Saturday, February 16, 2013


It’s Saturday evening in Rangoon. People are out and about drinking and doing karaoke, eating hotpot out on the sidewalk, or just strolling in the warm air. What then am I doing sitting inside typing on this keyboard?

Well I think I’ll move to a small café nearby, so I can have a snack and a beer as I write this. But I do need to be writing, for life is about to get a whole lot busier in less than twelve hours. A good friend named Min is coming by for breakfast at 8 tomorrow morning, then I have some further research for an article to do mid-morning. And after that there’s the move to the Summit Parkviw Hotel, where I will meet the Burma immersethrough food group tomorrow afternoon and head out with them before sunset to Shwedagon and then to supper.

It’s strange to be here as a tourist and yet at the same time have a rather full work agenda. For over three  years I made regular trips to Burma to do work for the BURMA book. And during that time I was rather single-minded, with a sense of urgency, on every one of those trips. I avoided local ex-pats and also anyone who was “connected”, not wanting to lean on anyone, or be a parasite. I needed and wanted to find things out for myself (for better or for worse!).

Now that work is done. I have the tour work coming up of course, but I have also had almost a week of hanging around in Rangoon. And that has produced all kinds of interesting encounters with ex-pats, Burma specialists, and others. I have learned a lot of gossip, and heard about deeply interesting Burma-based research in linguistics, agriculture, and more. I’ve also seen an incubator kitchen in action and heard other food-related projects being explored in talk.

Some of this stuff is entirely new, a product of the changed political and social landscape here. Some of it has been going on in one form or another for while, but I have not known about it because of my wilful avoidance of ex-pats and connected Burmese. I have no regrets, I have to say. Hearing now about exciting ideas and projects in Burma is like watching the desert bloom after never dreaming it could rain a drop.

And at the same time of course, this energy and forward movement is happening in a fragile place and space. There’s still fighting in Kachin State, and huge perhaps never-resolvable tensions and hatreds in Rakhine State. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was at the photo exhibit I went to late this afternoon after the book launch party. She was there as its patron and as a judge in a photo competition. The press of people wanting to see her, photograph her, get a whiff of her fairy dust, was a little dismaying. It’s natural I suppose, this elevation of a remarkable person to icon status.

But it can’t really be doing her any good, can it? Like everyone else, she is only human, and the strengths that saw her through isolation, harsh choices, and house arrest, may not be ideal attributes for a leader who needs to build a strong political party. Do people dare to disagree and argue with her? Is she getting tough talk form anyone?

I sure hope so. For the isolation of a person who is idolised is a dangerous thing, and it must also be so lonely in some ways.

Here I am coming to the end of these thoughts. I never made it out to a café. Instead I am sitting in the charmless lobby of the Eastern Hotel, sipping beer between sentences, and listening to the casual chat of the guys on staff. I love the sound of human voices speaking a language that I don’t understand. There’s the comfort of voice without the intrusion of meaning. What more can a tired person ask for?

The sound of other humans reminds us that we are not alone. And the absence of comprehension leaves me free to think my own thoughts, shape my own sentences. What a pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Reading this post I had a "Wow!" moment as I've been thinking the same thoughts about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Thank you for writing so eloquently. I'm excited for Burma at this time but also nervous & a little scared. I worry for its "regular" people - will their living conditions, education, healthcare change with the influx of all this new money? I have to believe it will. ~ Debbie

Mardi Michels said...

I wish I could have joined this trip Naomi but as a full time teacher the timing was not right. I am instead re- living my Christmas trip to Burma though my many memory cards that I am still sifting through! What a fabulous place. Envious of the adventure you're about to lead!

Stephanie said...

Hi Naomi. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences through your blog and books. I was excited beyond belief (honestly, hyperventilating over a book!) when I got into a library copy of 'Beyond the Great Wall' (so evocative of my visit to Tibet), and I literally danced around the book store that I located my very own copy in. I now also own 'Hot Sour Salty Sweet', and aspire to own all your books. They are intoxicating to read and I'ved loved cooking from them too. Last night I shared 'Burma' with a Cambodian friend and we chatted about dishes our mothers had made... a very memorable evening of friendship. Thanks and wishing you (and Aung Sun Suu Kyi and Burma) all things good!