Esther, Sitting By the Road
It was my first time back in Yangon, Myanmar – formerly known as Rangoon, Burma and it had not changed perceptively in the five years since I had been there before. The buildings were still in poor repair with rusted, fading decorations and blackened paint. The sole exception in the center of the City on Sule Pagoda Road, was the Traders Hotel, whose $350 dollars a night rooms for mainly wealthy foreign travelers were unobtainable to the average city Burman who makes perhaps that in half a year.
The hotel ran on its own generators and so was brilliantly lit in this time of blackout, central power was only on from 11 PM to 5 AM. The rest of the city was, at street level, lit by power from little individual generators that sat on the sides of old car tires to stifle their vibrations. So the sounds of Yangon at night are a constant chug of thousands of noisy, polluting small engines providing enough power only for weak wattage lights in the buildings above. They at last fall silent at 11 PM when the power comes on just in time for everyone to go to sleep. The ruling generals say that all the country's power is needed for its industrial capacity but since Burma's main industrial output is raw materials, gemstones and drugs, my guess is that the electric plants are failing because the money that should go into infrastructure is diverted into pockets.
The only other bright building in downtown Yangon is two blocks south where Sule Pagoda Road crosses Mahabandoola Road where Sule Pagoda sits in the center of a huge traffic Circle, lit brightly by floodlights, lamps and strings of colorful small lights, all kept lit by the donations of the faithful.
The main attraction in Yangon for tourists is the Schwedagon Pagoda - a temple complex that is rivaled in size in Burma only by Bagan and in Southeast Asia by the Temples at Angkor in Cambodia.
I am staying at Beautyland II Hotel right around the block from the Traders Hotel on 33d Street. The pictures on the web would deceive an unwary traveler. In cyberspace, the hotel is a clean, modern looking brightly painted building. In reality, the paint is blackened and dirty and it looks like every other old ramshackle storefront on this street. I'm not put off by the externals as I had expected the reality shock and, when I walked from the corner where my cab had dropped me, I concentrated on not breaking an ankle in the broken sidewalk – still unrepaired since my last trip here five years before.
My room is on the second floor. It is a superior type room, meaning it has an air-conditioner, fan, tv and a window that looks out on an elevator sized airshaft. The room also has three distinct lighting systems; the first is a small, battery-fed system that runs a single fluorescent light to dim to read by and only good for emergencies. This is meant to be used if the state-promised power goes out during the night and the hotel generator is off. Then there is the system run by the hotel generator which can power ceiling lights, fan and TV and functions from 7 in the morning until 11 at night if the hotel can get the fuel to run it. The last is the electrical system for the state power; this system should last a million years because its large heavy-duty switches and plugs get very little exercise as the state-supplied power is only on from around 11 PM to 5 am - when most people are asleep.
The walls are covered with a panoply of wires and switches, marked extensively in Bamar and inscrutably in English and there is an intricate dance to get the room ready for sleep. There is no reason to sleep before 11 because around that time the mains power will go on with a mighty crack and every light, whose switch has been left on by mistake, will now springs to life.
I leave my goods, grab a camera and virtually ski down the precipitous steps to the first floor. These steps will prove my undoing the next day when I'm carrying my heavy bag, brought late from the airport, up the stairs. These stairs are so steep that I am carrying the bag overhead and I slip on the tiny tread and fall forward against the stair edge, breaking three ribs. The break goes undiagnosed until I am x-rayed 3 weeks later back in my home town; so much for the efficacy of medicine in Myanmar.
I walk south down 33d towards Mahabandoola Road, past all the little stores and the chugging generators, grabbing a shot or two. I am really aiming to go out to a street restaurant, get a little bite of food and drink a cold beer or two. I turn right at the corner and am standing there, looking for a free table, when a hand grabs my free wrist.
Tables and chairs at most restaurants in SEA are often of the small, plastic variety; the type that most Westerners associate with childrens' play furniture. But here the people are slender and small framed and that furniture is light, cheap and takes up virtually no space. It is not uncommon to see a young woman, carrying a stack of a dozen chairs on her head out from a store to be set up.
I had stopped just to look around and someone tugged at my shirt. I looked down expecting to see a child and instead this older women looked up at me.
“Sit down,” she said, pulling a vacant chair over to her table. She was sitting with three other women, she being much the oldest. They were sitting at one of twenty or so tables arrayed along the outer edge of a wide sidewalk. The restaurant kitchen was a pull-cart and, when the restaurant closed at night, everything was gathered up, the tables and chairs went into a tiny storeroom in the building front and the cart went home with the chef.
I was surprised. This wasn't Thailand or Vietnam where a female pulling on your hand meant she was hoping to get your money and give you some small physical pleasure and perhaps an unnamed infection in return. This was Myanmar where the government was oppressive, people took their religion seriously and prostitution was kept indoors.
So I sat. The woman who had pulled me into the group did all the talking. She exchanged all the usual tourist local questions about what was my name, where I came from, where did I live, etc. They were drinking coffee, the restaurant didn't serve beer but the waiter obligingly went and got me two from the adjacent store. In central Yangon, one is never more than 20 feet from a store or cart that sold whatever you might need at that moment.
When my host had introduced me to her friends, it was clear that she was the only one who spoke any English and so she had to balance her time between the conversation amongst her Burmese friends and keeping me engaged. I was content to sit and watch the crowd and drink my beer. She had told me her name was Esther.
When her conversation with her friends seemed to be in a lull, I asked, “Esther, how is it that your English is so good?”
As if she had been waiting for this instant, she dipped her hand into her shoulder bag and pulled out a much creased, faded picture – a formal small portrait of a Westerner sitting in a large chair, flanked by two young girls, dressed very formally. The smaller younger girl looked much more Asian but, in truth, the picture was so crumpled as to be almost unviewable.
“I am half English,” Esther said. “My father was in the British Civil Service here. This is a picture of my father, my older sister and me.” She thrust out the picture so I could see it.
“We lost my father in the war.” No mention of her mother. “My sister died years ago.” Where she had been very talkative a moment ago, she now became quiet and did not offer any more details.
I thanked her for showing me the picture, asked if I could take her picture as a remembrance and she held up her picture to be in the shot. In a very few moments, sensing that this was a good time to go on, I thanked her and her friends for their hospitality, saying I needed to take pictures before it got too dark and left.
I paused at the corner and looked back to see Esther tucking the picture back in her bag and talking to her friends at the same time. What was, for me, an insight into the marked tragedies of one person's life, was unremarkable to her.
I wonder often if Esther sits always at that spot, waiting to talk to the occasional passing Westerner and, if they ask the right question, to pull out the picture of herself, her dead sister and her missing British father.
And, so you know this is true, this is Esther and the picture of her long-lost father.
In fact, the next morning when I walked by this spot looking for an early snack, the entire space was empty - as if by magic.
Thanks for this written visual picture if life so different from so different from ours.
I love that you stepped awsy from the organized chaperoned tours and brought light to the real life og Burmese. I loved the Esther story, so much to learn when we stop for a moment.
Wow, what a great story..Thanks
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