22 June 2009

Snapshots - Images of Burma

  1. In Rangoon, a woman sits cross legged on a tiled bench recessed into the wall twenty feet before the Sule Paya stupa, nearly swaying in meditation. All around her loud Burmese temple life shrieks– vendors selling goods both religious and secular, monks and laity chatting and walking clockwise around the base of the stupa, the honking traffic of a city of 6 million just steps away. She is unwavering in her prayer. On her lap is a huge orange cat, it's body so large that it's chin barely hangs onto the edge of her knee. As she moves her index finger and thumb over each 108 of the rudrakshra beads the cat stretches luxuriously, toes spread apart and pointing toward the two gossiping women on the same bench. Both the cat's and the woman's eyes remain closed for as long as I am in the temple, and I pass them three times.

  1. Our blue-taxi wheezes and rolls to a stop every time that we drive over bumps in the road on our way from the ancient teak bridge at Amarapura back to Mandalay, which means that we are stopping often. Toom-Toom, our guide, gets out of the tiny front seat and comes to the back of the miniature pick-up truck where we are squished together and worriedly explains the situation. “In Burma now, military government only rations 2 gallons of gasoline per day. This not enough, so we buy gas on black market. This black market gas, umm, sometimes bad peoples are mixing in some stuff and it not working. Maybe 5 minutes and we fix? Sorry, sorry!” As we assure him that it is OK, I notice that there is a 1 litre water bottle full of yellow liquid suspended from the cab's roof. A thick tube snakes from the mouth of the bottle to the underside of the dashboard, and with horror and stifled laughter I realize that this is the gas tank.

  1. As I climb the 200 steps up a monolithic pile of bricks, a small boy of about 10 wearing a crisp green and white school uniform approaches me and begins to quietly recite facts. “This largest stupa base in world. Earthquake destroy in 1831. Careful, slowly slowly.” The top of the structure is a topsy turvy mess of huge fissures, sloping surfaces and a huge wall where half of the stupa slid down into the earth. He scrambles to the top and points to each of the jutting bricks I am meant to climb to get to the top. “This way, this way to see Mingun Bell – largest uncracked bell in the world.” While I take in my aerial view of the gigantic bell and the dozens of golden spires rising in the surrounding jungle I am joined by four goats munching on the grass growing through the rubble. “This way now Miss, to see 2 big lions.” Guarding the stupa are 2 massive crumbled lions perched on the river, and my small guide makes me pose as he expertly snaps a photo with my camera. Every time we come to a wide chasm he extends his small brown hand to mine with a serious face and ferries me safely across – as though if I slipped I wouldn't pull him down with me.

  1. We sit on small plastic stools that look like upended buckets and eat off of tables 2 feet from the ground with discarded napkins and plops of curry and rice at our feet. The kitchen is made up of a series of tables, open flames and barbecues under sopping tarps that line the sidewalk. The dining area is the side of the street, and motorbikes and tri-shaws pull up regularly, depositing a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Burmese and backpackers and collecting those who have finished eating. The chapatis and dal arrive less than one minute after we order, so hot that they burn our soft fingertips as we impatiently pull them apart. Moments later our vegetable curry is delivered to the table by one of the pre-pubescent waiters. Moans and Mmmms escape our lips as we scoop and dip and finish with slurps of Chinese tea from a communal pot on the table. We are finished our meal less than fifteen minutes after arriving, and the bill is 90 cents.

  1. So So grabs my hand and leads me around the temple, the largest in Bagan. “In your language my name mean not good/not bad. What is your name? Where do you come from?” Her kindness is partially a front for the fact she wants me to buy her overpriced postcards. “You so beautiful. You eyes so nice. He your friend? He very handsome.” She squeezes my hand.“I like your thanakha.” I say to her, gesturing to the smears of white sandalwood paste she has on the apples of her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Her eyes light up.“You like thanakha? I make for you! Come with me!” She leads me to a cool alcove in front of a chubby neckless Buddha. She produces a small white block and gestures for my water. Splashing some on the stone step she rubs the thanaka block into the water until it makes a paste, and then swiftly applies it to my face. The small crowd of women and girls who have gathered to watch the Western girl get a Burmese make-over cluck and nod their approval. “Very nice thanakha. Now you more beautiful. Maybe now you get married.” In the end, I buy the postcards.

  1. The bank of the river is lined with tarpaulin shanties built on the muddy silt, the acrid smell of pig shit and ripe garbage hanging in the air. As we walk through the slum looking to hire a boat to Mingun we pass a young woman holding a small baby sitting in their precarious home. She is shocked to see us, and her smile contains uncertainty and embarrassment. The baby is much too small to be out of a hospital and has the tiny feline features of a premature birth and she clutches it to her chest tightly as we pass. A few steps away we are swarmed by children, all shouting Hello! and Bye Bye! One girl asks frantically, “Sharpie? Sharpie?” and waves a capless felt pen at us. The German couple we are traveling with produce a red clown nose, and when it will not stay on her nose the little girl pops it onto her Sharpie. She is gleeful but wears a smile of unease and fascination. Her panicked happiness and desperation to be chosen by us makes me feel very, very guilty.

  1. We approach the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat) Monastery on our long tail boat, the bow slicing through the muddy red water of Inle Lake. The tiered tin roofs of the building resemble a Chinese pagoda,There are 2 small docks with steps leading into the building, and the one on the left is inhabited by 10 lazing cats with their bellies up, snoozing in the hot sun. We alight and make our way into the cool teak building where we are greeted by more cats – tiny kittens, slim nursing females and one big tom with torn ears. On the other side of a partition a monk prepares the cat's meal while two small kittens stand on a table and crane their necks to watch him. The monk's deep crimson robes leave one shoulder bare and he is standing at the window, shafts of light beaming over him.


Anonymous said...

You you you you you! are just the yummiest writer, i love the opening inferences that are filled in later, the wonderful kadence and the un thomas hardy like descriptors. Effortless and engrossing and weaving us into the fabric of ur travels, what a gift u have. Its like reading harry potter but without any of the wizard shit. Make More!
We are off to the mayan riviera last minute deal, kids free. Uncle robbie and family coming too. Risking the swine flu and marauding bandits to prop up the decimated local economy. or is it to drink excess amounts of tequila?!?
miss u love u, g

Violet Dear said...

I hope your trip was good Uncle G - maybe make a contribution to the travel stories link?

Mexico is good story fodder!


Violet Dear said...

And it is good to know that I do not have any wizard shit in my writing.

That was really hard to edit out.

Aaron Bradford (travel blog KiNG) said...

Hi Violet,
I don't really know how but I stumbled across your blog and was instantly caught up in it, I honestly thought Burma was always going to be too hard to penetrate but after finding your blog I've read everything you've written on Burma and I'm sold... I literally mean that! Your pictures and word have cast a spell on me and with no other experience than that I have to say that Burma is now a place that I HAVE to go to soon! Thanks a million!
I'd love to stay in touch too, I keep a Travel Blog called HappytimeBlog Hopefully speak soon

Many many thanks