Here it is at last, the day I get back into Burma. I have tried not to get too attached to the idea of getting a visa, but of course the hope was there, always, and the worry that I wouldn't. And in the meantime I've been reading my way through stack of books of travel and history, mostly history, of Burma and area. I sometimes feel I'm drowning in it, but that's the only way I can understand things, by immersing in a rather over-the-top way.
The visa came through a couple of days ago and this afternoon I have a ticket for the direct Chiang Mai to Rangoon flight.
Among all the other blockages the totalitarian regime in Burma imposes is a block on many websites, including blogger (though the New York Times etc is all available, at least until they start charging for online access; that business decision will be very harmful for people who need the oxygen of outside news and ideas and have only the internet sporadically for access) . So I won't be writing here again until after my return to Chiang Mai on December 9. And even then, there will be lots that I cannot say.
The important thing in travelling in a place like Burma is to try to do no harm to people there. That means not asking people political questions unless you are in private and they have raised the issue first, not writing about indiscreet things that people tell you (at least, not in a way that can identify your source), etc. The fact is that all of us who travel in Burma are affected by the regime, work around it, try to avoid direct trouble, censor ourselves. These small infringements on my freedom, limitations that I am asking for, in fact, at some level that I am choosing to take on, by travelling there, are nothing compared to the restrictions on people who live in Burma and have no choice in the matter. Yet despite the fear and tightness and limitations of life, people in Burma are of course still human beings with hopes and ambitions and the normal cares about doing well for their children and coming through on their family and religious obligations.
And that's why I think it's important to go there, and to bring back news of the everyday there. What is more "everyday" than food and cooking? And so that's why this project of mine, to learn what I can about food traditions in various places in Burma and to write about them. I hope that through the book people outside the country can connect in an immediate way with the humanity of people living there. It's a small effort, this, compared to the heroism of political activism and on-the-ground aid work with refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Still, as my mother used to say (she was a physio who worked with disabled children all her adult life), even a small contribution can make a difference.
This trip I am hoping to spend time in Rangoon and then up in and around Bagan, where I've never been. it is the site of an ancient capital, full of stupas and other ruins, a magnificent site especially before the devastating 1975 earthquake, and now diminished further by ham-handed reconstructions and bad lighting etc etc imposed by the regime. Yes, that's why I've not gone until now. It is a heartland symbol of the country, and also in the Irrawaddy valley south of Mandalay, rice country. I am still a beginner with Burmese food, despite the recipes i now have under my belt. I'm hoping to emerge from this trip with more from the villages and small markets...
Since the rainy season went on late in the region, the countryside is still green and lush. And that's another reason for heading to central Burma, for last time I was there, in February and March of this year, it was the middle and end of dry season, and the landscape was parched and fairly bare.
Wish me luck and good judgement, please!