A Keyhole into Burma – Robbie Williams owes me

On my last afternoon in Bagan, I went in search of a meal that would serve as both lunch and dinner, before boarding my flight to Yangon. I settled on a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant called Myitzima.

The LP author researching Bagan certainly earned his fee the day he discovered Myitzima, located over 50 meters off the main road, down a decidedly uninviting dirt alley. It seemed impossible that a restaurant could be in such an unlikely place. Even with my LP in hand, I almost retreated thinking that I’d taken a wrong turn. Yet, sure enough, Myitzima appeared, with its pleasingly designed courtyard and open air seating area, decorated with startlingly gifted paintings from local artists. Furthermore, the dish of stir-fry chicken, peanuts and veggies they whipped up for me was the most savory meal I’d had outside Yangon.

In a possible effort to impress me, one of the young guys hanging around the restaurant popped a Robbie Williams CD into the small stereo. The guy was clearly proud, not only to own this non-junta approved music, but because Robbie was name-dropping a Myanmar city in one of his songs (“Road to Mandalay”).

The guy’s English was exceptional. He explained that he’d purchased the CD purely for the Mandalay tribute, which he loved out of admirable national pride. He went on to describe how he enjoyed all types of Western music, particularly Bob Marley, though he was having trouble acquiring new CDs due to a recent ban on all non-Burmese music.

Eventually, he asked if I would write down the lyrics to “Road to Mandalay” so he could better understand the song. I happily agreed, planning to send Robbie an invoice after I returned to Bangkok.

Deciphering the words wasn’t too tough, but trying to interpret the meaning of the song was a disaster. Robbie was in a cryptic mood the day he arbitrarily slapped together those lyrics. Few lines seemed to correspond to any others and I had to explain to the confused Robbie fan that I didn’t understand the song and that sometimes songwriters go a little crazy with the metaphors, leaving us listeners to scratch our heads. The guy understood and accepted this, being happy to just have the lyrics on paper, accurately transcribed by a native English speaker.

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To cement my legacy, the remainder of my time at the restaurant was devoted to teaching the collected staff numerous, everyday English phrases like “kick ass” and “this sucks!” Learning what I assured them was cutting-edge slang seemed to thrill the staff to no end. I resolved that if I were to ever return to Burma, I’d smuggle in a collection of Western music to give away and perhaps a South Park DVD, purely for sociological observation purposes.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – What is McDonald’s?

“Please, may I ask you a question?” Kusala preceded every question with this solicitation of permission, like he hadn’t already been putting me through the question-answer ringer for 15 minutes.

“Yes Kusala. And you don’t have to ask me if you can ask me a question every time. I give you everlasting permission to ask me questions until we get back to my bike, OK?”

“I thank you. What is ‘McDonald’s’”?

I hesitated for a moment, staring at the sky as the young monk patiently waited for my reply. We were walking across U Bein’s Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer wooden bridge that connects Amarapura to Kyauktawgyi Paya, 11 kilometers outside of Mandalay. How do you explain a world famous franchise restaurant that sells questionable food, which may or may not be physically addictive, hawked by a clown with gender identity issues? It’s a tricky concept to illustrate, even when you have the full catalogue of the English language at your disposal, never mind when you’re limited to a few hundred, one and two syllable words.

The guy certainly had a lust for knowledge. We’d already covered a range of topics, including detailed questions about English grammar and comparisons between life in the U.S. and Burma. Just when I was thinking I’d like to take my leave and ride my half-busted rental bike back into Mandalay before Buddha’s return to Earth, he’d unloaded with his coup de grâce.

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I offered my best, watered-down explanation, which wasn’t very good, while privately imagining what a precious thing a little ignorance-is-bliss can be. Think of it, a world without McDonald’s – or even the concept of fast food. How much is the visa to that place?

I stifled what probably would have been a very culturally insensitive joke, inquiring if Kusala might have a sister I could marry for citizenship, begged forgiveness for my lousy explanation and made a running mount of my bike before Kusala could ask me about Martha Stewart.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – Goldfinger

The majority of Burma’s impossibly thin tabs of gold leaf – a fixture at all pagodas (temples) – is produced out of several shops in a neighborhood just outside central Mandalay. The tabs are sold in packets of 10, 50 or 100, with each tab being about one square inch, which worshipers apply to Buddha figures and other religious relics as a spiritual offering.

I tooled down a bumpy dirt street on my bike, skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of a non-descript short building, home to the “Gold Rose”. I was greeted the instant I dismounted my bike by the shop’s “tour guide”.

The guide fed me cold water as I recovered from my ride and gave me some tissues to stem the flow of sweat gushing off me. In time I was led to the shop’s ‘hammering area’ where four men rotated through hammering duties, beating hair-width gold leaf down to microbe-width gold leaf. Tabs of gold sheet are packed into bundles of 400, separated by a layer of bamboo paper, then beaten with a six pound sledgehammer for 30 minutes. The newly flattened and enlarged leaves are then divided into four pieces, re-bundled into packages of 1,200 and beaten for another 30 minutes. Finally the tabs are divided again, re-bundled into stacks of 750 pieces and hammered for an astounding five hours.

Despite what seems like pure grunt work, the hammering is a carefully monitored, meticulous process, with adjustments being made depending on subtle variants such as air temperature.

Just as I was commenting on how arduous this work appeared to be, I was led into the air-tight cutting room. Here a team of very young girls worked 10 hour days, sitting on thin bamboo mats, cutting and dividing the gold leaf for the hammering process, then packaging the final product into painstaking piles of perfect square tabs. The youngest girl was 11 years old. Each girl has to go through three years of training before being trusted with leaf cutting duties, meaning they were starting work as young as seven or eight years old.

The cutting room was stifling hot – no fans, no A/C – because any air flow would cause the feather-light gold leaf to blow around in an expensive hurricane. A pencil length, flat edged tool made from buffalo horn and some talc to keep their fingers from getting sticky is all the girls use to do the remarkably precise cutting and shaping of the gold leaf.

The guide explained that virtually the entire workforce in the Gold Rose was from the same extended family, so there was no fear of people pocketing a little something for themselves, because to so would be stealing from the family. In theory, the girls earn up to 2,000 kyat (US$2.17) per day for their work, but they never see this money as it is dumped directly back into the family pot to support the household and keep the shop going.

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Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – A boy and his bike

Cycling around Mandalay provided the most intense adrenaline rush I’d had since I jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down.

The traffic is particularly lawless in a country where most driving conventions are improvised. Certain death is faced and somehow magically avoided every few seconds while plunging through traffic that would make a New York cabbie weep. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris that coat your body, while you suck down the hot, foul, fume choked air makes it look like you really did something at the end of the day. Not like those pansy package tourists in their vans with tinted windows, stereos, air conditioning, cold beverages and genuine seats with seatbelts! Rubes.

OK, it sounds horrific and it kinda was, but it wasn’t beyond endurance, even for my delicate constitution. And it was liberating to be in charge of a vehicle (of sorts) for the first time in months. Moreover, jockeying the bike through Mandalay’s dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions proved to be faster than any other form of transport, including motorcycles. I covered a fantastic amount of ground and was very productive on that bike, a travel writer’s wet dream.

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Although I have to assume that tourists must be seen on rented bikes on a regular basis, each local nevertheless stared at me like I was riding a yellow, winged hippo, doing violent double-takes like I was a once-in-a-lifetime peculiarity. Every few meters people were yelling and waving at me from the sidewalk or passing vehicles. A slow moving pickup truck-cum-bus, full of rambunctious guys encouraged me to speed up and catch them, which I did, at which point one guy hung out the back to take my hand, towing me along for two exhilarating blocks before the truck/bus took a turn I didn’t want and I had to let go.

What made me even more conspicuous was my speed. I don’t know if it was in deference to the heat or due to the fact that most Burmese are riding half busted bikes, but the locals were riding their bikes at a pace only slightly faster than typical walking speed. I was blowing the doors off my fellow bikers. With my shiny, freshly shaved bullet head and the rate that I was moving, people usually only caught a blurred glimpse of me before I was gone and they were left to wonder if the military was cutting corners and mounting their missiles on purple three-speeds with flowery baskets on the front.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – When the tourist becomes the sight

Take Venice, rebuild it in wood and bamboo, remove most of the dry footpaths and the double-wide butted tourists, then add waist-deep wet farms and that’s Inle Lake’s 17 water villages. The waterway “streets” were lined with surprisingly large, two and three story, longhouse-like dwellings, with kids hanging out windows shouting ‘hello’ at me and a few people climbing into the family canoe to run errands.

After a perfunctory tour of one of the larger villages, my captain/guide motored down a narrow canal, finally stopping where the canal became choked with parked boats. He indicated that I was to get out and walk to the market, “25 minutes” away. This development sparked a confused, five minute Q&A. Yes, I was to go tour the market. No, he would not be accompanying me. Yes, it was really a 25 minute walk in that (vaguely pointing) direction and – despite having a wide open view of the landscape and seeing nothing resembling a market all the way to the distant mountains – no I shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

I tentatively set out.

The road was bordered by wet and dry fields with the intermittent, far-flung house dotting the landscape. Once in a while I’d encounter a wobbly old man or a house-sized wooden cart being pulled by two water buffalo, piloted by a couple kids under the age of 10. There were no signs confirming that I was heading in the right direction, but as my captain had promised, neither were there serious forks or turns to deliberate on, so I could only assume I was still on the right track.

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After twenty minutes I came to a wooden canal bridge solid enough to support a car and on the other side the market was going full bore. My worries of it being a thinly veiled tourist trinket bazaar were completely squashed. The place was about as touristy as East St. Louis at 2am. Even if I had wanted to buy something at this market, I had few choices as nearly everything on sale was some kind of basic staple: raw meat, vegetables, spices and produce, with only a few stalls selling manufactured goods like flip flops, clothes, basic home necessities and cigarettes. There were some permanent stalls set up on raised wooden platforms, under open thatched-roofed shelters, but there was an equal number of people who just staked off a spot for themselves on the open ground and laid their goods out in baskets or spread out on woven bamboo mats.

I stuck out like a 200 foot Reclining Buddha in the Christian Science World Headquarters parking lot. Adults were split between openly gawking at me or ignoring me, while kids and girls went ape-shit, yelling, giggling and trying to stealthily spy on me, until I would swing around and catch them in the act and they’d scream and scatter. At one point I had an entourage of about eight teenaged boys following me around, asking me basic questions, pondering my digital camera and transforming me from tourist to the main attraction.

The walk back to the boat was enriched by the stream of people heading home in the same direction. I talked and laughed with many people, taking a few pictures and playing the oddity for small children which I embellished, making faces and ape noises as they squealed and ran for their mothers.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.