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.
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.