Burma, or Myanmar for those that like being politically correct, evokes conflicting and exotic paradigms, shaped by what we hear in the news or Internet; well, it is both. It was a nighttime landing, so save for the simmering lights of airport terminal building and a scattering of city lights, I had no clue what Rangoon looked like. I was in for a very pleasant surprise indeed. Not only was the airport terminal spotlessly clean and modern, the people I met with were so friendly, I thought we had landed at a wrong country perhaps.
The Burmese smile a lot, all of them! From the immigration officials to the street cleaner to the gardener tending flower beds and shrubs in the streets, they would pause from their tasks and bare betel nut brown teeth in an infectious smile. And the young always defer to their elders, always. I liked Myanmar from the first go.
The streets were relatively clean and well maintained, the traffic unchaotic, the pollution (always an issue with me) tolerable. Traders Hotel in central Rangoon was a delight, it's service impeccable and the free sumptuous breakfast incredible. Was this the poor and starving country I had read about? I am even more convinced poverty has nothing to do with cleanliness. Hear that India?
Although the average poor guy in the street has his work cut out for him earning a decent living, I saw no degrading poverty anywhere. There were some child urchins but nothing compared to the beggar menace of Mumbai, where I live. Burmese eat tons of paan, yes the intoxicating kind and her populace have permanent stained teeth. However, I did not see a single person spit or mar a pavement.
The military junta of Myanmar is a disciplined lot and you see this discipline in the people and in the systems that work and are largely efficient. However, the ordinary person's life is tightly regulated and there are no civil liberties. You could go to jail for the flimsiest reason and any protest is brutally put down; no dissent is tolerated whatsoever. We were not allowed to travel to the cyclone Nargis affected areas by the military.
Internet access is tightly controlled at official places, like our hotel. I paid USD 2 for half an hour on the net only to have access to Yahoo mail and Hotmail portals blocked! Go down the street and pay USD 0.50 for an hour and the smiling owner routes to a server outside Myanmar and you can access anything your heart desires. Go figure!
I gorged on tropical fruits; giant size guavas, mangoes, Indian almonds (khungu), jack fruit (fenesi), khunazi, sorry, I do not know the English equaling name. And the incredible seafood! I also took full advantage of the incredible massage services available. You could get an hour worth of foot or body massage (or others) for about USD 5! On our final night in Burma, I went along to the massage center at a hotel and both Mujaahid Sharrif who I was accompanying and I settled down to an hour of bliss with two strong guys kneading, pulling and stretching our bodies.
What we did not know is breaking of wind in Burmese society is acceptable behavior. At the time I was settling down to the pleasure of having my body pampered, my masseuse let out a laud and startling ripple. Huh, I thought, may be an accident and let it go, only to be replaced by another go in about a minute. Mujaahid could not restrain himself and convulsed into laughter, and the two masseurs joined in. When a third fart was let out, I became alarmed, at this rate, where would it end? While Mujaahid and his entertainers amused themselves, I decided to teach the guy a lesson and join in. Alas, my system was uncooperative, however much I tried. I let it pass...