I have felt far less safe on the streets of Miami. This may be due to me being a literal giant in these Asian countries. At 6’2 and 205 pounds, I stand almost a foot taller than the vast majority of the people I have encountered. This physical advantage surely adds to my security, though does not account for anywhere near the entirety of it; the remainder provided by the mindset of the Burmese people. If I were to stand on the streets and look around as if lost, it would take but 30 seconds for a kind person to approach and offer assistance. This incredibly hospitable trend lasted the entire duration I was in Rangoon, presenting itself best with what followed during our visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. After disembarking and taking the shuttle an hour into town, we spent the first part of the afternoon exploring a large market. In fact, it contained an excess of 2,000 stores. Art, jewelry, gemstones, textiles and monkey-skulls on necklaces were all present in this vast array of shops. I picked up some pants with an earthy, elephanty-design, a traditional men’s wrap, and a couple of tubes of Myat. Happy with my purchases, I head to one of the most renown pagodas in the entire world, the Shwedagon. It can be seen from miles around, the towering, gold-plated monument catching the intense Myanmar sunlight like a dreamcatcher a nightmare. We arrived minutes before sunset, just in time to witness the transition from day to night. The pagoda itself was massive, both physically and spiritually. Its presence could be felt by all in attendance; a subconscious respect. Safely inside the structure were four of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama’s, hairs, given to the people by the Buddha himself. Surrounding the main pagoda were dozens of smaller ones, each housing a specific type of Buddha; the ones pointing North, South, East and West the largest of the bunch. Fountains, one for each day of the week, plus two for Wednesday, as it is divided into two parts according to Burmese astrology, also surrounded the main pagoda. Each day had a corresponding animal; a statue representation on which those born on that day would pour water from the fountain and recite prayers.
As the sun slowly set, I made my way around the structure, photographing from all angles. The harsh sunlight was soon replaced by the soft orange glow of thousands of candles set in small dishes, a spiritual offering of light to those darkened by misfortune. After circling for nearly an hour I decided to sit down and have a rest. I found a spot on steps adjacent to the main pagoda, careful not to miss the action. I heard a friendly “Hello,” and looked left. A smiling Burmese man, no more than 30 years old, was sitting with another man. “Where are you from?” He inquired. Upon telling him his cheery grin grew even wider, threatening to run directly to his ears. So began the friendship that would take us throughout the entirety of Rangoon. His name was John (of course it was not John but that is what it sounded like and what he told us we should call him.) At 28, he had recently graduated with an engineering degree from a local university. He now wished to become a tour guide and filled his time studying English. To practice his English he would hang out at the Shwedagon, interacting with as many foreigners as possible. I was the lucky one on this day. My friends found me sitting with him and he offered to give us a mock-tour of the Pagoda. On the very top sits a 72-karat diamond. A strategically-placed spotlight serves to illuminate it, but not in the traditional sense. John brought us to a secret location, the floor bearing a few faint marks of paint. He placed me on the first mark and told me to look up; green. The next, red. Then blue, white, and yellow. The light from the spotlight struck the diamond at such a perfect angle that here, in this conspicuous, un-advertised location, the resulting prism was visible, but not all at once. The diamond was so large that a few feet separated each color. I felt like a victorious spider, this experience a fly that had been trapped in my web of memories, eternally unable to escape.
It had been a long day and our hunger was growing by the minute. I asked John what we should do and he offered to take us to a local spot. After collecting our shoes we followed him across the street and down a dimly-lit back-alley. We crossed an invisible threshold and an intense aroma of rich spices infiltrated our senses. We sat and I ordered a traditional dish of rice and pork. While we ate we engaged in deep conversation about many aspects of Burmese life. John was set to be married in March to his girlfriend of six years. She was 32, a definite cougar by our standards, and we humorously told him of this. He thought it was quite funny and proudly repeated throughout the night that his girlfriend was a cougar, which would lead him and all of us into a fit of laughter. We discussed marriage, and the different traditions that accompany it. In Burma, the man is required to pay for the wedding, although the ceremony is held in the woman’s village. For gifts, people give money. At the end of the wedding meal, or party, the bride and groom proudly announce how much money they made. If they broke even, the wedding is a success. The couple may then retire to a special home to consummate the marriage, but not without first paying off some friends. Years ago, when couples were seen engaging in public displays of affection, pebbles were thrown at them. Today, the friends of the groom go to the home where the couple is staying and throw rocks until he comes out and playfully pays them to leave, allowing the joyful night to continue. Burmese weddings are no small ordeal. John personally delivered over 1,000 invitations to villages miles around, displaying the magical interconnectedness of the people of Burma that stretches far beyond the “everyone knows everyone” notion of American towns.
Just as two lives come together to create something anew, so too must they one day end, their energies returning to the land from which they sprouted. When a loved one comes to meet the end of their allotted time, the family carries out the following: The deceased is immediately transferred back to their home village. Once there, the family washes the body and beautifies the face, bringing life and character into the flesh of a being whose soul has departed. The big-toes and thumbs are tied to one another, so that when rigor mortis sets in the body will take a position of peace. The loved one is placed in the central room of the family home, where they will remain for 24-hours. All but the face is covered so that visitors from miles around may pay their final respects face-to-face. In the warm and humid Burmese climate, decomposition quickly takes hold of the body and once it has cast its grip onto a lifeless human, only an ice-age can serve to curtail its advances. Slices of cucumber are placed beneath the body to assist in the absorption of the foul odor emitted, but that can only do so much. Following a period of visitation and mourning, one is finally laid to rest more often than not on the same piece of land on which they carried out their life. Upon completion of our meal John offered to take us around the city the next morning, an offer we joyfully accepted.
Once arriving at our hostel, we set out to explore the night life of Rangoon. The streets were dark, lit only by the vendors who prepared their specialties by light of lantern. We walked a few blocks until we heard a faint drumming sound, its intensity growing with ever step forward. A furious heartbeat soon grew out of the barren city streets. We followed the auditory trail down 18th street and soon came upon a scene whose home could have easily been in a cinema. In the middle of the street a large crowd was gathered, clapping and yelping in a brew of excitement. They formed a large circle, clearly celebrating something hiding within. I caught a quick glimpse of a large serpent in-between the onlookers. We inched closer and were thrilled to see a team of young boys operating a massive dragon puppet, their emotions transplanted into the movements of the massive beast. The head was most elaborate, LED lights arranged in a perfect array to bring the mythical reptile to life. A boy holding a pole with an illuminated red ball lead the troop, the dragon giving chase in a game of cat-and-mouse. Every degree on a compass was explored by the team, their practice and dedication to the art clearly showing. The entire spectacle was controlled by a band of three: a drummer, a cymbal player, and another on a traditional instrument that made a sound similar to a hand strumming an old-fashioned wash-board. There was one massive drum, nearly 3 feet in diameter. It was on this leather surface the young drummer-boy pounded with all of his adolescent might, the deep sound radiating outward for blocks. The dance was perfectly timed with the beats of the drum, the mood rising and falling at the drummer’s command. We stood and watched for nearly an hour, experiencing the emotional rollercoaster displayed in this inconspicuous back-street in the heart of Rangoon, Burma.