Under the Banyan Tree
Travel Stories: The dictators call it Myanmar. For the first time since they crushed the Saffron Revolution, Adam Karlin traveled to the country he calls Burma -- and home.
02.04.08 | 11:34 AM ET
I was on my way home to visit my grandmother when she had a stroke.
Home. That’s a relative term when home refers to Burma. Because I’m half-Burmese, Burma—which I prefer to “Myanmar,” a name conjured up by the nation’s dictators—has always felt a little like home.
My relatives, even Burmese I’ve never met, treat me like a long lost son. I see elements of myself—my passivity, my faith, my taste for rich, oily hot food, and whatever capability I have for empathy—realized in this country and its culture. It’s a self-centered worldview, but travel can be narcissistic, especially in countries like Burma, which seems to naturally lend travelers a sense of self-discovery.
Yet sometimes, Burma feels more foreign than the rest of the world. Because I don’t speak Burmese. Because I put my feet up on a chair and inadvertently become the clumsy Westerner I really am. Because, geographically, home for me is really Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. And maybe, most pertinently, because I have no real experience of the poverty and fear the average Burmese lives with daily.
I figured that pain, the wound of political repression, would be raw. It was the first trip I’ve taken to Burma since the Saffron Revolution, an uprising of monks and laypeople alike, was crushed by the Orwellian-titled State Peace and Development Council. On the road into Yangon from the airport, my Burmese cousin and I sat in the silence of mutual linguistic incomprehension. Outside, the cityscape had pulled a neat trick: it had stopped aging and yet still looked old. It has been 10 years since I started traveling extensively and every place I have seen since has changed, shifted, altered, grown up somehow. But Yangon, the first place I visited outside of America, was the same. Always the same, a Southeast Asian Havana, all dying buildings and pot-holed roads. The only signs of new life were new Chinese trucks and bulldozers, economic evidence of China’s increasingly close relations with the Burmese government, steaming in the morning humidity-mist.
The ancient, overpriced cars—we were in a 1987 Deathrattle that had cost $20,000—coughed on, intermittently resurrected by skilled mechanics. Auto transport is one of the surest signs of the Burmese government’s insane incompetence. One day, the old dictator Ne Win decided the Burmese should switch from right-hand to left-hand drive on a whim, but no new cars in the country meant plenty of confused drivers on both sides of the road. And no motorbikes were allowed in Yangon, unlike every other Southeast Asian city, God knows why. But all these problems were minor compared to the price of petrol—almost five U.S. dollars for a gallon. It was unaffordable fuel, not love of democracy, which initially sent the Burmese onto the streets.
My aunt, who lives in London and was in the car with us, provided a running commentary of the sights of the crumbling city. Yangon’s dishevelment, it must be said, gives it a kind of romantic grace. Damn that grace. It’s the child of 60 years of wasted potential and unfulfilled development.
“There’s Rangoon University,” she said, using the old name of the city, the old title of a school that used to be a top university in Asia. There’s a lot of “used to be” and “once was” language when speaking of Burma; it used to be rich, it once was prosperous. But there are “still is” phrases, too. Burma still is the most alluring country I can imagine. Burma still is a poverty-ridden playground for asshole generals and their guns, their killers, their guns, guns, guns.
“There’s the student union building,” auntie said, as if it “still was”. Now it “used to be”: no one hung out or laughed or romanced or studied at this pile of concrete, abandoned to the jungle and ignorance, like all of Rangoon University, long shuttered by the paranoid government. I had been to Angkor Wat a few weeks earlier. It was in better shape than the student union building.
“And there, on the lake, we snuck out there once and ate sandwiches until some soldiers chased us away,” she said. The sign to the old yacht club on Kandawgyi lake—it was a tragically beautiful lake—was molding at the edges. People still walked by the water though; it is enchanting, a lover’s lane for hundreds of Burmese couples who see with the soft-focus of people in love, strolling by a mirror-glass lake under a deep blue sky. But when students ran from soldiers here in 1988, from police and infantry units in 2007, this place was rust-red with blood.
My aunt didn’t talk about that because it wasn’t her memory and I didn’t want to spoil her happy recollections. Let it be a place of her school days, I thought. But then I saw a street corner I recognized from CNN, a road where monks had marched, and later, been beaten, the corner where Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot and killed by Burmese soldiers.
“Were you here for the protests?” I asked my cousin.
He smiled, looking back at my aunt in the rear view mirror. “Yes,” he said, shyly, nodding. She smiled back, nervous and proud, and said something in Burmese which made my cousin and his round jelly belly wobble with joy.
“I told him not to come downtown for the protests, because he’s such an easy target for the soldiers,” my aunt said.
I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
The next morning I was reminded of how, for a stagnant city, Yangon is still pregnant with images that are vibrantly alive. The huge durian and jackfruits, the ruby red bananas in the markets. And the animals, the ones who truly rule Yangon, are everywhere. In the morning, no city I’ve been to sounds as alive. The saw-throated crows scream you awake by seven. The previous night, as the sun set, the black birds made storm clouds, flying from the city’s pagodas to nest in banyan and pipal trees. They were so loud, they could have been dinosaurs.
Then, in the dark, the wild dogs came out, like a Toto song or a Jack London novel. They had no fear or respect of Yangon’s citizens, a bit like the Burmese government. Their eyes shone through the darkness of frequent power outages, and they stalked the city in lean, hungry packs.
My cousin was driving me again, to the hospital to see grandmother. We went past a dry athletic field, the ochre dust settling on green flags set off by small red blocks and white stars, the banner of the Union Solidarity and Development Association. That’s USDA, or more accurately, paramilitary thugs, government cronies who took a hand in smashing the elbows of anyone caught on the street during the September 2007 protests. Thin USDA brutes were playing a lively game of soccer in the dirt, their longyi sarongs tucked under the groins.
We drove cautiously. Everyone said the traffic police, nicknamed “Duckeggs” for their helmets, had become more insistent on bribes. But like all Burmese, they were warm, polite even. No rough demand for a payoff here; my uncle told me they asked, “How can I help you?” before they ripped someone off for a huge stack of cash (the devalued Burmese kyat can only be spent in enormous blocks, making Burma sometimes feel like the Weimar Republic).
I’ve always figured Buddhism is the source of both this Burmese courtesy and passivity. The junta certainly likes to take advantage of Buddhist scripture for propaganda purposes. In that day’s edition of the state newspaper, a banner of text quoted the teachings of the Dhammapada: “Irrigators guide the waters; arrow-makers fashion the shaft; carpenters bend the wood; Wise men subjugate themselves.” On the bottom fold was a rant against foreign news services. “THE PUBLIC BE WARNED OF KILLERS ON THE AIRWAVES: RFA (Radio-Free Asia), VOA (Voice of America), BBC.”
I’m too harsh, though. Buddhism is a major component of Burmese identity, and its sense of right was in lockstep with those monks who risked—and lost—their lives protesting the junta. We stopped at the Paung Tule monastery where one monk, who said he had problems meditating when his beloved Manchester United lost a game, took us to a riverfront. The water and the shade were cool, and reminded me of the Buddha’s words, “The river flows to the sea, but it is all water.” This river flowed past the residence where Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned Nobel laureate, sat under house arrest.
At the end of my trip, like all my trips to Burma, I went to the Shwedagon pagoda. The Shwedagon is, as a friend once put it, like a theme park for Buddhists, a huge shrine to the totality of Buddhism split into hundreds of smaller stupas and statues, each one a choice of individual worship. It is in this place where I can be myself at my favorite shrine, yet connected to the mass of worshipping Burmese. It is in this place that Burma cuts deeper into my heart than anywhere else. Everyone comes here eventually: Burmese civilians, soldiers, monks and tourists.
I’m glad the travelers are here, too, even if Suu Kyi has called for a tourism boycott. In the state newspapers sold outside of Shwedagon, the ruling generals were pictured making offerings to Buddhist abbots. Although I detected an element of photo-op, based on conversations with Burmese it seemed clear the generals had more than a lip-service respect for Buddhism—they respected the religion, but respected themselves more. Which led me to think: if 100,000 monks can’t change the mind of this shameless government, neither can the absence of a few thousand tourists.
Travel and travelers help Burma and the Burmese. When I first arrived in Yangon, a relative told me about a sharp spike in the number of karaoke girls—Southeast Asian for prostitute—in the city. Many of the women, he said, had lost jobs in the tourism industry following the September protests. Prostitution was their means out. My relative, a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi whose own friends and family were imprisoned during Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy summer, then angrily criticized Suu Kyi and the tourism boycott. Like every Burmese person I know, he wanted tourists in the country, and realized every foreign visitor here was a refutation of the government and the lie that it controls the world, a chink in the junta’s psychological prison of isolation.
Besides: as I walked through Shwedagon, admiring a mural that depicted the life of the Buddha, I remembered that traveling to painful places follows in Buddhism’s oldest parables. Illustrations showed the prince Gautama (the Buddha to be) languishing in his palace, where his father had forced him into isolation—a sort of house arrest. But eventually, the young Buddha set out and witnessed old age, illness, death and the redeeming sight of a monk. He was inspired to save the world. But first, he had to set out.
I have also set out, many times, but I always return to Shwedagon and my special shrine. Appropriately, it’s a banyan tree, a mass of individual roots swirling into an organic whole. I kneel here on the smooth, cool marble, bathed in the orange afterglow reflected from Shwedagon’s golden dome, electric lamps and flickering candles. Under the bodhi leaves and crescent moonlight, I feel my skin strain against the flagstones and my love of this place enter the roots, while tourists, monks, Buddhists, Burma, walk around in a barefoot circle. In the distance, young Burmese sing a song asking that their merit be reflected onto the world, a song the monks sang as they were beaten and arrested in September. In the candle light, my eyes glisten, orange.
Editors’ note: Some names and situations have been changed to protect identities.