Day 1 in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
Due to our ungodly early departure time from Singapore and the resulting bags under our eyes, we are afforded an extensive lunch and nap break at the hotel before we reconvene at 4 pm. Only one destination today: Shwedagon Pagoda. On our bus trip through Yangon (means: no enemies) our tour guide, Momo, surprises us with her delightful sense of humor, her off-the-cuff and always entertaining remarks and anecdotes, her proudly nationalistic but self-critical assessment of her country. She keeps us entertained with fun (and not-so-fun) facts about Myanmar, always with a smile on her face as she stands in the front of the bus, unaffected by its irregular motion.
We're stuck in unbelievable traffic. This is a new development in Myanmar. A miniature pick-up truck with a scary forward tilt creeps by us in a large black cloud of exhaust. "In former times," Momo tells us, "cars were much more expensive." She points to a little old Toyota in front of us. "For one of these you used to pay about 2 million USD." Only a few years ago did the government lower the prices, so suddenly way more people could afford cars. The cars (and our bus, too) have the steering wheel on the right (the wrong) side, but they drive on the right (the correct) side of the road. Momo's brother explains that in 1970 General Ne Win strove to be more American and single-handedly decided on the switch from the British road system. The first day, he chuckles, brought a lot of accidents. Most cars here are used Japanese cars, so no switch to left-hand drive in sight. Driving motorbikes is illegal within the city limits of Yangon ever since a drive-by shooting. Only "the three monkeys" are allowed to ride motorbikes: blue monkeys, green monkeys, and the postal service. (Incidentally, Maestro Suzuki tells us that Myanmar is currently working on buying an entire postal system from Japan.)
Once at the Shwedagon Pagoda, we pass a group of uniformed men sitting, some cross-legged, on little plastic stools chewing comfortably on cashews. I gather they are suited up to sit here all day. We take our shoes off where President Obama took his shoes off last November. A sign in English, sponsored by a local "connoisseur of Italian language", explains the procedure. We go up a glass elevator with a streak of neon green lights within an otherwise decrepit looking tower. Renovations seem to be in progress, judging by the wet bamboo scaffolding held together by leather (?) ties. It's a gloomy day, but the bus driver gave all of us umbrellas. The bridge to the South entrance is covered, and we are given a last warning not to slip on the wet marble. (A French friend of Momo's lost her two front teeth this way.) The pagoda itself is a huge, protruding centerpiece with a 99-meter high point. The 60 tons of gold it's covered in, it seems, could potentially give the country's economy a huge boost if 'harvested.' Unthinkable, of course. The pagoda is surrounded by a "Disney Land" (anonymous quote) of buddhist shrines and prayer houses. Some display bizarre aesthetic choices, for example the "disco buddha" with flashing neon lights protruding from behind his head. Virginia chats with a cute monk while pouring cups of water on a buddha, corresponding to her age and the day of the week she was born.
Within this circularly laid out complex, I find a second ATM. The first one didn't work for me. This one gives me a maximum of 20,000 kyat for a fee of 5,000 kyat. I don't spend any of it there, despite the fact that the wide descending staircase of the East entrance, large dragonesque crocodiles on either side, has little souvenir shops left and right. Not much business, though. On the way out, we are handed pre-packaged moist wipes for our feet.
On the way home: Momo's guide to Burmese attire. The fundamental staple: the longyi. The longyi is essentially a rectangular piece of cloth draped around one's waist as a skirt, for both women and men. The woman's longyi ideally has a string around the waist, but for men: no strings attached. Clearly, how to fasten it around your waist is crucial. Momo assures us that in the city it is common to wear something underneath, because in full buses you never know what or whom you will be rubbing up against. In the country, however, no need for underwear. (Perhaps, she ruminates, this explains the higher birthrate outside of the city!) The versatility of the longyi is unsurpassed: women can easily squat and take care of business, and if something does go wrong, you just pull the front of it over your face to stay incognito. In similar fashion, it also functions as protection from the rain, if necessary.
Momo's signature story is that of the Burmese banana. There was this guy at the zoo who liked to tease monkeys by flaunting bananas but not relinquishing them immediately. Now, a properly tied male longyi produces a pocket in the front. This is where this guy kept his bunch of bananas. One monkey just wouldn't have it anymore. He went straight in for the killing, grabbed the bunch in the pocket and the longyi in the process. To make things worse this man screamed, drawing fellow visitors' attention to himself. The monkey, too, sat there inspecting the revealed goods while gourmandizing his newly acquired stash of bananas. You could read in his eyes: 'this is a very strange banana' he thought to himself, 'or else it just isn't ripe yet!' Taylor is the first to adapt to the traditional Burmese wardrobe, but one by one we all follow suit, until it is decided: dress code for our concert will be longyis. Even Maestro Suzuki doesn't resist. Momo is happy we have adopted a part of her culture, but makes clear she doesn't want to see any bananas. Will we succeed...?