Burmese Daze

Golden Years

I don't know when it began, but at one point during my first explorations of Myanmar's capitol city of Yangon, I noticed a buzzing in my ear. I was stumbling somewhat dazed as I navigated the city streets for my first time. I was a bit woozy from having woken up at the ass crack of dawn to fly to Myanmar that morning, and the sudden transition from the frigid air of China to the heat of Myanmar had thrown my system for a loop and I suspected I had a fever coming on. I was somewhat dizzy, marveling at the fascinating colonial buildings rotting all around me. Street food stall, Yangon Within minutes of setting foot to street, I witnessed the largest rat I had ever seen, sorting through some garbage at his leisur, while one of the skinniest cats I have ever seen slinked past, reasonably enough, in fear. I saw 3 giant rats within my first hour or so. I wanted filth and decay, and I was to get it.

     I wandered the streets, observing an endless array people squatting on the sidewalk offering school supplies, books, phones to make long-distance calls with, typists, shoe repairs, sweets, ice water made from straining melting blocks of ice, hangers, flashlights, cheap watches, lighters, imported toys, makeup and plenty of betelnut.

     As I reeled down the street next to the Immanuel Baptist Church, just east of Sulé Paya, I noticed the buzzing. I was tuned in to any number of other stimuli, so it probably took me a few moments to focus in and realize it was a voice. And it was speaking English. And it was addressing me. It didn't come from ear level, but a good foot or so down, and there I found an animated old Burmese lady. With her dark, wrinkled skin, hunched posture, and belly, she looked somewhat like E.T. And with the way she swapped her words around, she was speaking somewhat like Yoda. She had probably half the teeth she had as a young adult. I liked her already.

     "What you need?! What you need?! I am Burmese lady. Run around, I show you! Change money, you need?" She seemed to be spitting out a dozen options a second. And for some reason, since it wasn't a Thai man rattling off "Tuk-tuk, bang-bang, boom-boom, lady-boy?" I didn't outright say no.

     "Slow down, lady, what's going on?"

     "I'm Ethel, this little girl here is fat lady daughter," she said gesturing to herself, the child at her side, and then the lady selling newspapers next to the church.

Ethel starting her sales pitch

     "OK, nice to meet you."

     "Why you are alone? You travel alone, you need me. I show you. You like me, we get along. I am Ethel Blah Blah Blah."

     "Ethel Blah Blah Blah? That's your name?"

     "Yes, look look I am famous. I am on internet!" she proclaimed, understandably oblivious to the tenuous link between an internet presence and true fame. Ethel produced from her knit shoulder bag a rolled up bundle of computer printouts, a Google search result for "Ethel Yangon" and a printout of a web page that depicted her and the little girl, perhaps a year or so younger. The web page explained that Ethel gives tours and is very poor. Not uncommon in these countries, but I liked her spunk.

     "Look look," she urged, shoving page after page of Google results into my hands.

     "OK, OK, I get the point. I just got here, though, and I am not sure I need a guide."

     "You change money with me. I know good Chinese man, he let you count slowly all the money. Very safe. You change money, then we go run-around."

     "OK, I'll be honest with you, I generally don't need a guide, but I'll think about it. I assume I can find you here?"

     "Yes! This my office," she said, pointing to the sidewalk next to the church. "If I am not here, the fat lady will tell you where I am. But I always here. First, before you go, come with me to the café for a milkshake!" Ethel pointed across the street at Mr. Brown café.

     A milkshake? In the third world? What did I have to lose? So together, we crossed the street and I watched as this little brown lady bought the brightest pink "strawberry milkshake" I have ever seen, balanced it on a brown tray, and with her hunched back and slightly shuffling gait, crossed the brightly lit café to sit down at a table. I liked what I saw. There, in what I later realized was probably the most westernized property in the entire country, we sipped what were more Yoo-Hoo than milkshakes as she carried on about what she had to offer as a guide.

Front of a trishaw, Yangon

     "I am seventy years old Burmese lady. My mother Burmese, my father British." Sure enough, while she looked Burmese, her blue eyes were the one anomaly. At almost twice the life expectancy of the average Burmese, she sure had a lot of spunk, and all of her hair was still black. I could tell that age and challenges were not things that held her back in life. "You look, see these printouts. I am famous. New Zealand couple wrote a magazine article about me. I show you tomorrow."

     In all, Ethel was a convincing saleswoman. And if nothing else, was making for a good milkshake date at least. "If we run-around, I can talk about Government," she said, with a hushed voice. But we only talk in places where they can't understand. If they catch me, what I care? I am old, I will just die. If they catch you, you have trouble!"

     After finishing the milkshakes and listening to her ramble on for a while, I told Ethel that I was ready to walk around the city, and that if I decided I needed her services I would return in the morning. She agreed to that, and we parted ways.

     I had plans to meet Yim, the Korean guy I met on the plane, at his hotel so we could head to dinner together. I figured I'd mention Ethel offhand and see if I got a bad reaction out of him.

Golden Tears

So I wandered the streets until dusk, taking in the ambience of Yangon. If China had a theme, it was progress; and Yangon's theme was decay. Virtually all of the buildings in Yangon had clearly been built back during the British and Indian colonial years no later than WWII, and had hardly received a coat of paint since then. While the busy streets Thanakha on a young Burmese woman rounding Sulé Paya and the center of town were somewhat hectic with the clatter and choking smog from muffler-less trucks and buses, near-solitude was found just a block or so off the main arterials.

     From each multi-story colonial building, dozens of strings hung bells and metal clips down to street level, for the delivery of produce that was hawked by boys and men walking the streets with baskets of produce or household supplies. Burmese fashion was seemingly impervious to the onslaught of Western styles that seem to reach so much of the world. Virtually all the men wore longyi, a skirt-like wrap, rather than pants. Virtually all of the women wore thanakha on their faces, a cosmetic make-up made from thanakha bark. It is believed to have a sun-blocking and moisturizing effect. I had seen it spread on the cheeks of Burmese women in photos and before I saw it in person, I thought that I'd find it unattractive; somehow covering the otherwise stunning faces of the women, but I was quickly swayed the other way. I saw that each woman decorated her face in her own unique way. Some women wore a simple circle on each cheek, some wore rectangles, some wore angles that looked like tiger eyes, and some had drizzled it down their cheeks to look like streams of golden tears.

Thanakha on a young Burmese woman

     Whiling away hours at home, tracing my finger across a globe or atlas, I'd often thought about the transformation of the physical features of the prototypical native of each country around the world. Of how different the typical Chinese looked from the typical Thai, from the typical Indian to the typical Middle Easterner, though countries from each of these regions bordered each other. I had wondered how that transformation appeared until I realized, upon visiting, that the confluence of all Asian features occurs in Myanmar. Here is where Asian, SE Asian, and Indian features all blended. This was the confluence of Asia.

     As the sun began to set, I walked darkening streets and alleys and listened to dozens of quiet conversations of people grouped on plastic stools surrounding sidewalk food vendors, the occasional chatter of a television emitting a blue glow through apartment windows, and swarms of chirping birds that flocked from one tree to the next.

I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crusher

At the World Café, Yim and I reclined on worn wooden chairs while locals at every other packed table all craned to watch the football game on TV. Myanmar was playing someone, and losing badly, as they had been known to do. The restaurant was vastly hotter than the outdoors, and fans hanging on the walls near each table lazily breathed the hot air at the few patrons who had taken the initiative to stand up and turn them on. Each table had a plastic container holding a roll of toilet paper for wiping fingers and face. Ahh, familiar Southeast Asia.

     Yim was friends with the proprietor of the restaurant. A sinewy twenty-something with a snaggletooth, he would spend a moment here and there, dirty towel in hand, chatting with the two of us. In his absence, Yim made a loud kissing sound in the direction of a younger boy who was running dishes back and forth from the kitchen. Upon making the kiss sound, the boy hustled over to hand us menus.

     "What's with that sound, Yim?!"

     "That's how you tell them you want help," Yim answered.

     "Is that condescending at all?"

     "No, that's just how you do it!"

     "Back home, that means 'kiss' and would be very offensive to someone if you just kissed at them!" But that said, it sure was a lot easier than waiting to make eye contact or otherwise politely hail a waiter. I could hang with that.

     I followed Yim's lead and ordered a Max Cola. Due to ill relations with the US, Myanmar is one of the very few countries left in the world that does not offer Coke or Pepsi. Here, there were the equivalent alternatives in the form of Max Cola and Star Cola, respectively. The flavors were reminiscent of their American counterparts, with one being sweeter and one being slightly more citrus than the other. Even the labels were reminiscent of Coke and Pepsi, with the same color schemes on the labels. Each brand carried a variety of non-cola flavors such as the orange drink named Crusher. A bottle cost 150 kyat (15¢) which was incredibly cheap to me but accounted for a significant portion of the cost of a meal to a local.

Burmese bottle caps

There's a woman in the mirror in a fiery state
As she motions to me I start turning away
She's lifting her dress up

As we finished dinner, Yim suggested we go to the dance club. Yim's friend indicated that he thought that would be a good evening activity for the two of us, so I agreed. The disco turned out to be in the basement of a nicer hotel. Not nice, mind you, but nicer than the typical third world three-star. We were greeted by a bouncer flanked by an attractive Burmese girl wearing a short skirt and Western style make-up. We paid 500 kyat and the large red door was opened to let us in.

     It was dark in the disco, and the music was piercingly loud. I could immediately tell that the ratio of prostitutes to patrons was way out of whack. The leering and come-ons directed my way were quite reminiscent of walking into a strip club. As we wound our way through faces with bright pink lips, I could see that the dance floor was empty. We were seated at a table that flanked the dance floor, clearly so we could have front row seats to view the machinations that weren't taking place.

     It wasn't long, however, until someone broke the ice and started dancing. It always takes one person, I suppose. In this case, it was a Chinese businessman, late forties, giant squarish glasses, khaki pants hiked way up over his protruding belly, his chest pocket so laden with his wallet and an array of pens that it bounced up and down of his belly as he took to dancing. His dance moves were a unique combination of the Michael Jackson's Thriller zombie-dance and the Twist. Totally alone on that dance floor, he cut an enthusiastic rug, waving his hands in the air like he just didn't care. He clearly didn't care; he took to dancing through three or so songs totally solo, and stood patiently between songs. No one else joined him on the floor, and I certainly wasn't going to be the person to make that sacrifice.

     After the Chinese man returned to his seat to wet his whistle or a young lady, a band took to the stage, a cover band, which Yim told me always hailed from the Philippines for some reason. They worked their way through a rocking rendition of Born on a Bayou and within the first few notes, a Burmese girl of about 17 strutted out from stage left, wearing a short white dress with a low scoop neckline. Ten or so other girls followed suit. Each girl wore the same dress and the same nonplused expression on her face. I turned to look at Yim who grinned as he flicked his eyebrows up once and said "fashion show!" as he tilted back in his chair.

Not my photo, but the same idea

     The girls paraded out onto the dance floor, each pausing at choreographed locations on the dance floor. Once all the girls had strutted out, paused, posed, and filed back to stage right, a new set of girls would come from stage left, wearing a new uniform and following a similar routine.

     Racks were carted out to the sides of the dance floor where generous gentlemen purchased plastic flower necklaces, wands, pageant-style ribbons, and plastic bouquets that they got the privilege of handing to the girls in return for their hard-earned kyat.

     The fashion show continued for what seemed like hours. I lazily munched away at my ashtray full of peanuts and alternated my attention from the floor show to the group of obese Indian businessmen who attended to a jolly flock of imbibing whores. If the come-ons of a prostitute ever become difficult to decline, all it takes is seeing a fat, sweating Indian man in a striped polo shirt palming a teenage tart to remind you that these girls rarely utilize their right to refuse service to anyone, and as such are places one just doesn't want to go.

      The climax of the evening, in my mind, was the dance that was coordinated by girls that were affiliated with the band rather than the fashion show. The girls had done a few dance routines, even selecting a few wallflowers to join them for some dance steps throughout the night. For their last number, the band kicked into a searing cover of Guns 'n' Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine, complete with slurred, botched vocals by a female who aimed to hit those high notes, hell or high water.

     While the band wailed away, the dancers pulled out some dance moves lifted straight from 80s rock karaoke videos with plenty of hair swinging and expressive arm moves. All hell broke loose on stage when the song hit the throbbing instrumental climax to the song. All four dancers got down on their hands and knees and began banging their heads, permed black hair thrashing back and forth in unison. I had never noticed how long this part of the song lasted, but these girls whipped their heads forward and back and side to side in an extended, unified display of hair and neck-muscle stamina that blew any American butt-rock fan right out of the water.

     When their big finale had come to a close, the DJ brought back the canned tunes and the whores renewed in earnest their prowl for any patron with their guard down. Yim declared that the $30 or so the ladies cost here was way out of line, and if I was not going to partake that perhaps we should call it a night. I was still feeling all out of whack so we left, and back at the hotel I drifted off to sleep with visions of Slash dancing in my head.

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