Thursday, April 27, 2006
Burma dispatch -January 2000
In the beginning.... (Day one, Jan 27th) POW! BLAM! WHAM! (comic book style)Yangon blows my mind. Everything hitting me at once, too much too fast too many new things for the brain to process at once...even sorting out later breaks a sweat (or is that just the heat?). Sensory overload cab ride. Jail cell size room in hotel, bags are dropped and Yangon's downtown drag is ready for exploring, (Canal Street fast forward) long-spine main street with vendors selling every imaginable useless thing ever made (half of which has "NIKE" printed on it), giant ribs stretching north to south, cluttered with old colonial decaying mica-painted buildings (like old Havana) and wires clustered, shooting (rigor mortis Medusa style) in every which direction. Street level; every block specializing in some business (emeralds, sapphires and rubies sold by old Indian women with scalding hot pink third eyes under the shade of candelabra drip trees with altars and flowers attached, shop signs sawed out of multicolor Plexiglas by young boys' small hands, pyramids of radio guts, Monk and Nun gear, closets of pills, "longyi"s (traditional Burmese pants that are more sarong like), food stalls of every sort (some look more like Damien Hirst installations). Ant farm movement of people.
Beautiful people. The Burmese have the high cheek bones and dark skin of the Indians and Nepalese (from the west and north), mixed with the crescent moon Buddha eyes and oval face of the Chinese and Thai (from the north and east). The result is an incredibly beautiful group of bronze skinned people. The women and children (some men) wear a golden yellow paste brushed on their face in various designs (circles, blocks, lines, the whole face occasionally...) It's make up and sun screen, and applied after rubbing the bark of a tree against stone. The kids and teens are incredible (Ford, send your scouts), but the Burmese have a tough life that definitely wears on them. Especially the men, who chew betel nut. It is a red nut, wrapped in a green leaf that over time stains the teeth and builds up like plaque. Apparently the messier the mouth, the better the catch. The men are always spitting like a boxer and his bloody mouth between rounds. Burmese 'what's up?' is "Where are you going?". Sometimes that is all the English they know, that and "hello", which the kids will continue to scream at you until you acknowledge, at which point they will laugh and hide their faces. Mohawk causing quite a scene (stopping traffic and making babies cry). On my walk to buy a longyi and sandals (native chic) retinas blown away by mad colors. Neon rainbow colors of population...dark skinned Indian man in light blue from head to toe, shaved head nuns in variety of pinks (from secret flesh to 6th grade hi-lighter) under brown paper umbrellas, Girl with short (bangs) straight black as the heavens hair in milky purple dress, golden circles on cheeks, kneeling on curb breaking up coal for her fried banana stand (I fell in love), albino old woman in Van Gogh sunflower yellow, monks in brake-light red and maroon robes that are folded so they appear to be wrapped in waves. So much. So much. Wandering around city. Stopping to draw in the Sule pagoda (pagodas are religious monuments that are giant, golden, and in the shape of expired hourglasses -or prison style tear drop tattoos on square bases surrounded by Buddha statues). Curious crowds gather. Disarming smiles. Make my way to another, larger pagoda. More interested in wooden lime green monastery across the street where 7 year old maroon monks are playing hide and seek with me behind giant palm leaves... I walk into complex, drawn towards subway silver painted Buddha sculpture beneath tree made up of thousands of snake like branches...kids had fetched an English-speaking teen layman who works at the monastery...I am invited into the warm shadowed interior where ancient monks stretch out, like they are sun bathing, beneath a Buddha's Christmas light sequence kitschy multiple halo. I tell them I am an artist, and they invite me back the next day to paint (Destiny as the Tour Guide). Bike taxi down crazy streets, with apricot and raspberry setting sun over stately abandoned ghost white buildings and green trees stretching forever above.