It’s funny how landing in a foreign land can change your view and take on life. Before leaving from Hyderabad, I was probably briefed about how my flight would be at least a hundred times by my mother. It was a connecting flight, and it was the first time I was travelling through transit to Burma or the first through transit anyway. My mom’s a Burmese Indian and most of her side of the family lives there. This trip to the Lungi Land(as I like to call it) is my 6th or 7th time; however, It has been the most interesting one so far because I’ve been sent here for different reasons. Except for the trip before this, i.e. last time, I had spent my summer vacations in my mother’s town. Since I couldn’t speak in Burmese, I was literally handicapped every time; language was a major obstacle up until now. It still is, but people have become a bit more English oriented this time around, but just a bit, mind you.
A taxi driver came up to me and asked me, “You want to go hotel?” after I came out the Yangon International Airport. I was surprised, but I signaled him no and after he asked me few more times, I told him in broken English in which he’d understand that I was waiting for someone. Imagine his cheek, when he came up to me after ten minutes telling me, “Your friend not come”, and grinned at me. I still signaled him no and walked away. Finally sick of waiting, I remembered my uncle’s address; it was pretty simple actually, just 31st street. As my patience kept decreasing, another taxi driver asked me where I wanted to go, and after the third time, I decided I’d give him the pleasure of driving a foreigner that day. So off I was. And honestly, there wasn’t a speck of fright in me, in fact I was gloating that I was able to travel alone in a foreign land.
My conversation with the taxi driver got pretty interesting. I asked him about his take on the economy and his country; he wasn’t happy with the way things were. The reason I asked him all that was because till then I could ask only my family members, who were all businessmen. It’s funny how you come to learn about the real ethos of an ethnicity from someone else whom you’ve never conversed with. I learnt that he lived near the airport; he was a school pass out who was driving a taxi for a living. The abysmal education system of the country prevented him from studying further. It wasn’t just him, more than males in Burma, females are employed and earn more. After a satisfying conversation and a small journey I reached my uncle’s house, only to learn later that I had agreed for a taxi fare which was 45 % higher than the normal fare. I didn’t mind given the fact that I had traveled alone for the first time in the country. You know, you don’t crib about spending 5 dollars worth extra money because when you go abroad, you probably spend much more than that frivolously.
The biggest change in me was that fact that I didn’t or don’t have to ask anyone for directions to go around in Yangon anymore. I was familiar with the streets and places in the city before and am capable of going around alone anywhere now. My mom thinks or thought that I was scared to travel or something because she used to ask me to travel just so that I learn to go to new places alone. So how was this mom? I didn’t expect you to get furious on knowing that I went to your sister’s house alone, rather I expected a pat on the back, or you know some more money to spend or to travel alone. Oh well, I just hope now you don’t ask me to travel less. Fingers crossed.
Frankly, I always feared getting lost in new places, but hey, if I don’t get lost I won’t learn about new places. With just a little bit of preparation like keeping the names of places and streets saved in your phone, you can wander anywhere you want. But I think being complacent makes you pay, because I did get lost. I had to call my cousins and ask for directions to go to the place I was going to. But I did learn the route to another place. Burmese roads have very less lanes and gallis as compared to Indian roads. The main roads are fairly disciplined and people don’t break rules or traffic signals. That is pretty impressive considering the low literacy or education rate. Or maybe not, it’s probably the fear of the police; the word government or police has instilled a very high sense of fear among the populace of country which has been tightly restricted and society has been bound by repressive policies from decades of military rule.
If you are from a developing country such as India or from a developed nation, you’ll notice that the even the former capital of Burma or Myanmar, Yangon is plagued by poverty and economic stagnation. It’s a huge contrast to India’s large cities which are host to billions of rupees worth commercial industries and businesses. Leaving the business, even the houses show the economic condition of the country. If I remove the bastis from Hyderabad’s view, my city is a paradise compared to Burma and its cities. Even with the poor areas, it still is. And the best part of India as compared to Burma? The fact that I can write an article like this about India is what marks its freedom of expression unlike in Burma where the press and media are governed strictly by the government which probably indulges in propaganda through fair mediums. Anybody who writes about the government or anything about it will be promptly sent to jail. That fear is a completely different phenomenon which I’ve never seen in India. An example: I posted a status on my facebook wall in which I used the word journalism; as a result my mother freaked out and asked me repeatedly not to write that word on the internet fearing I’d get into trouble or my relatives would. She even asked my sister and brother to tell me that again and again. There is also a law here which does not allow Burmese people to communicate or talk to foreigners; this is a very good example of how repressive the government is. The people are fearful of their lives now and do as the government bids them to.
Once the fastest growing country in Asia and a natural resource haven in the world(perhaps still is), Burma now lies at the brink of near economic and social decapitation due to a military government which has destroyed the country from its roots. A scared population which has suffered from decades, now hopes to get some relief as the military government recently announced its transition to democracy; however the people still remain skeptical and cynical. One can’t blame them for being so, because they have all grown up amongst a harsh and deadly regime which made them work had just to live. I hope the country sees a new face soon, or else it will be left far off in the race. These are just a handful of the conditions, the real ones have even horrific faces.