Tuesday, November 29, 2011


It’s a late Tuesday morning here in Rangoon, and one of the two days that lie between the birthdays of my two lovely now-grown kids. I’m away for both their birthdays, as I have been for three years now. This year Dom turns 24 and Tashi 21, significant birthdays in different cultures: Of course in the west 21 signifies majority, and there’s still an echo of that importance, even though voting and drinking ages are both 18; while in Chinese and related cultures the zodiac has twelve creatures and twelve years, thus the birthdays that are for years divisible by twelve fall in the same sign as your birth year and always mark the start of another “cycle”. Dom is about to enter his third cycle.

As you know if youve been reading this blog for awhile, I like dates and markers of time and place generally. They’re a kind of geography and context for everything else. And so, with Dom and Tashi both born in late November, this time of year, never particularly significant until twenty-four years ago, has become full of meaning and a good memory marker, as in my question to one of my kids, where were we on your tenth birthday?

This time, this year, is marked by very public significance, the huge positive change in the political climate in Burma. With the loosening of censorship, including the unblocking of many websites, the freeing of some political prisoners (though many remain), the new rules that have permitted and even invited Daw Aung San Su Kyi to engage in the political process along with her party the NLD, and the government’s suspension of the huge Chinese dam project on the upper Irrawaddy - all of these being changes effected in the last three months - it feels as if a logjam has broken and that Burma may genuinely be moving forward into a new more positive era.

In the weekly English language paper the Myanmar Times last week there was an article about a couple of guys who are trying to talk about reconciliation. They have formed a group called Metta for that purpose. One of them was quoted as saying that until now there has been a kind of chess game between the authorities and the opposition which operated in a series of stalemates. But now each side seems to have taken some steps toward flexibility. And now, said this man, the game being played is not chess, with its possibilities for stasis and deadlock, but instead the national game, chinlon.

It’s a great image, for chinlon is a game where a loose number of players keep a woven rattan ball in the air by kicking it with their feet or butting it with their heads, no hands allowed. The goal is to keep it in the air, to keep it moving. If the ball comes to you, you try your best to hit it up and send it on. That’s the point: everyone has a responsbility, everyone is a player, and everyone tries to keep it going.

It’s a lovely metaphor. Chinlon is difficult if you have little or no experience. And we know from our own experience in the west that even with years or centuries of practice we can still make a big mess of democracy. Often we find its complications frustrating, especially when we don’t get what we want. How much more difficult is it for a place where free speech and democratic openness has been outlawed for almost exactly fifty years? Add to that the fact that many people in Burma have paid a huge price in pain and suffering, prison time, and more during these last repressive oppressive years, and it’s easy to see that reconciliation and flexibility will be difficult, and necessary too.

As these weighty and vital-for-the-future-of-Burma questions roll around in my head, and in the hearts and minds of the millions of Burmese who are feeling bouyed by these optimistic changes, we all have to hope that progress continues and doesn’t get high-jacked by conservative elements in the army.

I used the phrase “roll around in my head” just now because an hour ago my head was being pushed and turned and massaged by the knowing iron fingers of a quirky-looking young woman. A friend had told me that one of the best things to do in Rangoon is to have your hair washed in one of the many beauty parlors/hairdressing shops. I’d never tried. So in I went this morning, into a shop in the neighbourhood of my hotel here in the east end. What great advice, thank-you Kyle!

The hairwashing happens as you are lying down on your back, all comfy. After the first warm water, there’s a lathering of the hair and then the massage really starts. She put pressure hard at various points on my scalp then moved to others, then rubbed and stroked, then more pressure. It was fabulous. She also did some work on my neck and shoulders. The arm and hand work, when she pulled on fingers and then squeezed and compressed my hand left me feeling invigorated and smoothed out.

I feel newly minted. And my hair looks so much better that it’s unrecognisable. The total cost was 3000 kyat (pronounced “chat”, for the “ky” combo denotes “ch”), which at 790 to the dollar is less than four dollars. Of course I gave her more...

All this is a reminder that engaging with a place at the level of basic needs and services is a great way to learn new things. I like coming without toothpaste for example, or soap. That way I have an excuse to go into a drugstore and look for what I need, see what’s availabe (and what’s not). But the haridresser was a new idea for me, one that I’ll keep trying in other places too.

In less than two days Hilary Clinton is due in Burma to meet with the current government, and also with Aung San Su Kyi. There will be a huge number of jurnalists covering this trip, a kind of circus is how I imagine the scene. For those of us who are not journalists, we’ll know it’s going on but will only know the details from reading the papers and perhaps watching the news or YouTube. Even though I have no expectation of seeing any of it, I want to stay in Rangoon until after the visit is over. There’s something about the intensity of people’s expectations, and the apparent significance of the visit, that makes me want to stay attentive, to not miss whatever crumbs come my way.

Meantime these days in Rangoon are filled with eating. I am going back to restaurants I know from before, as well as to ones new to me that friends tell me about. There’s always more to learn. And I’m happy to have another chance to compare the recipes in Rivers of Flavor with what I'm eating here. Writing about other cultures, other people’s food, is a responsibility I worry about. I’m sure that despite my best efforts, I will get some things that people in Burma will or would disagree with. I can’t worry about that, only hope that there’s not much to quibble about.

What I do know is that the food in Burma is good, delicious, and that it’s time the rest of the world tuned in to its pleasures and its distinctiveness.

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