It was High noon and swelteringly hot in the town. The unpaved roads were dry and dusty. An unmistakable smell of wood smoke hung in the air and men sat together in dark cafes drinking and smoking. Coming out into the bright sunlight they spit in the street. Women folk wore fancy hats and their long skirts required them to ride sidesaddle. Livestock roamed the outskirts but could also be found walking down the middle of the road.
No, I am not describing the American West. It’s Burma! After just a few days in Mandalay, the similarities between modern Myanmar and 19th century California were pretty striking. The buildings are all made of wood, there are few sidewalks, and no traffic lights. It is a “cash only” economy. Vendors cook on the street using converted barrels as ovens. There are no strollers, no wheelchair access, neon signs, smart phones, or iPods. People actually talk to each other!
Instead of horses there are scooters…lots of them, and the women in their long skirts really do ride sidesaddle with their ankles crossed just so. The men of Myanmar wear long skirts too, although technically they are called “longyis.” The feminine version ties on the side and comes in many colors and patterns. The masculine counterpart is usually a subdued checker pattern and ties in front which pooches out like a…well, you know. In place of the stagecoach, ancient buses and pickup trucks rumble by packed to the rafters with workers, travelers, and monks. No spittoons in sight but the men (and many of the women) chew betel nut and spit out it’s bright red juice on the street. This blood colored mixture makes for some pretty scary smiles, let me tell you.
Our time in Myanmar was nothing short of astonishing and each day brought something unexpected and delightful. Despite all our research, we ventured in with little concrete information and no real expectations. This was not surprising as Burma has been largely cut off from the modern world for 60 years and is just now beginning to let open it’s gate, a floodgate potentially, which is why we wanted to go now. There is something very compelling about the opportunity to experience a pre-capitalist culture. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, no half naked models on billboards. Despite intense political oppression of more than half a century, Burma has a beautiful and precious cultural innocence.
In this, and in subsequent postings, I will share with you what I experienced during my 27 days in Burma. This was no pleasure trip in terms of what most tourists expect, but the beauty of the landscape and people far eclipsed any lack of electricity or toilet paper. Look for stories of train travel across great canyons in the company of locals who bought us beer and hardboiled eggs. Expect to laugh at mishaps with language, food, and bicycles. Read about beautiful children unafraid of foreigners, touts in training, the glory days of Rangoon, a thousand monks, and a land where the internet is still in it’s infancy. In every story, the common thread is one of human kindness and generosity to strangers. More than anything else, that is what we found there.
My mission: 27 Drawings in 27 Days.
I did 56. From the dusty roads of Mandalay to the markets of Yangon, I carried a sketchbook and drawing supplies. Every day and every drawing was a new challenge. Extreme heat, sweat, bugs, and spectators made sketching on location very interesting! Drawing made me slow down and experience the people and places of Myanmar in a much deeper way. It became a meditation in the whirlwind of travel and served as my journal.
With every drawing comes a story. Some of the stories are epic, others smaller in scale but each mark a specific time and place. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing all of them with you.
Note from Amy: Check out this great website by my good friend Gillian! http://theglobalbookshelf.com
“To Myanmar with Love” A travel guide for the Connoisseur. ThingsAsian Press. Thank you Janet Brown, author of “Tone Deaf in Bangkok”