What defines my past travels are memories of the grandiose. Remarkable friends, once in a lifetime adventures, close calls, “I’m never telling my mom about that” ones. Yet the actual day to day moments of traveling are defined by the minute details —the smells, the sounds, the heat and sweat, and jet lag.
And as I disembark from my flight, navigating the Yangon airport and later, the hodgepodge streets, it is those details I notice first. The way the air smells like Myanmar—like coal and exhaust. I notice the contradictions. The way the “Foreigner” line at passport control remains empty while the “Citizen” line stretches long. Most tourists choose the relative familiarity and ease of Bangkok and the beaches of Phuket to Myanmar. An Asian theme park to the oftentimes difficult Burma realities.
I notice next the darkness that envelopes much of Yangon. Street lights burn low or are nonexistent, the only light emanating from dim storefronts or burning roadside fires. Yangon feels far more like a rural town than a city of six million, a stark contrast to the illumination of Western countries—the West has conquered the night. The outline of buildings rising out of the darkness embrace the architecture that seems to define communist/socialist totalitarian regimes—buildings of immense size devoid of life. Having begun their quick march towards dilapidation before construction was even finished, the buildings stand as if the state tried to substitute size for quality. And it is this artificiality that seems to be a uniting characteristic of these countries—an “If we build it, they will come” mentality. Build ostentatiously and prosperity will follow goes the logic. But one must simply look across the street from my hotel at the immense “National Stadium” to see the fallacy. Perhaps glorious at one point, the stadium stands as a concrete carcass—grey, forgotten, overgrown, although still in use I’m told.
I play a game as a traverse the city. Is the rusting barbed wire that tops many walls intended to keep people in or out? Given that the ruin of buildings within the walls at times surpasses those outside, the answer is not clear. Although I am told that despite the abundance of barbed wire, crime is virtually nonexistent. I realize quickly that the biggest danger is how to safely cross the road; as cars careen blindly across the potholed asphalt, I draw on all my J-Walking skills gained dodging traffic in Tel Aviv…it’s not the same.
During this walk, I glean an insight into the relativism of poverty and the universalism of the human spirit. The various buildings, apartments, homes, seem homogenous, separated only by a square meter of brown dirt here, an extra window there. Even the “rich” apartments (I am told they cost upwards of $100,000 per year — a fortune in Myanmar) would classify as lower-income housing in America: mashed together, barred windows, tiny porches, filthy facades. I question how the desire for social mobility exists in such a country. How can one be driven to succeed when the difference between success and mediocrity is several stories and a few fewer pieces of garbage? same sparseness; same bright, fluorescent lighting; same thick, polluted air. But I realize too that it’s all subjective. Burmese desire prosperity and progress as much as anyone, the only difference is how that progress is measured. And I am reminded of this human commonality as my guide, Aung Thu, tells me of how he wants his two sons to be a doctor and an engineer. To hope and to dream is to be human, regardless of your nationality or apartment prospects.
I’ve landed in Kale. Fireworks boomed last night. It’s 2019 and I’ve just gorged on steamed fish and curry.