July 11, 2011

Postcards from Hell?

A moment, if I may, on the soapbox this morning...

Last week, I happened upon a photo essay on the front page of MSN – “Postcards from Hell”.  It linked to an article on foreignpolicy.com.

It is a list of 60 “failed states” based on a 2011 Failed State Index, compiled using a list of cookie cutter criteria, with accompanying graphic pictures of various depictions of the “hell” of these countries.  Most of the nations on the list are either African, or Southeast Asian Countries.  

The pictures, admittedly, are riveting.  And it’s true that many of the countries on this list are facing poverty, ethnic and racial tensions, gender inequality, government corruption, and sweeping human rights violations.  

But I felt increasingly uncomfortable flipping through the pictures.  Not because they showed stirring images that awakened my state of ignorance – but because they seemed to exploit the problems in the country, as if the editors only wanted to show the most shocking pictures – 'look at us, we can make a list of places that are “hell on earth” and call it hard hitting journalism'.  The thing is, I don’t think these countries need our journalists’ help in making them hell on earth.  

I also strongly disagree with their placement of Bhutan (our version of Bhutan) as the 50th failed state on the list.  What criteria did they use to place a country that values “gross national happiness” over GDP on this list?  But that is another debate – my biggest problem with the article was the overall tone.  

I suppose it’s the nature of journalism today to make sure that everything reported on is  newsworthy and dramatic.  And I’m not saying we should gloss over the bad parts of any country just because we have a good experience there.  It’s much easier to have a great time when you’re a visitor making the rounds.  But I’m also not saying we should deem the country “hell”, well, just for the hell of it.  

It reminds me of this documentary I saw about a year ago by Laura Ling with Vanguard about Burma (Myanmar). 

In the Burma documentary, with the intent to critique the awful Burmese government, a cameraman followed the intrepid Ling on a visit to the country.  Throughout the piece, she was shown hunkered by a pool in a government hotel, quietly whispering into the camera about how she was constantly being watched.  She glanced over her shoulder suspiciously, pointed out many bad things, and the whole documentary was dark, negative, and secretive.  I'm not sure if a single smiling Burmese was shown at any point in the show. 

Now, imagine someone who knows nothing about Burma, sitting comfortably in their air conditioned living room watching that documentary.  They’re going to think to themselves, “Wow, what a shame, those poor people.  But there’s no way I’m ever setting foot in that country”.  

Which will only cause isolation.  Isolation is not the answer to the human rights violations constantly and willingly being committed there.  Big news stories that expose the terrible aspects of the country only drive a wedge between the victims of these regimes and the lucky people on the other side, rather than creating a connection that is the way out of the tyranny. 

My opinion on visiting Burma: avoid any hotels and restaurants directly run by the government.  Stay only in private guesthouses and don’t book one of those package tours that cost loads of money, almost all of which goes to the government.  But, go, go go to Myanmar, because not visiting Myanmar for ethical reasons punishes the warm, friendly, curious Burmese people much more than the government.

I'm sure that a portion of our carefully spent money was handed over to the government.  And, of course, the signs of oppression popped up the whole time we were there; censorship, a quiet reserve of the people, lack of access to the Internet, a complete absence of outside news, and poverty.  However, it’s as if the people have found a million other ways to make up for their misfortune, to be happy even when circumstances of their lives make it hard to be so.  

Bagan, Burma - we came across a small isolated village, where life is simple and traditional, but happy.

Here’s an idea.  How about giving Sergio and I a prime spot on Vanguard programming to tell about our version of Burma, during the 10 days we were there in April 2009?  I bet nothing can more effectively show how wonderful the people of this country are than the tale of our 2009 visit during the Burmese New Year, which also happened to coincide with Buddha's birthday: 

For our documentary, we would begin with our first day in Yangon, Myanmar, just to set the overall tone.  We took a private taxi to a privately owned, small hostel in the center of town.  The owner greeted us with a big smile, checked us in and made absolutely sure we were headed up to the roof of the hotel to sample the “World’s! Best! Breakfast! Buffet!”. 

Downtown Yangon and its remnants of the British colonial era.

Then, a few hours later, I left my extremely sick husband on the toilet, to explore the city a bit and return with lots of water and saltine crackers.  Walking down the streets of Yangon, it was the first time in our entire trip throughout India, Nepal, and Thailand that I felt completely comfortable and safe walking alone.  I passed so many people who looked at me, smiled and called out a friendly “hello!".  I stopped to lunch at a small restaurant I found along the way.  Within minutes of sitting down at an outdoor table, a cold beer was placed in front of me, followed by a delicious plate of steaming noodles, a soup, without asking for anything at all.   

On the right bottom corner is one of the largest and most beautiful reclining Buddhas in Burma.

We ventured out of the hotel the next day to see Kandawgyi Lake, the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha (reclining Buddha) and its adjacent monastery before finishing the day at Schwedagon Paya, the main temple in Yangon that was absolutely bustling with people, gathered to celebrate the birthday of Buddha under the full moon.  

Kandawgyi Lake on the top. A friendly monk at the monastery adjacent to the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha on the bottom left. And the summit of Shwedagon Paya on the bottom right.

Enjoying the peaceful and spiritual atmosphere at sunset while everyone waited for the full moon to start the celebration of Buddha's anniversary.

Shwedagon Paya at night under a full moon and hundreds of people praying in unison.

Cut to four days into the trip, as we entered Mandalay, THE place to be to enjoy the biggest and best New Year's Water Festival celebrations.  

Preparations were in full swing as we arrived.  Locals were setting up huge stages around the perimeter of Mandalay Palace, a government-only square of the city that is made up of army barracks.  There is also an interior “new palace”, which carries an expensive entrance fee, and a violent, sad history of being built with forced labor.  The irony of huge stages blasting hip hop and rock music, prepping to be the site of the rowdiest partying in the country for the New Year lining the borders of the center of the military’s barracks and the site of so much human suffering was not lost on us.  It was the first incredible testament to the Burmese spirit to see locals partying their hearts out around such an oppressive site.  

During these festival days, the normally subdued (oppressed) country took on the air of a great big backyard picnic.  Repeatedly throughout the day, people doused us with buckets of water, sprayed us with water guns, and emptied any other container that could hold a respectable amount of water onto us as we passed by them, laughing hysterically while doing it.   

A party stage on the top left and some of our water battles around the country.

On foot, we were constantly approached by people celebrating. With an irresistible ear to ear smile, and a bucket of water in one hand, we would hear:

“Hello!” in the cutest, most clichéd Asian accent possible.  “you happy?...a little water?  Good luck!!” 

And they proceeded to pour cold water from questionable sources all over us, our backpacks, and anything else we were carrying.  Then as their grin got even bigger, they walked away, waving and full of gratitude as if we had just done them the greatest favor.   

Later in the day, for reasons that will have to wait to be detailed in another blog post, we found ourselves stranded without transportation in the middle of Burma, still 2 km away from our afternoon destination - Inwa, an area outside of Mandalay filled with temples, rice fields, and pagodas.

It’s ok!”  I cried.  “Let’s just walk across the bridge and over Inwa, it’s only a kilome…..”  My optimism drained away as we came upon the bridge, the concrete magnifying the hot, dry, 100 degree heat from the sun that was quickly draining all my energy.   

We made the mutual decision to hitchhike and soon a jeep full of men pulled over and beckoned for us to join them, smiling, waving, and giving out a really happy vibe.  

I only realized after settling down into the back that an incredible 15 men were crammed into this Jeep, and they were all, including the driver, completely and totally wasted.  Safety be damned, they were all so friendly, I was torn between giving in to the rising panic in my throat and demand to be let off, or just trust that it wasn't my fate to die in a ball of fire during the Water Festival. 

I looked over at Sergio who seemed to have created a fan club - one man sat at his feet, hugging his left leg and kissing it repeatedly while asking if he was happy, and another shouted Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo! The driver was having more fun looking back at me than keeping an eye on the road. I weighed my options and decided it was time to get out.  

“Time to get out.”  I smiled politely to them all and said this calmly to Sergio.  

“No, no! Where you want to go?” came the chorus of drunken Burmese.  

“We can just get out here!”  I said a little more urgently, but refrained from saying much more since I realized that in speaking I was drawing the undivided attention of the driver who was spending less and less time looking at the road.  

One of the men continued kissing Sergio’s leg and asking in between kisses “Happy?? You happy?”  

“OK, WE’RE GETTING OUT, NOW!!” I practically yelled after we took a curve in a roundabout literally on the two left tires of the vehicle.  

We slowed to a wobbly stop, hopped out, and had a sigh of relief.  However, relief quickly turned to apprehension as I looked down the road at a huge expanse of Burmese road and realized we were still kilometers away from where we wanted to go.  

We began to walk again, deciding to either flag down a taxi or try hitchhiking again, whichever came along first.  After a few minutes of walking, a white pickup pulled to the side in front of us, and motioned for us to get in.  It was one man, an extremely friendly Burmese who spoke absolutely no English and may or may not have also been drunk. 

Although the risk was high that we would end up miles away from our true destination, the chance of a miscommunication was almost inevitable and the man seemed a bit...off, we hopped in again, grateful to have found someone willing to pick us up.  

The man’s English was nonexistent, much like our Burmese, so he had no idea where we wanted to go and we had no idea where he was taking us.  We set off in what seemed to be the right direction, and I began holding our breaths that we wouldn’t disappear into the heart of Burma, never to be seen again.  

After swerving once into the median, I was ready to get out again, when I realized that he wasn’t swerving, he was parking.  In front of a cute little house, where we were introduced to about four more Burmese who also spoke no English, but communicated their friendliness in smiles and gestures.  We were offered two cold sodas, and a table at which to sit down.  We had a quiet but smiley drink, two more Burmese friends joined us, and we set off again for our destination, at this point unsure of where our destination might be.  

Hitchhiking our way to Inwa.

We drove and drove.  All of sudden, as if it was a mirage, the exact monastery we were wanting to see emerged from the foliage.  Our new friends waited for us to look around and took us to the next sight, and then the next, and the next.  They gave us a personal tour of the area, and each pagoda we came to was more interesting than the one before.  

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, Inwa.

They dropped us off at the last monastery in the area.  We said happy goodbyes and offered money, but the driver waved it away emphatically.  

“No, no” translated his friend.  “Good Karma”.  And they drove away, waving to us, and of course, smiling.

Time for a group photo with our driver, in the middle, and his friends by the Bagaya Kyaung wooden Monastery.

We made our way back to Mandalay by walking through a cute little village tucked between the jungle and the riverbank and negotiated a boat to take us across to Sagaing where we spent the afternoon sightseeing.

A passing local pointed us towards a little path through the jungle into a small village by the riverbank where we could catch a boat across the river.

We were probably the first tourists that had passed through the village in awhile, but the kids welcomed us with a curious smile.  The women doing laundry on the banks of the river sent some of the kids on a mission to get a captain for our boat.

We wanted to end the day’s adventure by climbing up the hundreds of steps to Sagaing Hill, the site of a large, beautiful pagoda, with great views of the sunset and down into the valley.  We flagged down a drunk tricycle driver, and the ride to the base of the Hill took an eternity.  Our driver was more than happy to slow down to a crawl for happy partiers to circle our little tricycle and pour buckets upon buckets of water all over us in the name of happiness and good luck.  

"You not wet! You no good luck!"

At the top of Sagaing Hill, we met some monks and enjoyed the endless views.

We climbed Sagaing Hill drenched in water, but reached the top just in time.  I perched on a ledge, watching the sun set over the beautiful flat landscape of the valley, lighting up the white and golden pagodas that dotted the area, half listening to Sergio’s conversation with a group of young monks in red robes.  They wanted to practice their English, know where we were from, and talk about soccer players with Sergio (they weren’t technically allowed to talk to me as a woman).  

After sunset, we climbed back down Sagaing Hill, ready to go back to Mandalay. 

“Now, who wants to give us a free ride to the bus stop?” I said out loud, jokingly, to Sergio.  Two seconds later, a guy on a motorcycle pulled to a stop beside us and motioned for us to get on.  

We jumped on; he took us to the bus station, waving off any offers of payment.  We quickly found a bus to take us back to Mandalay and two hours later, on the walk from the bus stop to our hotel, we stopped for a dinner of ice cream sundaes at a delicious ice cream place that was teeming with happy Burmese. A little girl and her mother who stood nearby begging received ice cream and change from us on our way out of the restaurant. 

We passed through a night market on the way to our hotel.  As we approached the end of the street, the lights from most of the stalls fading away into darkness, a voice called out to us from the right.  

“Helloooo! Anything you want?” came the heavily accented greeting.

The merchandise from the stall glowed, like a patch of sun on the dark street.  The stand was filled with porn: sex toys, pictures, postcards, magazines, all with a grinning Burmese man behind it, inviting us to survey his wares.  We politely declined, but laughed all the way back to our hotel, repeating his call to us, and his gorgeous, blissful attitude that suggested he was selling rainbows and bunny rabbits instead of dildos and raunchy videos.   Back at our cheap guesthouse, we fell into bed with the day playing through our heads. 

And...Cut.  Fade to black. 

The country has its problems, but the Burma I know is full of warm, giving, inviting people in a national water fight, ice cream sundaes with sprinkles on top, and the happiest porn store in existence.  I know that it’s also a devastatingly poor country that is terrorized by oppression, an over controlling dictatorial regime and natural disasters. I'm not advocating that we close our eyes to it.  But, good exists in abundance in this country, and it’s doing a great disservice to the people to only show the horrific.  

We should focus on the efforts of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, a champion for the Burmese people.  She has fought for years against the government and for democracy.  What should stand out from her story isn't that she has been on house arrest for years and has been constantly knocked down by the government, but that in spite of all she's been through, she keeps on going.  She has won the Nobel prize, support from the international community, and the hearts of the Burmese population.

Yes, things in this world are tough.  We know this.  We’re bombarded with stunning pictures of it daily.  What we’re not bombarded with are images of how, even through the bad, the good can still shine through; in the most unlikely of places.   

So maybe, just maybe, if we started focusing on the little rays of sunlight as much as we already do on the ominous storm clouds, we actually could (and yes, I'll be using this line in my Miss America acceptance speech) make this world a better place.  

I’m thinking “Postcards from a Burmese Porn Stand” has a much better ring to it.

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