I've been thinking a lot on how to open this post on my days in Myanmar. I don't know how to introduce you a world that doesn't exist anymore, and his changing rapidly at the same time. But nobody knows in which direction is remaining the same of hundreds of year ago, and how it's evolving in the new world.
We would say: embrace the change! change is progress. You can keep the values, and if are not ok you can find others. Difficult invite them to open to the world, a world that is changing rapidly in huge confusion. But coming here, you are amazed by the authenticity of the old Asia, quite different from the Asia that is giving away her soul, to get the nicest venue with shopping centers and powerful airco. Myanmar is still what I've been reading in books of Terzani:
"Anyone who goes in Myanmar, leave with the impression to have seen a country still untouched by the influence of the rest of the world, a beautiful peace of the old Asia; a country where men dress still the Longyi - a kind of skirt woven locally - and not trousers, where also the women smoke cheerot - strong green cigars hand rolled - and not Marlboro; a country where buddhism is still a living faith, and pagodas, ancient beauties, are still places where local people goes, and not museums for tourists visits."
Didn't change too much the "Burma" of Terzani., or not? A friend of mine told me to don't forget the price that those people had to pay to keep on smoking cheroot instead of Marlboro. The words of Terzani might appear words of some western people, like me, fascinated by the differences, not taking into consideration the cruelty experienced during the year. True, that's why I trust my feelings, and I kept the open question, how this is changing.
Landing in Mandalay I could see flooded areas due to the typhoon coming from Bangladesh 3 days before my arrival. Entires villages laying in brown water. The moonson season doesn't help neither but life is moving on, and smiles is what I get walking in the crowded, noisy, hot Mandalay.
The average daily salary here in Myanmar is 2 dollars, but on the road you can see group of people gathering money for the poor fellows living in the flooded areas. A lot of people I met were planning to go there in the weekend and give the best help possible. It will cost them 1 week of work, but they were happy to tell me "we've to help our brothers, we've to help also the animals that are working for us".
Unfortunately flooding will be an issue in Myanmar even without typhoons. Apparently the "military government" has sold 60% of the Teak Forest to China. China is starting deforesting heavily. No trees means higher risk of landslides, higher water level of rivers, and finally flooded areas.
During Monsoon there are entire villages moving from areas where water level is too high, to the shores, in temporary houses, waiting the right moment to go back. But when water is flushing all your stuff away, then there's no place to come back anymore.
I've been talking a lot with people in Mandalay, in a cozy bar playing domino and smoking cheerot, sometime with the nice sound of the rain crashing the metal benches outside. The curiosity and happiness coming from what they were learning from me, and what I was learning from them, is priceless. It's curious how beautiful is to shut up (I talk a lot in my official job) and start listening, and when you listen, you learn.
First of all I bought a Longyi and I dressed almost everyday. Burmese people were amazed to see me dressing like that. The most courageous ones were telling me "awesome, fits you well!" but my favourite ones were the thumbs up and the smile of the old ladies. Dressing the Longyi and smoking cheerot gave me one of the best moments in Myanmar.
I was enjoying the last smoke of the day, under the moonlight in a small village during my trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I enjoyed the dinner prepared by the family, but I didn't want to smoke in the house made by bamboo. So after have played with the small iperactive son, teaching him origami, pretending to fight shaolin, I walked out in a curtain of silence, broken only by the breathing of the buffalo sleeping in the shed under the room where I was supposed to sleep.
Puffing my cheerot, I see a man coming out of the opposite house, one of the few in bricks. He warmly invited me to follow him in his place, and without saying one word in english, I followed him on the stairs. All the family (and few friends) where sitting on the floor, in front of a LCD TV. He smiled and proudly shown me first the TV and then he presented me the full audience.`Then he placed an ashtray in front of me and we started smoking together, meanwhile, now and then, the man was winking me about the quality of the TV (or the action chinese movie playing). Smoking shorts your life, but enhances moments, I thought.
It's nice to imagine the routines of those people. Wake up early, women heading to the rice fields, men plow up the red soil with their loyal buffalo friend, from sunrise to sunset. They bring their lunch, since sometimes the workplace is distant, sometimes the family is too little and the day is too short. The nice thing is that they never forget to bring a huge smile with them, and a pocket of betel nut to chew and spit everyday. I asked, you know that this stuff will destroy your teeth? I don't care, I like and is for strong men; also the greatest king of Myanmar was chewing. This will never change.
But other things are changing also here. In the Shan State, close the border with China, people are replacing rice fields and tea trees with corn. The close chinese are selling them seeds and fertilizer. Corn is easier to grow but also more difficult to defend. The point is that there are monkeys in that area. Monkeys are not eating rice or drinking tea, but they appreciate quite a lot corn. One of the principle of buddhism is to not kill, but farmers have to preserve their crop. Things are changing.
Quite in contrast with what I've been discussing few days before the trekking. People do care about animals. I was in Kalaw, and after dinner I was enjoying the calm of the end of the market, where few stalls were still opened. I was hitting the road to the guest house, when started raining in the heavy "monsoon style". I'm optimist so no umbrella. I decided to step in a small bar with two tables, where one was occupied by a guy that immediately asked me to join him.
We started talking about the rain, where I am from, what about tomorrow. After a while was my turn of questions, I've to learn. What do you do? The magic door opens. I am working in an elephant camp. Nothing surprising to me, there are a lot of elephant camps in Asia, but this was different, the guy told me. This is were elephants go in retirement, after have worked in heavy construction, or similar stuff.
One of the Mahout, the men who ride the elephant, thought that using animals from 18 years old till 70 years old and then kill them was a shame. Yes, kill them by letting them die, because one elephant eats 200 kg every single day. So the repented Mahout decided to open this center of old/sick elephants giving them not only food, but let them free in the jungle. The early morning, the crew, including the guy I was talking to, will go in the jungle and collect them all. Then they will clean the elephant, then breakfast. Then the hard work to pay the pension, playing with kids of school or tourists, that in any case will feed them again. And then again, free in the jungle. This for the rest of their life. Great retirement after hard work.
The crew is also teaching and using visitors, to plant trees to fight deforestation. And recently they opened also a school to improve health and education in the local villages. My new friend was keep on telling me how happy he is about his job, on taking care of animals. "if they're happy, I'm happy. I'm feeding them, and they're feeding me back". And I can see it, I wanted to say. I've never met anyone showing me enthusiasm about his job in that way. I know what are you thinking, the guy didn't have a job. Wrong. He was working in construction, he just liked the idea. The place is called Green Hill Valley. They're changing, keeping good values.
Once on the shore of Inle Lake, after have crossed rice fields, green jungle, getting some fresh monsoon showers, you are overwhelmed by the peace of this big piece of mirror reflecting green mountains and shapes of fishermen paddling with their leg, handling a big net. You think you could stay here forever, biking in the country side, drinking some whine, playing pool, watching sunrise and sunsets reflected in the water drops floating on the waterlilies.
Tourists are getting here more and more, but the early hours and the sunsets belong to the fishermen and their silent art to paddle, their singing going back to their spiling after sunset. The monastery are full of young boys that are spending here two weeks, where after praying they play football of flip flop war. If they want they stay, otherwise they go back to their parents. You cannot be monk if you don't have the blessing of your parents, your wife (if you are married), if you have debts, if you have disease. Basically cannot be an escape from your duties, duties with people or with yourself.
One of the best way to observe society is to using public transportation. Can you imagine that? Trying to think the feeling you get if I tell you, let's grab a bus, in your city. Stress. So I took the local train in Yangon, with no destiny at all. The bumpy slowly train is full of life. In every stop a new character steps in, trying to sell you from fresh fruit, to quail eggs, news paper, and off course betel nut to chew and spit out of the window.
It's nice to observe people reading news paper, titled Messenger, like the app we use everyday to chat with someone that probably is 2 meters distant from us. I decide to step out in the station of Insein, where one of the passenger is feeding pigeons, which are flying in and out of the train windows. I keep on walking with no direction, I'm thirsty, so I accept the invite of someone calling me to join him, attracted from my magic longyi.
Immediately an old lady join us, not able to speak one word of english. I talk a lot with the men, he would love to stay more, but he has to pick up his son, today is his day off, so they're doing something together. The lady stays at the table, just smiling without saying a word. Suddenly she animates, a group of people is joining, her daughters and the husband of one of them. They were surprised that their mom is sitting with a foreigner, so her doughter's husband stop at table with me. The lady ask him to tell me that she has also one son. He left for Australia after the student revolution in 1988, and since then, he didn't come back. They met twice, at the border with Thailand, few hours, then again split.
He presents me his indian friend, who adjust cars in 30 minutes, if you need. His indian friend presented me the full family, including the picture of his son who lives and study in UK. It's time to go, but my new friend wants to offer me the coke I was drinking. Why? I've told him no, if you were drinking with me than yes, but now I've to go. And then let me bring you where you should go. Let's go, he brings me to the Insein Pagoda, and, after have wished me the best, and counting on his indian friend if I've issue with car, leaves. I would love this things will never change.
What have we become? Imagine if we could have a day like this.
One thing I would change, and I hope it will be a natural change. I hope that the wishes of Burmese will happen, The Lady, leading this beautiful country, beautiful people, authentic, clean, beaming smiles. Mingalabar Myanmar!