In less than 24 hours I feel like a celebrity in Myanmar. I’m drenched in sweat, my hair is haphazardly clamped up off my neck and I’m sporting none-too-sexy cargo pants yet natives keep taking my picture.
I am walking around the docks of Yangon with my photographer husband who is happily capturing the magic hour of golden light when it first happens. Gary always asks permission of the people he approaches. So I’m not surprised when the young man squatting on the prow of a motorized dugout canoe nods a casual yes. Or that Gary instantly offers the camera’s viewfinder up so this man who ferries chickens, bananas and street food vendors across the river all day can see his own portrait.
In most third-world countries where we travel and shoot, the subjects of Gary’s digital street photos grin or giggle when they see themselves in a monitor, possibly for the first time. But this barefoot young man in a traditional longyi cocks his head, checks out his look and casually shrugs his shoulders. Then he whips a cell phone out of top fold of his longyi and snaps a picture of us.
I’m shocked. I thought Myanmar was right down there with North Korea in cell phone penetration. We’re talking about a country of 65 million people who up until a few years ago were suppressed by a military junta. I’m sure on a Burmese Facebook page somewhere there is a shot of two jet-lagged Americans, mouths gaped in astonishment.
The next time I get the paparazzi treatment is as I step out of a boat to check out a 170-year-old monastery on Inle Lake. Again, I’m caught completely off guard. I’m surrounded by an architectural and spiritual beauty revered for centuries and yet cell phones are emerging from longyis and snapping photos of me. I feel like a specimen, a cultural curiosity suddenly on the other side of the camera.
“Is it that I look American?” I ask Gary. We do come from a country that only recently lifted travel embargoes and we’ve yet to meet another American tourist on this trip. Maybe I should enjoy the brief period of novelty before this country begins a predictable love/hate relationship with U.S. tourism.
“And that would distinguish you from German, Swiss, Canadian and Australian women how exactly?” Gary responds.
It isn’t until two policemen guarding our newly built, Chinese hotel in Mandalay take my picture that the truth occurs to me. Spoiler alert – it isn’t about me.
This is simply a country full of people who have just entered the cell phone age. Mobile giants from Norway, Qatar and Japan pounced on government contracts in 2014, getting in on the bleeding edge of connectivity.
Here’s a picture from one of those company’s Facebook site the hot August day they started selling cell phones in Mandalay. The cops taking my picture with their phones right now were probably in that line somewhere.
The number of mobile phone users in Myanmar is expected to reach up to 80 percent of the country’s population during the fiscal year 2015-16, according to Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. Even if that number is wishful thinking on the part of the military government, the fact that it is wishful is illuminating. The military could have followed Kim Jung-un’s lead and kept the country disconnected, in the communications dark ages. But before I get too impressed with Burmese political altruism I read this in the Financial Times.
For the new rulers of the state still known to many as Burma, a mobile-phone network is precious because it’s a rare way to make a demonstrable change to people’s lives before the polls.
I knew it wasn’t my fashion sense. And my Americanism is not so intriguing that my every step is documented by the natives. My would-be paparazzi are just Burmese people suddenly connecting to the rest of the world. Myanmar is a ten-year-old girl with her first camera phone. She is obsessed with a new toy. Watch out world. Next will surely come the avalanche of Burmese selfies and photobombing.
I’m trying to be more moderate. Really. But I’m standing at the corner of a National Geographic moment and a slap in the face. I’ve just met Ma Moo Ooh – or at least that’s how I think she spells her name. She is thirteen years old and her job is to pose for photos with tourists visiting her Padaung aunt’s weaving shop on stilts above Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
Right now I’m distracting her but a glimpse at the smile on her aunt’s face tells me it’s okay. We are playing a game. Ma Moo Ooh writes a word in my spiral notebook and I try to copy her beautiful scroll while she collapses in giggles.
It’s part of Padaung custom for girls to begin wearing gold rings around the neck at age nine. Ma Moo Ooh loves her ten rings – it’s teen bling on another whole level and she suffers no lack of self-esteem. Until I ask her what grade she’s in. She looks down. Her parents made her stop school after three years.
“I cried and cried and cried forever,” she tells me in incredibly impressive English. “I love school and never want to quit.” But she did what was expected of her – pitching in to raise the family out of poverty by taking advantage of Myanmar’s exploding tourist industry.
I feel guilty and outraged all at once. Up until now, I confess that I’ve blamed religion for gender inequality in girls’ education around the globe. Religious extremism I should say – remember, I’m trying to practice moderation in my attitudes as well as appetite.
Up until meeting Ma Moo Ooh, I saw the issue of gender-based discrimination as epitomized by Malala Yousafzai. I’m reading her co-written memoir to give a talk about it back in Beaufort, South Carolina. The world will never forget her. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the latest Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.
Perhaps because she has written this moving, triumphant memoir, her shooting and the reason for it (advocating for girls’ education) seemed singular to me – a horrific incident perpetrated by terrorists with religious fanaticism at their core.
I am in no way equating Ma Moo Ooh’s situation with Malala’s but what is dawning on me is that I can no longer compartmentalize the issue. It’s not just fanatics like the Pakistani Taliban or Boko Haram to blame but also a worldwide lack of commitment to girls like Ma Moo Ooh and Malala.
I’m not a mother. My outrage is not just because this is happening to little girls who could be our collected daughters. It’s is also rage for the consequences to their lives as women. Two-thirds of the world’s non-literate adults are women. Still. Today. Or at least as recently as 2012 when these results were reported to the United Nations’ Committee on Ending Discrimination against Women.
So if I’m trying to look beyond religious beliefs as the root of this inequality, why is it still happening? UNESCO experts and others who have written about the issue point out that it’s often about money. It’s the opportunity cost of a poor family losing someone to watch over younger siblings or contribute wages when their daughters go to school instead of staying at home. The neck rings that make Ma Moo Ooh feel beautiful and connected to her tribe are also economic shackles that feed her family.
I sit next to a little girl comparing our handwriting and trying not to cry for all the opportunities she will be denied. And now I understand the insistence of advocates ranging from South Africa’s Campaign for Education to the World Bank: insistence that governments have to bear the costs of educating boys and girls. Private donations and non-profits and singular efforts are not enough. Beyond building schools, governments have to make education truly free – no hidden costs for uniforms or textbooks. The United States subsidizes scores of other foreign aid projects – why not also the opportunity costs of daughters going to school instead of dropping out to become shepherds for the family’s animals or babysitters for the younger children?
It’s easy to think of this problem as too intractable to cure. But the uplifting part of all of this is that change is happening. It didn’t happen in time to save Malala from an assassination attempt. But if a girl with a bullet through her brain can still have faith then so can I. So can every other mother.
It’s not easy – one fifth of the world’s children aged 5-17 years are exploited by child labor, but even in Africa, where education disparity is proportionately among the worst in the word, the perception that it is more valuable to educate boys than girls is changing. The introduction of free primary education in Uganda, for example, caused total girls’ enrollments to rise from 63% to 83%, and enrollments of the poorest fifth of girls from 46% to 82%.
Stipend programs and conditional cash transfer programs have been employed in settings as diverse as Brazil, Yemen, Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Gambia and Kenya, and have succeeded in reducing girls’ drop-out rates and delaying early marriage.
But still, I can’t help thinking of how far we have to go. Some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last year are still missing and it feels like our country thinks that hashtag activism is the answer. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls won’t save the next Malala.
And don’t forget the organization that has always considered education a human rights issue: Amnesty International.
If you’re passionate mostly about improving the situation in Pakistan, consider donating to the alliance formed by Oxfam, Plan Pakinstan, Care International: the Girls Education Alliance Pakistan.
But back to the Padaung women and girls in Myanmar. It’s time to get into my boat and head back to my hotel on Inle Lake. I will probably never see Ma Moo Ooh again but I will never forget her. I’m just about to close my little spiral notebook when she wants me to learn another phrase. I repeat it after her and when she is finally satisfied enough to stop giggling at my pronunciation, I write it down the way it sounds to me.
Ta-Lye-Bahn-Na. I do a double take. My phonetic spelling out of Ma Moo Ooh’s phrase looks like Taliban. She repeats the phrase. It is musical, as lovely as the expression on her face. “It means thank you, where I come from,” she tells me as she squeezes my hand goodbye.
I’ve taken off my shoes and socks at the base of a traffic circle in Yangon. As far as I know it’s the holiest of all roundabouts in the world: the Sule Pagoda. It’s not as big or famous as the giant Shwedagon, but there’s something intriguing about the way the Sule Pagoda exists literally at the center of city life here, not apart from it.
Inside you can still hear the honking horns and revving engines of Yangon’s 2.5 million residents circling the temple. But the fumes from the belching busses and bumper-to-bumper taxis gradually succumb to the scent of burning incense and strings of flowering jasmine.
Not being a practicing Buddhist, I’m not expecting any revelations. I’m mindful only of the soles of my tender feet stepping on tiles seared by Yangon’s mid-day sun. Instead, I stumble upon a New Year’s resolution. It practically jumps out at me, by virtue of being the only text written in English. It’s on a list I figure is a rough translation of the Noble Eightfold Path. My stomach rumbles, on que, as I read about eating in moderation.
Every year around this time I make lists that inevitably include a certain number of pounds to lose or food to eliminate from my diet. Maybe it’s the melodic chanting of the women on prayer mats all around me but it occurs to me that my resolution obsession could use moderation.
This little hand-painted list with questionable grammar is actually a sign that I’ve been approaching New Year’s resolutions selfishly. Instead of resolving to cut back on calories to make myself look better next year, I could consider food as a resource the whole world needs to share. Calories are a gift of life-sustaining energy and like all gifts, not to be hoarded by one person. It’ll be tough, shifting this focus from self-absorption to self-realization. I’m not the meditative type and I’ll need all the help I can get.
Luckily the Sule Pagoda has that covered. I hand over some crumpled khat banknotes in exchange for a packet of gold leaf and stand in line for what looks like a miniature ski lift in the shape of a swan. But when it’s my turn, the lady in charge of sending the little swan gondola up a cable to the gilded pagoda grabs my hand. She wants me to crank the handle myself. I’m already sweaty and feeling conspicuously pale and clumsy in this land of slender women half my size but there’s no time like the present to start shedding those calories. In moderation of course.
As soon as I click the “submit” button and buy my plane ticket, my mind is already obsessing on the details of the travels ahead. I download the latest Kindle version of Lonely Planet like a drug addict counting the number of pills in a bottle. I know I shouldn’t – real travel experiences come from spontaneous decisions made in the moment. But the left-brain side of me wants to memorize the details, cross potential pitfalls off a million lists and plan the perfect trip.
None of which is really possible when it comes to Myanmar. U.S. sanctions were only lifted a few years ago and it’s changing so fast that guidebooks specifics are practically useless. And the beautiful photographs are like landmines to avoid – if they’re in the book then the reality has already been altered.
Luckily I’ve found a cure for my own inevitable over-planning. I fill my carry-on bags with tattered paperbacks because fiction is the only truthful account of life in a place I’ve never been.
For Myanmar, that means stepping back to the time when it was known as Burma. I start with an old favorite: Daniel Mason’s “The Piano Tuner.” Never mind the movie version, the first sentence is what made me yearn to visit Myanmar in the first place.
“In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.”
The book is a slow burn, tracing one man’s seduction. Not by the woman he meets but by the entire country. In the end the English piano tuner can’t trust anything he thought he knew. He doesn’t care, as long as he never has to leave. It’s lush and romantic and every time I read it I am as shamelessly besotted with the idea of Burma as Edgar was.
Which is why, the first day we walk through the sticky heat of Yangon I head straight for the book section. The book section isn’t in a bookstore. It lines entire city streets – a reminder that this country is new to Internet and that books were once the intellectual lifeline to the outside world.
I pick up a cheaply printed knock-off copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days – knowing that it will snap me out of The Piano Tuner’s spell. Orwell’s account of the same era in Burmese history is the brutal hangover after my earlier indulgence. He describes a country not meant to be over-lorded and capable of doling out exacting punishment to any visitor. Particularly those of a Colonial bent. I have English blood and this book makes it back up and run through my veins in the opposite direction. I grew up in a different, one-time British colony – South Africa – and the vulnerable yet ultimately cruel Elizabeth feels far from fictional.
So whose story should I trust as I set out on my own journey through Myanmar, the romantic Edgar in “The Piano Tuner” or the disillusioned Flory in “Burmese Days”? The first winds up shot in the back and the latter blows his own brains out – neither one comforting to a traveler in a country only recently emerging from the chokehold of a military junta. I suspect the truth of Myanmar will split the two extremes, like the wavering air.
“The woman walks into a mirage, into the ghost reflection of light and water that the Burmese call than hlat. Around her, the air wavers, splitting her body, separating, spinning. And then she too disappears. Now only the sun and the parasol remain.”
This is a true story of travel, sanctions and two optimistic Millennials: Amuh is from Mandalay, Myanmar and Alex from Havana, Cuba. One has come of age after Americans began traveling to his country, the other has never known a world without sanctions.
Amuh drives a taxi owned by his mother and chatters freely about politics. Right now he’s pissed that elections in Myanmar have been delayed until late 2015 but thinks Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party will win a majority and change the constitutional amendments that prevent her taking her rightful role as president. He worked legally in Malaysia and realizes that his philosophy diploma from a Burmese degree mill university system is useless. He plans on starting a business before starting a family.
Alex is also a college graduate. His degree is in English and he spends all day trying to convince tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He feels sorry for Americans because we don’t get free healthcare and education, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba but can’t afford the $6 an hour it would take in an internet café to build the tour guide website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.
Amush and Alex’s stories explain why travel is so important to a free society and why even the most principled tourists have doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.
As someone who grew up in South Africa during the era of Apartheid, I have complicated feelings and experiences with international sanctions. I applaud the humanitarian ideals behind them. But I’ve seen, first-hand, the economic misery they create when immoral, corrupt governments use sanctions to dig their own hole deeper.
I’ve also seen how inflated Americans perceive our importance to be. And how hypocritical we can be. Myself included. We Americans somehow think that visiting Cuba under the special exemptions of guided photo clubs or university tour groups is okay, but that skirting the rules and arriving on our own via Mexico or Canada is somehow immoral. We’re okay with pilfering baseball players from their $100-a-month island teams but buying Cuban cigars is evil. On a good day we can see across the Florida straights but people are forced to risk their lives to reunite with their families. The original intent of the sanctions might have made sense 54 years ago but the way we dance around modern-day Cuba is nothing short of ethical contortionism.
I’d like to think that the heavy, well-intentioned hand of American sanctions will help, like they eventually did in South Africa. But Alex is still hanging out in Plaza Vieja, gratefully counting his egg and sugar rations and waiting for Raul’s next handout. I don’t know whether to be comforted by his naïve optimism or heartbroken.
But what about Amuh’s more cautious hopes for a better future? Again, I’d like to give credit to sanctions. But for the last twenty years, European and Chinese tourists largely ignored them and visited in well-heeled droves. The surface changes evident in Myanmar today may have had as much to do with Internet access, Chinese and Indian economic investment and the diplomacy and well wishes of ordinary tourists.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since working/traveling in three of its bordering countries: Thailand, Laos and China. I stood on the banks of the Mekong, my tattered, beloved copy of “The Piano Tuner” in hand, wondering if I could look myself in the mirror if I crossed that river to the land once known as Burma. The beloved daughter of its national hero was under house arrest, the military junta was killing monks and jailing journalists.
I couldn’t do it. I waited until the sanctions were lifted and “The Lady” was free. I waited until my old agency, Ogilvy PR Worldwide opened an office in Yangon. I waited for my conscience to be clear. And guess what? I still have mixed feelings. I’ll be writing about my travels in posts to come but I have no answers. I could buy an Aung Sang Suu Kyi T-shirt, made in China of course, and not have to look over my shoulder or worry that the shopkeeper would be arrested. But I was still not allowed to venture out West, where Rohingya Muslims are still kept in what are essentially concentration camps.
If anything, I feel like I waited too long. Not because Myanmar is already so tourist-savvy and overpriced. But because by staying at home I could not be a witness – to its triumphs or its tragedies.