The Real Capital of Burma
Thank the heavens for Roy Keane and James Bond. Without them I would have a lot of explaining to do. The very first thing that a Burmese person will ask you is your name and where you are from – standard polite procedure, but not necessarily an easy first hurdle. Being cut off from the world and from a decent education system, their grasp of geographical details can sometimes be hazy. Because of the different linguistic contours of their language, any name outside the standard English canon can confuse. (It must be said, however, that they make a better stab at our names than we do at theirs.)
This is where James and Roy come in. Next to Buddha, football rules in this country. Every player, team, league and championship is of vital importance to the entire male population, and inevitably Manchester United is top of the heap. When I am asked where I am from all I have to do is to invoke the name of our famously surly Corkonian and I’m in, one of the gang, basking guiltily in reflected glory. Roy is a big hit over here, although the locals appear to be unaware of his fraught relationship with his national team. Sometimes I put on a Cork accent to show how he talks, but they think I am being sarcastic and it is not appreciated. Roy, and therefore the Cork accent, are beyond reproach in Burma.
007 is just as useful in these icebreaker sessions. I always get a laugh when I stick my fingers up in a gun shape pretending to search for an enemy around an imaginary corner, a mime that is admittedly more Cagney and Lacy than Shaken, Not Stirred. There is method to my buffoonery. Connery is still universally regarded as the best Bond (although our Pierce may be giving him a run for his money), and happily the Scotsman and I share the same Christian name, spelling and all.
It is a bit sad that two things that I am absolutely no good at – football and single-handedly saving the world – have become the anchors upon which my identity rests in this country. But it’s better than being called Seen from Iceland, so I can’t complain. It also means that I get to skip the five-minute queue to Initial Understanding, allowing my new Burmese friend to interview me rapid-fire on the other hot topics in the Burmese-meets-Tourist repertoire – Where have you been? Where are you going? Where is your wife? Why aren’t you married? You want good tour…?
I quickly realised that Mandalay is a city full of tour guides, although many prospective mines of information look carefully over their shoulders before they reveal their occupation. A licence to wheel foreigners around the sights is required, and for a self-starter, to be caught without one could be disastrous. A local can be sent to a labour camp in this country for doing absolutely nothing at all, so go figure.
There is no need to risk the future of a guide in this city as it is perfectly accessible alone if you have the time to explore. I always thought the name Mandalay exotic, its syllables holding the keys to some cave of treasures. On first contact, however, this city is merely bewildering, as there is no apparent centre and nothing much in the way of stand-out features. A city will generally hoard its jewels toward its heart, the suburbs and business districts wrapping around them like protective arms. It was with a shock that I realised that 26th Street was the main drag in Mandalay, its numbered designation about as noteworthy as its dull clock tower and the five stories of awful socialist-era architecture that houses the main market.
Actually, Mandalay is the reverse of its typical Western counterpart. The city appears to have grown into the centre rather than spread out from it. Around its outskirts are a number of beautiful ancient cities, the result of successive kings hopscotching their courts around the countryside, dismantling the timber court buildings from the previous reign and setting up shop anew. The courts have long since disappeared, leaving the Buddhist monuments to weather the centuries. This means that tourists go to the ‘burbs to see many of the sights.
Mandalay is widely regarded as the real capital of Burma, and is seen as a more authentic city than the colonial aftershock of Rangoon. It is also the religious epicentre – up to 60% of the country’s monk populations are based in monasteries around the city. Perhaps as a consequence, the city supports a fairly sizeable Buddha industry. In the streets around the Mahamuni Pagoda there is a veritable production line of Buddha statues and other pagoda essentials. It is possible to buy gold leaf – pounded by sinewy men in workshops into slices thinner than ink on the printed page – and apply it to sacred images for merit making, a concept very similar to Catholic indulgences. One Buddha image has been so covered with gold over the years that it now resembles a boulder rather than the figure of the Enlightened One.
The Mandalay markets heave during the day, and there are whole streets dedicated to the selling of one particular product. A street near my hotel, for example, sells onions exclusively. I often wondered who buys it all. The real Burma can be seen at the food markets buying rice, oil and other staples, but these places are not for the faint hearted. In the afternoon, the dust, litter and stench of rotting produce can be overwhelming, and to see the clouds of winged creatures preying on the uncovered and unrefridgerated fish and meat can be stomach-turning.
There is plenty of building going on despite the fact that most Burmese have nothing or next to it. It mostly belongs to the Chinese businesses that have practically monopolised the industrial and commercial bases of the country. Apart from being canny business folk, the Chinese have a penchant for constructing ugly houses with satellite dishes and mirrored windows that make them look more like fortresses than homes. They stand in marked contrast to the dilapidated bamboo and wood huts that are the lot of many Burmese. Some locals manage to build of course, but they generally travel along the red, green and white lines – euphemisms for the ruby, jade and heroin businesses run by ethnic Burmese and Chinese syndicates. These are the real wells that water the bustling economy of Mandalay.
The Chinese have settled in successfully – and well they might considering the profits they reap at the expense of the local population. The relationship with China extends from sole traders right to the highest government. Burma is a very strategic pawn for the Chinese, as it offers the Asian Dragon precious access to the Andaman Sea and the prodigiously rich resources that Burma has to offer, all at bargain prices. And Burma needs China to bail it out of its lurching financial crises and arms requirements – in other words, the fundamentals required to feed the hungry junta beast.
All of this goes on right before the very eyes of the people of Burma and they cannot even talk about it for fear of imprisonment. It is estimated that there is one spy for every 20 heads of local population and one in ten within the military. One man bitterly told me that people don’t trust each other any more, as one provocative phrase in the wrong ear means imprisonment and hard labour.
The media is a joke. The New Light of Myanmar, the English-language newspaper, sounds like a bad novel and it may as well be for all of the light it sheds on the real issues affecting the country. Generally, there will be pictures of generals merit making before Buddha statues and the announcement of committees with long-winded names that have been set up to do irrelevant tasks. The most popular papers I see being read by locals in Burmese are garishly printed colour football tabloids with pictures of Becks and Roy and cheering fans in countries a universe away.
The lack of media sophistication is actually very funny to Western eyes that are bombarded by slick multimedia presentations and insidious advertising campaigns. The soap operas could be repackaged as camp classics at home because of their high kitsch content. The parameters of plot generally revolve around actions of The Beauty who loves The Handsome But Poor Outsider, but is destined to marry the Boring But Rich Bastard, the preferred choice of the Scheming Mother. The Beauty is forever looking out at sympathetic sunsets, while the Outsider moodily rides his motorbike, leather collar upturned. Boring But Rich Bastard doesn’t do much really except look chubby and smile a lot, while the Scheming Mother never gets off the phone, her face the picture of vindictive contortion.
To signify the lovers’ longing, there are insane “dream sequences” where lovers drink from the same milkshake using two straws, run after each other among tall grasses and splash each other on beaches, all to the accompaniment of appropriately soppy Burmese love songs. This is staple fodder on MMR, the national T.V. station. It makes Glenroe look like Beckett.
The media does cough up some interesting observations on Burmese attitudes, however. Representations of women in advertising are markedly different to those in the West. The female form is still used to sell products, but women are women in the ads here, with hips and round rumps that are always shoved to the fore. Models pose like latterday Lana Turners or Bette Davis’s – clothed but curvy, naughty but nice. It is even quite a compliment to call a Burmese woman “fat.” Heroin chic and media displays of nudity have not caught on here. Although I don’t speak Burmese, I am pretty sure that the tiresome obsession with double entendre in our advertising campaigns is also absent.
The advertising messages are simplistic by Western standards – less Just Do It than Just Buy It. Campaigns have the ability, however, to be unintentionally cruel and serve to highlight the chasm between appearance and reality in this country fuelled by oppression. A poster for Mandalay Beer shows a couple drinking under the famous towers of Kuala Lumpur.
I have heard of people escaping to Malaysia, but they generally end up in work camps rather than socialising in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Paris cigarettes are advertised with the slogan “Come to Paris,” though how this is accomplished when the government refuses to issue passports to its citizens is not made clear. There is one particularly funny ad for London Rum that sees one of the soap beauties astride a flying bottle of said liquor that appears to be headed straight for Big Ben. I presume this particular ad was printed before 9/11. Maybe I’m reading too much into things.
The only satellite television is available in the teashops and guesthouses, where locals watch football matches and the odd snatches of news, but nothing of immediate relevance. And, of course, there is the radio, possibly the most important piece of technology to a Burmese with a clandestine eye on the world. One night I was having dinner and chatting with a local man and his wife. At 8:00 p.m. the man very pointedly said that he must go home. Why, I asked. Because the nightly broadcast about Burma was on the BBC World Service at 8:30. He told me proudly that he had not missed it in years.
He is not alone. I was walking down 26th Street one evening after having a smack-up Chinese near the Clock Tower. The dust churned up by rush hour had settled a little and the street was quiet save for a few cyclists ambling along on their Chinese high nellies in the dark. I heard a bike’s brakes over my shoulder. A timid voice asked, “Excuse me, sir. I am a student of English, and I wonder if I may speak with you.”
I was quite surprised by this request, not because a stranger was talking to me unprompted. Dealing with approaches from friendly locals in Burma is as common as encountering traffic on 26th Street. It was the politeness of the question that struck me. (I was usually greeted with a “Where are you going?” opener, natural to the locals because this is how they greet each other. They don’t really have a word for hello like we do, and they laugh at the rough approximation that foreigners learn for hello in guidebooks – mingalaba, which translates literally as “auspiciousness be upon you.” If someone greeted me that way in English, I would laugh too.)
The small figure had alighted from his bicycle and was smiling at me in the dark. We had a breezy chat about where I had been, where I was going next, but before we got to why I didn’t have a wife, my companion had asked my occupation. When I replied a teacher, he was delighted. He had always wanted to be a teacher and it is regarded by Buddhists as a most noble profession. He began to tell me enthusiastically how he listened to the BBC World Service every day, and enjoyed telling his elderly parents about the news around the world. “But sometimes they speak so fast that I miss the meaning. Please sir, how can I learn to understand the complete sentences?”
I fumbled a reply about guessing the gist from the words that he understood.
“You mean to anticipate the meaning of the sentence?”
I was quite taken aback by this reply. “Yes, yes. That’s what I mean.”
We walked in silence for a minute or so as he pondered this and I tried to figure him out.
“Please sir, will you do me a favour?”
“If I say something that is grammatically incorrect, will you tell me?” His English was so good I could have asked him the same question. I invited him for tea.
Meet Sonny Boy. Everyone has called him this since he was little. His father was a school master and spoke English. He gave his son this pet name in the curiously British “tally-ho” fashion and it stuck. Thirty-five years of age, Sonny Boy had an innocence about him, a kind of other-worldliness that sometimes hints at an inability to cope with life. He wore a dirty paisley-patterned zip-up jacket, shabby even by Burmese standards. His teeth were brown with decay, his hair a mop of wiry curls. He could have been mistaken for homeless. He looked through sad mournful eyes, his unselfconscious stare sometimes causing me to flinch.
Sonny Boy had a Masters in Mathematics, his chosen area being geometry. He would love to do a PhD but he must run a vegetable shop from his house to mind his parents, and even if he were free, it would be too expensive. Teaching fascinated him, and he quizzed me on classroom techniques: how to deal with mixed ability, how to impart ideas that were intellectually challenging but not very practical. I was pinned to my collar to answer him.
Now on first name terms, we drank our tea chatting enthusiastically, observed with lazy curiosity by the other customers at this roadside tea shop.
“Please Sean, there is something that I find very difficult to understand. What is the internet?”
I looked at him startled, as if he had smacked me across the face. I was well aware that the Information Age had not dawned on Burma. Swanky hotels charge a staggering $2.00 per kilobyte (a couple of words of text) in an email, and nobody has access to the web. But not to know what it is?
Now that I actually gave it more thought, how could he know? It’s hardly knowledge that is genetically encoded, and it is actually quite a difficult concept to explain in the absence of practical examples.
I recovered my composure by enthusiastically attempting to describe computer networks and servers, moving cups and plates around the low table by way of example and pointing to invisible points in the air, as if I were partaking in some symbolic decoding ceremony. I could see Sonny Boy’s eyes widen as I described mail that was delivered across the world in seconds and how books, photographs, music and movies of your choice could be delivered to your computer by the touch of a button. (I did not want to complicate things by describing a mouse.)
“So you can find information about anywhere in the world?” he asked, incredulously.
“Yep. Pretty much.”
For a moment he retired into himself, his math-minded brain trying to understand this phenomenon like it was some huge three-dimensional equation. Then he changed track.
“What countries have you visited?”
As I began to list them off, a guilty feeling rose inside me. I looked down at my empty cup of tea.
“You are so lucky in the west. You can travel. Here…” His voice tapered, his eyes downcast. Then a smile crept back onto his face.
“But I travel in my mind,” he said, as if he were letting me into a secret, his index finger tapping his temple. “I can use my imagination. This is why I listen to the radio and talk to tourists. Every evening when the shop closes I look for tourists to talk to. Some of them are very nice. They tell me about their country.”
“Do you not visit friends after work, Sonny Boy?”
“No no.” He dismissed this idea as irrelevant. “I see my friends during the day. They buy their vegetables from me. No, after work I cycle around on my bike and talk to tourists. It improves my English.”
“Your English doesn’t need improving, Sonny Boy.”
He smiled, bashful. “Oh but it does, it does!”
It was time to go. We had talked for over two hours, and to be honest, my head was throbbing with the intensity of it. Sonny Boy walked me to the hotel. We chatted about Ireland, and I attempted to compare the North to the rebel factions in Burma. Sonny Boy drank it all in, his brow creased in concentration. He made low humming sounds as if he were tasting something delicious.
I often think of Sonny Boy. I picture this poor, harmless creature cycling nightly on his rickety bicycle like some homeless soul, trying to find tourists, his frail appearance cloaking the caged, voracious animal of his intellect that devoured any morsel thrown its way.
As if wanting to leave on a high note, Sonny piped up. “You are lucky to be able to travel, but I just use my imagination and I can go wherever I want.” But his laugh quickly receded into silence. His face fell, and with his imploring eyes searching the darkness of the street, he repeated the problem that most troubled him, “When will I be able to understand everything they say on the radio, Sean?”
I don’t know, Sonny Boy, I really don’t know. I wish I could tell you, but I just don’t know.