Something like bloody mouths, mouths, all mouths, painted in red as if they were dying, bleeding. And we do not understand, we have just got to Myanmar and we just see red mouths and some street vendors. A cab that leaves us in the busiest corner of Yangon and disappears. A golden temple in front of us, a concert of voices looking at us as they name us. It´s night and we move into an alley with no lights, in search of a hotel. So much ignorance from our part that even nothing fears us, nothing but the mission to dodge the rubbish bags and get somewhere. And after a while we found it. A guy with orange hair opens the door. He smiles with his red mouth and tell us the price for the night. Not much to think about, at this time, when sleeping turns to be the real ticket to Myanmar.
One. Yangon, former capital of the former Burma.
We don´t know how to call the country. Because it´s called Myanmar, but it´s Burma, that in Spanish means Birmania. We play trying to figure out which is the most exotic variant. And it´s Myanmar because after all nobody knows what it is. Neither us, who came by the virginity promise that accompanies its fame. Thailand, Viet Nam, Malaysia, China, always something is known. But Myanmar. What the hell is Myanmar?
First day, suffering from heat and thrown into the streets, Myanmar is Yangon, a concrete city lost thirty years ago. Buildings are painted with black grooves due to abandonment; streets without sidewalks seem trinkets fairs, seventy-seven model cars manage to pass through improvised pedestrian streets, and once in a while a Buddhist monk turns up, and to say the truth, suffering chaos as the rest. And hundreds of Buddhist temples everywhere. Some are gold, other concrete, wood, and they all are full of devotes, believers who kneel before the calm figure of Buddha and leave bread and fruit, offerings of all colors and shapes. The most popular is the Shwedagon pagoda, a hundred meters high temple, a place that every Burma Buddhist must visit at least once in his life. In fact, Burma is the most Buddhist country in the world.
Outside the temples, Yangon moves like any big city in the world, with the same concerns, the same troubles and outbursts, but with much fewer amenities. No potable water, no street lights, no sweeping, no cleaning, no luxury, in any of its variants. People travel in large trucks that serve as public busses. And at night, illuminated by the spotlights of a silent prison, several teenagers play football in the streets, the same streets that later will be full of rats walking with impunity in the sweet shade of the early morning hours. And also before that. It´s funny, to remember rats I have to forget how natural they became to me. Because here poverty and litter go together, poverty and rats, rats and litter.
Rats that after leaving Myanmar are missed and we try to find them in other places trying to remember how little the environment cared to feel happy. Because there we were happy, playing football barefooted, with blisters in our feet, looking like heroin for an internet connection which does not exist, drinking instant coffee or eating in the popular neighborhood of Yangon. We felt happy. One night a man came and sat with us. He asked me for kisses and hugs and went to buy me some kebabs at another street restaurant and gave them to me as a present. And I ate them, there were nice, but his gesture was much more important for me, just because he wanted to give me a present, maybe because of my long beard or whatever. And he went away smiling, with a huge smiling. Smiling and bleeding at the same time, as my first picture of this country.
How am I going to tell this, I thought, how can I express some things, because it seems that mouths are bleeding, every mouth, and even in the weather-beaten corners you can guess the smiles, the imposing red in their teeth makes me think they are agonizing. That Myanmar smiles agonize, coated by the color of their past or destiny, who knows, maybe coated only by the mechanical custom of their jaws, by their particular way of chewing tobacco and nuts and end smiling in that way. That´s it: the mix of tobacco and nuts stain mouths.
So they smile and show that coexistence, that paradox, the possibility to be happy even with their mouth bleeding. The British who colonized the country one time said that to speak Burmese it was first necessary to get used to chewing the same as them, as well as to get used of their tradition. But of course they couldn´t do it. I don´t like to speak of history I don´t know. I just know that Burma´s military dictatorship was the longest in history (from 1962 to 2011), and that only in 2015 people will be able to freely vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, top political personality, Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 (she picked up the award this year) as she was imprisoned for over ten years and was released in 2010 after a long global campaign for democracy in Burma (including Diego Maradona recorded a spot for the release of Aung San). But I insist, sometimes it´s better not to talk about others´ history. So it´s asked by the people of Yangon, who keep silent or hide when they are asked about the political situation of the country. Police are in plain clothes and the possibility to be taken to a detention camp persuades the majority not to speak load.
They don´t still have full democracy, they know, so they smile at the inquiries and escape. They go to the bars to have tea, or get together in dark corners to watch the Premier League. In Burma, Premier League is watched. Twenty or thirty occasion fans sit on crates and under the improvised restaurant sunshades watch so uncountable games that I cannot explain their fanaticism to myself. They watch on many TV’s how Rooney or Tevez score goals. And they celebrate, shouting, raising their arms, hugging. They just celebrate, they get excited. But of course, football here is not a dream of prosperity, it´s just a game that gives immense joy under the leaky sunshades.
Two. The one thousand temples
As soon as we arrived at Bagan we started seeing tourists. It is easy to distinguish them: In Myanmar people is dressed in longyis (a long skirt made of a piece of cloth) and women have their faces painted with thanaka, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark that protects them from sun and works also as makeup. Tourist instead use the same clothing sold in the rest of the planet. Luckily, they are many less than in any other destination, tourists that, like us, prefer not to find tourists and it´s hard for them to call themselves tourists. But they are tourists, like us, and we cannot escape from that.
The trip to Bagan was horrible, in a bus with no reclining seats, noisy, persistently audiovisual. During eight hours local video clips were repeated again and again emulating Shakira or Lady Gaga. But we arrived at five o´clock in the morning and the desolation of the bus station took us to Ao-Ao, a twenty-four years boy destined inevitably to be Buddha. He took us to a hotel in a cart and for a few coins more to a huge temple to watch sunrise. We didn´t talk for more than half an hour, but his name, Ao-Ao is continuously repeated in our memory. Ao-Ao, immutable at the tip of a pagoda, and in his eyes the going around of all the carts and horses together.
Bagan is like the Buddhism Mecca in Myanmar. There are more than two thousand temples and all are reached walking or by bicycle. At altitude, at sunset, landscape becomes impressive: hundreds of golden tips that are lost in the distance and you can’t contemplate it all from one angle. And peace is perceived as if the dRummer had found the sense to so much proclamation of energy.
At night, when we leave, the temples are bright yellow, obviously due to a pair of reflectors, logic, but the atmosphere makes us believe that maybe it´s because there it is the hand of Buddha or of Ao-Ao, of something or someone that not only understands landscaping.
Three. The lake.
After three days trekking through rice fields, tea plantations and towns lost in the middle of the mountain, we arrived at the shores of Inle Lake. We boarded a long raft equipped with six lawn chairs and crossed the largest lake of Myanmar. In the middle of it, among signs indicating directions as streets, some houses and pagodas appear. Local people fish in canoes drive with their feet, standing, as they balanced at one end of the boat. Ignacio looks at me. He turns with the camera in his hands and looks at me; looking for an accomplice for all that he obviously does not believe. The thing is that here we are no longer lost in time, we are somewhere else, and we confirm it after reaching an unpronounceable town and rent bikes.
We ride for about an hour and arrived at another unpronounceable village located somewhere in the lake. A lakeside village, where the cab is a girl who rows perfectly with her legs and tells us that children sometimes go swimming to school, which is the fastest way. And that the wooden houses belong to those with money and the bamboo ones to those with no money. She was one of this last group, but could establish a little restaurant there on the lake and strives for it. And she tooks us to her little restaurant where I order a typical fish, and she accepts, but asks me for a few minutes because her son has to go to catch it. And back again we found ourselves totally surprised, but we conceal, what else can we do, and we say yes while his fifteen years old son goes out with boat and net to get my fish in the lake.
Later on, bikes take us to a college. We asked permission to go into a classroom and ended up having a sort of special class on Argentina. We draw it on a map to the boys, who would have between ten and twelve years old, and we explain them how to say some things. The first thing they learn, although they already knew it, is the name of Messi. They pronounce it with their faces illuminated, and then they laugh when I say that I’m Messi. And we try to talk about something else, as much as the language allows us, but it’s time for brake and with the memory of Messi they run out into the yard, ball in hand, and start playing football. Twenty vs twenty, nice game. There are good players, I get excited and tell them not to stop playing, that they are the future Messi or Maradona. Maybe I´m lying, I don´t know, because after all no Burmese plays outside Asia, but a little for my lack of football today and partly because of the environment, I’m sure it can be true. Faith, I have no doubt this is applied to various fields.
For me the city means its name. I never knew more about her, and that was enough for me to what to know her. Never imagined that Mandalay was a city of grey suburbs, surrounded by ancient temples to which we arrived by chance; with an ugly but charming waterfront. With a long bridge which we crossed in motorcycle many times, watching the golden pagodas around, dodging the military posts watching us going without direction. I didn´t imagine it was one of the most dizzying deliriums of my life, at night, when traffic lights –I never saw- disappear and the rout in motorcycles becomes a game of chance and death in every corner, with no lights or head lights coming to us.
I never imagined that it was the trembling face of Ignacio after several frenzies of a hundred and fifty displacements, or Tito´s outraged face after being bitten by a dog and thus win a ticket for the rabies vaccine, or dRummer’s calm, voracious reader of a Buddhism book that seems to have taught him a lot, at least the different names of the temples. Or it was the show of the Moustache Brothers, on Tuesday night, in their garage in downtown, with 20 improvised chairs for tourists that want to understand what all is about: a family of humorists relentlessly persecuted by the dictatorship, famous worldwide for their fight and their days in prison after having said too much. Funny at times, unintelligible, with moustaches, owners of a dancing show and a video with Maradona speaking about Burma, owners of the past and destiny of Burma, three brothers who in the darkest times continued with their political humor even from prison, and today, less persecuted, continue talking about Myanmar. I didn´t imagine that Mandalay was that. Or that it was the face of the guy who farewell us, the guy who after offering us all kind of services and being rejected in each attempt, always losing a cheaper insignificant offer, said goodbye to us the day we left with a love rarely seen, taking a picture with us and saying it was a pleasure to meet us, saying friends and shaking hands as if that would mean privilege. That special experience, I don´t know why, gave me an ecstasy of joy, making me feel again a strong connection with someone, without logical reason to explain it, but he was happy to have met us and we wanted to express it.
This happens in Myanmar, people express their basic feelings, not ashamed. While in the West it seems better to hide the enthusiasm for the other, hide the surprise or estrangement, the happiness of meeting someone. But not in Myanmar, in Myanmar they celebrate with guffaws, shaking hands and endless repetitions of unpronounceable names. That´s why is so magic and so indelibly, that I will never be able to explain this. But it doesn´t mind, because Myanmar cannot be explained or told, even it is not visited. Myanmar is there, the same as thirty years ago, hidden in the bubble of its own charm.
Yangon is a bastardized city. Everywhere you find cockroaches, rats, ravens and litter.
People throw everything in the streets, from a banana peel to fifteen liters of oil that usually pull from their giants’ pots and pans. There they fry chicken pieces, different types of rice, and any kind of other foods. In the same proportion you find people lying on the streets.
These people have something in common; not only their brownish skin color, their ruined and ragged clothes, their long and braked nails, barefooted, their thin bodies and their lonyies in their waists.
Their common denominator is in their look. A look lost in time, lost in space; a desolated look; a sad look that externalizes their suffering; a forgotten look; a look of hungry; a look skinny as their muscles that under the sun are torn on the concrete of the city. A desperate look for something that they cannot tell. A look that stays fixed when they see you pass. A look they hold for eight or nine seconds, maybe ten, that penetrates you, that breaks you. A look jetting off like an arrow, like a bullet from those black eyes. A look that cuts the air. A look that burns. A look seeking for you to get closer and tell where you come from, if you like football. A friendly look. A look with eyes as black as the ravens feathers flying in South Asia. A naked look, full of questions. A curious look, an austere look, hopeless. A hanged look. A look, that after all can only end in death.
Text: Joaquín Sánchez Mariño
Column: Ignacio Antelo
Video: Expreso a Oriente
Music: Would it be nice, de Beach Boys / This is a song, de The Magic Numbers / Al otro lado del río, de Jorge Drexler