Friday, January 13, 2012


There’s been radio silence on this blog since the turn of the year. My apologies. My only excuse is that life got intensely busy through the holidays, busy with both work and friends. I had a short trip to New York City early in the new year, for a Beard Cookbook Awards committee meeting. That is always a pleasure, but in this case there was more. I took an extra day and went to Artisan, where I saw the first designed pages of my Burma book. So exciting. Susan Baldaserini has launched the book in a lovely direction. I can’t wait to see more.

The other treat while I was in New York was a visit to the Met to see the exhibit of African sculptures, Iconic Africans I think it’s called. It’s on until January 29, and if you have any chance to see it, rush straight there, “do not pass GO” as they they. I am still haunted by, maybe dreaming about is a better way of saying it, the wooden sculptures, especially those of the Hemba of eastern Congo, the last culture in the show. As is so often the case (the Chagall exhibit at the AGO was an exception to the rule), many of the moving and beautiful scultures were from private collections, and we are unlikely to see them again, ever. (All but a few of the pieces in the Chagall show were from the Centre Pompidou).

And now I’m sitting in a little diner on the other side of the world, in Bangkok, eating khao tom (congee) for breakfast. I got in late last night, the taxi from the airport an easy ride on the expressway until the last mile or so, when we crawled along Sukhumvit in heavy just-pre-midnight traffic, past sidewalks lively with people and streetstalls, under the elevated Skytrain tracks, the neon lights of the tall buildings flashing confidently against the dull night sky.

This is another world, for sure, and the fact that the transition from North America can happen in twenty-four hours is still amazing. I always read who-dunnits on the plane. They transport me to other places while the plane crosses ice and oceans and waves of cloud. The best paperback on this trip was a Barbara Nadel (set in Turkey, and this one mostly in the southeast in and around Mardin, intensely engaging). I am now in the middle of a fairly recent Donna Leon, in Venice with Inspector Brunetti, a book to read in the sleepless hours caused by jetlag; I get engrossed and then raise my eyes to realise with pleasure that I am already in Bangkok.

Last night I was unable to get my computer to connect to the wi-fi in the lobby of the hotel. I felt bereft, unreasonably so, since there was nothing especially important that I needed to check. It made me realise just how dependent-minded I’ve become about my connectedness, my ability to check mail or make a call. It’s lovely that I could call Tashi from Bangkok airport when I arrived to wake him (to receive a parcel we’re expecting), but it’s also reductive in some way, I find myself thinking.

And then I realise that I am locking myself into a set way of thinking that isn’t helpful. My sense of wonder about travel used to come from the fact of away-ness and cut-offness. The clear difference between where I’d come from and where I’d arrived I measured partly by my degree of cut-offness (a week or more for letters, phone calls pretty unthinkable, etc).

But the real differences between where I’ve come from and where I’ve arrived are still there. It’s just that there is now easier communication between the worlds. I realise that I mustn’t be sloppy and think that, because I can talk or write across the distance instantaneously, the distance, physical, cultural, emotional, is not there. The differentness of places, their distinctiveness, is still a fact, however much it may seem to be blurred by global business and instant communications.

Such a small proportion of the world’s people ever get on a plane. We tend to assume that everyone is us, whereas those of us who travel are the exception, we’re kind of time-travellers, while everyone else retains a stronger sense of place and an anchoredness.

All of which brings me to feel grateful that I can move between worlds, but also mindful that I should never take it for granted, and that I should be always alert to the differences, the fundamentals that make each place and each person distinctive. In fact, it brings me to the reminder that I will always be a beginner, never really knowing all that goes on, just getting glimpses of what motivates people or how a particular cultural situation can be understood.
After all, our understanding is always imperfect; even insiders only understand part of what they see. That’s why we have novels, to explore all that we glimpse but don’t truly understand, and to give us a sense of wonder at life’s complexity.

On another subject, there is cause for rejoicing on the Burma front. The government there is continuing to follow-through on its promises of loosening the repression people have lived under for years, as well as starting to negotiate with the Karen (an agreement with the KNU was just announced), Kachin, Chin, et al, and freeing political prisoners so that the country can genuinely move toward real democracy. It won’t be easy: old habits of repression die hard, and the country is short of infrestructure, lacks any kind of reasonable education system or health care etc. But people are motivated and feeling so optimistic... And the signs are good that the momentum is being maintained. Here’s hoping.

And a footnote: All the good Burma news last fall, including Hilary Clinton’s visit, meant that Burma was front and centre in the news, from the New York Times to everywhere else. That meant that suddenly people who had not given Burma a thought were planning trips, or articles in their magazines etc. I’ve had calls and requests for advice on Burma travel and Burma food, and sometimes actually paid work too.

This is how the world seems to work: some kind of news attention, and then suddenly we find the place on a map and it becomes more real to us. And so now Burma has emerged into awareness of people in the twenty-first century, about fifty years after it sank from view (in March 1962, with Ne Win’s coup). Such a long time of silence...

1 comment:

Hungry Lemur said...

I know what you mean about insider and outsider-ness. When I returned to the UK after years, I was kind of an insider but also an outsider to all I'd missed when I was away. There's something really fascinating about that fracturing, of having different levels of cultural knowledge. I'm jealous of your Bangkok breakfast!