06: Between Idyll, Imperfection, and Iniquity Part 3
Between Idyll, Imperfection, and Iniquity Runs the Irrawaddy River
We had rented scooters and were motoring around the endless network of dirt roads and trails that crisscross the ancient city of Bagan. In the setting sun it looked like a more-forested East African savannah, dotted with hundreds of bygone temples. The temples caught light and spoke of time. The trees suggested thorns. A small ridge of mountains lined the horizon, but otherwise it was flat.
Zooming around the corners of these paths that connect temple to temple, you could run into a pair of shepherds encouraging their cows onward, a megabus carrying tourists to the more sacred or well-preserved pagodas, an intimidating sequence of dead-ends, or a temple that you’d swear hasn’t been touched since it was deserted in some ambiguously chaotic flurry, hundreds of years ago, you’d guess.
And soon I was flat in the mud. My scooter’s front tire had met a deep rut and I fish-tailed out of control. It was a gentle fall though, into the thick morass of the puddled dirt track. Tamara had seen it all from the dry safety of her scooter and was quick to be laughing and taking pictures. I stood up in mud-caked clothing with my arms hung wide, gazing down at my feet as if to give a look to the slop climbing up my legs. A welcoming look. I had only to let the mud dry before entering the next empty temple to climb its candlelit staircase and glimpse the sun setting over the city.
This is what Bagan is known for, its vast plain of nearly 2,000 ancient pagodas making it a religious site worthy of pilgrimage and perhaps the country’s most compelling tourist destination. Yet I felt like I had seen enough after just one day of exploring its temples and trails. If Inle Lake and its insistence on guided tours made me feel leashed, here in Bagan I felt freed from my leash but put in a cage, or less cynically, an expansive, idyllic play-pen. I feel that way whenever I visit a place whose identity is largely tied to one thing. I wondered if there was more to this place than the temples, though no one I asked seemed to think so.
Before dawn on the morning of my second day, I ate breakfast alone at the hostel while studying a painted map of the mystical city. Tamara had signed up for a hot-air balloon tour that looked magnificent but was far over budget for me. I hunched over the map trying to locate the temples that had been suggested to me for sunrise. I picked one and memorized the route, since I had lost my phone the day before and would be flying blind, and then I left.
But my scooter broke down on the way, which admittedly was a relief, permitting me to give up on the temple. As I waited for a repair, I wandered around open-air markets whose story was familiar. Fruits and vegetables so robust and full of color, meats and fish so absolutely assaulting, that you might wonder how they’ve all come to be that way, so early in the morning.
I walked through a narrow market stall that opened up to a long, tree-lined road disappearing in the distance. I followed it, for a mile or two, and inadvertently came to a big cliff that dropped down to a riverbank. It was the Irrawaddy, the same river that flows from the northern mountains southward to Yangon, the delta, and the Bay of Bengal.
My visitation upon the river here felt sneaky. Crowds of workers danced around the beach below in Brownian motion. There were fishing boats and defunct ferries dragged up to the wrack line. Further downstream was the shine of the main port, where the pretty boats waited in vain for tourists looking beyond the temples. I remained backstage, peering out furtively from behind the curtain, weighing my intrusion on a scene so uninterrupted, before making my entrance.
The beach bustled with gravel traders, sand sifters, boys playing soccer; welders without eye protection and sailors emboldened by the new paint on their ships. A father crouched next to his motorcycle, splashing water from the river onto its chrome underbelly, while his son straddled it and imagined the adjacent river to be a great fast road. I was gladly invisible.
Mid-size dump trucks came and went along the uneven slope of the beach. The arrival of an empty one prompted farmers, mostly women, to scurry back and forth from their boats to the truck carrying bushels of crops balanced on their heads. Onions, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, foods I didn’t recognize. The truck’s drivers were two boys who scaled the metal bed of the vehicle with ropes and tethers that turned the towering piles of crops from impossible to precarious.
No longer beholden to any temple tour schedule and alone in my conversation, I happily pottered about the shoreline with my camera, watching the trucks get full and leave, watching boats come in from the misty river, asking me to ask myself where they’ve come from. I could see on the opposite shoreline barely more than the beginnings of a wide floodplain. The boats came from there, dropped their loads, and then motored back into the mist. Further afield, to the left of the floodplain, stood a singular mountain with a glowing golden stupa illuminated in the dusk light.
A man approached me as I stood hidden amongst the boats, staring at the mountain, surely appearing to him quite lost. He asked if I wanted to take a boat. I asked where. He said, to the mountain. I considered: the sun was rising strong, I had no semblance of a plan for the day, and, also, the notion that I was interrupted from staring at a place by an offer to go directly there - well that seemed so unimaginably seamless compared to the lion’s share of my Southeast Asian transportation experiences that I swallowed my delight in order to first negotiate the price. I asked how much. He drew a 15 in the sand (to represent 15,000 kyat, which is about 11 USD). I drew a 5. He crossed it out, drew a 10, and we went.
His name was Misue. He was gentle and paternal. Wearing a striped blue and white polo shirt, sporting a ball cap that shadowed his smile, he directed us slowly into the subtle strength of the river. The boat, like Inle, had a big exposed diesel motor on the stern, but this time the hull was a bit shorter and partly shaded by a canvas roof. The water was the color of milk tea, warming quickly towards mid-morning. It’s flow was unintelligible, perverted by sediment, full of boils and eddies and standing waves, and once a dead dog floating slyly beneath the gunnel. I sat midship under the awning, sometimes exchanging smiles of approval with Misue, and wondered about the life of a river.
This river reminded me of the Nile, which I’ve rafted, or maybe the Indus or the Euphrates, of which I’ve only learned and dreamt. I had never learned of the Irrawaddy, but it felt familiar, since rivers have that funny way. In history classes they read as enduring forces of civilizations: providing sustenance, facilitating movement, mediating politics, inspiring art and religion. On the water it all comes true. Something about rivers seem to illuminate the essential interactions of a society. In my travels I’ve found myself drawn to the river without explicit intention, but each time reaping explicit reward. For the same reason when friends visit me back home in Virginia, I take them kayaking on our creeks and rivers. If you’ve only one opportunity to understand a place, shoot for the ports, the docks, the shorelines. There will always be a show.
But the show is not always pleasant. Consider the Naf River, which forms the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It’s currently the stage for the Rohingya crisis. Thousands are fleeing across its waters. Consider the Rio Grande, separating the US and Mexico. How many dramas have unfolded along its banks in the past? What will be the nature of those dramas in the future?
The riparian setting is humanity’s oldest stage, lending itself to be dramatized, and thereby challenging the human to ever decouple the river from its narrative. In reality, though, the river is objective, detached, and efficient. It winds forcefully, but humbly, along the most intelligent path. It almost seems instructive. How differently the river conducts itself compared to the vibrating, ephemeral humanity that punctuates its course. How mystifying it is that so many of our stories are mediated by this brown god that cares not to listen. (See, I am already anthropomorphizing it). And how disheartening it is to know that too often we mistake the river’s disinterest to be the river’s immunity. The river does not conspicuously vocalize its distaste for dams, pollution, or overfishing. But it sends signals, like the empty nets I see being pulled ashore as Misue and I approach the bank. One group of fishermen stands around a half-submerged, fruitless net. There could be more fish in the unexposed portion, but Misue doesn’t cut the motor in time and we run into the dock, and I forget to look.
On land Misue offers a cab but I make a walking gesture with two fingers and he points me up a road and then flutters his hand to suggest some vague, spiraling climb, shooing me away like a dove. I am happy for a little hike. I pass a monastery and a school in session, but otherwise quickly get into some rural hills that feel very removed from Bagan. The hills are green but arid, seemingly harsh but somehow hospitable.
Walking apace, I get to thinking. I’ve been in Myanmar for, what, 8 days now, and I have two days left. I have been going alone but have made good friends. By most accounts I am just traveling, just a tourist, though I came with a certain curiosity and concern about the Rohingya crisis that has motivated and grounded me. I’ve thus far been to Yangon, Inle Lake, and Bagan, with some smaller stops in between. My experience in Yangon was highlighted by spending time with peers who live there but have a global perspective. My time in Inle was deeply colored by the complicated nature of cultural tourism and the disheartening perspective of an insular monk. Now in Bagan, an epicenter of Buddhism for Myanmar, I was eager to eschew the tourist circuit in pursuit of some sort of closure. But the best approach to obtaining closure was thus far elusive. In the past week it was largely spontaneity and luck that brought me any sort of learning. Applying that method in Bagan put me on a boat to a mountain with another temple on top. I was excited to be have been on the water, to now be climbing and sweating, but I wondered if I was in some way neglecting more purposeful possibilities.
Ten minutes into the hike I pass a roadside house whose tenant comes out excitedly with offers of water and several other proclamations I don’t understand. There’s no way he has bottled water, and that’s all I’ve been drinking in an attempt to avoid “Burma Belly,” so I politely decline and continue walking. Oddly, he seems equally okay with that.
Another ten minutes of climbing, the hills getting steeper and the road becoming a stone staircase, I hear a radio before coming across an open-air concrete shelter. A monk is asleep on the floor. Plastic bags of vegetables hang from the walls. Bottles of orange soda line the window sill. There’s a calendar with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on January. I wonder about the rest of the months.
I put my bag down, which rustles enough of the stillness to wake up the monk. He springs to life and appears elated to see me, as if I were the first passerby all week. He takes a Fanta and pours me and him two dixie cup portions. His English is abominable, much worse than the monk from Inle. He points up the mountain and asks if I am going to the temple. I tell him yes. Then I ask what his name is, if he lives here, if I could sit for a minute, and he doesn’t understand a word of it, replying with his finger pointed up the mountain and the words “four five,” which I take to mean a forty-five minute walk. I thank him and continue on, figuring I will pass him on the way down.
I reach the top, panting, very sweaty. I find few distinctions between this temple and the rest, but this one is blessed with a panoramic view of Bagan and the runny Irrawaddy. Worth it. Straight ahead, across the river, I can see the sprawling savannah of pagodas. Across the river to the left I can see the beach I walked along several hours earlier. And further to the left, on this side of the river, the mist largely burnt away by the midday sun, I can finally see the wide, green floodplain that is revealed to be covered with crops. This is where all those things are grown, and then they get put on the boats that cross the river in the morning to find the dump trucks, which then take them to those beautifully smelly open-air markets, where my malfunctioning scooter delivered me this morning.
This little world which I had been exploring over the past two days seemed to connect in that moment with a greater intimacy than before. This intimacy was not necessarily about knowing where the food comes from, though that’s always enlightening, but more so about repudiating the limiting outlook that casts different societal transactions as discrete or singular. In reality they are overwhelmingly interdependent, and that’s an epiphany seldom granted but critical in making one’s existence within the system more aware, selfless, and therefore fulfilling. In this system, most beautifully, running through it all was the Irrawaddy River.
My descent was hot and disappointing. I came across the monk, again asleep on the floor of the shelter. This time my small noises did not stir him. I tried saying hello, several times, louder and louder. Still no reaction. Even though I was sure our conversation would be barred by language, I guiltily wanted to wake him up to see if I could get anywhere at all with questions about the Rohingya crisis. I was feeling the clock ticking, since I would soon be gone from Myanmar, and who knows if I’d find a monk available to talk between now and then. But he did not awake. I was two notches below a yell when I gave up, somewhat ashamed of myself. In my rushed, hangdog departure I dropped my camera on a rock and let out a loud DAMN. Then the monk woke up. He was not elated. Without getting off the floor, he asked if I wanted more Fanta. I accepted and sheepishly took a seat under an overhang just outside the shelter. Maybe this could go somewhere, I thought. He was propped up on the floor. I drank a couple sips of the Fanta. My small-talk questions hit dead ends. He laid down and assumed a sequence of opening and closing his eyes that might have looked ethereal if I wasn’t feeling so bitter. He was probably wondering why I was still there. I was too. Soon he started snoring, so I kept walking.
Further along, the jubilant man who offered me water on my ascent seemed to have been foretold of my return. He was in the same spot waiting for me with more offers of water, and this time, corn. I was persuaded to accept. I walked into his modest hut. He took a ladle off the table and scooped water from a big clay pot into a tin mug. He passed me a plate of corn. Every nervous bone in my body warned that this could easily spell food poisoning, but the thought was easily overridden by hunger and thirst and a desire to be polite, but even more so by a trust in this man and his almost overbearing generosity.
He admired me as I drank and ate his gifts. It seemed to be bringing him great happiness. When I paused after drinking half the water in my mug, he took it, drank the rest, filled it up again and passed it to me. This happened three times. We attempted casual conversation between sips and bites. His son was living in Australia now, he said. He likes Aung San Suu Kyi, he said. My inevitable question about the Rohingya crisis was so marvelously misunderstood that when I eventually left, I bid him ‘Goodbye Htay’ (his name), and he said “Goodbye Rohingya” to me.
Encouraged by two strikes in a row, I stopped in the monastery that I bypassed on the way up. I sauntered along its shady corridors until I had attracted enough attention and one of the monks came up to me. (Again, hyper-limited capacity for shared conversation.) I gathered that he actually works as an engineer for the government in between being a monk. He said he is a monk for ten consecutive days per month. I nervously joked that that seemed like a great work-life balance. Then I added a question about the Rohingya. He seemed apprehensive but resolute in responding with a familiar retort: “Bengali.” I failed to hide my disappointment.
By the time I returned to the shoreline, I was experiencing a delirious combination of hunger, exasperation, and self-ridicule. I contemplated, am I some sort of charlatan? To come to this country so rife with insidious, engrained socio-political conflict and think that by liberally meandering along its tourist circuit I could learn enough to justify my visit? Could learning ever be a sufficient rationale? I imagined parading around Rwanda during its genocide, intermittently asking quasi-hard questions while enjoying the countryside, and the immorality of such a scheme seemed overwhelmingly apparent. Is the Rohingya crisis not worthy of such principled restraint? Is it too diluted across time or more isolated in space? Are its victims too pitiless, or its perpetrators so cunning? Or was it that my desire to see Myanmar so powerfully overrode my conscience and pure intentions?
I thought all this as Misue and I motored back across the river. I reflected upon looking into the eyes of that most recent monk, when he said he worked for the government, and I momentarily thought I might glean some intimate window into the regime’s world. I thought about the man who offered me water and corn, and how he jumped to laud the name of Aung San Suu Kyi but was ignorant of the term Rohingya. I remembered the monk I met at Inle, and the disheartening complicity and hypocrisy he revealed in supporting the expulsion of the Rohingya. And I thought back to my friends in Yangon, who seemed to have just the right combination of knowledge and resources needed to enact change, but lacked some degree of motivation, or worse, empathy. Surely, as they argued, the situation could still remain more complex than I realized. But, to me, complexity was failing to preclude a verdict on morality, responsibility, and suggested action.
I was realizing that contemporary Myanmar is not the evolving democracy that the international community has been celebrating for the past 5 years. I would argue instead that we have all been duped. Is not the military in a better situation than ever before? It now has the acclaimed Aung San Suu Kyi to elevate its national veneer, fostering a more credentialed role at the world’s round table, accelerating foreign investment and tourism, generating in more funds for its persecution campaigns. Suu Kyi’s merits, meanwhile, bring her all the blame for the military’s actions. Surely her lack of action is scandalous and newsworthy, but while she becomes the media’s scapegoat, the military sits in the shadows, seldom accosted in any material way. If you read the stories about the Rohingya crisis, you’ll see Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned in most articles, but you’ll rarely see the military’s leader named. (His name is Min Aung Hlaing. I had to look it up, which, for him, is a remarkable success.)
I realized, while still motoring along the river with Misue, that my week-long, informal public opinion poll could be reduced to a few disappointing conclusions. The military’s keenly orchestrated but superficial shift to civilian democracy deflects blame on to Suu Kyi, a less powerful puppet, while it retains majority control over the country’s operations. Those operations are guided in large part by taingyintha, the discriminatory schema of national races well-embedded in the Burmese psyche and their political environment. The military, Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian Bamar majority, and the institution of Buddhism co-produce and exist within taingyintha, but neither the Rohingya’s advocates nor Myanmar’s critics offer solutions rooted in this holistic perspective. The Rohingya effectively serve as the token by which Myanmar’s national trajectory is measured. They become the stakes in a tug of war between the camps of Burmese power and Western political ideology.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this would constitute the extent of my learning on the Rohingya crisis while in Myanmar. I still had one day left, and I would keep trying, but to no avail. My unspoken mission to learn as much as I could during my trip would end in a whimper, not a bang. And it’s probably good that I couldn’t foresee that. I was already crestfallen as it were. Even Misue could tell. He kept calling at me, smiling, hoping for signs of life. He pointed out different stuff in the river. I saw a new group of fishermen along the shore, and he kindly motored closer to the bank to accommodate my non-verbal interest. We all waved, it was a big waving party, and we probably could have stopped, but my inaction directed us back onward, towards the beach where we started.
After landing on the shore, I paid Misue and offered him a tip he did not accept. We agreed to meet back there tomorrow at 6am. I said I wanted to see the fishermen again. I did. But I also just appreciated him as a friend, and I didn’t know what else I would do.
The scene back at the hostel was jarring. It was someone’s birthday, and beers were being passed around under the bright and beautiful bulb lights that made you feel far away from Bagan. After changing clothes and searching for my lost phone once more, I sat down with a beer myself. I do enjoy hostels for what can sometimes feel like their diversity, though it’s mostly a geographic or national diversity. My table was chaired by Australians, British, French, Swiss, Canadians, Germans, and Israelis. It was like some neo-colonial sect of the OECD, or is that redundant? Aside from a couple South Africans, there were few black people. And despite being in Asia, there were also relatively few Asians, beyond the one Japanese and one Hong Kong Chinese. I was the only American. We don’t get out much.
But I don’t mean to be overly cynical. After acknowledging their limits, these gatherings of mostly white travelers are still some of the more eclectic parties I get to attend. The people here are almost all living remarkably intrepid lives. Just because they’re often buoyed by personal and structural socioeconomics, doesn’t mean a risk on their account isn’t still something to admire. There are plenty of equally well-to-do folks around the world who wouldn’t dare to leave everything behind, take a pay cut, dedicate their brightest decade to their most dire passion, or have no agenda at all beyond being absolutely open to experience. It’s an electrifying atmosphere. I surely romanticize the past in feeling that these gatherings of travelers once happened more often, that you could walk down to the nearest cafe and find innumerable souls in the throes of their own bildungsroman. But here and now, and in hostels around the world, that kind of mirage materializes. It’s invigorating to know that one’s quest for “meaning” is enmeshed in a thousand other’s. At these youth-dominated hostels in particular, you have essentially one generation, streamlined by the trials of travel, forming a unexpectedly coherent group. Some global cool kids club you’ve always wanted. And beer! Admittedly though, such assemblies of wanderers and the entities that support them often toe the line between gregarious, benign backpacker orgies and cults of cultural conquistadors.
What I mean was exemplified right in front of my eyes, when a worker from the hostel stood up in front of the swath of populated tables to announce an icebreaker game. (Weird, because what else is beer if not an icebreaker?) Each table became a team, and we had to respond to a series of prompts that she read aloud. One sought the table whose participants spoke the most languages. I could contribute only English and Spanish. A Swiss girl at my table spoke German, English, French, Greek, Arabic, and a little bit of Mandarin. I was floored. But another table, chaired by 6 people, spoke a total of 16 unique languages, compared to our 11, so we lost that round. The next prompt was an open-ended challenge to find the table with the most things in common. My table was ruthlessly boring and efficient. Someone offered that “we are all currently in Myanmar.” A French guy said “we all enjoy Bagan.” While I, clearly a bit glum after the day’s misadventures, ruefully offered that “we all consider the socio-political implications of the countries we visit.” In return I received a pantheon of blank stares. The questions from the game leader continued, and espoused what I consider to be a check-the-box travel mentality. She asked which table had visited the most countries, then which table had visited the most pagodas, then which table had seen the most sunrises. It’s this kind of mindset, in which travel and its inseparable consequence of cultural exchange become transactional, calculated, and exploitative, that I see fostered by hostels, backpacking communities, and guidebooks. Go here, do this, leave; go there, do that, keep going. Be okay with a transient stopover in this village to buy that bracelet, take that picture, leave with that thing and be able to say you saw it. Mmm, no thanks. I don’t want to count my countries in competition with you. And I really, really, really don’t want to do that as a group of white people whose greatest thrill is derived from speaking to the most well-traveled traveler, asking about the most remote, unexploited, brown-skinned places he went, so that they might just get a recommendation on the best hostel there. I can’t stand that. I’m not a saint. But I had to finish my beer and walk off into town for dinner.
I went to my preferred hole-in-the-wall down the street and found seated at a table one of the hostel workers, Julian, that I had gotten to know a bit. Before I even made a sound he said I could sit with him as long as I don’t ask any questions. I wondered, had he caught wind of my informal public opinion poll about the Rohingya crisis? But he meant otherwise, I realized, when he continued and said that he’s tired of answering travel questions for folks at the hostel. “I don’t want to tell you where the best temple is, where the best street food is, or where the best of anything is at all.” I could tell he was both joking and desperately serious. I assured him I wouldn’t, and I sat down describing the icebreaker game I had just escaped at the hostel. He wasn’t surprised. He said the hostels can be a very mixed bag. Not everyone enjoys or subscribes to that type of travel, but it often overshadows the tendencies of more subtle, thoughtful, culturally-engaged travel. Guidebooks and the budget to mid-range travel industries rely on being able to distill a place into its readily digestible parts. That means to-do lists, highlights, and, ironically, a constant fetishization of the accessible but less-traveled road. Hostels in turn are an essential piece to that puzzle, often deriving significant business from guidebook reviews. And no doubt it’s a boon for business to be the hostel characterized as icebreaking, gregarious, and frequented by well-seasoned travelers. Julian’s objective analysis was paired with his subjective admission that he gets away from the hostel as soon as he can. Being German, he says the Burmese don't drink enough for him, so he hangs out with the hot-air balloon pilots, who are often rowdy expats and never ask him to count countries.
Counting isn’t all bad, of course. Julian counted the number of times I forgot my room key and had to be let into my room - 3. After dinner, I counted with delight the 6 scoops of ice cream in my bowl: cookies n’ cream, chocolate, strawberry, blueberry, mango, and mango again. Back at the hostel, in bed, I remembered that about a week before, I had been with my family for Christmas and we drew a map of the States and each counted those we had visited - lots. And soon, I hoped to be counting sheep. I was getting up before dawn to meet Misue at the beach again. I pulled up Facebook quickly to reread the phrases I had asked Zoe to translate for me from English into Burmese:
“May I join you? I would like to observe and learn.”
“Kyun naw kyi pii thin chin dae? Kyun naw laik kae lo yah lar.”
Such insurmountable consonants sent me right to sleep.
I woke up to my watch ringing in my ear. The life of the phoneless. A quick breakfast and I was off to find the beach where Misue would be waiting. My scooter didn’t break down this time. When I got to the beach it was still dark. Misue was not there. Maybe he was hidden in the shadows of the boats or something, I thought. I looked around. I waited for 15 minutes where he found me the day before. I asked people who passed me. But he never showed. So I decided to wander around the beach, thinking he could just be late, since, after all, he lived across the misty river.
The beach was not without its entertainment. The gravel traders, sand sifters, and boat painters were all in attendance. The soccer players were warming up. Up the beach, towards the main port, was a pagoda. I stumbled along towards its gleaming facade, picking up some warm doughy fried foods along the way. The stairs up to the pagoda were full of beggars extending silver bowls within reach of the streaming passersby leaving the shrine. This was the first time I had seen anyone begging in Myanmar. This was new.
But otherwise things were just as before, and I continued my stroll along the beach, as if I had returned to conduct a longitudinal study of the scene. Even the smallest semblance of routine - retracing my steps in the dark morning of this beach - recalled memories of the morning commute back home in DC. Routine provides that necessary and comfortable space for daydreaming, freeing your mind of decision-making. It creates a wormhole in time, because as your mind wanders elsewhere and is inherently not present, your sense of time becomes warped. This morning’s saunter, under vanishing stars, pleasantly reminded me of the benefits that structure, predictability, knowing where you’re going, can bring. But it also reminded me that routine is the enemy of time. Back home in DC, I remember a week passing like a day. Here in Myanmar, not once had I done the same thing for two days in a row; everyday was new. And this made my week in the country feel like a month. If routine is the enemy of time, novelty is time’s ally. And traveling rarely lacks novelty.
After a couple hours of shoreline rumination, though I felt beholden to Misue, I began to look around for other boat drivers. I could see some tourist ferries by the main port that could serve as a last resort. But ideally, if I were to find these fishermen again, I needed a driver cool with taking my directions. I found one, laid out relaxing in his longtail canoe. He didn’t believe my interest in him until it was obvious there was no other explanation for me standing there. Our interaction elicited chuckles from other people on the beach, as if I were entering unawares into some comedic doom. And frankly neither the condition of this man nor his boat helped to relieve such suspicions. He was disheveled, having probably just woken up, and wore severely bent glasses that magnified his lazy eye. His boat was the smallest along the shore, without any canvas cover like Misue’s, and the engine of a lawn-mower instead of a truck affixed to the stern. Why did I choose such an all-star outfit? Because I figured no one else would, giving me some degree of independence.
I wasn’t wrong. We pushed off from the shore, just me and him, without any explicit direction. But the further we motored into the open river, the less okay he was with just going. He kept offering to take me to the mountain, or to the other shore, or to anywhere that had a name and was not moving. But I kept insisting (with gestures, not language) that we head downstream in the middle current so that I could scan the shores for the fishermen I knew. Gradually, after several anxious u-turns and loopdey-loops, I learned that he was pointing us in the direction of wherever I looked. So I began to make very conscious head movements, inclusive of the responsibility to avoid crab pots, fishing lines, and other boats. It started to feel like I was in a first-person boating video game, the outline of the bow occupying the lower third of the screen, the wide river extending across the rest, all of it panning in sync with the caprice of my gaze. And then finally I saw the fishermen, the same ones from yesterday. They had moved to a new spot downriver but were still standing on the sandy banks pulling in the same huge net. I glued my gaze on them, and they waved as we drew closer. The group was about 7 strong. It was made of both boys and elders. They were barefoot, shin-deep in the soft sand, wearing various soccer jerseys and hats. I was overcome with a strong desire to get out of the boat and help pull in the net. We were approaching chest-deep shallows. Almost there. But my driver, getting antsy and confused by my headstrong directive to continue, started to turn us about exactly when the motor came to a choking halt. The boat lurched forward. We looked at each other perplexed. Not until he lifted the motor shank off the bow to reveal a fishing net entangled in the propeller did I realize I had failed my duties. Was it my fault? If I saw myself more as a passenger, probably not. But the double-edge sword of my obstinate, selfish desire to direct the route was the mantle of first mate duties, which I had definitely failed. On the bright side, this gave me my chance to get out of the boat.
I hopped out and tried to wade around to the bow. The bottom was an endless suction of mud. It made everything hard. The driver remained in the boat, struggling to keep the heavy metal shank and propeller out of the water while also removing the net. If you can imagine twirling a net around four blades at an impressive but undetermined number of revolutions per second, you can imagine the clusterfuck that this tangle was. Tangled Christmas lights times ten. Tangled iPhone headphones times a bajillion. The driver wasn’t having any of it. He started to yell at the fishermen on the shore with words I know not, but in a tone universally recognizable as misplaced blame and frustration. Perhaps his portly, somewhat hapless caricature helped disarm his blaming volleys, because one of the fishermen kindly began to wade out towards us as if his annoying uncle had just run over the net again. He came with a big knife, and I would guess the driver felt just as inadequate as me. Yet even the knife was still challenged by the mess we’d made.
My offers of help were declined, so I went ashore. The rest of the gang were still focused on their own net. It was big and circular, the exposed half being muscled ever so slightly onto the beach by the men. I walked over, wracking my brain for the phrases Zoe translated. May I join you? They stared at me, in their constant backwards lean, all hands on the net, and gleefully shook their heads and smiled.
I tried to seem casual as I rushed over to the part of the net that had just come out of the water, but I was far too excited to be cool. I pulled really hard for the first five minutes, until I caught the rhythm. I pulled, we pulled, in slow, synchronized motion. A marathon not a sprint. My hands grated against the alternating synthetic and natural fibers of the netting. I occasionally looked back at the boat, where the one fisherman was still hacking away at the net, and the driver had retired to laying on the sand. I felt guilty but I was encouraged by the ever rising levels of enthusiasm espoused by every man along the net, seemingly happy to have another hand, and even happier to finally see the end of the net approaching the banks. After an hour of heaves and hoes (which, by the way, was replaced by a more lyrical, peaceful chant) we finally brought it ashore. Everyone brought their part of the perimeter inward, holding it high, tightening the draw strings and shaking the contents to the bottom. It was full of close to nothing.
To say this was some indicator of the health of the fishery would be a total assumption. And if the fishermen were disappointed, I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t disappointed, but it’s also not my livelihood at stake. I didn’t wish to think too much about it though. The group gave a small cheer and I felt great satisfaction from simply participating. I was also beaten from the several hours spent in the sun. By now it was approaching late afternoon. My driver was ready to go, too. So I made to leave, waving in the same way that I arrived, thanking them for letting me help. They probably thought I was a wacko, having been some random white dude who ran over a net, jumped in the water, and worked the lines for an hour. But part of me thinks they totally understood. Barriers are broken by hustling down and dirty with strangers in pursuit of a common goal. In the same way that rivers illuminate the essential interactions of a society, they also open the widest window for travelers to become part of those interactions. I was high on interaction.
Back on land, I sped across dirt trails passing temples bathed in sunset. I was intercepted by a herd of 200 heads of cattle, so I climbed atop the nearest pagoda and had the fading sun entirely to myself. I would be leaving the next day. I sat cross-legged on the temple’s brick wall and reckoned with the end of my travels in Myanmar. I admitted the end of my adventures with Tamara, and Zoe. I admitted the end of my in-country research about the Rohingya crisis. And I admitted that, to all the questions I had been asking myself, whether personal, philosophical, or political, whether about my capacity for loneliness, the nature of rivers, or the depth of the Rohingya’s crisis, I still didn’t have a single incontrovertible answer. I was neck-deep in musings, learnings, and, evidently, writings. And I wondered what the hell it was all worth.
But I was optimistic. If my mission was to learn, that I did. If my mission was to share, that I am doing. And if my mission was to use the perspective gained to advocate for the Rohingya, that I will. I don’t want to seem magnanimous, and one could probably still argue the many ways I may have done harm. But if I isolate this to an individual scale, a personal scale, I wouldn’t have thought deeply about the Rohingya crisis without traveling to Myanmar. That’s scary to admit. Humanity’s downfall may be its ability to ignore the suffering of others. But, for me, traveling gets close to a cure for that.
It’s no panacea, of course. The next day, as I flew over the northern mountains that Myanmar shares with Thailand, I knew there was likely conflict simmering along the border below. And hundreds of miles to the west, Myanmar’s other border was being crossed by Rohingya desperate to reach Bangladesh. Meanwhile I flash my passport and am off on the magic carpet ride. What is there to hold onto once you leave, once you learn, once you share? I don’t know the answer for everyone, but for me it actually became quite clear. I want to study the intersection of climate change, land use, and geopolitical conflict.
Consider that the Rohingya expulsion has created, in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp. The Burmese and Bangladeshi governments have discussed returning the refugees to Myanmar, deservedly eliciting the scorn of human rights groups who assert Myanmar has done nothing to resolve the original problem. Meanwhile, the Rohingya refugee camps, more populous than Washington D.C., are shanty towns built on loose hillsides that are rapidly being defoliated for firewood. With the monsoon season coming in April, officials on the ground are already anticipating widespread flooding, water contamination, and landslides. The Rohingya can’t go back to Myanmar, because there’s no guarantee for their safety. They can’t expand their settlement or move to a more secure setting because some of the region’s nicest beach resorts are right around the corner. And they aren’t being welcomed into larger Bangladesh society (they’re even barred from learning Bengali or getting SIM cards out of fear they might assimilate) because Bangladesh is already brimming with issues related to overcrowding, poverty, and flooding. It’s also one of the countries most threatened by rising sea levels. Just like I argue that the Rohingya’s immediate threat in Myanmar is entangled in the concept of taingyintha, their long term livelihood depends on resettlement and is entangled deep within the agendas of various geopolitical actors, the current state of land use, and the impending challenges of climate change.
Such thoughts filled my mind as I flew out of Myanmar. Such daydreams. I looked out the window, reaching cruising altitude, wagering that having gone was the right choice, instead of the alternative: remaining some speculator, or worse a spectator, high up in these bright, white clouds.
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