15.02.2010 - 20.02.2010
We took the overnight bus to Mandalay. The long and COLD bus. As Mark Twain said about San Francisco in the summer, I was never as cold as in an ac bus here in the tropics. And we weren't the only ones. Everyone was wearing coats and hats, but of course we, like the other farangs, had left our warm clothes in the luggage compartment underneath.
All of the buses stopped in the same place for "dinner" at about midnight. It was quite a scene.
The bumpy ride over what is supposedly the best road in Burma, was uneventful. At one point in the middle of the night, we passed a series of roads and roundabouts going to a pagoda and continuing on to points unknown. There was enough neon to make it look like a Chinese city, strikingly bright, especially given the grossly inadequate power in most of the country. We later found out it was built by the government to increase their merit, and to provide secure housing for the generals.
At 5AM, a beaming U Biminida was waiting for us with his driver in the cool predawn air of the hectic bus station. He was accompanied by a young betel chewing monk who had the same name as one of the monks in Albany. Unlike U Biminida, he spoke a few words of English. Not long after, our monk friends at home called on U Biminida's cell to make sure we had arrived safely. Strange to talk to them here.
We went directly to the home of a small donor, obviously very poor, where U Biminida gave a speech and breakfast was served. We returned to the monastery where we were shown to our "room," actually a small section of a large hall that had been partitioned off with makeshift curtains. The first thing I did was to hang our mosquito net, lugged from home, to deal with the whine of the hungry bugs dive bombing my legs. We tried to sleep for a few hours, hopeless in my case, and then spent time exploring the grounds.
Entrance to Monastery
Nanette, U Biminida and his Mother
Everyone, monks, novitiates and assorted visitors, all seemed to get an enormous kick out of our being here. They are obviously not used to westerners. That night they prepared a special dinner for us. Any dinner is special at the monastery since the monks don't eat in the afternoon. One of the donors asked what we liked, and then prepared ALL of what we mentioned.
The next day I went off to see some of the sights of Mandalay with Ni Ley, a young monk we met at breakfast who spoke English fairly well.
They were interesting, various payas, or pagodas, an old teak building (Shwe In Bin) that had been a monastery until the government shut it down for political reasons.
One of Many Nats or Spirits at Shwe In Bin
Of even more interest to me, was talking to Ni Ley. He told me how much he would like to leave Burma because there are so few opportunities, even as a monk. He wants to go to university, but can't afford it unless his family pays and it is way beyond their means. He lives in the oldest building at the edge of the monastery grounds, and doesn't know U Biminida well. The monastery is divided into two parts and his section is quite separate. I wonder about the politics of monastic life.
Nanette spent most of her day teaching English to a large crowd of monks. Late afternoon, we went to visit Dr. Min Te Jo, a former medical doctor and now Burmese scholar and puppet master. A fascinating man, we got his name from Aung Myint in Rangoon. He whispered to us not to mention the name of our student, Aung's brother, as he thought his house was being bugged by the government. Hmmm, would we have a visit from the other Myint?
We sat outside on the concrete veranda while Dr. Min Te, in his 70's, told us about being part of a group of Burmese intellectuals trying to keep the culture alive. This was to counter the efforts of the military to dumb down the population. Being part of this discussion group was considered subversive by the government, and so they couldn't be too public about their efforts. Their daughter, who had a masters in international relations from a German University, but no job, was considering starting a bakery in Mandalay to cater to tourists. The only income in the family came from their son, who was an architect designing housing for rich Chinese businessmen.
It is heartbreaking to see the level of desperation in this country. Unlike previous travels, we feel a part of things because we know so many people. It is in part through us, that those who remain here and those living in exile can communicate. We are the link between their relatives and friends who they have not seen for many years, and just by seeing and talking to us, they can maintain a connection to them. It is an unusual position to be in. We are not just travelers here, but cultural intermediaries.