Burma is… complicated. Does one call it Myanmar and potentially support the oppressive government? Or Burma, a name which heralds back to the somewhat recent British occupation? Is the capital city Yangon or Rangoon? Is it being developed or sold off for profit?
Walking around Yangon was challenging. I was surrounded by rotting European architecture painted cheerful (and anything but European) colors. People were friendly and welcoming, but every building had barbed wire. My arrival coincided with terrible floods across the country and on most street corners there were local volunteers collecting money from their fellow citizens to help victims. My local guide explained that this wasn’t so much out of a sense of volunteerism though, as a fatalistic acknowledgement that their government would likely do nothing to help.
Every taxi ride costs the same. Everywhere. One price for everywhere in the city no matter how close or far, and one for the airport. After bargaining of course. There seemed to be an unstated “foreigner” price that one could negotiate to, but no further. Sidewalks had been halved to make way for cars, making walking – the primary mode of transportation – difficult, but the streets were still packed with cars. My impression walking about was that Yangon was a busy, crowded city. Or that everyone preferred the same thoroughfares.
Yet the local and French cuisine was exquisite. The literacy rate is between 90 and 95% and most citizens are educated by both monks and the local system. Monastic and religious life blends seamlessly on a Saturday morning where much of the city went to socialize and pray at the temples. In the evenings, the parks were full of couples.
Myanmar isn’t a place you fall into. Where it’s exoticness overwhelms and drowns out your mundane habits and fills in the fresh slate with wonder, spices, and color. It’s a place that insists you pay attention. That you try to reconcile clear dissonances that speak to the complexity of Burmese situation. But then it soothes away the furrowed brow with a friendly smile, a welcoming and curious wave, and a fragrant meal before whisking you away to the country to ensorcel you in just the wonder you were hoping for as a reward for your effort.