A cacophony of sounds envelops me as our taxi weaves fearlessly between vehicles and people alike. The horns and screeches of an endless line of cars plays out like some deranged symphony, as all 6 million residents of Yangon seemingly take to the road at the same instant. It is survival of the surest of foot, the quickest of hand. It is incomprehensible to me that this system works; somehow, it does. Perhaps it truly is natural selection—those that are currently on the road have justified their skill purely by surviving. Welcome to Burma I think; welcome back to Southeast Asia.
24 hours earlier, I triumphantly finished my last final exam and boarded our China Airlines plane with my dad. I am starkly reminded, as I cram my 6’2”, 200-pound body into my seat, that this plane was designed for a much smaller human. How is it possible that my femur is larger than the space between my seat and the one in front of me? It’s going to be a long 12 hours…
But these discomforts are trivial in my mind. I’m traveling again. I’m satiating that unquenchable addiction to explore, that desire to read more pages of the book of our world. Travel is the ultimate freer. Both metaphorically and actually, I leave all of my worries and responsibilities behind at the gate; my only objective now is to live in the moment. I leave the familiar and comfortable and arrive in a land so vastly different than the one I left behind that it’s almost overwhelming. Immediately upon landing, I am reminded of the sensation that every traveler experiences—the sensation of being watched. I am extremely aware of how out of place I am, with my size, my skin, my language, and that everyone’s eyes are upon me. As I imagine how everyone perceives me, I laugh. I’m the bumbling idiot who can’t pronounce their words, manage their money, or understand the simplicity of their SIM cards. Is this how foreigners feel in America?
The first day is the most magical. I am a child amidst an entirely novel world. The architecture is unique; the language so confounding it could very well be the mumbles of the insane. I am in awe of everything, and from this stems the excitement of travel. Every option, every decision, every item on the menu is full of potential. Each winding side street, golden pagoda, and beckoning storefront, holds the potential for an entirely unique experience—to embrace it all being the only requirement. At our first meal, it takes 10 minutes to convey what we’d like to order. A menu that features no vegetarian options does not easily accommodate Abba’s vegetarian diet. As I type into Google translate, I hope that the translations to Myanmar are more accurate than the hilarious combination of words that results when using Google to translate to Hebrew. From the confusion on their faces, I shudder to imagine what message is written on my phone and what they must think that I’m trying to order. Ignorance is bliss, we agree, as we try to appreciate the food without realizing what it actually is.
Myanmar, or formally Burma, was, as of recently, second to only North Korea in the oppressive level of their government. Violent suppression and censorship of speech, press, and assembly was common in a country that inspired Orwell’s 1984. Only within the last five years has Myanmar begun to reform. Traffic is a novelty in a country that once had empty freeways, and tourism is only a recent development after years of having closed borders. And while resorts, golf courses, and malls have begun to dot the skyline, Myanmar still holds the mystique of a country historically impervious to western influence. Unlike the other regions of Southeast Asia that I have traveled in, the customs, dress, and values of Myanmar are still very traditional. But as Myanmar has opened up, foreign investors seeking a new market have flocked like vultures, pushing materialism and consumerism on a people flush with sudden disposable income. The time to see the old Myanmar is rapidly shrinking.
As of now, Abba and I will spend the next few days traveling with Bhikku, a Buddhist monk that Abba befriended on his last trip to Myanmar. I write this as we fly to Sittwa, on our way to Mrauk U, the site of hundreds of ancient Burmese temples and palaces. I have lots more thoughts to write and I’ll try to post soon.