Thursday, January 8, 2009
Post 22: Surprises in Burma
If they’re going to have so many staff members standing around doing nothing in these airport lounges, why don’t they teach them massage? Of course, I’d rather they just pump neurotoxins into business class or pull a pistol on you when you check in, but there you go (and if I’m one of the offed, well, I earned it).
Day 25, evening. I arrive in Yangon and get the usual hustle into a cab, but my driver speaks good English and doesn’t seem sketchy, helps me with pronunciations of things, and so I ask him if he knows a place that’s better than the one I had from the book. He takes me to Beautyland II PIC, and they’re total Scheissters: they tell me there’s only an expensive room left, then I see other people check in later, and in the morning I hear the same line to another group. Can’t they just say that there’s a first-night charge and then you get the cheaper rate? Wouldn’t that be a bit more savory?
Day 26, evening. Ok, so I think that might have been the best day of my trip. I’m sitting in my room having a paan as I write (betel nut in a leaf with various bizarrities, to be chewed and spat in blood-colored whaps. The first time I saw a stairwell in India, I thought someone had been murdered in it, but it was just the dried sputa of years of paan chewers). The power just went off and I have no windows, so I’ll head down to the restaurant and type up the deets.
Well, it started beautifully, as I walked around and ultimately sat down at a place on the street because the rag-clad proprietors looked so surprised that I was interested in the food. It proved to be a combo dish: the young guy cut a crunchy fried crueller (sort of like the Chinese one at Noodletown but with chick peas in it) into bits, then put it over noodles with chili and cilantro etc, then poured broth over. So it was noodley, yet crunchy, spicy, fascinating, utterly delicious, and 27 cents (little did I know how indicative of much Burmese street food would this curious “soup” turn out). Here as everywhere else so far, there’s plenty of streetside eating, sitting on the tiny plastic stools that make my milk-fed Western knees bang on things, but the combinations clearly reflect the part-Southeast Asian, part-Indian, part-Chinese nature of the place. There are fried samosa-y things and fried unidentifiables galore, as well as the occasional waist-high mound of cracklings (and if you don’t know what that is, shame on you!). But there are also noodles everywhere, both Chinese-style and Vietnamese-y.
Quick rewind: On the plane on the way over, I wore the shirt, so a woman from the row in front of me starts talking to me, teasing that she’s stuck sitting with her mother, though it’s only a one-hour flight. She’s a bit older than I, born Burmese but living in Hong Kong, perfect English, clearly aristo, and with about 9 other members of her family in business class heading back for a big reunion. Well, she sees my language book and starts helping me, then asks where I’m staying, then insists that I come with her and her family to the swank hotel for the night and stay on at her cousin’s home from that point on. Of course I’m mortified with all this, but I have to say yes, knowing how much the insider thing will improve my experience. Well, mercifully the hotel is full, so we arrange to meet the next day at the posh Traders Hotel lounge at noon.
I’m early. I’m always early. And I’m hungry, another virtual always. So I stroll, and walking behind the hotel, I find an alley with what turns out to be one of the joys of Yangon: a curry stand with about 8 different options. You get a plate of rice, then you can order as many little dishes of curry to accompany as you want, all served with soup, a plate of veggies, a salty fish sauce, and a bowl of fried chili paste which I systematically decimate. I got two curries: shrimp (chinga), and fish (nameroo), both excellent, especially with the chili paste. I also ate the cucumber chunks, but as I was leaving saw a tub of water with a ton of cut-up cucumber floating in it and I got a seriously sinking feeling.
The hotel lobby lounge is literally a museum. Again, what better agent of artistic production than radical wealth imbalance? (Does the cultural elite, myself included, ever really consider the implications of this? Our relics are simply elaborate tombstones over enormous and anonymous mass graves.) Anyway, I’m getting more and more uncomfortable waiting for Lorena (and not because of the cucumber water), so I’m ultimately kind of relieved that she doesn’t show up (is a pity, though, as I would have had a pretty incredible level of access…)
So now it’s back to traveling my way. I go rebook my room at the proper rate ($9), then head to the streetfood. I skip everything that looks like anything else I’ve had elsewhere, and eventually I see some people eating what for me is a kind of culinary holy grail (as laab was in Laos): Burmese tea salad. It’s made with a special kind of wet shredded fermented tea leaf, mixed with an incredible mélange of flavors: thin strips of cabbage, lime, roasted peanuts, fried onions, dried chick peas, etc etc etc. It’s just over the moon, but what’s better is the ruckus I cause by ordering it and sitting down with the people on the street. It’s really sweet: the father is running the stand; the mom gives up breastfeeding to come over; she has a few words of English, then sees my Burmese phrasebook and starts reading it; then the bomb daughter and brother come over; they pick up my other pages, and all 4 are reading and standing around me as I eat. Eventually, the mom finds the word “salad” in my book and I recognize the word for tea (“lepet”), so now I’m armed with “lepet thote” – a phrase I will repeat to great effect many times in the next few days. Then she goes and brings me a tomato salad to try (also unreal); I roll a cambodian smoke and a betel-mouthed guy comes up, sees my Burmese book and asks what I’m smoking; I offer him some and he puts a pinch in with his paan. Now that’s bold!
The salad and unlimited tea ultimately costs 45 cents, so I give the dad double, say thank you and move on, where I pass the most glorious streetside tobacco girl who reciprocates my eye for 30 seconds (good god) as I walk to the river (more on her soon). There’s a No Foreigners area on the bank that seems inhabited, but I know this is a country not to fuck around with that stuff. So I quickly put my journal away, and head back, walking down a market street and turning into a sketchy alley where there are a lot of exceedingly dark storefronts with plates of food out front. I poke my nose into a few, then get semi-beckoned into one with a glassful of god-knows.
And now it begins. It’s a bar; I discover that when a voice says, Drink this, and hands me a glass. Of course I drink it; I can tell it’s alcoholic, but it seems maybe beerish/ciderish or a little stronger. So I go in, and a very tall (for Myanmar) and very very dark man with betel teeth insists that I sit down (I will ultimately learn that they call him Somali – as in Somalian -- because he’s so dark), and now I’m committed – though quite scared. The smattering of English among the all-male, all-dodgy bar patrons is a bit like words using only one row of keys on a typewriter (a lipogram, for the Oulipians among you). But I drinking heavily, and they love it; I cheers various people and we each drain our glasses. And soon they start bringing me food -- little plates of chicken blood cakes, roasted corn (which the man breaks off the cob with his thumb), Indian-style veggies. They are fascinated -- but terrified -- of the Cambodian tobacco (which admittedly has few friends). When I took it out to roll, the barman brought me some newsprint to roll it in – I remember seeing that in India. Then they ask me if I like marijuana (for safety reasons I vociferously say no), and on we go with the drinks. It’s completely hysterical. They are clearly here every night, the exact same reprobates, and I’m no doubt the biggest break in the monotony they’ve had in a while. We wrangle our way around various topics, and every new Burmese word I learn they find fantastic. I tire quickly (the “beer” I’ve been drinking turns out to be 50 proof applejack – Mandalay mamagee) but the next day will be the Myanmar independence day, so I promise to come back. And I know for a fact that they’ll all be here.
On my way toward my hotel I stop and ogle a mid-seventies Mercedes mini-limo in near mint condition parked on a side street. There’s a man near it who speaks good English; the car’s not his, but he works for an English-language school just there. On a whim, I volunteer to come do a conversation class for his students the next day.
This pic is obviously from my class (actually from the second day, as I go back three days in a row). It was fantastic. As you can see, there were 40 people packed into that filthy room (and this was a private school), half my students were monks, everyone was incredibly appreciative, the headmaster had me for typical Burmese lunch PIC, and I realized that this too should be a part of 3rd-world tourism: teach every day, give a little, have an impact, but also get much more access (one of the monks who was asking me political questions slipped me a piece of paper, saying, “This is a very good website. Sadly, checking it now – as I obviously didn’t try while still in Burma -- I can’t read his writing enough to find it. Pity). So when I left I told them all I hoped I’d be back in a year (which is true), and if so, I’ll be their teacher every day.
Later, back to the bar. Of course it’s exactly the same: same crew, same irate wives coming in now and then and berating their deadbeat spouses (who slink down in their chairs but don’t get up, then sit silently for a while after the women leave but keep drinking and eventually perk up), the same glazed eyes and room temperature liquor and amusement at my antics. When I use the word for chili pepper, they think I want some (or they use it as an excuse to fuck with me) and someone runs out and brings back two huge green ones, daring me to try. Ha, they dared the wrong man! I ate one whole and then held the other one out for whoever would follow. The guy that they only call Crazy Man finally took me up on the offer, washing it back with his half-mug of clear lightning, oft-refilled.
(it turns out that he and another of the most-hammered guys in here are bicycle rickshaw drivers – word to the wise!)
But the best incident of all was when I took out the remainder of a cheroot that I had started earlier in the day, put out, and brought with me. They all were looking at it funny; then the barman took it from me and said, “No good tobacco. No Myanma (they leave off the “r”) tobacco” and hands me another. I start to unwrap it and he takes it away too, pulls it out of its plastic, taps the wide end down on the table and ties it off with the plastic wrap just above the ring, and gives it to me to smoke. The only issue is: it’s backward! Or at least I think it is. The wide part is supposed to go in your mouth apparently, but that wasn’t how I smoked the last one (because to us, of course, conical smokes go narrow side in). And it’s got a built-in filter on the wide end, which means that I cremated and inhaled the entirety of the lung protector my first time around. No wonder they were starting at it!
And I have to say, smoking it the right direction, it was considerably more pleasant.
Okay, I haven’t spoken much yet about the food, and that’s a shame. I ate so much and so well, I’m tempted to say it was my favorite cuisine yet (though truthfully I have been blown away everywhere. One really can’t go wrong, unless you eat snakes).
The best food/cultural experience I had, though, was when I took a walk across the train tracks. (I would have made the trip across the river, but it was sealed off to foreigners). It didn’t take me long; after 15 or 20 minutes I was in an admittedly frighteningly poor part of Yangon (I was looking for two outlying markets that were on my map that didn’t prove to be in the indicated places, but no matter). It was interesting: as the streets turned from pavement to mere dust and the houses from plaster to corrugated metal sheets leaning together, I started getting a little nervous. But just as I’d think of turning back, I’d smile at someone and say Mingala-ba and they’d wave and nod and smile and all was clearly kosher.
I passed two young studly guys (scary), but then noticed that they were manning a string attached to something. I looked up and couldn’t make anything out, but they pointed toward where the moon would be and I saw the speck of their kite, up where the valkyries must wait and watch, and again I realized how easy it is to misread and misconjecture. Too busy kite-flying to mug me.
Then I heard drums. A rolling staccato, almost African (so of course I was in my element), and as I walked by, the players could see I was tapping air castanets (no wrist gyrations though, I promise), and they hooted at me, so I started drum clapping and foot stomping along, faster and faster (and they increased with me), and of course that drew the neighborhood out, and the rhythm kept increasing and getting louder, and it ended in mass cheering.
I’m still a little delirious from all that (and only half a block further down the street) when a woman grabs my hand, firmly. She speaks to me and I have no idea, and I try to keep walking but she stays with me, holding me so there’s no way I can get away. She keeps talking and I keep saying, No Myanma, but then she stops us and slowly starts singing to me (she seems pretty sauced), gives me a very mischievous grin, and begins swaying a bit like she’s prompting me to dance with her in the middle of the road.
Kind readers (if any of you have endured this far), forgive me: I failed you and me both. I didn’t dance. I smiled awkwardly; I slunk back; I eventually broke grip and high-tailed away, wuss that I am. Ach! Where does this bone-marrow instinctual No come from? I know that had I danced, I would have been roundly laughed at, but isn’t that much of the point? In India I danced for a huge group of local musicians, and it was one of the best days of my life (if you haven’t heard that story, I’d be happy to tell you). Why not give her a few spins? Sway a little of my curious childhood learning? (Granted, had she seemed a little less like a lunatic, it might have helped). But no, I wilted, again, as apparently no amount of roach-eating or muscle wine or tarantula is enough to shore up my masculinity into a ready Of Course. Sad, but hopefully alterable. Some day.
Well, I ultimately pass a ramshackle curry stand and stop to eat. I look under the potlids and pick one, then point to the rice, but then trying to get some tea, I can barely get a trickle out of the teapot. Predictably I had unscrewed the cap, but didn’t know to take the lid off, which was more or less to them like not knowing that you have to tear the sugar packet to get to it.
Had a nice fish curry, then what should probably be described as the limburger of fried little whole fish (called something like en achow) -- funky, but delicious. The man serving was wearing the dirtiest shirt ever I’ve ever seen on someone not coal-mining (except for when Mike used to come back from his summer job scraping the inside of boilers – wow). Total cost was a third of what it was at the place behind Traders, so it pays to go to the provinces.
Then I stopped by this contraption , called mote-le mia (means couple according to one person, cupcake according to another): little fried savory cups – unreal. I think these were my favorite food apart from the tea salad (though when I got them a second time in regular Yangon, she only gave me about a third as many and they weren’t anywhere near as good).
Oh, one other rival was the Burmese version of an Indian dish called aloo that I had under a bridge; that was incredible: PIC Aloo means potato, and this had both fried chips and boiled bits, then like 40 other flavors and textures, and all this would then have a flavorful soup poured on top (bro, it was the same trick more or less as your homemade potato chips with veal stew).
A few more Burmese notes: most of the men I met, especially the ones that approached me out of nowhere, asked rather quickly, Are you a bachelor? Is this code?
Had a few disappointing breakfasts: eggrolls cut up with sauce over, a mixed cold noodle, the traditional Burmese soup/noodle/mash. Harder to find a good breakfast here than elsewhere, though the rest of the meals were killer.
Opted not to eat at either Tokyo Donuts or Tokyo Fried Chicken.
Lunch with the headmaster by the way consisted of pan tribio: veg curry, Indian soup, chicken curry (hin), lemon sauce, and a spicy veg relish. Amazing.
Now I’m going to have to do a side piece on eros in Burma, because it was very different – and very pronounced. I think I’ll so it as one of my columns for that new magazine, so if you’re interested, let me know. I had a number of encounters (apart from those with the men) that were very charged, and I think made more charged by the repression and restraint of this culture. The number of obstacles put in the way of having any actual encounter (no guests in the hotel, no privacy anywhere, no PDA allowed at all, etc) had, I must say, a surprisingly potent ability to facilitate daydreaming. I found it intensely stimulating (sorry bro; I know you hate to hear about girls).
Ok, sorry about the drop in stylistic flair these past few posts. I haven’t been able to keep the same groove I had at the beginning. But I still appreciate your attention, and I hope they haven’t been boring.