YANGON. August 16.
By the time we are breakfasting on Satay and Lasi Gambek and Nasi Goreng and Ayam Roti, Archie has arrived from Shanghai to assist us for the remainder of the tour. My restless sleep doesn’t prevent me from chattering his ear off about our preceding night of terror. He takes the news in stride; perhaps even slightly disappointed that we don’t have footage, before I reiterate to him we’re lucky to have our skins. Nodding sympathetically he suggests a mellowing rooftop swim. As formerly noted, there is very little that could dissuade me from swimming off my miseries. I plunge in, eyes closed, ready for rebirth. Once underwater, I open my eyes, taking advantage of the rare times to feel wholly three-dimensional on this frequently too planar planet. I open my eyes in the stinging chlorine and I breathe out. In my life I have been lucky to survive freak accidents and mysterious illnesses of many sorts but there have only been a few moments of clarity in these situations. Once, having driven off an 11 000 foot summit in a stupid snowmobile, I had the poignancy to think, “No one can live through this. I really want to live through this.” Once, having accidentally stabbed myself millimeters below my eyeball, I thought “Red is truly the most exquisite colour,” and it has been my favourite since. Once, covered head to toe with blisters, I had the foresight to convince my mother to convince Dan to let me get on a plane in order to play scheduled shows in Australia and New Zealand. It was the right choice. Once, when I was drowning as a little kid, I had the persistence to keep bobbing because I thought, “My Dad loves me enough to really see me,” and he still does. I have gone through a windshield in Italy, been hit randomly by copper pipes, endured Mexican peyote desert dehydration. I have survived falling through thick ice and my own dumb drug n drink choices and frequent foolishness and the medieval-seeming hand foot and mouth disease, undiagnoseable breathing problems, inexplicable chronic back pain, ileo celiac inflammation and unidentified gastro-intestinal woes, depression and suicidal tendencies, a car bomb, a car fire, a car crash, a sting ray love nip, angry wild dogs, lively crackheads, someone else’s murderous rage, jail, cliff jumps and now a gunfight. I’m not trying to exaggerate the situations. These are the ones I’m willing to really laugh and talk about (there are others I’m still grappling with). I’m identifying them solely because I feel lucky to have such good stories, such a full life. I have learned that despite having backwards heart valves, I have a very strong heart. Despite my inability to breathe well, I breathe deeply. And what I felt during “Gun Trouble in the Rotten Tropics” is that “Dan is the man for me. We have so much more to see.”
Part of what was strengthening this thought was the next day’s planned venture. In my head, I was thinking, “But I’m so excited to go to Myanmar tomorrow.”
Admittedly, we were all a little terrified about the logistics of it all. Not quite having the proper documents or legal rights to play in a country that is known for its repressive and abusive governing military dictatorship, was a little daunting to say the very least. There is not much I’m willing to say about that because I truly want to be able to go back there, having met the most fantastic humans on earth as we did, and I do not want to spoil my chances with loose lips. I will confirm that we all dressed our best in order to look good entering the country. And I will also say that, as far as we know, we are the only international band to have ever played in the country, besides embassy orchestras and concerts. And I will say we were very much helped through out the entire experience by human gems. Other than that what I will say will be simply the dispatch of an awed tourist. Hopefully they’ll re-lift those visa regulations after the “elections.”
Though the official capital of Burma has been moved to northern ground in Naypyidaw, Yangon is still very much the cultural centre of the country. Finally able to uncross our fingers about entering the “End of Strife” land, we meet our host at the airport and jump in a van as the rain begins a sluggish descent. It achieves more speed as we speed through the streets. The roofs of colonial buildings look close to collapse. The fences of government buildings couldn’t look more secure. Recent changes to building regulation codes on apartment blocs (no longer allowing the construction of 8-storey condos without elevators) has speeded the erection of a multitude of 6-storey buildings in their stead. Maroon-robed monks fly passed in junky jeeps. Women in patterned longyis, their faces anointed with thalaka sandalwood paste, hold umbrellas for school kids in green uniforms. We pass Kandawgyi Lake and Inya Lake and leafy avenues and slums in grid layout.
We settle into our host’s decrepit “mansion” home, cuddle with his dogs over glasses of wine, and talk with him about the good work he’s doing – and the good work he’s trying to do. We laugh about all of our best efforts. It rains and rains and I stretch my bare toes through long grass filled with centipedes.
We meet the folks in Amazing Band, at a Seafood Hall. They are some of the funniest and kindest and raddest people I have ever met in my whole life. We talk for hours over soft-shell crabs and various tentacles and spicy salads and smoky “curried” fish. Dan even gets revenge on the mantis prawns of his earlier poisoning.
In bed, under whirring fans, hot and exhausted, we are stubbornly awake. We are too excited to be here to sleep.
In the morning, our new friends come by in a rented truck to haul our dirty limbs around all day. We hadn’t been expecting the entire band to be our escorts for the day so we are truly delighted to pile into the pick up. Our first stop is for a traditional Burmese breakfast at Lucky Seven teashop. Darko and Jozeff order favourites for us all: molinga fish noodle soup, coy caswei hot sweet rib, and nanjito cold noodle with fish ball. Everything is so unbelievably packed with taste I have to smack my lips with each sip and swallow. Flavours unlike anything I have ever eaten anywhere. In fact as we tread down the sidewalk, I am shocked culturally every step. My heart/brain is so widened by the people singing and praying and wrapping little betel-nut snacks and sharing umbrellas and rhythmically tapping little bells.
We head to Bogyoke market to be enchanted by puppets and longyis and woven wicker bags and cheap magnets and lacquer ware and aisles of the infamous jade and ruby trade. We talk gemstone politics before allowing the mood to be lightened by throngs of young singing monks. It is surreal and I feel surreally happy.
I settle on a particularly absurd-faced puppet and we pitch ourselves back into the rainy season streets in the direction a music store. The rocker gents tell us about all the bands that were influential to them growing up and they poke through shelves of cds and cassettes to find the most covetable titles to share with us. We purchase their every suggestion, listening to them on the stereo as we browse. After our spree, we head to a music instrument store to look for tech stuff to enable our show to happen. Instead we are stunned by the elegance of the saung-gauk, the ancient traditional arched “dragon boat” harp, and the patala zylophone and link win cymbals, and dobat barrel drums and unfathomable “violins” and “saxophones.” Its all very confusing and incredible. If we hadn’t just spent our cash on new cds, our band would likely be taking a totally different direction.
At the Sakura Tower, we all admire the city’s sprawling panorama from one of its tallest buildings. It is impossible to take it all in. It is cluttered and colourful and runs amok with itself. In every direction, I keep thinking I’ve never been anywhere like this. And as we share high altitude Arabica coffees, I think I’m inlove with this place.
However, even having a mother who grew up in India couldn’t prepare me for how little I would like the betel nut chew. My taste buds couldn’t quite compute the areca catechu wrapped in betel leaves with calcium hydroxide edible lime. Though I truly wanted to add this traditional stimulant to a list of bad habits, I spat the thing out the side of the truck.
For the next hour of the afternoon, Darko graciously allowed us a visit to his home – located on the seventh story of an eight story building with no elevators. He has a beautiful apartment that he shares with his beautiful girlfriend. We are impressed by his makeshift studio and his music collection and his sound booth. Everyone messes around on different gear for a good stretch. His beautiful girlfriend’s paintings scatter themselves across the floor, a prayer altar hangs near the ceiling and angry stickers adorn his guitar. We breathe in his balcony view but lose count of the satellite dishes.
Casper takes Dan, Archie, and I for street food Shan state noodles and many little kids cutely try to sell us many sweets we don’t actually need or desire. Receiving so few tourists as Myanmar does, I think my reddish hair is pretty exciting. After our devouring of the dishes, we pick the gentlemen back up and head to Awesome Karaoke club for soundcheck.
Again I’ll limit the details here but the show was tremendous; certainly the best night of my life was provided by all of those who were generous and ballsy enough to be involved. It includes the look-outs and blind-eyes, the monks and the punks moshing to the Ramones cover, the NGO attendees and the dapper dancers, the underground press and our most gracious host. After the show, we are introduced to an older rock god who gets the chance to meet his dream guitar (Dan’s beat up but beloved Fender telecaster.) We share t-shirts with anyone who’s interested and raise enough money for some recording time for Awesome Band.
Dan has a celebratory conical cibolla smoke and we’re all nearly brought to tears with joy. I keep pinching myself at the realization of what we’ve done, how much it makes my life better, how much it shapes what I next want to do.
At Dinky’s Bar, I keep my arms around Jozeff and repeatedly clink drinks with Tser and Darko. It is not hard to be in such handsome company. I have never been happier. We fucking pulled it off. CEH ZU TIN BA DEH my friends, for making my life more whole.
Wake giddily. Susana gives us baby bananas and sugar cane and yogurt while we hang our last night’s laundry. Dan and I circle the grounds, checking out bugs and plants and trying to name everything or make up names for the things we don’t know. The whole crew arrive in our battered flatbed and we all clamber in, holding onto the centre metal rod as sharp turns are taken with speed. The accumulated rain has turned the city streets into odorous rivers. Kids, hotfootedly, turn garbage bags into wet n wild slides. Men lift their longyis to avoid the flooding and women giggle with other women at the sight of sullied monks.
Down a side-street, down an alley, through too sets of gates to another narrow corridor, we find ourselves eating lapheq pickle tea salad, duck’s blood beans, mashed corn, slow-cooked pork, fish ball curry, squid, fresh herbs wrapped around eggplant with spicy anchovy sauce. We are happy our new friends have such impeccable tastes.
Riding around in the back of our edgy little vehicle, diesel fumes pumping fat fists into our nostrils and a monsoon downpour drenching our backs, I have never been happier.
In the multi-storey shopping mall where Emily works as a tailor, Dan buys a fake Louis Vuitton belt before being properly fitted into her custom-made shirts at discount prices. We truly couldn’t have befriended kinder folks! After a thorough excursion through the mall’s warren of densely commercially-populated passageways, we are back in the damp parking lot. Jozeff says, “It’s shitty right?” and I mishear and misunderstand what he means until I realize he’s talking about the shopping plaza itself. I defend it, trying to explain how boring shopping is back in North America. The merits and perils of this difference are confounding to us both however. When I say, “Malls back home carry exclusively the same few brands and mega stores like the Gap and Guess and Aldo, Radioshack and Payless shoes.” He says, “Yeah but we can’t even get like real Guess jeans here.” I say, “Would you want them?” He says, “No… But…” and I nod. I do get it. Of course I get it. Dan buys poison cigarettes for 1000 chat and we’re off to the docks.
There is a reason so many songs are written about docks. They are contemplative places but they are also often bustling with human poignancy. Garbage on the jetty. Ramshackle storage sheds. Huge loads carried heroically overhead. Colourful passengers paying 10 cents to be carried up and down river. Boys playing soccer. Sailors and ship hands and young prostitutes. Neglected sea vessels. Fearsome security. A punk kid in an Iron Cross shirt. Men playing a Ludo dice game with bottle caps. A disturbed teenager jerking off his dog. Fruit hawkers with heavy baskets balanced on their heads. Ladies selling flowers and betel nut. Two adolescent girls making jasmine strands to hang from each others’ umbrellas. I already feel unready (unwilling) to leave.
We pause at “Lion King” Bar to drink Myanmar beer with loose chickens, watching the action unfold before us. I well up.
Next our hosts take us to Shwedagon Pagoda, the 300 foot golden stupa that masters the skyline of Rangoon. Determined little kids sell us plastic bags to hold our shoes during the trek up the red staircase through the teakwood halls and passed the little shops with spirit statues and bells and Burmese alphabet charts. I buy a laminated food chart that expressly advises against pairing the following ingredients: popsicles and garlic, crab and orchid, watermelon and eggs, parrot and durian fruit, milk and mushrooms, beef and lotus root, lamb and conch shell, pigeon and gourd amongst many other unidentifiable items. It feels like there are no tourists at the site but many devout Buddhists thronged with us towards different temples and gods. We reach three sacred tablets in three different versions of Myanmar language – Burmese, Hon and Monk – and, as they describe in detail the meanings of each stone, we learn that all of the Awesome Band members are believers. Because they visit the temple rather frequently, they are impressive guides. Once we have determined our times and days of birth, they are able to establish which spirit animals we should visit. Jozeff tells me that I am a tusked elephant and I remark that I find it appropriate to discover this news at this age since my Mom’s favorite animal is an elephant and I am the age she was when she had me. Tser perks up and tells me that I am not the age that I think I am since by the Burmese calendar I was already born in the belly. I joke that I’ve always felt a little more mature. Dan’s birthday makes him a Tuesday lion and we wander around the science fiction world of gold and rubies and organic altars and incense and flowers and red drapes and LED Buddhas until we find the statue for him to perform the ritual that will grant him luck in life. With guidance from the boys, we douse our various animal statues with numerous cups full of water, holding our sleeves in respect. A monk takes a picture of me with his cell phone and Darko tells me that these monks are notoriously bad-ass in the monk world. The sun is going down and we record bats gathering. The sky is intensely blue while everything shines phantasmagorically beneath. It is a freakishly beautiful other world, a fantasy planet made of gold and spires and white marble and diamonds and rubies. A tree you can write your wishes on, including the exact exam score you hope to achieve. There are gigantic reclining Buddhas and Buddhas being fanned by curtains pulled by giggling devotees. A drunk guide invites us to ring large bells and explains that the bells were stolen by the British who experienced the “happy misfortune of having their boats sink so that Burma could keep our bells.” After our eyes can no longer handle so much beauty and our “souls” can no longer handle so much “spirituality”, we descend the stairs. I buy a horse deer snake fish elephant antique figurine and Emily thinks it’s funny that I choose the one who “looks like he’s had the worst life!” I say, “I have a type.” She pulls from her bag two delicately woven wallets and a pair of sparkly velvet slippers that she has chosen for me as mementos from the trip and I am so honored I could cry.
At Casper’s house, we see the pieces he is working on for his upcoming exhibition. (I’ll leave the political details out.) We arrive as he is shaking out termites that have eaten through many of the canvasses. We feel termite-eaten with grief for him.
We head out for our last dinner with our new and dear friends at Padonmar restaurant. The establishment has freakishly dull murals painted overtop the air-conditioning units and fancy drinks. I love the surreal décor. The dauntless and cocksure lead singer of one of Myanmar’s great bands joins us for dinner and we all chat about the curses of being creatively driven.
At the end of the long road, back to where we can catch a taxi, we stand in the rain. One of the most extraordinary things to do while traveling is to imagine your potential other lives. To imagine if you had been born elsewhere what you would believe in, what you would want, how you would live. As we stand in the rain, cops ushering themselves back and forth outside a security gate, I see myself in these people we’ve met. It is, for me, the best exercise in human consciousness. The hugs are hard and I am a mess of immediate tears as soon as we are behind the pattered taxi windows. Good night Yangon, we will miss you until next time.