Lessons for My Father on Myanmar and Yangon

ACORN International Organizers Forum

IMG_0216Yangon   My father used to ask me after every new exploration of a country unknown to either of us to tell him what might “interest” him that I had seen or learned.   Though he passed away a bit over 5 years ago, it’s one of many habits that I choose not to break, so enjoy with me or suffer through in silence.

·      Let’s go ahead and get the “face paste” out of the way quickly.   Men and women of all ages seem randomly to put a light beige paste over parts of their faces.   Some include intricate designs; others are just a dab here and there, though most are square patches on each cheek at least.  Talking to locals, the claim is that it somehow cools the skin against the fierce humidity and constant warmth, but it’s also unquestionably a cultural fashion statement unique to Burma.

·      A delightful cultural touch is the frequent placement of water jugs from simple plastic to ornate for passing folks to take a sip.

·      Electricity is earlier 20th century rather than 21st century with generators in elaborate cages holding pride of place on city sidewalks.  The government is promoting a series of controversial dams to deliver hydroelectricity to stabilize the grid as an a priori for development.

·      Air conditioning?   Mostly, forget it about it!   See above.  This is a country where you can get your sweat on!

·      The bicycle rickshaws are also unique compared to India or Indonesia bechaks in that they are back and front side cars that can carry two people, one forward and the other aft or a mountain of gear.IMG_0027

·      Monks are everywhere! Pink are women and girls or nuns.   Orange are noviates of all ages since many “drop in” for a month or two to get right, so to speak, and saffron are the initiated.  Anytime of the day it was usual to hear a singing chant and then turn to see a half dozen to twenty or more filing in single line up to businesses, houses, or just walking down the street and receiving donations of food and money as the normal course of things.

·      In the central city the narrow multi-floor walkups were the norm running up six to ten floors.   At eye level on the sidewalk were pull ropes with large metal clips attached and sometimes plastic bags, acting as “doorbells” and dumb waiters to spare the climb.  This was a low tech, utilitarian breakthrough!

IMG_0143·      Yangon has a tea shop and coffee culture of sidewalk and open air dining everywhere.  The opening time is roughly 6 AM no matter whether you are inside or out, though on Saturday night some do not close until 6 AM since that is the one “off day” of the week.  There are always tea cups and a thermos of tea on every table that is lagniappe and part of the standard fare.   Most tea shops serve various baked goods, small cakes, samosas, and an empanada type of meat pie as a matter of course, setting them in front of you as temptation to up the fare.   The coffee always comes sweetened and usually with milk or cream.   Interestingly to us, if ordered black then various shops gave you either lime or lemon wedges on the side.   We liked that!

·      For a country that has been and really still is controlled by the military, it was interesting that in Yangon the military is totally invisible, which was surprising to me. 

·      Flip flops are the standard issue footwear for work, play, and whatever.  Some sandals sure, but slides were the norm.   Taxis are cheap and the pricing is random, though $7 is about tops from the airport.   Luckily pricing is by the trip, not the time because the traffic is horrendous with the longest red lights just about anywhere.  Beware the steering wheel is on the right like the British like it, but the lanes are also on the right, American style, so look out Little Rock!  Food was inexpensive if not dirt cheap.  Foreigners were hard to find, and almost everyone, men and women, wear the yungi’s, full length to the floor.

Myamar was very interesting and Yangon was a fascinating, and incidentally almost everyone in country still speaks of the country as Burma!