Monks on the road (one week in Yangon) / by Cyrus

141113 monkintrunk copy
141113 monkintrunk copy

A week in Yangon.  On the first day we were impressed by the crumbling colonial architecture, the faces, the use of black mold as a design element, food, some festering, some delicious, lining the streets. Children from the villages working for their keep in shops and restaurants.

We stayed at one of my least favorite destinations in the world -- a backpacker hostel.  Living with citizens of the country is illegal, and like most laws these days, no one is sure how closely this one is enforced.  So I shared an attic with a Spanish girl sick from food poisoning and an Australian guy who was trying to sleep with her regardless.  The conversations were all about the next stop or "how many days do you have left?"  Everyone was ready with exact numbers.  38 days until Germany, they'd say with a desperate and wistful look.

Across the street, a Shiite mosque hung black flags with white swords. Inside, a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei looked down on the small marble room. The words "Live Like Ali, Die Like Hussein" were written in gold letters across the archway.  Still, people smiled when we walked by.  I wonder what they thought of our puffy, hungover western brethren bent over the benches outside the hostel every morning, waiting for Nescafe.

Sitting outdoors on low stools at street level watching noodle-gorged rats fight over garbage in the night heat, we were approached by a bright faced young guy. Quick movements and a huge smile.  He apologized for interrupting and said he likes to speak with foreigners to improve his English.  "We couldn't talk to you like this two years ago," he said, before laying out a list of German authors and philosophers he'd learned from a visitor from Cologne.  "Have you really read Schopenhauer?" I asked.  He looked at me like I was crazy.  Which is how everyone should look at people who ask that question.

Ethnic conflict came up -- the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in the west.  "We're all human beings," he said, "You, me, her, it doesn't matter. But most people don't think this way."

We meet people like this on all our trips -- a massive worldview despite little travel, built up through lived experience, intuition, and whatever conversation and reading material they can accumulate.  They always seem a little out of place where they live, and they're drawn to us.  We look out of place too.  He hadn't seen his family since coming to the big city for university. His nickname was EverythingsOK.

We spent two days riding the ferry back and forth between Yangon and Dalla, a village on the other side of the Yangon river.  We're trying to make a video about the light, and the migration of people.  The passengers  manage to stampede on and off this creaking old boat with grace. It takes about 2 and a half minutes to empty the thing. No one falls, no one's basket is knocked over, people reach out a hand to help others board.  Quail eggs and watermelon and bootleg DVDs sell fast.  In the boat's cafe a kid no older than 8 with full sleeve tattoos brings tea and cigarettes in a Psy "Gangam Style" cartoon t-shirt.  He's too shy to look you in the eye.

We finally managed to rent an apartment in Yangon's Chinatown. The Chinese proprietor brought along an old Burmese man to translate.  He'd been a sailor, had the hand tattoos to prove it, and spoke enough bits of enough languages to communicate with most people on earth. He couldn't remember how many countries he'd visited.  He didn't like Tampa, though, and he warned us against Indian food. His favorite city is Yangon.

We've met several musicians -- punks, rappers, guys in Smiths t-shirts, old men playing slide guitar. Incredible hospitality, and they've helped us piece together an understanding of Yangon's slowly building music scene and the relationship between class, ethnicity, tradition, and what you end up playing. But music here has been covered extensively, and we're leaving the city for the countryside where we're told traditional sounds still exists.  The day after tomorrow it's off to the jungle.