Sunday, February 24, 2013

Myanmar: Version One

Leg-rowing fisherman on Inle Lake (Leah Shelleda)

      What strange people we are! Absorbed with the latest technology, then flying off great distances to see folks living traditional lives.

      I have yearned for ancient ways and lives that are sustained not by wealth and toys, but a love for the earth. This yearning has been tempered by all the subsistence-based villages I have visited or lived in, where people have barely enough to eat and suffer from ill-health.

Photo by Bill Fulton
     But the village in Mon State was different. It was along the Thanlwin (not a typo) river, and we reached it by boat. The wood and bamboo houses had strong roofs to protect against sun and monsoon, and were well-maintained. 

(Paste made from the Thanaka tree is used to decorate faces)  

The market was filled with the many fruits and vegetables they grow plus several varieties of rice and fish. The children were bright eyed and healthy and the women didn't look look 20 years older than their age.                         

The reason? A surplus, which provided for a full-time school, medicine and a few trucks. The source? A "sawmill" for cabinet and boat builders who used traditional techniques, and relied on a variety of different tree species to make a beautiful product. The "sawmill" consisted of a  belt-driven circular saw we estimated to be 50 years old, and an ingenious system of pulleys. I doubt that they were paid sufficiently for their labor, the people were still relatively poor by Western standards, but the village was self -sufficient and thriving, and impacted lightly on the surrounding environment.                                                                     
Photo by Bill Fulton
         We thought a lot about choice on this trip. What if the children in the village wanted to be doctors or teachers in their kleptocracy of a country?  Would any ever have the opportunity to travel, as we do? Surely you couldn't blame any young person in Myanmar for wanting to leave the country and join the the well fed and stylish world they see on TV. All they want is opportunity.  

      Let me tell you about Poppie, who we met in Kiang Tong. He had studied physics, loved science, but where was there a lab for him to do research, or a teaching position? 
Photo by Bill Fulton
He supports his family selling ice cream in summer and working in the tourist industry in the winter. He has wonderful enthusiasm and what we came to call RBS - Remarkable Burmese Sweetness. Poppie took tourists to see the Akha tribeswomen in their extraordinary silver clad bonnets or trekking to the longhouse of the Loi people.Younger women were beginning to dress in tee shirt or blouse and longyi (sarong) like most Burmese, and what would happen to his business if tourists couldn't photograph colorful villagers? And then there was the shivering and sweating of his chronic malaria, the expensive drugs, and a government totally unconcerned with providing cheap mosquito netting, at least for the little ones.

    Is choice a developed world luxury we  overestimate? Are we lulled into a pleasurable stupor by the innumerable brands available to us, equating freedom with all we can buy? 
Thanks to Canal One - "Too Many Logos"
    There are different kinds of hunger. In the 1970s emigration was allowed from the Soviet Union, and many came to the Bay Area where I live. We talked about the 'babushka ladies' who came to the supermarkets and slowly walked the aisles just looking - women who had once waited in line outside a store that was rumored to have bread or beets that day.  
Thanks to

And here was abundance: bins of fresh vegetables even in winter, whole aisles of every variety of bread, cracker or cookies, steaks and chops and poultry piled in freezers.                    

      Were the women walking those aisles with the wonder that Bill and I experienced in the Shwedagon, the main temple of Yangon? Our hunger for ancient beauty and spirit was fulfilled as we walked through the temple. We realized that families and friends gathered on the vast marble promenade as though it was a park or a public square, or the marketplace. It is not a place of hushed reverence. Laughter was as present as chanting,  and as frequent as prayer. The glorious temple was a staple of their lives.
Photo by Bill Fulton
         I've been thinking of all those who have come to the U.S. 
        and Europe to feed their families, and of all the Americans 
             and Europeans who travel to South East Asia, flying
                     thousands of miles to feed their souls.