Friday, April 19, 2013

Me 'n Myanmar (Part 1)

Aung San Suu Kyi's lakeside home in Yangon, where she was under house arrest for 15 years.

Before we arrived in Myanmar, I was determined to keep on calling it Burma.  It was Burma for the British Army, it was Burma for Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, and Aung San Suu Kyi has asked that we call her country Burma.  Early in our visit, our guide explained that Myanmar’s people include 135 ethnicities, only one of which is Burmese, so the name Burma, imposed by the British, excludes 40% of the population.  Now I’m willing to refer to it as Myanmar, about half the time.  I feel just that little bit much more knowledgeable about this mysterious Southeast Asian country.

We were drawn to Myanmar by the intense curiosity we share about the nation closed to the world for 40 years by military dictators; what prompted our visit at this particular time was an invitation for my dear husband to speak at an event involving the current government, the two most prominent universities in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), and a brand-new company formed by some Myanmar-born graduates of my husband’s distinguished university.  Thus, our way was made smooth for us to visit on short notice, and we got a different insight into the country than many tourists.

Myanmar was a short flight from Singapore, but a long way back in time.  Singapore is at the top of the First World list; Myanmar exists down somewhere on the list among the Third World countries.  Singapore has clean, air-conditioned public transit, countless high-rises, and drinkable tap water.  Myanmar doesn’t.  There are buses, with wide-open windows and doors that don’t close, or truck-ferries, from which riders hang after paying the equivalent of pennies.  
These buses didn't look much better to me than the ferry-buses (below) did.

Despite the hardships and oppression of the past 40 years, Myanmar people still have much in common with Singapore, including an almost infinite capacity for hard work and delayed gratification.  With the re-opening of Myanmar to the outside world, its people face the daunting task of catching up with everyone else with high hopes.

Open-air tailor's shop

For the once-great universities in Yangon (which the British mis-heard as Rangoon), catching up with the rest of the world is especially difficult.  Since the 1988 rebellion (when Aung San Suu Kyi won the election but wasn’t allowed to take power), students in Yangon University and Yangon Technological University protested loudly, and paid for their protests with long jail terms.  In addition, the military took over these seats of learning, moving the undergraduates out to satellite campuses inconveniently located away from the city. 

President Obama's speech here at Yangon University meant a lot to the people of Myanmar.

These Master's Degree students wore matching blue "lady longyis".

For about the past ten years, only graduate students could attend YTU and YU, probably because they were too busy to join protest marches.  Poorly paid (if at all) and over-worked, the faculty drifted away from the neglected universities until democracy was allowed back.

To our surprise, after a few hours of sight-seeing in Yangon the day we arrived, my husband and I were brought to the YTU campus to meet the Steering Committee for the two universities.  My husband sat in one of the two throne-like chairs at the head of the room along with the former Rector of YTU, a sophisticated, articulate and compelling retired professor who chairs the committee.  A slideshow outlined the history and present status of the universities, making clear the steep uphill climb ahead.  

The Committee (all Department Heads, some of whom came out of retirement to serve unpaid) and my husband posed for a photo together, and then all the committee members came to shake our hands and make us feel extremely welcome.  I cannot think of these kind, brave people now without feeling awed and humbled.

We saw the sights of Yangon in the company of a tour guide, another young Burmese whose education was derailed by the military crackdown.  With his guidance we visited the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the wonders of the world, and still a busy center for Buddhists, local and faraway.  

A young novice monk is carried by his father to his new home at Shwedagon Pagoda.

We marveled at a huge Reclining Buddha and learned a lot about Buddhism.  

We tramped through the Scotts Market where of course I could not resist a cotton longyi (Burmese for sarong) that turn out to be the most comfortable garment for the heat of the Myanmar spring (it was over 100 F every day of our week there).  

The street market in Chinatown was filled with color and smells, not always pleasant.  

We saw former British Colonial buildings like the Post Office (from the inside) and the Burmese Railway (from the outside).  

Everywhere were the open-faced, modest and friendly people of Myanmar, many with their faces decorated with a cooling and sun-protective paste.  

Best of all, we took a ferry across the Irrawaddy (pronounced Eye-RAH-waddee) River to a village from which workers commute to Yangon every day.  

They now have a more reliable electrical supply (thanks to the US government), but still live in bamboo houses with thatched roofs and hang little plastic bags of sand and water from their fences in case of fire.

Food, of course, was one of our great interests.  Burmese cuisine did not disappoint.  Our guide understood immediately that we wanted to eat in restaurants where ordinary Myanmar people ate.  

The first restaurant he took us to only inspired us to want more Myanmar food!  Tangy Burmese curries don’t have the coconut milk used in neighboring Thailand but do use Thai and Indian spices.  Every restaurant offered a number of vegetable dishes including stir-fried watercress with garlic and mushrooms.  

We sampled Marinated Tea Leaves Salad, but avoided many fresh salads in case they’d been washed with contaminated water.  Most restaurants for ordinary people have a counter filled with various dishes (not labeled, and in any case we wouldn’t be able to read Burmese script) at which we pointed, instead of the menus found in more upscale places.  Our favorite dish was Pork Curry with Pickled Mango, but we didn’t taste much we didn’t like.

Daw Saw Yee Restaurant, one of the best in downtown Yangon for real Myanmar cuisine.

Four days in Yangon wasn’t nearly enough, but it was all we had.  Then it was time to hit the Road (or rather, board the plane) to Mandalay.