Chapter 10: Yangon, Pt II
Christmas in Myanmar, Part 2. "Oneeee... Twoo... Three!!"
In Buddhist countries, the general rubric for appearances is that modest is hottest. I knew they wouldn't let me into Yangon's famous Shwedagon pagoda with my knees showing. Frankly, I'm surprised they let me into the country with my suitcase full of short-shorts. Officials could have scanned my baggage upon arrival and confiscated them with a disapproving look that said "You aren't planning on traipsing around our country in that skimpy outfit, are you?" And so on my way to the main temple, I decided to pick up one of the sarongs that the rest of the male population here seems to be so keen on. It seemed likely I'd get a better deal on the streets than right outside the gates. I approached a vendor and pointed at an article from a stack of skirts with a pattern that caught my eye. It was a light blue gingham, the very same pattern that one hundred percent of white office-going males have in their closet as a button-up shirt. I presented the man with a wad of cash, and with a huge grin he outfitted me in my longyi. I didn't know it at the time, but the acquisition of this article of clothing would be a game-changer for me in Myanmar.
A modest crowd began to gather as the transaction took place. A number of men wandered over to see what was up, in the way that men do when, say, they hear a neighbor engaged in a project employing power tools. Evident from their peering in, they were curious about the minor details of the enterprise: Which pattern did I choose? How much did I pay? Would I actually wear it? I have little expertise in sarongs, but I sort of figured that the standard model would fit like a bath towel wrapped around one's waist. Instead, the longyi is one circular piece of fabric, like one of those self-drying fabric hand-towels on an infinite loop. Fully unfurled, it reaches to just below belly-button height. Given that it was essentially like swimming in a skirt large enough to fit Shrek's wife, it wasn't immediately obvious to me how I was supposed to wear it. Identifying my confusion, this hefty Burmese man, in a ritual that would be repeated many times over the next couple of weeks, positioned himself at my backside and reached around to grab the fabric covering my frontside. "It's very easy," he said, and in a series of deft motions tied me up so tight I felt like I was wearing a corset. I gave a once around, as if modeling for a mirror. The lady sitting behind me hit me with a thumbs up.
"Wait," I said, pausing for a moment. I asked him to demonstrate once more. "It's very easy," he repeated as if that made the process self-evident. He went slower this time, undoing the knot at my waist and grabbing me by the cloth at my haunches. He settled himself into a position of strength at my backside. "Oneee," he said, deliberately folding the cloth in his right hand across toward my left. "Twoooo," in an act of symmetry, folding the left side toward the right. "Three!" And in a flourish of prestidigitation he transformed the two unruly clumps in his fists into a handsome but inscrutable knot perched right below my belly button. I gave him a look that communicated my befuddlement. Undoing his handiwork and sighing, he said "Pay attention this time," as if my drifting gaze had prevented me from taking in the previous demonstrations. Now the crowd joined in. They counted together, "Oneeee... Twoo..." involving the same deliberate folding, and punctuated by an ecstatic "Three!!" which brought on another electron cloud of hand motions. I offered my tailor a look somewhere in the ballpark of "Eurka!" and with that took my leave of my applauding admirers, shaking hands and waving grandly as a I went, strutting off in my longyi toward the pagoda.
The road leading up to Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda resembles a sort of Buddhist version of the Las Vegas strip. It is shiny, extravagant, ostentatious. Each chunk of real estate on either side of the street is taken up with a gleaming temple rising out of a lush courtyard. Each temple has a Buddha statue in the center. But it wouldn't feel entirely out of a place if instead at its pulsing heart was a slot machine. Unlike Vegas, it isn't populated with American tourists spilling out of their tank tops like pudding squeezed from a plastic cup. It is populated mostly with no one. There may have been a lot of action playing out on the spiritual plane of existence. But my senses were only availed of the physical one, and there wasn't a whole lot going on there.
Which is a truly startling sight. These are the kind of attraction tourists flock to. These pagodas are stunning, and they aren't even the main event. They are the opening act, culminating in the glorious peak of the Shwedagon. Like the muscular V of an underwear model, these minor temples are a tantalizing allusion to what lies just out of sight. But they still retain a certain grandeur in their own right. If these structures had been erected in Thailand, they'd be crawling in westerners. Here it was me, and one guy languishing out front of his convenience store, slumped over until rousted by an errant customer.
The Shwedagon pagoda is the religious epicenter of Myanmar. Today it stands as a magnificent golden bell, like what God would pick up and ring if it were time for the chillun to come in for supper. Every Myanmartian will, at some point in their lives, make the pilgrimage to see it. Purportedly, the original pagoda was installed on this site more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The temple has been built up over many years. According to contemporary accounts, two brothers named Trapusa and Bahalika became the first disciples of the Buddha drawn from the lay population. In a surge of inspiration these two enterprising merchants snipped eight strands -- a religiously significant number -- of the Buddha's hair and journeyed to Burma. With the help of the local ruler, one mister King Okkalapa of Dagon, they installed these hairs as the centerpiece of a magnificent temple. What exactly they said to persuade King Okkalapa of the religious merit of these eight strands of hair, history has failed to record.
Anywhere else in the world, a major temple like this would be infested with tourists. The be-camera'd tourist to actual buddhist ratio would be, like, 100:1. There would be a cacophony of children whose command over the English language is just sufficient to explain to you how your refusal to part ways with your money in exchange for their trinkets results in their not being able to afford dinner. People would be crawling over the temples like monkeys swinging between trees. Queues of people would assemble to snap a photo -- just the right photo -- in front of the most prestigious institutional ornament. This is, for example, what it's like to visit one of the bigger temples in Thailand.
But crossing the street onto the premises of the Shwedagon, one could be forgiven for not realizing you are on the cusp of Myanmar's most significant religious attraction. It was quiet. The only person there to greet me was a lone child, offering a plastic bag in which to put my shoes. It almost felt as if he were offering it in a spirit of community service rather than opportunistic capitalism. He asked twice just to make sure I understood the value-add of his wares. Then he disappeared.
There is a grand prelude of a staircase that ascends through a small mountainside of stalls. I removed my sandals before ascending. It was a stark contrast, coming in from the insistent Burmese sun into a dark, covered hall. The stalls lining the staircase sold mostly buddhist paraphernalia. Little statues, books in Burmese, shirts. No one approaches you to inform you of a "good deal for you, my friend." They simply leave you to go about your business. Even here I noticed some glances, and the shopkeepers seemed rather impressed by my longyi. The whole scene is modest, unobtrusive, clean but not overly kempt. There was no fee until the very top of the hall, right before the plateau, the holy of holies.
Upon reaching the top of the hall, there is an outpost of security personnel. They ushered me through a metal detector. Then they asked to peak inside my skirt. In a series of routine movements, the guard undid me, took a quick look, then zipped me back up. Although slightly disturbed, I was also somewhat thankful about this since I had been futzing with the knot, trying without success to reverse engineer it for the last twenty-five minutes or so. Having been vetted by security, I was asked to sign in on a tourist sheet. I counted exactly twenty other visitors on the sign-in sheet that day from seven in the morning until noon. This one was of four entrances. None of the other visitors were from the United States.
I emerged from the dark corridor to find an ascendant gold bell power-posing in front of me. It was surrounded by a white lake of marble tile. All was bright and glimmering. The white marble connected a complex of smaller pagodas, hundreds of them, each with an intricate gold-fringed verandas, a unique Buddha visage, and a cohort of meditators in various forms of repose. There were so few people as to make one almost feel out to sea. Entire sections were unpeopled. It would be possible for one to become rather well acquainted with every other western visitor on the terrace. The Buddhist to tourist ratio was flipped, maybe fifty people who are there for religious purposes to every one person, like me, who was just there to have a look around. Modest though they are, there's no doubt that Buddhists harbor a certain appreciation for icy flair that could rival a hip hop artist. Every possible surface that can be is ornamented. Everything was decked out in tufts of gold leaf inlays, as if the design on a Victorian tea cup had sprung into three dimensions and rolled around in precious material. The bell itself exerted a sort of attentional gravity. It stands in the center with all subsidiary dioramas in orbit. It constantly draws your attention and admiration back. Part of the spectacle is that judging from everyone's behavior, there is no spectacle. People are just going about their daily business. They are, in turns, texting, meditating, wandering with purpose, ambling about. I'm one of the few standing there trying to drink in the surroundings. The majority hold themselves with reverence, but don't gawk. It makes the entire scene seem more surreal, more heavenly. I imagine this is a kind of inverse of what visiting Disneyland would be like as a Buddhist monk, standing in awe of how mundane that level garishness seems to be for everyone else.
I exited down the western escalator, headed in a different direction than the one I came. It felt slightly perilous taking the escalator in bare feet. Like I might get a toe snipped off. Back on the street, each local I passed gave me a once-over, admiring my longyi. I was the target of innumerably many thumbs up and nods.
Admittedly, I've made quite a bit about how Yangon feels different than other places in South East Asia. Especially the low density of tourists. But it really does make a difference. It changes your whole relationships to the people who are from there. In a city or region that depends economically on tourism, your relationship to its people is transactive. To the people sitting in stalls as you walk through the market, you are a walking bag of money. Whether or not they can feed their kids today depends on whether they're able to up-sell you for a product you don't need or want. In order to keep the wheels turning they need to sell things to tourists, and they need to sell them at a markup. So as nice or welcoming as that person behind the stall might be -- and you know they probably are, because everyone you've met in the country on different terms is -- your relationship is defined in purely economic terms. You have money. They need it. The whole dance is a transaction.
But that changes in a place where the majority of economic activity does not depend on tourism. In a market in Yangon, sure, a guy wouldn't mind up-selling to a white person. Who says no to a few extra bucks? But his economic livelihood doesn't depend on it. He's going to have a steady stream of regular customers to form the base of his income stream. The implication is that he doesn't have to go all-in on the hard-sell. He'll give you the white person mark-up -- hell, you probably deserve it -- but if it doesn't take, then oh well. Because they have yet to establish a tourist economy to compete with Thailand or Vietnam, the people of Myanmar don't have to have the same transactive relationship with foreigners.
This means that instead of being treated like a dollar sign with legs, you're treated as something closer to an honored guest. You're interesting -- in the way that all people who are clearly not from around here are interesting. That's the 'guest' part. The 'honored' part has a couple different factors at play. For one thing, the Myanmar people are, simply put, are really fucking nice. And they deserve credit for that. But for another thing, they appreciate the political and economic opportunities represented by the West. There is an appreciation that they've got the short end of the stick in terms of government policy for the past half century or so. Good or bad, they want a piece of the action that's going on the in rest of the world. As an immediately identifiable westerner, you are a symbol of action beginning to take place. At any rate, what I'm trying to say is that it is remarkably refreshing to find oneself in an Asian city that has the developed infrastructure of a prominent metropolitan area but without the over-developed tourist economy. It allows you to connect with the people less on economic terms, and more on human ones.
Walking home through the city from the temple, I passed a row of fruit stalls. I saw a guy selling pineapples. He'd take the skin off with a machete and present the fruit on a skewer. That sounded like the kind of thing I could go for at the moment. I walked up and told him I'd like one. He looked me in the eye. "1,000," he said. About 80 cents.
Then he looked down, saw my longyi, and gave a relenting shrug. Unbidden, he made a new offer. "500."
I've never been so thrilled about a forty cent discount in my entire life.
Toward the end of my stay in Yangon, I went to go make arrangements for transportation to my next destination. It was still a couple days before Christmas, and I wanted to make my way over to Bagan before Christmas Eve. My hope -- what seemed at the time like a well-fortified plan, really -- had been that I'd strut into the train station in my longyi and acquire a ticket for the next day's passage to Bagan in the sleeper class. Maybe prebook a meal and have them put a bottle of pinot grigio on ice for me. That isn't exactly how it happened.
Presenting myself at the entrance to the station a man from the taxi queue called for my attention with a line to the effect of "Hey bro, nice longyi." I replied in thanks. He informed me that I'd tied it wrong. This is the equivalent in this country to having something in your teeth. Everyone will notice, but few will say anything. Without my having to acknowledge this fact, he saddled up behind me and gave me what I'd come to think of as a good old fashioned Rangoon reach-around. He was even kind enough to provide me with instructions. "Oneee," he said, as he folded the clothe in his right hand to the clothe in his left. "Twoooo," doing the same with his left hand. On "Three!" -- his hands whirring like a jar of fire flies -- he knotted a tight little bun at my waist. "Now you try," he told me.
"One..." I started. "Two..."
"Very good," he encouraged.
When I announced my attempt at "three" my bun fell apart in a lifeless poof, leaving me holding my skirt up with my hands.
"Hmm... That's not quite it," he allowed.
Having gamely given instruction a shot, he tied me up without counting this time. Thanking him for the sartorial assistance, I started into the station. He came with me.
"Where are you from?" he asked. This is the question de rigueur no matter where one is in the world. Whether in Zimbabwe, the Philippines, or anywhere that English is spoken but not necessarily the native language, it's what people ask you. I imagine the English textbooks in these countries feature the same templated conversations that the Spanish and French ones do in America. "Where are you from?" "The weather is warm." "The window in the café is open."
Having explicated this theory to him, I informed him I was from the United States. He asked me about my itinerary, and I told him I planned to get a ticket to Bagan.
"Ah," he said. "You will not be able to get a ticket to Bagan."
The first reason, he explained to me, is that one doesn't buy train tickets at the train station. You buy them at the place where they sell train tickets, which, apparently, is across the highway. He encouraged me to go into the station and ask for a ticket. I wouldn't be able to do it. I walked over to what appeared to be a sign board with the names of destinations and a ticket-seller below. No dice.
"It's okay," he said. "I'll walk you there."
"Really?" I said. "You don't have to do that."
As we made our way together across the highway overpass, he explained the second reason why I wouldn't be able to get a ticket. It was the holiday season, and all the trains would likely already be full up.
"Oh," I said.
"Yes," he said, and continued to explain how in the weeks around Christmas and New Year the entire country criss crosses in an attempt to return to one's family and native lands. So much for escaping the holidays.
When we got to the ticket purchasing station, the man and I walked up to a gentleman standing outside the area designated for the queue. This was where, in retrospect, a little sleight of hand may have occurred. My friend and his colleague -- potentially a representative of the train company; potentially a confederate --exchanged a few words, which evidently supplied my friend with the intelligence that there were no available spots on a train to Bagan for the next ten days. This left me somewhat surprised. But never having dealt with cross-country transportation in Myanmar before, I was simply thankful to have a liaison to hold my hand while I navigated through it. For as soon as I began to worry, my liaison told me that I could probably still snag a spot on a night bus. He knew just the place.
And again we set off to yet another location. Only a few blocks down a side street, he escorted me into a travel agency. They informed me that I had come just in time. There were still a few open spots on night buses over the coming weeks, but they were filling fast. I should book my entire trip now. Hardly being able to believe my good fortune at coming across the opportunity to make my entire slate of arrangements in a timely manner -- just imagine if I had waited another week to book the rest of them! -- I conjured up an itinerary on the spot. Happily, they pointed me in the direction of the nearest ATM so I could withdraw several briefcases full of cash to remunerate them for their assistance. My liaison remained by my side the entire time, just to make sure I was well taken care of. I parted from the scene with a series of grand waves, expressions of gratitude, thanking each of them for their help as well as their friendship, and shaking each hand heartily. Then I set off back into the city, feeling secure in the promise of future movement, and flush with the extra cash I'd withdrawn wadded up in my pockets.
After wandering for a bit I stopped in at a coffee shop to celebrate my good fortune with a latte. I was in the part of town with the highest density of white people. Evidently, this was the central expat district. It's not always easy to get a decent espresso drink in most parts of Yangon -- there are no Starbucks in the country, which in most cities has proved something of a gateway drug to more boutique coffee shops -- and so I figured I'd take this opportunity to indulge.
Having sat for a while reading a book of essays by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, I got up to pay. It was while I was settling up that a man entered the café and made a bee-line for the register. Midway through unfurling my wad of cash, the man looked me in the eyes.
"Hey," he said. "Do you want to come pick up trash for an hour? It's part of a competition. I need people."
I stared at him for a few seconds, searching my entire mental repository for the faintest hint of a reason why the answer wouldn't automatically be "no." I sought to clarify the proposition.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're asking me to come with you to pick up trash?"
"Yes," he said.
"For the next hour?" I said.
"Yes," he said.
"And we'd be doing it as part of some competition?"
"Yes," he said, waiting on my answer. I shrugged.
What the hell else have I got to do?
Setting aside any further interrogatives, I followed him out of the café. He took me across the street to his restaurant, which served Japanese fare. Then I realized I had heard of this place before.
"Hey," I asked. "Do you guys have jazz here on Friday nights?"
"Yeah," he said. "How did you know?"
I told him about Yuki, the jazz singer I had met the other night at the rooftop bar. She had mentioned this place. She's been sitting in on their Friday sessions for quite some time. With the acquaintance of this man, I believe I had successfully infiltrated the ranks of the entire Myanmar-Japanese jazz circuit.
Next thing I knew it was me and a crew of the restaurant's employees. Apparently, the man's recruitment strategy hadn't proved especially effective -- though evidently effective enough to achieve quorum. Disposable gloves were handed out, as were trash bags. Our cohort set off down the street, like an amoeba picking up whatever it came across in the course of locomotion.
"So," I asked, "what exactly is this competition?"
"It's a cocktail competition," he said.
A discussion ensued. He had filed an entry in a world-wide competition, sponsored by Bacardi, and as part of the submission each entrant was required to do a certain amount of service in their community. As it turned out, this guy was the head bartender of the premier craft cocktail establishment in the city. He would be going to Puerto Rico the following month to visit the Bacardi headquarters and compete in the finals, preparing his cocktail for a panel of esteemed cocktail aficionados. I asked him about his submission. He called it the "Kalay pop." He had grown up in a region of Myanmar, on the western border, called Kalay. One of his fondest memories as a child was a man who went around with a cart that held a stash of frozen banana pops, ringing a bell to alert everyone of his presence. Essentially the rural Myanmar version of the ice cream man. He sought to reconstitute this childhood pleasure in cocktail form in a take on the classic banana daiquiri: a base of white rum, lime, fresh banana syrup, with an herbally dash of Benedictine liqueur and rounded out with a touch of sesame oil. Just like the ice cream man used to make 'em.
As a result of our endeavor, I can say from experience that the only thing more amusing than a white guy walking down the street in a longyi is a white guy walking down the street in a longyi picking up trash as the intriguingly ugly, conspicuously taller duckling in a brood of locals. I was the subject of quite a few iPhone portraits. Whether or not I was the subject of an equal number of Instagram stories that day, I was unable to ascertain.
Finished with our community service, we returned to the restaurant. Our crew was rewarded for the work with a round of the competition-winning cocktail. Not one to let a good seat at the bar go to waste, I made reference to the other competition cocktails we had talked about on our walk. He made me a few rounds of his greatest hits. He also comped me a couple dishes off the menu. I continued reading my book while I consumed my gratis fare. Good God, I don't think I've ever loved a country more than Myanmar in that moment. Sated, I bid him adieu, told him I'd be back, and trundled out of the restaurant, sufficiently liquored up for the rest of my afternoon.
My next stop for the day, and the final destination on my list for Yangon, was Dala, the rural village on the other side of the river from the main city. There is a ferry ride that travels between the downtown area and Dala. As far as ferry rides go, it was not the world's most exquisite. I wouldn't go as far as to say the Yangon River is putrid, but it errs more on the side of sludge than sparkle. Whereas the port on the Yangon side is situated in a dense cosmopolitan area, the port on the Dala side immediate recedes into rural obscurity. I contemplated this observation as I alighted from the ferry. My plan was to walk around. Just to see what was over there. As ever, I didn't really know where I was going, what I could expect to see, nor the best means of either going or seeing. In the flood of humanity coming off the boat, everyone jetted off in particular directions, toward wherever it was they were going. I idled. An obvious target, I was accosted by any number of men offering services, tours, trinkets, this and that. I declined all, having spent my store of credulous generosity for the day.
But soon shortly after making my way down the obvious path of the main street I realized I was walking into nothing in particular. Not only was there not an obvious next path, but there didn't even really seem to be any paths at all. There were just roads, awash in waves of motor bikes, tuk tuks, and bicycles. Further on, another man on a bicycle peddled up next to me. He had a passenger car attached to his bike, like a sideways rickshaw.
"I take you around," he said, moving along next to me.
"No thanks," I said, instinctively.
"Where you going?" he said. "Village very far."
"How far?" I asked.
"Very far," he said. I had no counter-evidence with which to dispute the accuracy of this assessment.
"How much?" I said.
He quoted me a price somewhere in the neighborhood of five bucks American for two hours. Then I acquiesced. At this price point, I'm worth it.
And so the man and I puttered around the several villages of Dala. There was the fishing village. There was the bamboo village. The names didn't describe the content of the villages, evidently, so much as the villager's occupations. Each was a tight collection of single-room huts, mostly stilted above the estuary that ran through them. No electricity. No running water. The commode consisted of a platform with a hole in it positioned over the river. Trash everywhere. Trash for products they didn't even appear to consume. It was like the community version of the room inhabited by Danny DeVito and Charlie Day in the TV show It's Always Sunny. The perfect distillation of filth and squalor. That's not to say it was offensively shabby. But it was undeniably in disrepair.
At one of the houses he pointed, "My babies." This was where his family lived.
Another one of the places he indicated was a coffee shop. It was the building in the village with the greatest investment in infrastructure. It was an open air terrace. There was a sink, a concrete floor. There were advertisements for energy drinks and for the local Myanmar beer.
"This is my coffee shop," he said.
"This is where you go for coffee?" I said. "Can we stop?"
"You want to stop?" He said. I don't think any of his customers had ever suggested this.
And so the bike halted, and we stepped off to take a seat at one of the plastic chairs. It was empty except for one other table, with a father and son sitting together and quietly eying us as we walked in. The garçon came over to take our order. I told my guide to get us two coffees; I'd pay. The boy came back with a small carafe of hot water. Two cups of questionable cleanliness with a packet of Nestlé instant coffee. Sip for sip, it was undoubtedly the worse cup of coffee I've ever had. We sat for a few minutes of sipping interspersed with conversation -- both of us contemplating, from separate perspectives, what exactly would have possessed me to want to hop off the bike and drink this swill. I asked how much, covered his coffee for this time and the next, and then we took leave of the café, nodding to the father and son as we went.
The good news, I suppose, is that we passed several modern buildings, which would not be out of place in a more affluent area. The first he pointed out as "my babies' school." It looked like a normal school yard that one would see in any other rural community. A single large building, covered in murals drawn by little hands, and a fenced off playground. Maybe the school building is a signal that Dala will look very different for the next generation, having received an education that their parents didn't.
The second building was a tavern of sorts. While we didn't go inside, the tavern intrigued me. It boasted a huge canvas advertisement for an energy drink featuring the visages of several notable players from Manchester United. It's kind of astounding to think about. In an area with minimal access to running water or capable sewage, the faces of these athletes still meant something significant to the people here. Even watching from England or the United States, one gets a sense of the reach of world football. A number of teams present TV-visible ads not only in the languages of obviously major markets of Asia, like Chinese or Korean, but also in the more linguistically niche markets of Vietnamese, Thai, and -- get this -- even the looping curlicues of the Myanmar language. Seeing this banner, I asked my guide if he supported a particular football club.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Big fan of Man U."
At length, we rolled up back to the ferry terminal. It was time for me to retire for the evening. It was also about time for me to take leave of Yangon. I had seen the cosmopolitan hub of the country, the colonial and cultural capital. I had loved it. Now it was time branch out. It was time to check out something new. My next step would be the sprawling, spiritual oasis of ancient temples, rivaling Cambodia's Angkor Wat in its grandeur, built between the 9th and 13th century: Bagan. And as it stood, the only thing between me and Bagan was a ride on the night bus.
This is one of the things I love about the sport of soccer. World football is one of the few subjects you can bring up anywhere on earth and reliably elicit some sort of meaningful conversation. Either there will be a connection on a topic that is truly significant to the other person. Or there will be a story about how their father was a big fan, but they could never really seemed to get into it themselves. The discrepancy in privilege between me and my guide in Dala is about as big as it can get. The discrepancy between our love for the game is much smaller. Whether in a village in Myanmar, a brewery in Zimbabwe, an alleyway in St Petersburg, or a tram in Istanbul, there are few things in this world that are that big of a deal to that many people, independent of their background.
Common ground is hard to come by nowadays. Wealth inequality is greater than ever. Political divisions prevent people from engaging in civil discourse. In this respect, travel is a way of countering this trend. To have been to a place is to be connected with it. The people are no longer abstract entities, only the digits of a figure. When hundreds of people died in Myanmar in the collapse of a jade mine, as they did several months after I visited, that meant something to me that it wouldn't have otherwise. The world would certainly be a better place if we could all get to that point of caring, of vested interest without having to forge that tangible connection. To just treat people as people, regardless of whether we feel personally connected to them. But that's not how it works. It's just not in our psychological makeup. "If I'm an advocate for anything," wrote Anthony Bourdain, "it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food, it's a plus for everybody."
Over the next couple weeks I would move across the country of Myanmar. Christmas eve in Bagan. The strange and exotic world of Myanmar's night buses. A hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake. How I lost a shoe on New Year's Eve. The suboptimal and unappealing cityscape of Mandalay. But I won't get into those stories here. Maybe they'll come up another time. That's the thing about travel. There's always more to do. There's always more to see. And it's hard to communicate what's been done and what's been seen to those who were not there when it happened. It's just about impossible to not be underwhelmed by the stories you friends bring back after having been on holiday. Having to sit through those kind of stories is sincerely excruciating. Yet there is some magic to communicate there. They felt it at the time. You've felt it before in your own travels. I'm not sure I got it right here. But I'd like to think I will someday.
After Myanmar, I'd meet back up with Haily in Vietnam. Soon after that, we were hoping to get what had been our chaotic and discordant lives back on track in England. Then the virus hit. Nothing was on track. By the time you're reading this, I hope that will have changed. I hope we're back together. I hope we're able to get back out into the world.
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