Saw narrowed her eyes and looked intently at me. She leaned forward conspiratorially, sizing me up, and frowned a little.
“You know Taylor Swift?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, meeting her focused gaze.
“You like her?” she asked.
I sensed this was a moment of great importance.
“Yes,” I said, “I love her.”
She sat black, clapped her hands, and laughed, “So do I!”
I was in.
Myanmar stood out on the itinerary as the land of mystery for most of us. The very terms we use to refer to it (“since Myanmar opened up”) encourage us to think of it as somehow more ‘foreign’. Even with the rampant China-phobia on the ship (and boy, let me tell you, it’s rampant) it was with Myanmar that our most Orientalist tendencies took control.
Some of this was abetted, almost encouraged, by the mere fact that Myanmar remains a logistically nearly impossible place. Question after question in the pre-port – the presentations and lectures we have as we approach a new country – were answered, quite simply, with “we don’t know.” Will there be ATMs available? Do bus tickets need to be bought in advance? Will we need to carry our passports? How long will immigration take? Are train tables reliable? And really now, but really, do we call it Myanmar or do we call it Burma?
No one seemed to know.
If there was ever a place to encourage us to slip comfortably back towards imperialist ideals of tattered glory and hot exoticism, it’s Myanmar.
Here, let me show you what I mean:
In the center of Yangon… no, no, for this to work right let me go full on:
In the middle Rangoon next to a shining lake the pinnacle of the Shwedagon Pagoda glows in the afternoon sunlight. On a hot afternoon the thick golden plates that cover the central stupa are painfully bright. It seems almost molten, slipping down the graceful curves of the pagoda. At eight shrines, worshippers reverently lift silver cups of cool water to ritually bathe the shoulders of Buddhas. The musical drone of chanting drowns out a thousand quiet conversations and the chattering of the birds. In the shade of a banyan tree, monks wrapped in elaborate folds of red cloth pad barefoot over cool white marble, carrying bright paper parasols to shield themselves from the searing sun of a tropical summer.
Or how about this one:
A man stands at the back of a flat boat, a roughly hewn dugout craft that floats only inches above the rippling water. He is balanced on one foot, an oar in one hand as counter-weight. In the other hand he holds the top of a bamboo dome, four feet high. lined with netting and mostly submerged in water. He holds the line with his toes, feeling carefully for the tug of fish. Behind him there are miles of lake, dotted with similar boats, beating the water with oars to scare fish into nets, or harvesting seaweed with long poles. The sun shines over a ridge of misty green mountains.
Or wait, wait, this. This is the one:
After the searing light, the darkness of the pagoda is blinding. It is silent. Under my feet the marble is cold and dusty. The only sound is our footfalls, dray, quiet slaps echoing in a dim chamber. At the end of the passage a single shaft of light pierces the shadows. It falls on a Buddha, twenty feet tall, sitting silently and alone. His red carved robes glow in the sunlight as they have for a thousand years. His face is still hidden in shadows. In front of him, vases hold bright red blooms. We are alone here. The only visitors.
There! Exotic enough? It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark up in this shit.
But let me lift the gauze:
When we woke up the morning after pre-port, having finally arrived in this land of mystery, we were in an industrial port. Out of my window I watched huge barges load and unload shipping containers. At the Shwedagon, the monks in the shade of the banyan tree were on cell phones, because, frankly, why not? The man fishing on Inle Lake paused, looked at me directly, and then lifted his foot into just the right position for me to take a picture. I did. And outside that silent pagoda the dusty marble and the wooden Buddha in glowing red robes sat an airconditioned van, idling in the mid-day sun, waiting impatiently for us to get back since we had four more pagodas to see before sunset.
Also, Mom was basically a walking petri-dish with a cauldron of a stomach that was turning food and water into grotesque physical experiments.
And while sitting at lunch, a guide from a small town at the top of Inle Lake, who had spent the day showing us ancient ruins and floating farms and villages on stilts, bonded with me over Taylor Swift. Also Rhianna. We are both really in favor of Rhianna.
None of that is to say Myanmar wasn’t remarkable. It was. Bagan is unlike anyplace I have ever seen – over three thousand pagodas and shrines scattered over a dusty plain, white and gold and dusty brown, glowing in the light of a setting desert sun — the relics of an empire that grew and died on this land over seven centuries ago. It’s a sight that will be hard to forget. And the fact that it is also a real place where real people live real lives with real dignity shouldn’t affect that. But there is a side of myself that has watched too many Merchant Ivory films for my own good
Thankfully, traveling with my beloved parents protected me from my worst self. Because, and I don’t know if you know this, my parents are fancy. The place we stayed in Inle had a bathtub that was shaped like a boat. A boat tub! But that is not the point. Boat tubs actually encourage a whole different worst self (excuse me, sir, there appear to only be five kinds of juice at breakfast, and those places of truly superior service serve at least six, I’ll have you know.) But there is a different kind of fancy that had a much more positive impact. Fancy people, I have learned, hire guides.
Now, my natural inclination with a guide is to run, quickly, the other way. Or to pretend they’re not there. Or, actually, to pretend that I’m not there. I truly believe that my blonde hair and American clothes and profuse sweating were totally unnoticeable until suddenly I had a guide. I was getting away with it! And good God, now ALL these people know I’m a tourist.
I will defend, nearly endlessly, the merits of getting lost in new cities and the sociability of hostels (even without boat tubs, which, frankly, who doesn’t have a boat tub these days?) and the wonder of discovering new places all by yourself. These are experiences you can’t have with a guide. These are experiences that seven kinds of juice at breakfast, frankly, preclude. But I am having to learn to re-assess my guide-phobia.
Because I will say this about guides: they don’t let you get away with any of that neocolonial, Indiana Jones, I’m-the-first-person-to-ever-discover-Burma nonsense. They’ll actually tell you what you’re seeing and explain how tomato insecticides are poisoning the lake and really drill down to see if you understand why this Buddha is here. And ,actually, I think, they feel even more uncomfortable than you do about the part where they take you to see the Paduang women bent over their weaving, posing for pictures with eleven rings of copper pushing down their shoulders.
On my own I would have probably joined friends in renting and ebike. After I emerged from the hospital visit this would immediately incur, I would have driven around Bagan, temple to temple, knowing nothing about what they were or where they came from. Perhaps the smartest and best and most thoughtful among us can do that without getting lost in a romantic daydream of exotic discovery, but I am not the smartest or best or most thoughtful. I would have written a romance novel, and a bad one at that. My parents’ irritating insistence that we actually learn things about places may well have saved me from a fruitful career at Harlequin.
It’s taken me a few days to try to think through all this and I’m still not done. And of course it’s not just Myanmar – it’s the accumulated moments of cultural discomfort and semi-imperialist unease from six countries beginning to set in. I’m not nearly as good at this as I thought; as I hoped.
How do we observe culture without dehumanizing others? What are the real ethics of tourism? How do we reconcile the superficiality of a short visit with the reality that we cannot stay in every culture for months at a time? How do we notice difference without exoticizing and romanticizing it? How can we understand wealth and poverty in context, without succumbing to a sense of noblesse oblige that is surely goodhearted but ultimately damaging? How on earth do we get through breakfast every day without nine kinds of juice?
I can only say I don’t know. I am wondering and worrying and trying to make it all fit together.
And really, all I know, all I surely know is this: I think I would be much more clear headed if someone would find me a boat bath, please.