EMAIL FROM CUBA
by Dave Serafino
The easiest thing to remember is how nice everyone was. I’ve been to plenty of countries where people are exceptionally warm and helpful toward foreigners (Thailand comes to mind, Nepal, Egypt and Morocco, Lebanon, Canada, Kenya), but Cuba is on a completely different level. A couple times I called to book a room in a house, and if they were full they’d tell me to call back in half an hour, and they’d call around town to sisters, uncles, neighbors, etc. until they found me a place – one lady met me at her house, gave me mango juice, and had her husband take me to their friends’ place a couple blocks away. I don’t think they got a commission, just doing it to help out their friends, and for the chance to chat to a tourist. When people told me to feel at home (“you’re in your home” is how it translates in Spanish), they meant it. One lady gave me a little souvenir magnet, the men would stay up to talk and drink rum, the old ladies liked to sit outside to chat before breakfast, but when I didn’t feel like talking – if I was reading or writing or something – people would smile and wave and leave me be. People were friendly among each other, too, bantering with shopkeepers, shouting to neighbors, asking after each others’ families, etc. I never saw any arguments on the street, or heard people speaking unkindly to each other. They weren’t formal at all – just very well mannered.
Also, nobody was at all put off by me being American. All over Latin America, I’ve always had to eat a certain amount of shit for being a gringo – even the Europeans I’ve met there always seem to use the word a bit too gleefully. I never heard it once from any Cuban people, except almost from one guy who caught himself before it came out (I told him it’s okay, you can say it, I know I’m a gringo). A handful of people said I was the first American they’d met – one was the first guy I met in Havana, apart from my cab driver – so, the second Cuban I’d ever met – a 56 year-old guy named Victor who looks about 45, and works picking up cans and bottles. He told me the government tells them the Americans are enemies, but that nobody really believes it. “See, now you’re standing here, and you’re completely normal” was what he told me. I didn’t correct him.
I stayed with a lady in Playa Giron, maybe 65, named Mirtha, who had an uncle who fought in the Bay of Pigs, and she told me some of his story, how he left his family on their farm, joined a militia and went to fight for three days (she was 9 or 10 at the time). I asked her what people thought about the Cubans who came back to fight against the government (for the CIA), and she said very emphatically that they were traitors, but was quick to add she was happy that most were taken alive, treated well, and quickly released (to the US in exchange for food and medical aid – Kennedy later appeared with them at the Orange Bowl for a “welcome home” event).
Essentially, I found people to be super kind, closely knit, generous people who like music and dancing (and rum and cigars) and are proud of their history and their country, at least in a general sense. Economically and politically, though, things are a mess. In most grocery stores, half the shelves are empty and the other half loaded with an entire row of just one kind of ketchup, or bags of sugar, or flour, or juice boxes, or soda (an exception: every store seemed to have a large inventory and selection of rums). The display cases outside shops showed odd arrays of useless crap – a rhinestone tiara next to a plastic fire engine next to a tin toaster and a desktop fan. Even in the richer cities (Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Viñales) stores sometimes sell an odd array of things – I saw a flatscreen television for sale in a gas station, on a shelf with diapers and a crate of condensed milk, above the potato chips. A lot of the manufactured goods I saw seemed pointless, especially as part of a planned economy, like the cuban-themed swizzle sticks for drinks that you can find in bars all over the island (most of the bars and a lot of the restaurants are state-owned, as, presumably, is the swizzle-stick manufacturer).
Other cities seemed to have lower poverty rates than Havana – in Havana itself there were some beggars, a fair number of alcoholics, and if not homelessness, than at least a few people passed out on the street. In my first hour in the city, sitting at a sidewalk table drinking mojitos, three women tried to sell me sex. Young, pretty normally dressed (one had a jeans and t-shirt, and purple streaks in her hair), one of them told me, “I just want somebody to get me off this damn island”. I was going to leave that table, actually, when I met that guy Victor who collects bottles and cans. He took me to see his house, a beaten-up first floor apartment right where the waterfront (Malecon) meets the main street (Prado). The ceilings were fifteen feet, and the place was filled with canvas bags of bottles and cans up to there. He can only sell them to the municipal government starting in February, and was planning to take the money he made to renovate the apartment to rent to tourists. Every hurricane season it floods up to the knee, but it has an open central patio and old terra cotta tile floors and a great location, so I told his wife I thought it was a nice place. “Don’t lie to me,” she said. “It’s shit.”
A few days after that, I met Alian, a 26 year-old lawyer in town from Santiago de Cuba (like a 15 hour bus ride east) looking for work as a tour guide. He makes $25 a month in his law practice, and can do a lot better on tips from tourists (he was one of the few English-speakers I met). A taxi driver I met in Trinidad was actually a pediatric surgeon, but every year he takes his vacation time in January (January is high season), he buys a taxi license ($100 a month plus 10% of his fares, which are recorded in a fare book, which police checkpoints are set up on the roads to verify), and he makes as much in that month as he does the rest of the year (his salary as a surgeon is $50/month). He drives a 1954 Ford Edsel, which he said he hates, and charged me $8 to and from the beach, 20 minutes away (I also bought us some drinks). Another cab driver told me that most people spend about 90% of their salary on food, and that the only people who can get ahead are the ones who have family in the US, who send money back so they can buy a house to rent to tourists (a lot of places I stayed, the family was renting out a nice place and living in a poorer house nearby, or in smaller rooms attached to the main house). So, for a room in a house, you pay a lawyer’s salary per night, a surgeon’s salary every two days.
Which means there is actually a fair bit of inequality being driven by remittances from the US. There are some people driving new cars, nicer cars than I’ll probably ever own – Renaults, Peugeots, Hyundais, a few Audis. A lot of those cars were for reserved for tourists (with a T on the license plate), but there were some government and some private plates, as well. Someone told me the cost of a new car, but I forget – it was a lot, anyway. The bigger cities had a higher standard of living, apart from Havana. Particularly in Cienfuegos, people’s houses had things around to mark them as middle class: porcelain figurines and newly upholstered Victorian furniture and glamour shots of their kids hanging on the walls next to oil paintings and a wooden cross. Carpets and gilt mirrors and tacky chandeliers. In the small towns and in the poorer parts of Havana, more people seemed to be living on cement or packed earth floors with a bed or two, a table and chairs, maybe a sofa and a small TV and a carpet in some of the wealthier places. I also picked up a book on race relations in Cuba, which was making the point that although under communism everyone should be equal, blacks tend to have worse jobs and housing conditions than whites or mestizos. The racial tension isn’t as obvious there as in the US (Cuban cops aren’t just shooting black children with impunity or anything crazy like that), but once I looked for division, I started seeing it. At restaurants and cafeterias blacks would sit with blacks, mestizos with mestizos, and there just weren’t that many white people (at the kind of restaurants I went to, anyway). I only noticed one inter-racial couple (teenagers), and some neighborhoods – the beat-up ones – were definitely blacker than others.
All of the negatives aside, there were at least a few positives, economically speaking. I saw less homelessness in a month in Cuba that I would find in ten minutes on any given block in a major American city. In paintings from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds I saw portraits of free black men in top hats and tails and black women in gowns and pearls alongside landscapes of slaves working the cane fields. Women seem to be well respected – I found them running businesses pretty much everywhere, and the men were way, way less aggressive and more polite toward women than anywhere else I’ve seen in Latin America. When one guy on the street commented to me that the average Cuban is as poor as anyone in Africa, I corrected him (to say nothing of the slums in India). Most of the houses, even in the country, at least had cement walls, which is a lot better than I’ve seen in most developing countries. The roads were in good shape, I did fine drinking the water in the big cities (which is something I don’t usually even try), and the hospitals, if not well-stocked, at least looked clean (I once got a yellow fever booster in a hospital in Buenos Aires where there were broken windows and chickens running around in the hall).
Politically, it’s like a joke. There are two newspapers in the country (Granma, and Juventud Rebelde – Rebel Youth, which is anything but), both of them about eight pages long and printed every other day, full of nothing but “news” about various successes at every level of government, a lot of it related to agricultural science. There was almost no international news at all, except for some articles on El Chavo, one on Innarritu’s new movie, and an obligatory article or two on Barca or Real Madrid toward the back. (One notable exception: I was in a cab – a Plymouth from the 1950s – crossing the island along the main national highway, and the cab driver stopped because there were newspapers blowing all over the road. He picked up a couple, and one that he handed me was from September 13, 2001. It was a copy of Granma, except full-sized, maybe 32 pages, all about the Trade Center and Pentagon, with pictures and background on Bin Laden, etc. Most of the articles were clearly sympathetic toward the U.S., except for one headline about American citizens crying for vengeance, which, journalistically speaking, at least seems pretty accurate.)
Apart from the propaganda newspapers, there are propaganda billboards and slogans spraypainted on walls all over cities. They’re almost entirely in reference to the revolution, how it must succeed or has succeeded, or will continue succeeding, how it has to be defended or remembered, plus some slogans for communist youth parties, down with the imperialists, that kind of thing. There’s nothing in the bookstores but political and economic theory, Cuban history, and usually a shelf of glossy covered books denouncing various aspects of capitalist imperialism, the CIA, American foreign policy, etc (we’ve given them a lot to work with there). Of the four TV channels, at least one is usually running black and white footage from the revolution, and there are five national holidays, of which only one, May 1, isn’t directly related to revolutionary violence. Even January 1 is officially remembered as a day to commemorate the victory of the revolution (Jan. 1, 1957). And, morbidly, there were pictures of Hugo Chavez all over the walls and highways saying things like “Welcome to Your Land, Brother”, and “Our Best Friend”, despite the fact that he’s been dead for like three years now. Che is all over the place, his picture and quotes on schools and billboards, the central bank headquarters and all over the souvenir shops (gov’t owned). T-shirts, posters, postcards for the girls, tattoos for the tourists, etc.
As for discussing politics, most people just don’t. Before I left, I’d read a few travel guides and blog posts advising travelers to avoid the subject, so I mostly did, but a few times, after a few mojitos, I’d occasionally touch on subjects that interested me – what will happen after Fidel dies, or what percentage of people really support the party? Even when drunk, people have the reflex to just change the subject, or politely say they’d rather not discuss it. I took people’s reluctance to be a sign that they held at least one or two opinions that ran counter to the government line – full supporters could speak as openly as they wanted, like a couple young guys I met, boozy and tearing up, saying Fidel was like a father, and they couldn’t imagine him dying (ironically, one of those guys looked just like Obama – by the end of the trip, I was estimating that 1 in every 30 adult Cuban males looks exactly like Obama). Then there was one old-timer I met in a plaza who sold me a history of Cuba and a book of essays by Che – he was boasting of having been a part of the revolution, and when I asked him how and when he joined, he proudly told me, “I killed my first policeman in 1957 in Matanzas.” So, supporters seemed to feel free to say whatever they wanted.
One exception is that everyone was really keen to talk about el cambio – “the change” in U.S.-Cuba relations. Nearly everyone I spoke to brought that up themselves. All together, I’d say a slim majority of people seemed excited and happy about the change, as summed up by one host, a 56 year-old ex-fisherman (now guesthouse owner) named Raul: “once the millionaires come, I can charge $50 for this room (instead of $25).” The number one concern I heard repeated was that the Americans would bring drugs and violence (I would point out that America is a drug buyer, not an exporter – though I guess we’re definitely a net exporter of guns and violence). When I asked if people were worried about American companies moving in, or American people buying up all the property and raising rents, most people seemed confident the government would stop them. But I saw people sitting on Prado, though, holding cardboard signs in bad English offering to sell apartments in old Havana for six to eight thousand dollars, and since they were in English, I guessing foreigners can own property…so, I’ll take two. One person mentioned to me, actually, that the governor of Pennsylvania was in Havana with some investors the week I arrived, looking for “opportunities”. I can’t imagine they’ll find many, outside of tourism, shipping.
In any case, when people asked me what I thought about the change, I said I thought there’d be good and bad results, but that mostly they wouldn’t notice any change at all. They’re already getting a quarter million American tourists a year, plus tons of Canadians, Germans, French, British – the island can’t get much more touristy than it already is. Plus, the fact that it’s expensive ($25 a night for a basic room in a house, $10 for meat, rice and some chopped vegetables) will keep American college kids from turning it into another Cancun. The government isn’t likely to let McDonald’s and Pizza Hut come and compete with all the little mom and pop roadside hamburger and pizza shacks (of which there are many), but presumably there would be some kind of pharmaceutical and food aid that would be a part of diplomatic normalization (under the new rules, U.S. pharmaceutical and agricultural suppliers can already sell, on credit, to state-owned purchasers, which is a good start). I did see European companies working mines in the west of the country, exploiting gold, copper, bronze and oil, so presumably those would be open to American competition, and there would be some benefit to the Cuban treasury if the Americans could underbid them. Deteriorating wages and working conditions might be a concern in that sector, given the state of American miners. The mining towns I saw in western Cuba were nice places with sturdy, brightly painted houses, libraries and cafes, nice-looking schools and medical clinics, clean restaurants, one had a big theater (opera, not movies). Obviously, the mining towns I’ve seen in central Pennsylvania and Appalachia don’t hold up to even the most cursory comparison, especially not in terms of alcoholism, drug use and crime (and apparently the North Dakota shantytowns are worse – people I met in Bismark were talking about rapes and kidnappings, oil workers forming roving gangs, all sorts of Mad Max shit). Presumably, though, the government would be able to ensure its own level of growth and standards, etc.
One negative thing is that I’d expect to see a lot of the classic cars starting to disappear, but that’s only negative from a tourist’s point of view – people would get rid of the cars because they’re uncomfortable, hard to drive, and a pain to repair (Cuban mechanics, however, are geniuses – I looked at a few engines, and they were all original parts in good condition – Edelbrock intakes and Holley carburetors, things I’ve only heard about from old movies and books). For Cuban people, cheaper and more efficient American cars would be a good thing. The biggest and best change, if it happens, would be if Cubans living in the U.S. could travel freely between countries. I met a lot of people with brothers and sisters or parents or children living in the U.S. who they hadn’t seen in five, ten, fifteen years (the U.S. is allowing people to go back, now, but Cubans who left the island “illegally” aren’t permitted by the Cuban government to return). If the Americans can actually stop trying to kill Castro (638 attempts, some people say), and just let nature take its course, and somehow refrain from arming dissident groups, then I’d expect things to go more or less well.
The embargo was a pain in the ass, banking-wise. I couldn’t touch my bank account, not even online, since the little wifi you can find is on unsecured, public servers (usually in plazas and pedestrian areas). For the same reason, I couldn’t buy plane tickets, or send PayPal money to non-Americans to withdraw for me, at least until I started using a VPN. I brought 500 euro and 400 Canadian dollars, which was gone in like ten days. I survived by the mercy of some kindly Europeans.
Havana was worth it, though. Not shabby chic, but dilapidated grandeur, and an odd mix of the beautiful colonial (capitalist, slave-owning) architecture next to the shitty, soviet-style mass-housing complexes with no facades at all. The classic cars really are everywhere, and they’re mint as hell, bubble gum pink and cherry red. The old city has its tourist traps – $2 bottles of water, $8 daquiris at La Floridita, the bar Hemingway favored for daquiris, (and La Bodeguita del Medio for mojitos, both of which are state-owned and overpriced – and it wasn’t until I saw the logo that I realized why the hell there was a little Cuban place called La Bodeguita del Medio in the middle of Beirut). The old city is also being restored/rebuilt, in part with UNESCO money, though the national government also seems to be investing a lot – preservation is a big thing, lots of big projects going on, and parts of buildings being incorporated into new plans, rather than demolished and replaced. Both the US and Cuban capitol buildings are under scaffolding right now, actually. Around the old city there’s a lot of rubble on the side streets (more than in Kathmandu last September), but those are also the most interesting streets, the ones where people are living, and there are hardly any tourists (apart from myself). Those are the places to get a 15 cent hamburger and a 4 cent shot of coffee (there are two currencies in Cuba – the CUC (peso convertible) is pegged to the dollar, 1:1. The CUP (moneda nacional) is 1/25th of that, and its only used in roadside shops, markets, to buy fruit on the street or basic provisions like flour, salt or cheap cigarettes). Shopping at markets and cooking at home, it was a cheap city, and the vegetables and meat were super fresh.
Besides Havana, there are 4 other UNESCO cities (Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago and Camaguey), and Viñales is UNESCO-sponsored park land. Outside the cities it was green, mostly flat down the center with palm and cane fields, hunchbacked limestone mountains in the west around Viñales, and a longer range around Trinidad, both of which were areas for planting yucca, corn and tobacco. The beaches were good but not great. The ports were pretty small, for a country historically big on shipping. There were a lot of cowboys – hats and boots and all – though there wasn’t much cattle. Someone told me that the jail sentence for killing a cow is longer than for killing a person. I don’t know if that’s true, but a lot of people told me that if you own a cow you can legally use its milk, but if you kill it you have to give it to the government to divide up the meat, and you get $100 in exchange (a cow costs $400, a pig $200, a horse $2,000 – so those 15 cent hamburgers are usually pork burgers). I ate a lot of lobster – you can get a lobster pretty much anywhere from $10 to $12. Guesthouse owners at the beaches offered them, and in Playa Giron Raul told me he can only get the tails, because the Bay of Pigs is a protected area and lobster trapping is illegal, so they dump everything but the tails overboard as soon as they empty each trap.
Anyway, lobster-poaching aside, I loved Cuba – jumped right into my top 5 favorite countries – though regardless, traveling from Havana to Cancun, I had the immediate impression of having arrived in a free country (not nearly as strongly as I felt it leaving Saudi Arabia, though – Cuba is not nearly that restrictive, more like being forced to go to a party). Partially that feeling was because I could get off at the bus station, hit an ATM, and use the free wifi to check a map and book a room at a hotel around the corner. I stayed in a poor part of the city, but the shops there were all full – full of Chinese-made crap, but still full – and though the buildings were all ugly, they were in much better repair, the elevators all worked, etc. People weren’t just standing around the corners, hustling tourists, chatting each other up, with nothing much else to do. They all had their little businesses, in actual stores, instead of selling hamburgers and coffee from their front porches or the windows of their kitchens. The pharmacies looked like pharmacies, rather than a garage sale of some bootlegger’s bathtub pill stash. You can buy bus tickets online ($4 from the airport, $20 to Merida), whereas in Havana I showed up at the bus terminal, 20 minutes out of the city and an $8 cab ride, to find out that the next available bus wasn’t for 2 days. Even finishing up writing this 5 days later at an Italian coffee shop in Merida (which was beautiful and charming and nowhere near as captivating as Havana), I still had a lingering sense of having “returned to the world” in a way I didn’t get when I moved from Kenya to Italy, for example, or from New Delhi to West Chester. Cuba is isolated by geography, politics, and a lack of telecommunications, but part of that isolation comes from that fact that it just feels culturally self-contained, and self-sufficient – all that history and art and architecture, music on every corner, dancing every night, cigars for everyone, and enough rum to flood the Caribbean. It’s not an outward-looking place, at all. It doesn’t really need to be.
OVERPAYING FOR RAIN IN MYANMAR
I spent the first four days outside Yangon, couchsurfing with a young married guy named Thia, who had a three-year old kid. Since I met him through the couchsurfing website, I sort of assumed he would have a couch, or some sort of padded surface on which I could sleep, which was not the case. What I got was a wooden palette with a blanket laid over top of it and, thank god, a mosquito net that hung about eight inches from my face. It wasn’t big enough for me to stretch out fully, or even roll over, but at least the malaria risk was minimal. When we were writing online, he’d neglected to mention that he had a family, and that they all lived in a one-room house, if the word house can really be applied to what was essentially just a cement compartment in a long line of identical compartments for the storage of people. The three of them all shared a mattress on the ground, which was separated from the main living area by a pink Minnie Mouse bedsheet tacked to a rafter of the cut timber mezannine, which, as far as I could tell, was only used to hold a shrine to the Buddha, encircled by blinking, colored Christmas lights. Add a couple chairs and a loveseat upholstered in vinyl, a vinyl laminate black-and-white checkerboard pattern for the floor, and big posters of tigers in front of a river, and eagles in front of a mountain (two of each), plus a big-screen TV that wouldn’t have been out of place in an average American house, that you pretty much get the picture. As Thai put it – we’re not rich, but we’re not poor, either. I take it the latter statement was in reference to the television. There was no kitchen, but they had a crock pot and a rice cooker in a cinderblock washroom (so, I guess, technically there were three rooms, if you include that and the bathroom, which was a cement cell not tall enough to stand up in). There was a plastic drum of diptheria-colored water for showering, and this washroom backed up against a marsh – not a paddy, just a regular old swampy field – so when it rained, the drains in the washroom floor drained in reverse, and to get to the bathroom you had to wade through shin-deep, boggy water, up the two steps into the cinderblock compartment with the hole in the floor and, since presumably their burrows had been flooded, maybe, say, twenty to twenty-five very large cockroaches clinging to the walls and ceiling.
Also not mentioned online was that I would have to pay $10 a day in bribes to the local military intelligence official (it’s still illegal for citizens to host foreigners). Nor did he mention that he was about 40 minutes by train outside of Yangon. So I only made it into the city for one day on the front end, and most of that time was spent trying to convince him that I really did want to see the things I wanted to see (“The Strand Hotel? Never heard of it. Famous writers stayed there? Never heard of them, either. You don’t want to go there. A book market? There are a lot of markets, but there’s no book market. The largest open-air book market in Asia? Never heard of it. Colonial architecture? You mean buildings? You want to look at them? That’s it, just look? You won’t like that – the buildings in Yangon are all old.”). I did, however, get to see Shwedagon Pagoda around sunset. There aren’t many man-made places that live up to the hype – the pyramids, Vatican City, Versailles have all left me unmoved – which puts Shwedagon on a short list with, I guess Macchu Picchu, Mecca, and Petra. Nowhere else comes to mind. The Alhambra. In general, I find Buddhist pagodas kind of garish and tacky, but this place had some magic, especially in the half-light.
In recompense for everything I didn’t see, I suppose, I did get to see some of what people might call the “real” Myanmar, I spent half a day watching Burmese soap operas with his wife (who spoke no English) while he slept off a hangover, a couple hours watching a German zombie B-film while his aunt and uncle had lunch with their children. I ate with him at a few local teahouses that had clearly never seen a tourist before (foodwise, most of the curries are greasy, but the fish and noodle soups are good, as are the salads, especially tea leaf salad). I also taught a couple English classes at the monastery in his neighborhood, which I didn’t expect to enjoy, since I’ve already spent a good amount of time teaching English in Southeast Asia (for money), but the kids were sharp, and very keen to learn from a native speaker, so we got along pretty well, and I’ve kept up with some of the young monks on facebook.
After four pretty rugged days, an overnight bus to Mawlamyine (in the south) felt luxurious. Air conditioning, a padded seat – until the driver started blasting the television (ultra-violent Chinese films, which looked exactly like ultra-violent American films), and the air conditioning got down to 16, according to the digital display. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it’s f*ing cold. Then there’s the fact that Burmese people just love to burp and spit and fart, as loudly as possible. The guy next to me spent the 8 hour ride burping so loud I could hear it through my headphones, which I had cranked up as far as they’d go to drown out the sound of the brutal murders taking place just above my head.
Mawlamyine is the setting for the Orwell essay “Shooting an Elephant” and the start of the Kipling poem “Mandalay” (though Kipling never actually made it to Mandalay, and only spent one day in Moulmein, as it was called then). Odd reasons to want to go there, I guess, but with that being the case I was one of very few tourists there, which was a plus. I meant to spend two days, but ended up there for five, ostensibly waiting to catch a boat up to Hpa-An, because I’d heard that the stretch of the Thanlywin river between the two towns was some of the nicest boat travel in the country (it was), but mainly because I was comfortable in my hotel, and enjoying wallowing in my own laziness. There’s not a lot to say about the town – it’s a quiet delta town where two major rivers drain into the Andaman Sea, though, despite what Kipling said, you can’t actually see the sea from Mawlamyine – the rivers are full of islands, which block the view. In the Raj era it was the British capital, used to ship teak – and various other natural resources – back to England, but it’s been in decline since then, and was hit particularly hard during the Japanese invasion and after the 1962 military coup. The majority of the people are Mon (there are something like 130 ethnicities in Myanmar, which partially explains the constant state of civil war since independence in 1948), plus a lot of Indians (who the British imported, and used as local administrators). So, the food is pretty good. It’s also just about the sweatiest place on Earth. Highlight of the trip was renting a motorbike and driving out to Nwe-lo-bo Pagoda – or, more precisely, to the foot of the mountain where the pagoda is situated. Usually there’s a truck that runs people up and down the mountain – it’s a major pilgrimage site for people in Mon State – but it wasn’t running that day, which suited me just fine, since I was planning on walking it anyway, and it meant I had the mountain to myself. It was two hours to the top, and by the time I got there, literally the only dry patch of clothing on me were the pockets of my cargo shorts. I was actually soaked to the knees. As far as pilgrimage sites go, it’s no more bizarre or asinine than any other – three smallish boulders stacked on top of each other with a stupa on top and the whole thing coated in gold leaf (people of all religions seem to agree than it’s a good idea to pray to rocks). I was less interested in the pagoda than in the view, looking south over the river, west to a giant marsh (possibly a rainy season phenomenon), and the brilliant green paddies in every direction. Even from there, though, you still can’t see the sea (Kipling, you’re so full of it).
Hpa-An was a grotty little provincial capital where I climbed another mountain. Lots of massive limestone formations, which is what made the boat ride so appealing. It was 4 hours upstream in a longboat furnished with padded seats pulled from a minivan, with an elderly French couple who paid 75% of the fare, and who spoke enough Spanish to present themselves in that charmingly racist way that older people, particularly older French people, can have. Apparently the fact that the Burmese were colonized for a century while the Vietnamese were not is entirely down to the intrinsic laziness of the Burmese people. The possibility that the British were more effective oppressors than the French, or that five centuries under a succession of extremely bloody series of monarchies might have taught the people of Burma something of the futility of fighting against a government, were apparently not factors worth entertaining. But one of them was a film professor, and she recommended me some good ones – the Burmese Harp and Operation, Burma! (with Errol Flynn). Best one I found on my own, though: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, by Anders Østergaard. About the dissident journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma during the 1988 uprising. Well worth a watch
Overnight bus to Mandalay – all the buses are overnight, and they all drop off somewhere between 3 and 5 am. Apparently the blasting televisions and air conditioning are meant to keep the driver awake. It works equally well for the passengers – or at least the European/North American/Antipodean ones. By that point I had learned to pack a hoodie and a pair of earplugs, though there’s only so much you can do. Got into Mandalay at 7, and since I’d heard it was nothing but a transportation hub, I booked a train out at 4 the next morning, and went for a walk around the palace walls (two and a half hours), and up hookworm hill (Mandalay hill). There’s one big hill in the middle of the plain, and the whole thing is a pagoda, so you have to take your shoes off. Which, evidently, in no way encourages the various business owners there to clean up after the dogs, cats, birds, whatever, who’re shitting and pissing all over the place. Nothing too exciting going on at either place, but walking down to the river, I got into some side streets with some old teak and woven bamboo houses, dilapidated colonial mansions, and a local guy eager to practice his English, who drove me down to the river, where I had to beg him to drop me off, rather than driving me all the way to my hotel – something about the fact that I’d been walking all day seemed to really upset him. But he did drop me there, with the admonition to watch myself, since the riverside is populated by “black” (undocumented) workers. I never did find out where they’re all from, though I know the majority of the Rohingya people are not issued government identifications, and are officially considered Bangladeshi, despite the fact that they’ve been in Burma for centuries. Whoever they were, they were all hard at work – sawing, hauling and shipping timber, the women cooking puff pastries to sell on the street – and all living in the most abject sort of poverty. They had extended the banks of the river with floating bamboo islands – which is something I’ve seen before, on Titicaca, where people do it because, by not living on Peruvian soil, they’re not subject to Peruvian law or taxes. I’m not sure if it’s the same thing in Mandalay, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. People were bathing, swimming and shitting in the river, pigs and goats were foraging on the shore, boats constantly coming and going. It was all very poor, and very full of life.
That 4 am train to Hsipaw climbed 3,000 meters worth of switchbacks just after dawn, then crossed the highland plateau for about 8 more hours. So much corn it made me homesick. And, fun fact, corn was only introduced to Myanmar in 2005. Since then, it has taken over the mountain regions, and all the land they’ve cleared in order to plant it has caused landslides, massive soil run-off, and the steady loss of some of their largest lakes, Inle Lake in particular, due to the increased sedimentation. The train crossed the Got Tiek bridge, which was the world’s highest when it was built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1901. I didn’t share with the other passengers the fact that Pennsylvania has had a couple of bridges from that time period collapse in the last few years. Fortunately, it seems as if the Myanmar government has put more money into infrastructure than the government of Pennsylvania – or enough, at least, to keep that particularly train load of tourists from plummeting the 1,000 or so meters into the gorge.
Hsipaw is a sleepy riverside town, if you want to get all Lonely Planet about it, which translates to beat-up and boring in proper American English. But it was a good base for some trekking (in the rain), and a trip or two up the river (in the rain), and a good bit of drinking (in the rain), with a Kiwi group I spent the next week tagging along with. Upside: it has just enough tourist infrastructure (e.g. an espresso machine) to be comfortable for the kind of person who doesn’t like tourists (i.e. me).
Inle Lake was the first time I ran into the fact that Myanmar seems to have completed its journey from brutal military dictatorship to total f*ing tourist trap in something under 5 years. The bus ride down was entirely Europeans/Aussies/Kiwis (and me), and as soon as you get off the bus, a kid comes around to collect ten bucks a head just to enter the region. That money goes straight to the government, which spends more per year on the military (23%) than on education (11%) and social services (0.3%) combined. The silver lining here, I guess, is that corrupt officials siphon off a good bit of that for their mansions and fancy cars before it ever gets turned into tanks and guns. So I can feel good about that.
The lake was, at least, worth the price of admission (though I suppose that’s a matter of perspective, depending on whether you’re the one giving or receiving the bullets). Everything is pretty peaceful around Inle, which is the case in all of the places tourists are allowed to visit. It’s the mountainous, border regions where the individual ethnic armies are still fighting, so the only real sense you can get of the conflict is the fact that, the closer you get to the border, the more likely you are to see signs saying “car and motobike rental for tourists not allowed.” Which means that if you drive half an hour in one direction or another, you’re likely to find rebel army camps, or villages occupied by government soldiers. Which, evidently, some people do.
But, yeah, nice lake, surrounded by picturesque villages, most of them on stilts, with people growing hydroponic tomatoes, which they pick from their canoes, or gathering watercress, or lotus stems, which they use to weave fibers. Lot of silversmiths, lot of people selling overpriced trinkets. The kiwis I was with bought a “handmade” Buddhist calendar for $50 (bargained down from $80). While trying to extricate myself from that particular market, I had a guy following me trying to sell the same thing, and he got down to $5. I didn’t mention that to my travel mates.
Tourism-wise, Bagan is pretty much the highlight of the country (along with Inle), and so is even more of a hell than other places. There are 2,600+ pagodas/stupas/temples scattered over an area of about 40 km2, and each of these, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has its own tout, looking to sell you postcards, or bead necklaces, or one of their kids, or just an arm, or whatever. Fortunately, each of these temples also has a young French family taking endless photographs, and with a bit of cunning you can use one to distract the other, and find yourself a solitary view. I’m told the heat during the high season is pretty intense – but so is the rain during the low season. The thing to do in Bagan is to climb a temple to see the sun setting over the temples, but in the six days I spent there, there were exactly 0 sunsets. The last four days, in fact, it rained cats, dogs, monkeys and snakes, so I pretty much sat around in cafes, writing. Which was fine. Seen one temple, seen twenty-six hundred of them.
In summary, if you’re into stunning natural beauty and staggering poverty, try Laos. If you want sprawling complexes of Buddhists temples and swarms of tourists, try Angkor Wat. And if you just want to see what 60+ years of brutal military oppression will do to people, and to an entire country, you should see a psychologist, maybe in Haiti or Sierra Leone. As for Myanmar, it needs some time for the infrastructure to catch up with the swarms of hipsters (and young French families) out looking for an “authentic” experience. A $50 hotel room in Yangon is $10 anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and for every $50 overpriced room you take, ten percent of that goes straight into the government meat grinder. I pay my US taxes, so I’m culpable enough for that sort of shit already.
I’m serious about the hipsters, too – flying out of Yangon, it was nothing but big beards and dyed armpit hair jockeying for lattes at the one little caffeine dispensary. I hope their coffee was bitter enough to seem authentic.