Dusk and nighttime in Rangoon are enchanting, welcoming, and full of life, especially on a Friday evening. The sky glows a faded pink, the air cools slightly, men in white walk in pairs and groups, freshly washed and wending their way to a meal or homeward after Friday prayers at the mosques.
As I walked west this evening along Mahabandoola Street headed for Chinatown, the gleam of Sule Paya, the tall golden dome that sits at Rangoon’s major downtown intersection - a reminder of the central role Buddhism plays in the life of the country - pulled me forward. I passed vendors frying snacks, small hotpot stands steaming in the dusk, with a few small plastic stools around the pot, flower sellers, shops gleaming with watches or cameras or packaged snacks, as all the while buses streamed past, their tired engines roaring and groaning, the ticket collectors shouting out the bus destinations.
Once past the huge Sule Paya roundabout, I was in India town, where most shops are South Asian, the restaurants sell pulaos, little shops with Indian sweetmeats invite the esily tempted passer-by, paratha-makers stretch and flap their springy thin gelaming-with-oil sheets of dough, then fold them with several graceful twists of the wrist and toss them onto a hot griddle, and men sit in tea shops or in the doorways of small shops and sip tea and chat and laugh now that the weight of the day is almost done. There are scents of sandalwood and fresh orange, fennel and hot oil and hints of cardamom as I walk past the small vignetted shopfront scenes.
And then, after the piles of oranges and bananas and avocadoes and pineapples at the end of tk street, Mahabandoola becomes Chinese. Suddenly the shops are selling ginseng root and strings of dark red Chinese sausage and tall tins of English style biscuits (not quite Peke Freans, not quite Cadbury or Mackintosh, but close enough to be familiar-looking), and there are small eateries along the sidestreets with trays of meat and fish waiting to be grilled, and people sitting at low tables drinking beer and having a night out. Chinatown by night is the most lively scene in Rangoon. It doesn’t last long: the fruit vendors pack up by eight. But on the sidestreets the grilling and hotpots and noodle places, and the beer halls, stay lively until ten or so.
I meet a friend on the corner of Latha and Mahabandoola, by the large Chinese Temple, and we stroll, picking our way along the bumpy lumpy sidewalks and navigating the fruit stalls and small vendors. She wants me to try the grilled stuffed fish, so we pick one out (tilapia, now being farmed not far from Rangoon), and order hand-cut Myeik noodles and a lime juice each, as well as skewers of grilled garlics, then sit at a low table streetside. The noodles are spectacular, flat rice noodles tossed in a wok with a few small beans, small fresh shrimp, slices of Chinese sausage...delish. The fish is tender and perfectly grilled. The finely minced filling seems to have saw-tooth herb and minced shallot and some minced sour fruit. My friend says it’s called a quince in Burmese; you could use green mango, mashed to a paste, or perhaps a very tart apple or plum. We sucked the fish off the bones, using hands as well as chopsticks to navigate it all, greedily and happily.
We wandered some more, had another pause for another lime juice, and then it was time to part ways. I decided to walk back the way I’d come, about 30 blocks. But now it was quite dark and shadowy in many place. The only light came from some still-open shops and the headlights of cars, as well as the occasional streetisde paan vendor with a small cnadle lighting his stand. The streets near Sule were lively with people, but most vendors had packed up or were in the middle of closing down. The headlights lit the uneven paving stones of the sidewalks, casting shadows and setting them all in relief for a moment, before vanishing and leaving me in darkness again. I ploughed on eastward, past the Immanuel Baptsis Church with its blue neon sign, and wider patches in the sidewalk where people sat at low tabes eating noodles.
Walking on rough ground, where there’s the occasional hole, steep curbs, and generally rough unpredictable terrain, is a lot slower than moving swiftly along a sidewalk in Toronto or London and takes more concentration and more effort. I was sticky an sweaty by the time I got back, even with a small pause to shoot some video of the action near 37th to 40th street, with honking buses, shouting vendors and conductors, and people walking in both directions along a sidewalk busy with small evening vendors. I’m looking forward to showing it to people at home. I realise that my few words can’t paint the scnene nearly as effectively as a short bit of video can.
And yet I always feel the urge to try to put some of all this into words. I want to convery my wonder at the life and good humour in this place, and the current surge of optimism.
Earlier today, just after dawn, Hilary Clinton was due to come and talk with her at 9.30. went out in a taxi with some friends to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to see the media scrum. It was amazing to have a pack of journos at the gate, all waiting to get in; the State Dept person had a list, and some got in and some did not. Just over a year ago this house was a prison in which Daw SU was confined, and now here she is the focus of the world’s press, and free to meet with the world leaders.
Meantime there was endless traffic on what is normally a quiet street, as now-confident Burmese drove slowly past, smiling and waving, and craining their necks to see what they might see. Old NLD guys (the oppostition party Daw Suu heads) arrived one by one, dignified after years of jail and struggle. And then came the press corps in buses and after them the Clinton motorcade, all SUV’s, swept through the gate.
Here’s hoping that the world keeps Burma in mind, and that Burma keeps on opening up, maintaining and strengthening its openness, regaining free speach and the rule of law, and frees political prisoners, in short becomes the powerhouse and remarkable place its people deserve.
Meantime, I feel very lucky to have been here in these early optimistic times.
I am heading north to Inle Lake (where I first was over thirty years ago, on my first trip to Burma; and then again with my kids in January 1999), and after that west to a town just on the edge of Chin State called Kalaymyo. I doubt I’ll have much reliable internet access while I’m away, and in any case I’m leaving my laptop in Rangoon. The next posting here won’t be until December 11 or so. Hope you have your Christmas shopping done by then....I haven’t even started.