Getting rid of the detritus that serves no function other than to take up space in my life can be a mind-numbing chore, but it also means unearthing boxes that haven’t been opened in, well, more than a few years. But detritus is different than memories. A box full of old photograph albums (remember those – when all photos were printed and carefully pasted into albums – or thrown into a shoebox depending on their relative importance) opens a window into a past barely remembered and a self scarcely recognized. Which is regrettable because those old kodachromes of people and places make up the paving stones of our lives.
As I started flipping through the spine-broken and dust-bedecked albums I wondered what gave me the courage to set out on some of those adventures? A gypsy soul for sure, along with a healthy dose of bravado. In the long ago dark ages before the internet, email and full-time, real time connectivity, taking off for several months to the far reaches of South East Asia was a different undertaking. If family or friends wanted to stay in touch with you they had to mail letters (yes, actual words written on paper, in an envelope, with a stamp) to Poste Restante, or General Delivery at a distant Post Office in Bangkok or Kathmandu. Strangest of all, however, was that the system worked. After several weeks and a few countries you could roll off a dusty train, heft your backpack and get into line with an equally bedraggled crew of travelers to find a packet of travel stained but most welcome letters from home. There were always people sitting on the sidewalk right outside the post office, pack dropped and forgotten, devouring the news from home. It was like stepping back into a world you had to strain to remember, so different from the reality of your present.
Myanmar (or Burma as it was known then) was one of the strangest and most fascinating place I have traveled to – it really is the Land That Time Forgot. It was (and is) difficult to get a visa into the country and travel is strictly controlled. Nevertheless, we were in Bangkok and managed to get an elusive travel permit into Burma for 10 days.
Fascinating doesn’t even begin to cover it. Imagine a country frozen in the 1950’s – the few vehicles running were of that vintage. The military junta had broken off diplomatic relations and isolated itself from the rest of the world, maintaining only the most rudimentary diplomatic ties to China. “Currency control” was a piece of legal size paper that looked like it had been mimeographed and you were supposed to write down how much currency you brought into the country, how much you exchanged legally and where you spent it. Then you handed back the piece of paper when you left. Not a word of a lie. Here’s what actually happened. You got the piece of paper, wrote some imaginary number on it, stuffed it in the bottom of your pack and didn’t bring it out until you were due to leave. Meanwhile, you brought in as much whisky and cigarettes as you could carry from Bangkok and traded them on the black market for local currency. The official rate at the time was about US$1 for 3 Burmese Kyat. On the black market it was about $1:30 kyat – a more realistic valuation. And yes, I have pondered why cigarettes and whisky were the currency of trade – human nature is remarkably similar no matter where you are.
Having been in Burma quite literally in the month before the military junta took complete control and placed her under house arrest, I became intensely interested in the life and career of Aung San Suu Kyi (phonetically Ang San Sushi) a Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy. At the time the streets were full of armed military, but since that was not that unusual in parts of Asia, we didn’t think much of it – the protection of fools. Ms. Suu Kyi is a nobel laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest – the first 6 of which were spent virtually alone – for her stance on democratic government and freedom of expression in Myanmar.
We stayed at the legendary Strand Hotel in Rangoon, much fallen from it’s colonial splendour.
It had once been the home of many of Britain’s expatriot literary notables, including Rudyard Kipling, who lived and wrote there. One of my prized possessions is a rather dog-eared copy of The Jungle Book that I bought at a second hand bookstall in Rangoon. It’s been with me ever since.
We travelled by train to the former hill station of Mandalay and took a riverboat down the Irrawaddy River to the city of Pagan.
Pagan is one of the wonders of the world – built in 1057 it was sacked by Kublai Khan in 1287 and never rebuilt. It sits on a desert plain, a ghost city of temples and pagodas. Astonishing.
I have had these pictures (below) on the wall in every house I have lived in since then.
Becasue of this personal experience I have keenly following the brutal political conditions in this isolated and strange country all these years. Although travel restrictions have eased and the military junta has taken some rudimentary steps toward relinquising control, human rights abuses remain rampant.
Reading List: Working my way through Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22. He was one of my favourite writers and this autobiography was published before his death from cancer in December, 2011. Not an easy read – keep a thesaurus on hand, he was Cambridge educated – but an incredibly well written book about a fascinating life and person.
In Heavy Rotation: Alexander’s Million Years is such a visually creative music video. Watch it full screen (and maybe twice) to really get the effect. I love knowing that there are people this creative out there making our world just a little more interesting.