These Myanmar Days / Journal Part One

When there is something left to hide, there is something left to seek.

I am trying to remember where it began, where it really started. There was a most mind-altering meal at Burma Superstar, which I can date back to late 2009. I was staying with Jake in the Outer Richmond. The lonely and cold winter in San Francisco could be felt in your bones and blood, chilling you to the core. It wasn’t a particularly good visit. Though I don’t exactly remember why.

There was mention of Burma (as it was called then) long before this, around the house, friends of friends, and friends of doctors. For as long as I can remember, there were always international dinner guests. Indians, Egyptians, Iranians. Though we never lived in a very cosmopolitan or multicultural location, the ethnic doctors seemed to gather in the middle of Iowa or Northern New York, on the edge of the Adirondacks. These mini cultural congregations could have been tagged as contact zones, as Mary Louise Pratt would venture, meeting points “where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other.” With this angled view, my entire life feels like a contact zone. Vibing in flux somewhere between an east coaster to the core, complete with her Bostonian accent that reveals itself whenever her sister’s voice resounds. There is Irish and Spanish blood, though stories of Hugo’s red sauce hail Palermo as the mother city and the place that all of these brothers and sisters cling to most proudly. Pick a day and ask Roubik the origins of his own contact zone and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say Armenia or Iran but the acknowledgement of ancestral ties to Ancient Greece and Roman times may interest you, as it does me, every time.

Some of these doctors had it easier than others, though a degree of responding to cultural insensitivity was always shared among the groups. It is in the accents, which eroded certain words, despite the expert mastery of the nonsensical English language. It is in the meticulously crafted school lunches, which were accompanied by the complication of how to explain the herbs and spices and hours over the stove that helped produce the ghormeh sabzi to a fellow eight year old. An explanation to counter their soulless and crustless sandwich, which you so desperately wanted to trade. There were always the doctor’s photos on the hospital wall; the sea of white faces was punctuated by shades of brown. We learned the hard way, as there was no easy one.

Despite this buried set back, I have fond memories of these dinners, but the one that may have transported me to another plane was Mrs. Masoumi’s Nowruz celebration. I fondly recall how she had set out the haft seen table and an incredible array of dishes, aromatic, in shades of verdant green. Every Nowruz I think of her and the story she told when she married her husband. She was very young, fifteen and the marriage was arranged, though her father gave her the choice, but she saw something kind in Said, even at twice her age. She admits to being a terrible young cook, not yet versed in perfumed Persian rice. She worked day after day to improve her dishes and every night he would eat them and just say it was the best he had ever tasted. His white lies encouraged her work and her tadiq is now earth shatteringly delicious.

Roubik mentioned a Burmese doctor, an anesthesiologist maybe, from Rangoon. He was very kind and calm. So maybe that was the beginning. Maybe he had come to a dinner or his name was mentioned. The exact trigger that spurred action only happened the month before I purchased my flight. I was on set, working and at our lunch break, the photographer’s assistant (who a credit is rightly due, is completely an accomplished photographer in his own right, more so, in my mind, given his documentation of social and political conflicts in Southeast Asia.) mentioned Thailand by chance. Brian had been living and shooting in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I rapped off my considerations and explained my ever-growing interest in textiles and with ease, he offered that the textiles in Burma were worth a look. It has long been on my heart. The mythical pull had swayed me again.

Though I kept thinking of drinking red wine in Buenos Aires and writing to Juan, hoping to garner an invitation. Oh, these boys Latin always make me ask so many times. Returning to me only with promises full of silence, or a silence full of promises. Sucios. My great grandfather Manuel was a Madrileño and he poured me some Iberian blood, I too, can play. Maybe I’ll reappear without announcement, a matador’s trick, one of these days. But it was already written somewhere how the winds would take me. A month later, I wrote Brian and said I’d be seeing Burma soon. It doesn’t take much. As I said to the Chilean last month, you are the second Chilean I’ve met this week, maybe it is time to take a look around Santiago.

The day before I arrived in Yangon, was my second full day in Bangkok. The last of the year. I was tired from traveling and the week that preceded this heady destination had exhausted me in emotional and physical ways. I sometimes think people have this very romantic notion of my solo travels and fail to realize the work that I require of myself to research a place, to reach a place, to reach that place in myself. For all connections made, there is endless lingering unanswered correspondence. There are days of lost and loneliness. This day in Bangkok was one of them. I spent most of it disoriented on every form of transportation, from taxi, rickshaw, boat and metro. I found myself at the tiny Erawan Shrine, in the center of shopping malls, elevated trains and cogs of traffic, the nucleus of what seemed like tropical Tokyo. This Brahman shrine beckons an impressive amount of young people, who pray to the deity and offer flowers, coconuts, incense and baht. It is thought that praying at Erawan grants spiritual protective powers and supporters donate enough money to employ a local traditional Thai dance group to sing tonal praise to the gods. You can sit in front of them, silently commune your wishes and dancers will briefly perform in a wonderfully blasé fashion. The scene was mesmerizing and it brought me back to life, to the moment I was in. So did the discovery of the Buddhism paraphernalia aisle at the sprawling grocery downstairs in the Siam Center. I knew where I was on the map, but I was lost. Somehow there was still magic everywhere and I hoped it would grant me some of those protective powers for the next few weeks.

I woke up on January first at three in the morning. As we zipped to Don Mueang in the dark, Thai temples glittered in passing and it was already a new year. I waited a long time to pay extra for my bag (grocery store finds). I met a tour leader on the flight and she was heading up a group of thirty. We briefly chatted about their upcoming visit to the Golden Rock and I am hit with pangs of regret that I won’t make it there on this trip. Already in my mind, I am planning a return to a country I haven’t even landed in for the first time.

There are two places in the world that I’ve traveled to that I swear I’d been before. The first was Portugal; where I arrived after hours of bus rides by way of Granada and Sevilla, through cork trees and straw gold gentle hills. I knew the streets of Lisbon and let my feet carry me to the best galão and pastel de nata. The second, as my arrival revealed was Myanmar. It felt like a time warp tunnel and the first moments proceeded quite strangely and quietly. I thought it would take much longer to sort out the visa and money, but it seemed relatively carefree, if anything, the manner was stark. My first guide was there to meet me and introduced himself as Andrew. Is that really your name, I said. He insisted. An hour later, at Shwedagon Pagoda, I would learn that Andrew is Christian and the nuances of obsessive Buddhist rituals puzzled him. I look around outside of the airport and was immediately taken by the women and their dress and the thanakka that decorated their cheeks. My gods, it was striking and so beautiful. So many men were wearing lungyis. I loved it immediately and unconditionally; they looked smart with their crisp collared shirts and polos. I can’t exactly describe how thrilling, stimulating and completely enchanting it is to arrive in a place you have dreamt of for years on end and have its familiarly be palatable. I was completely buzzed from this arrival. I only wanted to open my eyes even wider to absorb it all.

First things first, I’m starving and I want mohinga. Andrew and the driver are charmed and surprised that I’ve come armed with intel. It is months and years in the making, my friends. Seeing is believing, take me to it and then we seek Buddhism and lungyis. As soon as I exit the taxi, the Lucky Seven Teahouse envelops me into tumbling erratic energy. It is no wonder, the boys run rapid in customized soccer jerseys, they play a waiters game with agility and grace, coordinating cups of milky chai, to satiate mid morning spectators. I look to all the tables around me and say, I’ll have what they are having, teach me how to speak it in Burmese and I will order. The mastery in first tries always harnesses such beautiful poetry. A poet of call. Later, I will say phrases and Lin will make fun of me and say I will never get it and he may be right as the finesse may only rest in this ripest moment. Pin it to the exaltation of jet lag, this is the perfection of absolute presence. I am indeed witness to the fact that a travel dream is finally coming to life. I still can’t believe that is it me, here now.

There will be no other first time in Myanmar in this present life. This unhappy pleasure breaks my heart and expands its capacity all the same. In a locale as rare as this, even latecomers like me may be granted the pleasure of falling in love. I just have to make space for that affection, exemplified by the saturated depths and complications to come. The pleasure of falling in love with something else. Hours later, at Shwedagon, the golden riot radiates harmony as incense is set ablaze, as wishes flare from hearts, shifting their shapes in the air just above us. Wondrous incantations depart from all of our lips with delicate transparency. In an honest way, always this way. One can never be sure if one is putting their feet in the right place, but here, my bare soles are so refreshed by the cool marble beneath them that I want to lay down and press my heart into the floor. I will come to this place three more times, though I am not aware of that now, this single harmonic rush would not suffice. I look around and see that we are all dazzled free of a thousand desires and given the vision to transform in this golden palace of pilgrims, in ourselves, in each other, to excavate and celebrate what is radiantly truthful in each others souls.

AM /// January-March 2015