Friday, February 27, 2009
Peculiarities of the Burmese
Our itinerent group has taken two more trips since the last posting without enough time between for me to get a post off. The first was to Taunggyi and Lake Inwa in Shan State. Shan State seems to be the most prosperous in Burma and Taunggyi is very clean. In Burma a vacation trip is a pilgimage and vice versa, since anything worth seeing includes a pagoda as the dominating feature. Near Taunggyi we visited a very deep cave... containing over 8,000 Buddhas. The second trip was to Monywa, the home town of U Maho, the leader of our expedition. We stayed at his old monstery, at which he has recently founded a new grade school. Near Monywa there is what is reported to be the world's largest Buddha: 400 feet high, with stairs and windows all the way up. From Monywa we made an excursion to near the border of India, Kassapa National Park. It is deep in the jungle, and we rode elephants for the last couple of miles. It is reported to be the site of MahaKassapa's (MahaKashyapa's) demise. Kassapa is known for leading the First Council after the Buddha's death, and is also considered to be the second ancestor of the Zen lineage, right after the Buddha.
Let me record a number of impressions I have of the Burmese:
Most Burmese and slender and attractive in appearance. They exhibit a lot of racial variety; you can see Chinese-looking faces, Indian-looking, characteristic Burmese with rounder eyes than the Chinese, and sometimes European characteristics. The women are so attractive, it makes you wonder why there are so many monks (or what I am doing).
Almost all Burmese, men and women, wear longyi, long skirts that wrap around and constantly have to be retied. In wealthier areas a certain proportion of Western-style clothing is found.
Most women and many children wear thanakha on their faces. This is made from a tree bark, protects the skin and is supposed to be cooling. Its color is an off-white. Some women wear it stylishly symmetrically on each cheek, others just cover their whole faces (and bodies, I am told), giving them a ghost-like appearance.
A lot of Burmese, mostly men, young and old, chew betel nuts, which are a mild stimulent. This turns the teeth red, lending a vampire-like appearance to the consumer.
Burmese are very playful and smile a lot. This is even true of people hawking small items at tourist sights. They take their profession as a kind of game and generally feel no resentment when turned away; for instance, they will be glad to give you directions thereafter.
I suppose Westerners are disorganized in their own ways, but it is more noticable in a foreign culture. Schedules change constantly. Some may recall that our group was originally going to embark on our trip from Austin on February 14, then this changed twice. This seems to be quite normal here. For instance, I have been scheduled to ordain on March 5 for some time now, right between two other events. Now I notice that the two events have been merged without notification (I don't know what that means for international travelers to the second event who have already made travel arrangement). Another thing I observe constantly is that no one seems to paint a wall or ceiling without dribbling paint on the floor. Sometimes beautiful wood or marble floors are impaired by this. I am not sure what they are thinking; they do have newspapers here.
People tolerate and feed cats and dogs, which are abundant, but rarely claim ownership of are particularly fond of these animals. One reason, it occurs to me, might be that monks provide an outlet for their affection, and may be even more good natured and loyal.
The hardest thing for me to understand is that people seem to be completely insensitive to noise. Americans get mad when a neighbor plays the stereo too loud or too late. To the Burmese this seems to be a kind of offering; they even set loudspeakers outside for the benefit of their neighbors, full blast, and this can be any time, even at 3:30 in the morning. People just don't seem to care. Buddhist temples often plan Pali chants full blast, sometimes throughout the night. Weird.
People seem to have a completely different sense of personal space than we. Their houses tend to open directly to the outside. They don't care if people peek in on them. On tours of hospitals we have been surprised at the places we were allowed to visit. Men have a lot of freedom to wear as little as possible, and often bathe outside. Monks too. Women always maintain a high degree of modesty, even if bathing outside.
I'm getting to understand traffic patterns, or lack thereof, a bit better. Initially I interpreted the inceasant honking and meaning "get out of my way!" and wondered why no one who was targeted in this way appeared in the least angry. I now see that there is part of an interactive process. I honk means, "I'm right behind you." The response is typically to look ahead, determine if it is safe for the honker to pass, then to turn on the left blinker to signal the go ahead. After passing there are usually a couple of seemingly friendly hand gestures involved. Right of way seems to depend entirely on relative size of vehicle, even when a car is entering the street from a driveway as a bicycle is passing. There seem to be no traffic laws, no traffic police and no auto insurance.
Myanmar has some light industry, and manufactures a couple of different cars, from, I understand, 65% domestic parts. One of these is a kind of Jeep. Another is a little blue truck, hardly bigger than a skate board, that apparently comes in a kit for home assembly. Most of the economy is agricultural, and seems not to have changed through the centuries. Farmers work with little more than hoes and sometimes oxcarts. Even highway construction is very primitive, with large numbers of people hauling rock and sand by hand, and heating asphalt in barrels with wood.
There is for the most part little protection of the environment. Most cities have no garbage collection; people simple burn trash wherever they want, producing some awful smells. Exceptions are Taunggyi, in which I was surprised to find garbage trucks. The air seemed very clean there. People dicard rubbish rather indescrimately. Kassapa National Park is another exception, in which the forests are well preserved. Apparently the park was endowed with a huge grant from the Japanese.
Electricity is very unreliable here. We have power at SITA about 70% of the time, with daily outages. If you get a very abrupt email from me, it is probably because the power has just gone out and the computer is running for a short time on battery.
Public health is an issue. I've seen little evidence of emergency care. Most health clinics are run by monasteries at very little cost. We have been very careful about the food and water we consume; it is easy for Westerners to get sick here. It is lucky that we are traveling with Burmese monks who have lived in the USA for a time, since they are concerned that they have lost their immunities. Sitagu Buddhist Academy, where I am now, is very careful about food and water. I read that the life expectency here is about 53 years.
Burma is a country where, working through Buddhist organizations, a little help from abroad can go a long way. We visited a new school in Monywa, two stories tall, with classrooms and housing for teachers, that was built through a donation from one person in Baltimore for $20,000. Health care and education are to two biggest concerns of Buddhist organizations, though I would like to see orphages and nunneries also better supported. At the same time, Burma in turn has a lot to give the West; though not materially, it is certainly spiritually much stronger.