"Oneeee.. Twooooo... Three!!"

In Buddhist countries, the general rubric for appearances is that modest is hottest. I knew they wouldn't let me into Yangon's famous Shwedagon pagoda with my knees showing. Frankly, I'm surprised they let me into the country with my suitcase full of short-shorts. Officials could have scanned my baggage upon arrival and confiscated them with a disapproving look that said "You aren't planning on traipsing around our country in that skimpy outfit, are you?" And so on my way to the main temple, I decided to pick up one of the sarongs that the rest of the male population here seems to be so keen on. It seemed likely I'd get a better deal on the streets than right outside the gates. I approached a vendor and pointed at an article from a stack of skirts with a pattern that caught my eye. It was a light blue gingham, the very same pattern that one hundred percent of white office-going males have in their closet as a button-up shirt. I presented the man with a wad of cash, and with a huge grin he outfitted me in my longyi. I didn't know it at the time, but the acquisition of this article of clothing would be a game-changer for me in Myanmar.


A modest crowd began to gather as the transaction took place. A number of men wandered over to see what was up, in the way that men do when, say, they hear a neighbor engaged in a project employing power tools. Evident from their peering in, they were curious about the minor details of the enterprise: Which pattern did I choose? How much did I pay? Would I actually wear it? I have little expertise in sarongs, but I sort of figured that the standard model would fit like a bath towel wrapped around one's waist. Instead, the longyi is one circular piece of fabric, like one of those self-drying fabric hand-towels on an infinite loop. Fully unfurled, it reaches to just below belly-button height. Given that it was essentially like swimming in a skirt large enough to fit Shrek's wife, it wasn't immediately obvious to me how I was supposed to wear it. Identifying my confusion, this hefty Burmese man, in a ritual that would be repeated many times over the next couple of weeks, positioned himself at my backside and reached around to grab the fabric covering my frontside. "It's very easy," he said, and in a series of deft motions tied me up so tight I felt like I was wearing a corset. I gave a once around, as if modeling for a mirror. The lady sitting behind me hit me with a thumbs up.


"Wait," I said, pausing for a moment. I asked him to demonstrate once more. "It's very easy," he repeated as if that made the process self-evident. He went slower this time, undoing the knot at my waist and grabbing me by the cloth at my haunches. He settled himself into a position of strength at my backside. "Oneee," he said, deliberately folding the cloth in his right hand across toward my left. "Twoooo," in an act of symmetry, folding the left side toward the right. "Three!" And in a flourish of prestidigitation he transformed the two unruly clumps in his fists into a handsome but inscrutable knot perched right below my belly button. I gave him a look that communicated my befuddlement. Undoing his handiwork and sighing, he said "Pay attention this time," as if my drifting gaze had prevented me from taking in the previous demonstrations. Now the crowd joined in. They counted together, "Oneeee... Twoo..." involving the same deliberate folding, and punctuated by an ecstatic "Three!!" which brought on another electron cloud of hand motions. I offered my tailor a look somewhere in the ballpark of "Eurka!" and with that took my leave of my applauding admirers, shaking hands and waving grandly as a I went, strutting off in my longyi toward the pagoda.


The road leading up to Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda resembles a sort of Buddhist version of the Las Vegas strip. It is shiny, extravagant, ostentatious. Each chunk of real estate on either side of the street is taken up with a gleaming temple rising out of a lush courtyard. Each temple has a Buddha statue in the center. But it wouldn't feel entirely out of a place if instead at its pulsing heart was a slot machine. Unlike Vegas, it isn't populated with American tourists spilling out of their tank tops like pudding squeezed from a plastic cup. It is populated mostly with no one. There may have been a lot of action playing out on the spiritual plane of existence. But my senses were only availed of the physical one, and there wasn't a whole lot going on there.

Which is a truly startling sight. These are the kind of attraction tourists flock to. These pagodas are stunning, and they aren't even the main event. They are the opening act, culminating in the glorious peak of the Shwedagon. Like the muscular V of an underwear model, these minor temples are a tantalizing allusion to what lies just out of sight. But they still retain a certain grandeur in their own right. If these structures had been erected in Thailand, they'd be crawling in westerners. Here it was me, and one guy languishing out front of his convenience store, slumped over until rousted by an errant customer.

The Shwedagon pagoda is the religious epicenter of Myanmar. Today it stands as a magnificent golden bell, like what God would pick up and ring if it were time for the chillun to come in for supper. Every Myanmartian will, at some point in their lives, make the pilgrimage to see it. Purportedly, the original pagoda was installed on this site more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The temple has been built up over many years. According to contemporary accounts, two brothers named Trapusa and Bahalika became the first disciples of the Buddha drawn from the lay population. In a surge of inspiration these two enterprising merchants snipped eight strands -- a religiously significant number -- of the Buddha's hair and journeyed to Burma. With the help of the local ruler, one mister King Okkalapa of Dagon, they installed these hairs as the centerpiece of a magnificent temple. What exactly they said to persuade King Okkalapa of the religious merit of these eight strands of hair, history has failed to record.


Anywhere else in the world, a major temple like this would be infested with tourists. The be-camera'd tourist to actual buddhist ratio would be, like, 100:1. There would be a cacophony of children whose command over the English language is just sufficient to explain to you how your refusal to part ways with your money in exchange for their trinkets results in their not being able to afford dinner. People would be crawling over the temples like monkeys swinging between trees. Queues of people would assemble to snap a photo -- just the right photo -- in front of the most prestigious institutional ornament. This is, for example, what it's like to visit one of the bigger temples in Thailand.


But crossing the street onto the premises of the Shwedagon, one could be forgiven for not realizing you are on the cusp of Myanmar's most significant religious attraction. It was quiet. The only person there to greet me was a lone child, offering a plastic bag in which to put my shoes. It almost felt as if he were offering it in a spirit of community service rather than opportunistic capitalism. He asked twice just to make sure I understood the value-add of his wares. Then he disappeared.


There is a grand prelude of a staircase that ascends through a small mountainside of stalls. I removed my sandals before ascending. It was a stark contrast, coming in from the insistent Burmese sun into a dark, covered hall. The stalls lining the staircase sold mostly buddhist paraphernalia. Little statues, books in Burmese, shirts. No one approaches you to inform you of a "good deal for you, my friend." They simply leave you to go about your business. Even here I noticed some glances, and the shopkeepers seemed rather impressed by my longyi. The whole scene is modest, unobtrusive, clean but not overly kempt. There was no fee until the very top of the hall, right before the plateau, the holy of holies.


Upon reaching the top of the hall, there is an outpost of security personnel. They ushered me through a metal detector. Then they asked to peak inside my skirt. In a series of routine movements, the guard undid me, took a quick look, then zipped me back up. Although slightly disturbed, I was also somewhat thankful about this since I had been futzing with the knot, trying without success to reverse engineer it for the last twenty-five minutes or so. Having been vetted by security, I was asked to sign in on a tourist sheet. I counted exactly twenty other visitors on the sign-in sheet that day from seven in the morning until noon. This one was of four entrances. None of the other visitors were from the United States.


I emerged from the dark corridor to find an ascendant gold bell power-posing in front of me. It was surrounded by a white lake of marble tile. All was bright and glimmering. The white marble connected a complex of smaller pagodas, hundreds of them, each with an intricate gold-fringed verandas, a unique Buddha visage, and a cohort of meditators in various forms of repose. There were so few people as to make one almost feel out to sea. Entire sections were unpeopled. It would be possible for one to become rather well acquainted with every other western visitor on the terrace. The Buddhist to tourist ratio was flipped, maybe fifty people who are there for religious purposes to every one person, like me, who was just there to have a look around. Modest though they are, there's no doubt that Buddhists harbor a certain appreciation for icy flair that could rival a hip hop artist. Every possible surface that can be is ornamented. Everything was decked out in tufts of gold leaf inlays, as if the design on a Victorian tea cup had sprung into three dimensions and rolled around in precious material. The bell itself exerted a sort of attentional gravity. It stands in the center with all subsidiary dioramas in orbit. It constantly draws your attention and admiration back. Part of the spectacle is that judging from everyone's behavior, there is no spectacle. People are just going about their daily business. They are, in turns, texting, meditating, wandering with purpose, ambling about. I'm one of the few standing there trying to drink in the surroundings. The majority hold themselves with reverence, but don't gawk. It makes the entire scene seem more surreal, more heavenly. I imagine this is a kind of inverse of what visiting Disneyland would be like as a Buddhist monk, standing in awe of how mundane that level garishness seems to be for everyone else.


I exited down the western escalator, headed in a different direction than the one I came. It felt slightly perilous taking the escalator in bare feet. Like I might get a toe snipped off. Back on the street, each local I passed gave me a once-over, admiring my longyi. I was the target of innumerably many thumbs up and nods.


Admittedly, I've made quite a bit about how Yangon feels different than other places in South East Asia. Especially the low density of tourists. But it really does make a difference. It changes your whole relationships to the people who are from there. In a city or region that depends economically on tourism, your relationship to its people is transactive. To the people sitting in stalls as you walk through the market, you are a walking bag of money. Whether or not they can feed their kids today depends on whether they're able to up-sell you for a product you don't need or want. In order to keep the wheels turning they need to sell things to tourists, and they need to sell them at a markup. So as nice or welcoming as that person behind the stall might be -- and you know they probably are, because everyone you've met in the country on different terms is -- your relationship is defined in purely economic terms. You have money. They need it. The whole dance is a transaction.


But that changes in a place where the majority of economic activity does not depend on tourism. In a market in Yangon, sure, a guy wouldn't mind up-selling to a white person. Who says no to a few extra bucks? But his economic livelihood doesn't depend on it. He's going to have a steady stream of regular customers to form the base of his income stream. The implication is that he doesn't have to go all-in on the hard-sell. He'll give you the white person mark-up -- hell, you probably deserve it -- but if it doesn't take, then oh well. Because they have yet to establish a tourist economy to compete with Thailand or Vietnam, the people of Myanmar don't have to have the same transactive relationship with foreigners.


This means that instead of being treated like a dollar sign with legs, you're treated as something closer to an honored guest. You're interesting -- in the way that all people who are clearly not from around here are interesting. That's the 'guest' part. The 'honored' part has a couple different factors at play. For one thing, the Myanmar people are, simply put, are really fucking nice. And they deserve credit for that. But for another thing, they appreciate the political and economic opportunities represented by the West. There is an appreciation that they've got the short end of the stick in terms of government policy for the past half century or so. Good or bad, they want a piece of the action that's going on the in rest of the world. As an immediately identifiable westerner, you are a symbol of action beginning to take place. At any rate, what I'm trying to say is that it is remarkably refreshing to find oneself in an Asian city that has the developed infrastructure of a prominent metropolitan area but without the over-developed tourist economy. It allows you to connect with the people less on economic terms, and more on human ones.


Walking home through the city from the temple, I passed a row of fruit stalls. I saw a guy selling pineapples. He'd take the skin off with a machete and present the fruit on a skewer. That sounded like the kind of thing I could go for at the moment. I walked up and told him I'd like one. He looked me in the eye. "1,000," he said. About 80 cents.


Then he looked down, saw my longyi, and gave a relenting shrug. Unbidden, he made a new offer. "500."


I've never been so thrilled about a forty cent discount in my entire life.


2.


Toward the end of my stay in Yangon, I went to go make arrangements for transportation to my next destination. It was still a couple days before Christmas, and I wanted to make my way over to Bagan before Christmas Eve. My hope -- what seemed at the time like a well-fortified plan, really -- had been that I'd strut into the train station in my longyi and acquire a ticket for the next day's passage to Bagan in the sleeper class. Maybe prebook a meal and have them put a bottle of pinot grigio on ice for me. That isn't exactly how it happened.


Presenting myself at the entrance to the station a man from the taxi queue called for my attention with a line to the effect of "Hey bro, nice longyi." I replied in thanks. He informed me that I'd tied it wrong. This is the equivalent in this country to having something in your teeth. Everyone will notice, but few will say anything. Without my having to acknowledge this fact, he saddled up behind me and gave me what I'd come to think of as a good old fashioned Rangoon reach-around. He was even kind enough to provide me with instructions. "Oneee," he said, as he folded the clothe in his right hand to the clothe in his left. "Twoooo," doing the same with his left hand. On "Three!" -- his hands whirring like a jar of fire flies -- he knotted a tight little bun at my waist. "Now you try," he told me.


"One..." I started. "Two..."


"Very good," he encouraged.


When I announced my attempt at "three" my bun fell apart in a lifeless poof, leaving me holding my skirt up with my hands.


"Hmm... That's not quite it," he allowed.


Having gamely given instruction a shot, he tied me up without counting this time. Thanking him for the sartorial assistance, I started into the station. He came with me.


"Where are you from?" he asked. This is the question de rigueur no matter where one is in the world. Whether in Zimbabwe, the Philippines, or anywhere that English is spoken but not necessarily the native language, it's what people ask you. I imagine the English textbooks in these countries feature the same templated conversations that the Spanish and French ones do in America. "Where are you from?" "The weather is warm." "The window in the café is open."


Having explicated this theory to him, I informed him I was from the United States. He asked me about my itinerary, and I told him I planned to get a ticket to Bagan.


"Ah," he said. "You will not be able to get a ticket to Bagan."


The first reason, he explained to me, is that one doesn't buy train tickets at the train station. You buy them at the place where they sell train tickets, which, apparently, is across the highway. He encouraged me to go into the station and ask for a ticket. I wouldn't be able to do it. I walked over to what appeared to be a sign board with the names of destinations and a ticket-seller below. No dice.


"It's okay," he said. "I'll walk you there."


"Really?" I said. "You don't have to do that."


As we made our way together across the highway overpass, he explained the second reason why I wouldn't be able to get a ticket. It was the holiday season, and all the trains would likely already be full up.


"Oh," I said.


"Yes," he said, and continued to explain how in the weeks around Christmas and New Year the entire country criss crosses in an attempt to return to one's family and native lands. So much for escaping the holidays.


When we got to the ticket purchasing station, the man and I walked up to a gentleman standing outside the area designated for the queue. This was where, in retrospect, a little sleight of hand may have occurred. My friend and his colleague -- potentially a representative of the train company; potentially a confederate --exchanged a few words, which evidently supplied my friend with the intelligence that there were no available spots on a train to Bagan for the next ten days. This left me somewhat surprised. But never having dealt with cross-country transportation in Myanmar before, I was simply thankful to have a liaison to hold my hand while I navigated through it. For as soon as I began to worry, my liaison told me that I could probably still snag a spot on a night bus. He knew just the place.


And again we set off to yet another location. Only a few blocks down a side street, he escorted me into a travel agency. They informed me that I had come just in time. There were still a few open spots on night buses over the coming weeks, but they were filling fast. I should book my entire trip now. Hardly being able to believe my good fortune at coming across the opportunity to make my entire slate of arrangements in a timely manner -- just imagine if I had waited another week to book the rest of them! -- I conjured up an itinerary on the spot. Happily, they pointed me in the direction of the nearest ATM so I could withdraw several briefcases full of cash to remunerate them for their assistance. My liaison remained by my side the entire time, just to make sure I was well taken care of. I parted from the scene with a series of grand waves, expressions of gratitude, thanking each of them for their help as well as their friendship, and shaking each hand heartily. Then I set off back into the city, feeling secure in the promise of future movement, and flush with the extra cash I'd withdrawn wadded up in my pockets.


3.


After wandering for a bit I stopped in at a coffee shop to celebrate my good fortune with a latte. I was in the part of town with the highest density of white people. Evidently, this was the central expat district. It's not always easy to get a decent espresso drink in most parts of Yangon -- there are no Starbucks in the country, which in most cities has proved something of a gateway drug to more boutique coffee shops -- and so I figured I'd take this opportunity to indulge.


Having sat for a while reading a book of essays by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, I got up to pay. It was while I was settling up that a man entered the café and made a bee-line for the register. Midway through unfurling my wad of cash, the man looked me in the eyes.


"Hey," he said. "Do you want to come pick up trash for an hour? It's part of a competition. I need people."


I stared at him for a few seconds, searching my entire mental repository for the faintest hint of a reason why the answer wouldn't automatically be "no." I sought to clarify the proposition.


"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're asking me to come with you to pick up trash?"


"Yes," he said.


"For the next hour?" I said.


"Yes," he said.


"And we'd be doing it as part of some competition?"


"Yes," he said, waiting on my answer. I shrugged.


"Okay."


What the hell else have I got to do?


Setting aside any further interrogatives, I followed him out of the café. He took me across the street to his restaurant, which served Japanese fare. Then I realized I had heard of this place before.


"Hey," I asked. "Do you guys have jazz here on Friday nights?"


"Yeah," he said. "How did you know?"


I told him about Yuki, the jazz singer I had met the other night at the rooftop bar. She had mentioned this place. She's been sitting in on their Friday sessions for quite some time. With the acquaintance of this man, I believe I had successfully infiltrated the ranks of the entire Myanmar-Japanese jazz circuit.


Next thing I knew it was me and a crew of the restaurant's employees. Apparently, the man's recruitment strategy hadn't proved especially effective -- though evidently effective enough to achieve quorum. Disposable gloves were handed out, as were trash bags. Our cohort set off down the street, like an amoeba picking up whatever it came across in the course of locomotion.


"So," I asked, "what exactly is this competition?"


"It's a cocktail competition," he said.


A discussion ensued. He had filed an entry in a world-wide competition, sponsored by Bacardi, and as part of the submission each entrant was required to do a certain amount of service in their community. As it turned out, this guy was the head bartender of the premier craft cocktail establishment in the city. He would be going to Puerto Rico the following month to visit the Bacardi headquarters and compete in the finals, preparing his cocktail for a panel of esteemed cocktail aficionados. I asked him about his submission. He called it the "Kalay pop." He had grown up in a region of Myanmar, on the western border, called Kalay. One of his fondest memories as a child was a man who went around with a cart that held a stash of frozen banana pops, ringing a bell to alert everyone of his presence. Essentially the rural Myanmar version of the ice cream man. He sought to reconstitute this childhood pleasure in cocktail form in a take on the classic banana daiquiri: a base of white rum, lime, fresh banana syrup, with an herbally dash of Benedictine liqueur and rounded out with a touch of sesame oil. Just like the ice cream man used to make 'em.


As a result of our endeavor, I can say from experience that the only thing more amusing than a white guy walking down the street in a longyi is a white guy walking down the street in a longyi picking up trash as the intriguingly ugly, conspicuously taller duckling in a brood of locals. I was the subject of quite a few iPhone portraits. Whether or not I was the subject of an equal number of Instagram stories that day, I was unable to ascertain.


Finished with our community service, we returned to the restaurant. Our crew was rewarded for the work with a round of the competition-winning cocktail. Not one to let a good seat at the bar go to waste, I made reference to the other competition cocktails we had talked about on our walk. He made me a few rounds of his greatest hits. He also comped me a couple dishes off the menu. I continued reading my book while I consumed my gratis fare. Good God, I don't think I've ever loved a country more than Myanmar in that moment. Sated, I bid him adieu, told him I'd be back, and trundled out of the restaurant, sufficiently liquored up for the rest of my afternoon.


My next stop for the day, and the final destination on my list for Yangon, was Dala, the rural village on the other side of the river from the main city. There is a ferry ride that travels between the downtown area and Dala. As far as ferry rides go, it was not the world's most exquisite. I wouldn't go as far as to say the Yangon River is putrid, but it errs more on the side of sludge than sparkle. Whereas the port on the Yangon side is situated in a dense cosmopolitan area, the port on the Dala side immediate recedes into rural obscurity. I contemplated this observation as I alighted from the ferry. My plan was to walk around. Just to see what was over there. As ever, I didn't really know where I was going, what I could expect to see, nor the best means of either going or seeing. In the flood of humanity coming off the boat, everyone jetted off in particular directions, toward wherever it was they were going. I idled. An obvious target, I was accosted by any number of men offering services, tours, trinkets, this and that. I declined all, having spent my store of credulous generosity for the day.


But soon shortly after making my way down the obvious path of the main street I realized I was walking into nothing in particular. Not only was there not an obvious next path, but there didn't even really seem to be any paths at all. There were just roads, awash in waves of motor bikes, tuk tuks, and bicycles. Further on, another man on a bicycle peddled up next to me. He had a passenger car attached to his bike, like a sideways rickshaw.


"I take you around," he said, moving along next to me.


"No thanks," I said, instinctively.


"Where you going?" he said. "Village very far."


"How far?" I asked.


"Very far," he said. I had no counter-evidence with which to dispute the accuracy of this assessment.


"How much?" I said.


He quoted me a price somewhere in the neighborhood of five bucks American for two hours. Then I acquiesced. At this price point, I'm worth it.


And so the man and I puttered around the several villages of Dala. There was the fishing village. There was the bamboo village. The names didn't describe the content of the villages, evidently, so much as the villager's occupations. Each was a tight collection of single-room huts, mostly stilted above the estuary that ran through them. No electricity. No running water. The commode consisted of a platform with a hole in it positioned over the river. Trash everywhere. Trash for products they didn't even appear to consume. It was like the community version of the room inhabited by Danny DeVito and Charlie Day in the TV show It's Always Sunny. The perfect distillation of filth and squalor. That's not to say it was offensively shabby. But it was undeniably in disrepair.


At one of the houses he pointed, "My babies." This was where his family lived.


Another one of the places he indicated was a coffee shop. It was the building in the village with the greatest investment in infrastructure. It was an open air terrace. There was a sink, a concrete floor. There were advertisements for energy drinks and for the local Myanmar beer.


"This is my coffee shop," he said.


"This is where you go for coffee?" I said. "Can we stop?"


"You want to stop?" He said. I don't think any of his customers had ever suggested this.


And so the bike halted, and we stepped off to take a seat at one of the plastic chairs. It was empty except for one other table, with a father and son sitting together and quietly eying us as we walked in. The garçon came over to take our order. I told my guide to get us two coffees; I'd pay. The boy came back with a small carafe of hot water. Two cups of questionable cleanliness with a packet of Nestlé instant coffee. Sip for sip, it was undoubtedly the worse cup of coffee I've ever had. We sat for a few minutes of sipping interspersed with conversation -- both of us contemplating, from separate perspectives, what exactly would have possessed me to want to hop off the bike and drink this swill. I asked how much, covered his coffee for this time and the next, and then we took leave of the café, nodding to the father and son as we went.


The good news, I suppose, is that we passed several modern buildings, which would not be out of place in a more affluent area. The first he pointed out as "my babies' school." It looked like a normal school yard that one would see in any other rural community. A single large building, covered in murals drawn by little hands, and a fenced off playground. Maybe the school building is a signal that Dala will look very different for the next generation, having received an education that their parents didn't.


The second building was a tavern of sorts. While we didn't go inside, the tavern intrigued me. It boasted a huge canvas advertisement for an energy drink featuring the visages of several notable players from Manchester United. It's kind of astounding to think about. In an area with minimal access to running water or capable sewage, the faces of these athletes still meant something significant to the people here. Even watching from England or the United States, one gets a sense of the reach of world football. A number of teams present TV-visible ads not only in the languages of obviously major markets of Asia, like Chinese or Korean, but also in the more linguistically niche markets of Vietnamese, Thai, and -- get this -- even the looping curlicues of the Myanmar language. Seeing this banner, I asked my guide if he supported a particular football club.


"Oh, yes," he said. "Big fan of Man U."


At length, we rolled up back to the ferry terminal. It was time for me to retire for the evening. It was also about time for me to take leave of Yangon. I had seen the cosmopolitan hub of the country, the colonial and cultural capital. I had loved it. Now it was time branch out. It was time to check out something new. My next step would be the sprawling, spiritual oasis of ancient temples, rivaling Cambodia's Angkor Wat in its grandeur, built between the 9th and 13th century: Bagan. And as it stood, the only thing between me and Bagan was a ride on the night bus.


---


Epilogue.


This is one of the things I love about the sport of soccer. World football is one of the few subjects you can bring up anywhere on earth and reliably elicit some sort of meaningful conversation. Either there will be a connection on a topic that is truly significant to the other person. Or there will be a story about how their father was a big fan, but they could never really seemed to get into it themselves. The discrepancy in privilege between me and my guide in Dala is about as big as it can get. The discrepancy between our love for the game is much smaller. Whether in a village in Myanmar, a brewery in Zimbabwe, an alleyway in St Petersburg, or a tram in Istanbul, there are few things in this world that are that big of a deal to that many people, independent of their background.


Common ground is hard to come by nowadays. Wealth inequality is greater than ever. Political divisions prevent people from engaging in civil discourse. In this respect, travel is a way of countering this trend. To have been to a place is to be connected with it. The people are no longer abstract entities, only the digits of a figure. When hundreds of people died in Myanmar in the collapse of a jade mine, as they did several months after I visited, that meant something to me that it wouldn't have otherwise. The world would certainly be a better place if we could all get to that point of caring, of vested interest without having to forge that tangible connection. To just treat people as people, regardless of whether we feel personally connected to them. But that's not how it works. It's just not in our psychological makeup. "If I'm an advocate for anything," wrote Anthony Bourdain, "it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food, it's a plus for everybody."


Over the next couple weeks I would move across the country of Myanmar. Christmas eve in Bagan. The strange and exotic world of Myanmar's night buses. A hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake. How I lost a shoe on New Year's Eve. The suboptimal and unappealing cityscape of Mandalay. But I won't get into those stories here. Maybe they'll come up another time. That's the thing about travel. There's always more to do. There's always more to see. And it's hard to communicate what's been done and what's been seen to those who were not there when it happened. It's just about impossible to not be underwhelmed by the stories you friends bring back after having been on holiday. Having to sit through those kind of stories is sincerely excruciating. Yet there is some magic to communicate there. They felt it at the time. You've felt it before in your own travels. I'm not sure I got it right here. But I'd like to think I will someday.


After Myanmar, I'd meet back up with Haily in Vietnam. Soon after that, we were hoping to get what had been our chaotic and discordant lives back on track in England. Then the virus hit. Nothing was on track. By the time you're reading this, I hope that will have changed. I hope we're back together. I hope we're able to get back out into the world.


This has been the first season of Notes from the Field. If you want to hear new episodes when they come out at some point in the future, you can subscribe to this show. It would also mean a lot if you would rate the show on iTunes. That does a lot to bring in new listeners. In the meantime, you can listen to more of my work on my other podcast, Cognitive Revolution, in which I interview eminent scientists, thinkers, and writers about the personal side of their intellectual journey. You can subscribe to my email newsletter, Dear Luke. This is the best way to keep up with my writing, as well as a big help to me in bringing about my future projects. The more people that are on the list, the easier it is to convince potential publishers that people want to hear from him. You can also find me on Twitter @codykommers or email me at cody.kommers.writing@gmail.com. Thank you for listening.

Yael Niv is a professor in Princeton department of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. She is also a discernibly high-quality human being. I have been an admirer of her and her work for many years now. But she's been in the fore of my mind of late because of a couple papers she recently published: on "The Primacy of Behavioral Research in Understanding the Brain" and "The Case Against Economic Values in the Brain" (co-authored with Benjamin Hayden). In this interview, we mostly talk about her background as a psychologically-oriented computational neuroscientist, which has been impressively focused from relatively early on. It's clear how a lot of the ideas that are gaining wide-spread attention (even outside the usual circles of computational neuroscience) having been circling in the heads of Yael and her colleagues for a long time. We talk about the origins of her behavioral primacy paper, as well as the best advice on mentoring she learned from Peter Dayan. It's a fun conversation, and I hope you enjoy!


"Have you been to the third tree on the east-most corner of Lake Mwandishi?"

What one expects when landing at an airport in South East Asia -- or for that matter, a developing country anywhere in the world -- is madness. Pure madness. A throng of taxi drivers will clamor in a bid for your attention, like a frenzied Wall Street trading floor. A stream of cars will weave through the terminal, disgorging passengers at full speed. To exit the terminal requires picking your way to the street through of an array of stalls offering everything from an arresting waft of the local fare to SIM cards from unknown carriers to offers to exchange currency at rate that only sounds fair while the local money still seems like a collection of meaningless pieces of paper. It is always an order of magnitude hotter and stickier than wherever you came from. This is what one might reasonably expect when stepping off the plane in Myanmar. But no such madness exists at Yangon International airport.


The Yangon airport is something much closer to a buddhist monastery situated in some rural outpost like Montana or Kansas. Instead of madness, there is tranquility. A couple guys in sarongs will approach you and gently inquire if you'd be interested in commissioning a taxi. When you shake your head, they shrug their shoulders mildly and wander off. There are hardly any cars in the terminal. And unlike the other capitals of South East Asia, there are no motorbikes. Instead, when you step outside there is only a helpful taxi attendant and a docile queue of cabs. After the passenger drop-off lane, there are five further lanes, like at LAX, though unlike LAX only one of these lanes at any time is likely to have a vehicle in it. The most intrusive noise is the birds.


When I stepped out of the terminal, I turned to my right to survey the open road in front of me. It stretched out into a dusk of palm trees lining the smoothly paved highway. I had planned to take the bus into the city, and since there weren't that many vehicles around I didn't have a hard time tracking down the right one. Stepping aboard, I presented the driver with a wad of cash. The written Myanmar language uses a different set of numerals than the standard Arabic ones, so I wasn't sure what I was looking at when it came to picking out the appropriate bill. It probably wouldn't have mattered even if I did, as I didn't know what the bus fare was. The driver shuffled through my available currency and selected a choice note. He beckoned me to go sit down. I took the seat nearest to the door. Then a few minutes later when the next passenger arrived, he negotiated with her to hand her fare over to me. In my serene naiveté, I had evidently paid twice the going rate. The driver had contrived a way to make me whole.


After waiting for the bus to be mostly full, we set off on the road in the direction of the ripe sunset. For most of the way, we sailed straight through toward the city, save for a couple congested intersections. There was an astonishing display of cordiality on the roads. Our driver, for instance, actually appeared to stop for people who waved him down on the side of the road, even if they weren't yet at a legitimate bus stop. I didn't hear him use the horn once. Come it to think of it, I didn't hear any horns save for a couple flagrant violations of traffic decency. The roads felt new, though the bus didn't.


On the way into the city, I sat with my backpack on my lap as the bus began to fill up. I took some time to study the map of the bus route in front of me. It wasn't an especially helpful chart. For one thing, it was mostly occluded by the passengers sitting in front of it. The only information it offered was the names of the stops on this line, which wasn't all that enlightening given that it was all in Myanmar's unique local script. Even among non-western scripts, the Myanmar writing system is particularly engaging to behold. What mostly it appears to have going on is a series of interlocking circles and squiggles, which are periodically marked off by larger boxes. It's got the buoyant aesthetic sensibility of the kind of script a three year old would come up with when she's imitating adult handwriting. All looping circles and entangled boxes, it is positively delightful.


When I exited the bus at my downtown stop, I took a moment to gather my bearings. Then I slung my backpack over my shoulder and made my way down the street. The sidewalks featured the characteristically treacherous cracks of other cities in South East Asia, but with the difference that they were almost totally clean. There was no trash. The only debris was maybe 0.3 cigarette butts per square meter. The city center of Yangon has long, skinny Manhattan blocks. Walking north-south, one needs to take provisions as if undertaking a week long crossing of an expanse of desert. Walking east-west, there's room for maybe one and half store fronts before tumbling into the next intersection. At length, I presented myself at my hostel and checked in. I was officially on the ground in Myanmar.


It was December, about a week until Christmas. My plan was to spend the holidays on my own here in this country. My life in England had been complicated over the last few months. My existence felt heavy. I wanted to feel unencumbered again. I wanted to be out there in the world. I wanted to be somewhere untethered from life's responsibilities. I wanted to have the breathing room to do a little soul searching. Myanmar had been a place I had wanted to come for a long time. The country's borders had opened up over the last half decade, after having been more or less shuttered for the past two generations -- since around the time George Orwell was posted in Burma on colonial duty. Of the ten countries in South East Asia, Myanmar has by far the largest land mass. Yet its tourist numbers are on par with Laos, one of the smallest. There are fewer tourists per capita here than anywhere else in this part of the world. But there's no guarantee that will continue. Perhaps it will develop into a tourist mecca, like Thailand or Vietnam. Perhaps it will close down again and slink back to the shadows. Either way, it's a nation in rapid change, and I wanted to see it while still in its blossoming, spring-time phase.


I also liked the idea of spending Christmas in one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries on the planet. The official religion of Myanmar, which is practiced by the majority of the population, is Theravada Buddhism. It is generally considered to be the most conservative form of the religion. While everyone back home would be cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace (or whatever else one is supposed to do during Christmas), I'd be wandering the exotic alleyways of this Christ-bereft stronghold of Buddhist tradition and stumbling upon the hidden mysteries of its grand and ancient pagodas. Sounded great to me.


I had a rough itinerary sketched out. I had my plane tickets in and out of Yangon, the largest city and formerly known as the British colonial headquarters of Rangoon. I had booked most of my hostels in advance for each part of the country. But how I was going to get from place to place or what I was going to do when I got there was all to be determined. Life had felt stiflingly regimented back home. All I had with me now was a backpack. Not the travel-savvy, larger-than-the-girl-lugging-it kind of backpack, but my school backpack. It was filled mostly with books on the country. I wanted to get to know this place. Not just to see it, but to really learn about it, to talk to the people who actually lived here, and to read the words of people who have a deep connection with this land. I was ready to immerse myself. I was also ready for some moment-to-moment, take-it-as-it-comes living. This felt like a country built for just that.


2.


On my first morning in country, I set off from my hostel onto the streets. I was in search of nothing in particular. And in this first walkabout that was precisely what I found. The most arresting observation the tourist combing through downtown Yangon makes is one of demography: there are pretty much no white people here. There are many places in the world where this observation would hold. But few of them are cities that feel as developed, as accommodating, as unsullied as Yangon. In a way, it felt like coming to South East Asia for the first time again.


When one first starts coming to this part of the world, what stands out is how fantastically different it is. It is a society based on fundamentally different principles than the West. In many ways, the apotheosis of Western culture is the shopping mall: everything is standardized. Each store offers the same things of the same quality and aesthetic of what that store offers anywhere else in the world. The point of a Starbucks Frappuchino is that you can go to practically any country on earth and order essentially the same drink. A shopping mall is laid out so that nothing is obscured, nothing is going to take you by surprise. The organizing principle of a shopping mall is homogeneity.


If you're anything like me, you grew up in a culture, a city, a society that has increasingly come to resemble a shopping mall. So when you first come to South East Asia, you see that it's possible to have a society for which every impulse goes in the opposite direction. In many ways it is the antithesis of a shopping mall: nothing is standardized. Everything is unique. There are gapping, inexplicable holes in the infrastructure -- spots where something should exist but nothing does. Surprises abound. You take an action and there is little guarantee of what the subsequent reaction will be. It is completely and totally beguiling.


But then after a little more time in this area, you start to see the spoilage. It is the infiltration of shopping mall culture into this otherwise gloriously haphazard vision of society. It is McDonalds and Burger King and KFC and Starbucks. It is the government's prioritization of the needs of tourists over the needs of locals. It is the overwhelming presence of white people. And once you've identified these spoilages, it's tough to recapture that initial sensibility of having uncovered a society of such immensely foreign awesomeness. One of the unfortunate facts of globalization is that so many of the best spots to be a tourist have been all but ruined by the presence of so many tourists. Being in Yangon felt exactly like recapturing that innocent, unspoiled joy of finding oneself in an exotic land of mystery and surprise.


Every square inch of sidewalk in Yangon seems to be taken up with informal vendors. They appear to be organized into patches. For two blocks, it will be fruit vendors. Then the next block will feature grimy power tools. Then comes a swathe of clothes and textiles, followed by a sector proffering refurbished iPhones. Each is pocked with its own food stalls catering to adjacent vendors. At no point does one see anything on offer that would be of interest to anyone other than locals. The supply and demand here is clearly geared toward the indigenous population, and not hoards of foreigners swooping in to pay exorbitant sums for trinkets, goodies, or knick knacks.


Most of the action takes place on the main drags, which run along the short sides of the blocks. The long sides are residential streets. They are quiet, filled mostly with stretches of worn but not dilapidated apartments atop modest restaurants and other small businesses. It is an immediate contrast. The sidewalks on the arterials bustle with vendors and foot traffic while the residential asides snooze.


My first stop was at an ATM. Historically, Myanmar is famous for not having cash machines. This is something you'll hear frequently from people who've been there. It's no longer true. There are ATMs on almost every block. It's easy to get money. The problem, though, is that you have to cart around a lot of currency to have any meaningful amount of dough. Getting a couple hundred dollars worth of Kyat, which would last me for a couple weeks, required a mafioso-style briefcase in which to store all my local currency.


That being said, Myanmar isn't exactly a place where a tourist feels exposed on the street. It is difficult not to feel safe in a city where half the population is walking around in skirts, and the other half are women. The tradition garb for a Myanmartian male is type of sarong, known as a Longyi. It gives the local population a certain way of ambling: at once sort of floppy, sort of shuffling, hands behind the back in leisured confidence. One's sandals make way from under the skirt with each shuffle. Everything is flowy and nonchalant. My initial suspicion was that these people wouldn't commit a petty crime if their life depended on it. This suspicion was increasingly strengthened the longer I staid in country. The women, for their part, are marked by Thanaka. It is de rigueur for women to smear Thanaka on their cheeks before leaving the house in the morning. A canonical symbol of Myanmar culture, it is a cosmetic paste ground from the bark of an indigenous tree. In other words, a mud mask that is appropriate, even lauded, to be worn in public. At first, it's a strange sight -- like when a female character in a movie emerges from her quarters in an avocado mask with cucumbers over her eyes. But one gets used to it, and eventually it comes to hold its own intrigue and attractiveness.


As I made my way through the downtown area, I came upon an especially crowded intersection, where two big arterials criss-crossed. It was the kind of street that is not so much crossed as negotiated. In an interesting little piece of theatre, our numbers built up to a critical pedestrian mass before bursting out into the street, essentially bullying the steady stream of cars into realizing they couldn't possible run this many people over. Cross walks aren't really a thing here. Sure, there are some zebra crossing patterns painting onto the street. But they do not contribute to reality in any meaningful way.


At length I found myself close to the center of the downtown area at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. I knew I was somewhere of central interest, because it was outfitted in the way that the core of all central business districts are during the holidays: with Christmas decorations. I was a bit taken aback. The most conspicuous display of Christmas spirit was a sign that proudly read "Yangon Christmas Festival" on the street running across the entrance to the market. Other strung up ornaments included white cutouts of Christmas trees and snowflakes, as if coniferous evergreens and fresh snowfall were indigenous to the area. It was more than a week before Christmas, but Yangon was already bubbling over with holiday spirit.


The Bogyoke Aung San market is named for the man who essentially wrested control of Burma from the colonial British. He is the Myanmar nation's George Washington: the military-leader-cum-first-head-of-state, revered as the Father of the Nation. Bogyoke is an affectionate honorific meaning "major general." Aung San founded the country's military, which has been a central fixture in Myanmar's modern history -- though not always in a good way. Nonetheless, he is looked upon with widespread fondness to this day by the people of his nation, as befits an icon such as George Washington. Where his legacy begins to diverge from Ol' George's is that while Washington was afforded the opportunity to lead his young nation in its earliest and most vulnerable years, Aung San was assassinated six months into his reign. It was a plot by one of his political adversaries, whereby his men basically stormed into an important cabinet meeting and murdered the country's top seven political officials. Somewhat inexplicably, the architect of the assassination, U Saw, believed this would leave the country with no choice but to install him as head of state. In these designs U Saw turned out to be slightly over-optimistic and instead of being asked to lead, he was hanged. In the intervening seventy years since its independence, Myanmar has often entertained much criticism for how little democratic progress it has made.


To this point, I think it's worth mentioning that seventy years into America's democracy, the Civil War hadn't even been fought -- meaning that the United States wasn't even yet on the verge of its states uniting in the way we think of them today. And that's without having the Founding Fathers summarily murdered by a political adversary. It takes time to build a functioning democracy -- if that's still a designation you'd like to bestow upon the U.S. -- from the ground up. The main impetus for this democratic building up has been Bogyoke's Nobel Peace Prize winning daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi.


At any rate, the market. It was a great open air complex, like a converted airplane hangar with a white roof and white tile housing a brightly lit matrix of stalls. It's designation in the tourist guides -- a "lively bazaar in a multistory colonial building, with vendors selling antiques, jewelry, art & food" -- could describe the rudiments of almost any big market in the world, such as Ben Thanh Market in Saigon, or the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. But there is one major exception. There were no white people here. I saw two, maybe three, foreigners the entire time. This is an almost unimaginable feature of this sort of market, if you've been to comparable ones throughout the world. Before wandering in here, I had always assumed that surely these sort of structures were built for people just like me -- to give tourists a center of gravity, a point around which to orient themselves in the city. Apparently not.


The consequences of this absence of foreigners is tremendous. No one hassles you. No one approaches you in the aisles and tries to foist their shit upon you. A guy wandering down the aisle asked me something. "No thank you," I mumbled habitually and shook my head. I assumed he had been selling something when he repeated himself. I saw he wasn't carrying anything to sell and realized that he was simply asking me if I needed help finding anything.


One peculiar feature of the market were herds of unattended children wandering among the patrons and vendors. Each child had a shaved head with pink monk robes featuring an orange sash across their body. They roamed from stall to stall, whereupon they would half-heartedly chant some two line incantation. Without looking up from her phone, the store owner would stick a small pile of cash into the children's bucket. There were hundreds of these little troops, all around the city. It was like watching a conspiracy of non-Halloween trick-or-treating in progress. At the time, I imagined that this was some sort of mafia, run by eight year old Buddhist of especially feminine fashion sensibilities. I later learned they were nuns.


I surveyed the wares at the market. I spied some passionfruit and dragonfruit, among my favorites in this part of the world. Other fruits included the usual suspects: jack fruit, pomelo, little mandarins, apples, pomegranates, and grapes. I had hoped to find the crowned prince of all South East Asian fruits, the Mangosteen, but none availed themselves of me. There was a meat market. It featured chickens in close quartered cages, crabs that might at any moment reach out and snag a passerby, a wriggling catfish that threatened a flailing slap across the face, and black bags fidgeting with unidentified detainees. That sort of stuff makes me feel kind of itchy. But for whatever reason, what inspired the most interest from me were the mandarin oranges. I went to a stall and pointed. The lady began to load up a small plastic bag. When after a moment I told her, "Oh, that's plenty, thanks," she took this a cue to keep piling them into the bag. I didn't really have a use for enough oranges to feed a family of seven for the next week, and I tried to communicate this to her by presenting her with my intended budget, 200 kyat. She took offense to this, as she felt this was a dramatic underestimate of the value of the bag full of oranges. Her counter offer was 1000 kyat. I tried further to explicate my position for her. "No, please just give me enough for two hundred." She stared at me. I handed her a thousand Kyat note and walked off with an arm load of mandarin oranges.


Leaving the market, I headed back toward the streets. Without having gotten very far, a store front caught my eye, called J'Donuts. It appeared to be a Burmese version of Dunkin Donuts, a place where surely my money would be better spent than at the orange vendor. Indeed, the pastry case would not have been out of place in a Dunkin or a Tim Horton's, except for the overtly tropical flavors, with fillings such as lychee or choco-coconut. On the wall was a television with what appeared to be a twenty-four hour loop of a commercials in advertisement of J'Donut's products. The commercial was based, evidently, on the twin themes of Christmas and pedophilia. It featured cartoon children in costumes dressed as donuts, provocatively squirting chocolate syrup and festooning one another with sprinkles. These events, it was later revealed, were actually featured in the collective dreams of a small cohort of live action children, alongside the donuts dancing round their heads. Then a series of elves, in some sort of pervert Santa's helper gambit, entered the scene, stage left. I couldn't discern their function in the plot beyond adding a distinct element of seediness. At any rate, all of this was delivered in support of the thesis of J'Donut's cunning marketing slogan: "every day... tasty and fresh." As I sat there, not necessarily savoring but certainly consuming my cloying lychee donut and coffee-flavored sugar milk, an entire Harry Belafonte album -- though not necessarily a Christmasy one -- played all the way through in the background.


Perhaps unsurprisingly when I exited J'Donuts I found myself crossing over into what appeared to be the primary expat community of the city. Every store front was either a coffee shop or a restaurant. It seemed the entire population consisted of pairs of white dudes with Asian chicks. The establishments boasted creatively western names like "Toasted Melt" (sells toasted melts), "Minister Cheese" (sells ice cream), "O'thentic Brasserie" (sells... Irish inflected French cuisine?), and "Pizza Heaven" (sells 'slices of heaven'). With the discovery of this enclave, it occurred to me that I had reached a point of diminishing returns and elected to repair to my hostel to doze off for the rest of the afternoon.


3.


In the evening I headed back to a side street that I had stumbled upon in my earlier wanderings. Only a couple blocks over from my hostel, it was called 19th Street. It turned out to be one of the more prominent culinary attractions in the city. Anthony Bourdain ate here when he filmed in Yangon. It is an entire block (a long-ways one) strewn with the glorious green and red short stools indigenous to South East Asia. I have attained a sort of Pavlovian conditioning where upon sitting down at one of these bad boys, I know I'm about to be served up something streaming and delicious, ideally spicy, and most likely resulting in some abdominal tumult until my body acclimates. The whole street was a series of food stations, each with their own packed seating area. Everywhere looked good. Everywhere looked fresh. Everywhere looked like they'd be willing to deep fry pretty much substance, foodstuff or otherwise, and present it on a stick for my gustatory contemplation. I picked the place with the best available seating. (Yeah, it was full to the point of having a tough go finding a seat.)


I chose a dish for which the English translation was deep fried spicy pork. Because I'm white, the lady double checked about the spicy part -- imploring me to reconsider with a searching confirmation of "spicy?" in conjunction with a raise of the eye brow and the finger-thumb circle with splayed fingers, the universal sign for "Are you sure you can handle this, white boy?" Just try me.


I also ordered a beer. When the lady reappeared with my beverage, she popped the tab, pealed off some label underneath and gave me a look that could only mean "Oh wow, you've just come into some money." She asked me if I'd like to exchange the tab. I said sure. She took the cap and came back a couple minutes later with some cash money and handed it to me. God, I've never felt so favorably disposed to a country before. I mean, getting cash back on your beer -- could it get any better? I settled in with my beer, and eventually my pork, and waded into a collection of writings by Aung San Suu Kyi.


When not so long thereafter I was too tipsy not to get distracted by my surroundings, I put down the book and picked my head up to survey what was going on. I was alone at my table, and as I was enjoying my evening. Apparently, my solitude was noticed by the men at the table sitting next to me. They invited me to sit with them. So I paid my tab with the lady and moved next door, taking the fourth seat among my three new buddies. As is customary in many parts of the world, they made sure I was sufficiently plied with alcohol and cigarettes before we dug into any personal details. We got another round of beers. I accepted a cigarette, even though I don't smoke them. In fact, I can't. As a long-time cigar smoker, I have a hard time actually performing the act of inhaling smoke, as one is supposed to do with cigarette. I just hold the smoke in my mouth briefly, then let it go. The men I was sitting with noticed that I was doing it wrong. They gave me sidelong looks of moderate confusion. Then, apparently, they let the matter go, probably just chalking it up as an American thing.


One of the guys was more comfortable in English than the other two, and he did most of the talking. One of the quiet ones owned a small business. The other two were students, studying something to do with tourism. The gregarious one was especially fascinated with my being American. To him, this was an accomplishment that merited some serious digging into. Attempting to curtail this line of inquiry, I managed to turn the conversation back to Myanmar. They noticed the face of Aung San Suu Kyi on my book. I asked them what they thought of her. Their position was, in essence, decidedly favorable. They felt like she had the country's back. It was the same enthusiasm for a leader that my Indian friends mustered for Narendra Modi when he first took over the country, or the ovation Michelle Obama would receive if she decided to run for president. I asked them what had changed over the last five years, since the country had become more open. Overall, they were a fan of the developments. Over the next five years, they hoped to see a greater separation between the country's military and its government.


As well loved as Aung San Suu Kyi may be, she is often accused of being little more than a puppet of Myanmar's authoritarian and decidedly over-enthusiastic military regime. Instead of independent branches of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the Myanmar government is much more of a highly interdependent morass of military and political interests. This is at the core of the recent claims that the Myanmar government, led by Suu, is supporting a genocide of the Rohingya people on the Bangladesh border. As much good work as she has done, the country's military is a powerful and often malevolent force. Her relationship to this regime is complicated. On the one hand, they are responsible for many atrocities that the Myanmar government perpetrated against its own citizens during the half-century after independence. They also locked Suu up for more than a decade. In 1990, Myanmar had its first democratic elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won. Instead of stepping aside to let her take the reins of the country, the military ignored the results and placed Suu under arrest. She was a political prisoner -- placing her in the company of the other architects of non-violent, world-shifting activism in the twentieth century, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela -- for fifteen years. Which, I suppose, is quite a lot to put in the one hand.


But on the other hand, it is, at its heart, still her father's military. For better or worse, it is her family's legacy. And as with all family legacies, it is simultaneously an embarrassment and a treasure. Also, what country isn't proud of their military, if they've got one? Anyway, this is why the country is so volatile. Overall, the current seems to be drifting toward the good. But at any moment the military junta could reassert itself. It is, to say the least, a complicated situation.


Which, at this point in the evening, we made tragically little progress in solving. After pretending to have smoked a handful of cigarettes and having actually consumed enough beers to fill my quadrant of the table, I wasn't necessarily in a cognitive state conducive for nuanced political discourse. I bid my new friends adieu, and with that toppled my way back to the hostel.


4.


I'm not going to lie to you. Life was pretty good in Myanmar. I'd wake up at my leisure and wander downstairs for my first coffee of the day. Each morning I would put in a three hour of shift, with a bit of work, a bit of writing, and a bit of journaling -- a.k.a., three different modes of writing. During this time I'd pound down five or six cups of coffee, since it was free and unlimited in every hostel I staid at. I'd sit in the common area, and take my breakfast when it was ready. People would come and go. Travelers would commune with one another, carrying on the same inane conversations over and over again. "Have you been to the third tree on the east-most corner of Lake Mwandishi? No? Well, you really should. If you don't see that, you haven't really seen the country." I'd put in my headphones and get lost in my own world of curling streams of letters in my notebook or clack away on my keyboard for paragraph upon paragraph. Then I'd spend my afternoons out and about in the city.


On this morning I was greeted with a new development at the hostel. The staff was painting Christmas designs onto the front doors of the hostel. Taking inspiration from the marketing team at J'Donuts, they inscribed a red and green nativity of Santa and his elves. Though there were no children depicted in this scene, I assume the elves would've taken more than a passing interest in them had there been. Even more egregiously, the staff all wore Christmas hats. This is when it started to become clear to me that I had come to the wrong country to escape Christmas festivities. The Christmas Spirit is even more fervent here than it is in the U.S., which has been mostly relegated to the more inclusive greetings of "Happy Holidays." I had successfully escaped the Jesusy aspects of Christmas, but that's not really what the holiday is about is it? It's about festivities, conducting oneself in a spirit of celebration and good will, and, above anything else, a fresh haul of new loot. In other words, capitalism -- which is a language that everyone speaks, regardless of religion. With more than a week until Christmas Day, the intrusions of unbidden and overwhelmingly kitsch holiday spirit would get worse before they got better.


Only slightly daunted by the saccharine visage of Santa and his helpers, I set off back into town. One thing that I'd like to mention, which isn't my favorite topic to broach, but I sincerely think is worth bringing up, is the women of Yangon. They are easily the best looking population of females I've yet to come across in my travels. Now, pretty much every culture likes to say this of their own women. Especially, for some reason, Russians and Eastern Europeans. But they can't all be correct. As a third party judge, I have to give the award to Myanmar, specifically Yangon. I have a theory about this. Actually, two theories. The first has to do with the 136 indigenous ethnic groups of Myanmar. They are distributed geographically across the country, and Yangon, being the primary metropolitan area, is where all of the ones who are inclined to leave their ancestoral village and mate with someone further afield head to. As I'm sure is an uncontroversial point, mating across ethnic boundaries tends to lead to extremely beautiful offspring. While such mixing is subtle, that seems to be happening here. This is a personal theory of mine, and feel free to adopt it as your own or to reject it. The second theory, which is a more commonly held position is that it has to do with Thanaka. It's a blessing of a relatively high caliber to have baked into one's culture a penchant for excellent skin care. It would be as if Californians took a fancy to smearing avocado on their face when they left the house. After years of ardent commitment to skin care, you get a population of people with nice skin. So, like I said, it's a theory, and you're free to make of it what you will.


Another curious and slightly less sexist thing that one begins to notice on the streets of Yangon is that the cars in this country are almost exclusively Japanese. Practically every vehicle is either a Suzuki, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, or, if it's a truck, a Mitsubishi. There isn't a Kia or a Hyundai in sight, let alone a Chevy or an Audi. One reason for this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has always harbored a great deal of admiration for the Japanese, and so there has always been a big-sister, little-sister sort of relationship between the countries. I'm sure there's also a specific economic reason, but I wasn't able to ascertain it throughout further research. At any rate, I'm sure this trend will change as the country continues to avail itself of the world economy.


After starting this particular walkabout with no destination in mind, I oriented myself in the direction of the Zoological Gardens, which were enticingly marked on the map just north of the downtown area. Arriving at its gates, or at least, where on the map it appeared that the gates might be, I strolled through an open entrance. Then I heard someone call out "Hello!" The direct translation of this interjection to English would be something like "Hey!! Just where do you think you're going?" A man came from out of my peripheral vision to usher me toward a ticket booth, preventing me from entering the park illicitly.


Upon entering the grounds, it was not clear whether what I was entering was a traditional zoo or some sort of nature reserve. All I could see was fauna. There didn't appear to be other people. And there didn't appear to be exhibits. A sign read that there were 133 species. It failed to disclose whether they were held in cages or just wandering about. Making one's way through the paths in this zoo was like rolling up into a ghost town in a Western flick. The protagonist surveys the otherwise desolate street, and as a tumble weed rolls through, remarks that it appears everyone else has been run out of town. The first exhibit I came upon was a cage of monkeys. The fence around the animals' enclosure was about as far from sidewalk where I stood as an extended monkey arm. The monkeys, I noticed, could just about stick their entire bodies through the screen save for their area of greatest circumference. There were no witnesses around in case one of them escaped, murdered me, and snuck back in. There were large patches of unfinished construction projects throughout the grounds, and for all I knew any of them could have been filled with the inert bodies of unsuspecting tourists. I backed away slowly and turned to have a look at what else was around.


At length I did start to see other people. Again, I was astounded by the fact that not a single one appeared to be a tourist. I wandered the zoo for almost two hours, and never once saw another westerner. In my uniqueness, this made me an object of interest to the other patrons at the zoo, especially in the presence of some of the more lackluster animals.


Certainly one of the reasons there were few tourists was that the Yangon zoo is not among the world's most spectacular zoological habitats. That said, it was quite relaxing to wander in a park where both the animals and the patrons had such generous proportions of Lebensraum. The potential danger posed by the observation that the fortifications keeping the animals from the humans didn't exactly inspire confidence, gave the excursion an added dimension of excitement not usually expected from a trip to the zoo.


Making my way north again toward another site of interest on the map, I came upon a sprawling park laid out around a shimmeringly gorgeous azure lake. It was dusk now, and the setting sun was the same color as the sound of a bell marking the start of a meditation. The lake was ringed not only by a verdant lapel of grass, but also by a walking path, hovering over the edge of the water like a halo. Everyone I passed was a local. Each of them gave me a pleasant smile and nod. They seemed like they were just happy to see me enjoying myself in their city. I'd been wearing sandals all day, and my legs had the same gradient of dark clay to airy lightness as the sunset. At length, I came to a point where the walkway suddenly stopped. It's not that the loop had ended, but that there was a blockade in front of a ten yard stretch where there were no boards in the boardwalk -- a hole in the infrastructure, if you will -- and I could go no further.


After a brief respite back at the hostel, I repaired in the evening to what appeared to be Yangon's premiere rooftop bar. I had noted they had a jazz band on that night, and I was curious what heights could be attained in this country when it came to the lush life of jazz and cocktails. On top of a hotel in an otherwise residential area, the seating are was exceptionally loungeable, with a corridor of reservable and cushioned alcoves. These mostly appeared to be occupied by European business men, who were out for some shared plates and a bottle or six of wine. They were among colleagues and friends, evidently operating in a celebratory mode. There were also a few groups of mostly upscale Burmese. I snagged a spot at the bar. The roof offered a three-sixty degree view of the city, with the main visual attraction being the Shwedagon Pagoda glowing in the distance like a hovering UFO. Viewed from this vantage, it really becomes clear that Myanmar truly is a kind of dark spot on the map. Situated between the well-lighted civilizations of India, China, and Thailand, the plot of land centered on the Irrawaddy delta is dark when viewed from space, or even just a tall building. Even in the city, most of the land is shaded from urban glow. Between me and the imposing Shwedagon, which is the visual centerpiece of the city, there was nothing but an inscrutable blackness. It is as if showing a laser pointer into a moonless, starless sky. What you see is not so much a view but simply an unlit expanse, like the visual field behind closed eyes.


My first order of business was to obtain a drink. I was delighted to find their menu included barrel-aged negronis. I waved in the direction of the glowing panel of alcoholic goodness that was the bar and flagged down one of the bartenders. Normally, in these situations, I'd give the local flavors a shot and order something closer to an indigenous concoction than a tried classic. But this bar didn't have anything like that on offer. Plus the thought of gin, Campari, and vermouth marinating in oak over the course of a few weeks made me all tingly and excited in a way that's difficult to ignore. My cocktail was served with a flair of teak-wood smoke introduced into a glass enclosure around the drink, which upon lifting the enclosure released a fog, like a special effect at a rock concert. It was a little much for my taste. But it was also served with dehydrated orange slices, and I liked that. I sipped my cocktail, and read from my copy of George Orwell's Burmese Days by the under-light of the counter in front of me. Periodically, I'd looked up to survey the patrons of this illuminated fastness situated in the otherwise steely darkness of the landscape around us. I consumed these elegant $5 negronis with a certain ardent liberalism while smoking the Burmese cigars I'd bought, 10 for 50 cents. Soon the band began to play. Mostly it was from the oeuvre of Antônio Carlos Jobim. For the sake of propriety, I won't disclose the exact number of negronis I managed, nor the number of cigars I sucked down. But it's safe to that it was, in a scientific sense, a large enough sample to achieve statistical significance.


Then the night took a left turn. I saw a couple of guys hanging out by a table next to mine. They were clearly vibing with the music and looked like locals. I approached them. We got to talking. After the first set was over, the jazz singer who had been on stage came to our table, and introduced herself as a friend as the gentlemen I was sitting with. She was from Japan, propelled by the twin dreams of living in Myanmar and being a jazz singer. The two guys were entrepreneurs. I asked them what business they were in. "Import-export," they told me. As anyone familiar with the espionage genre will infer, they were spies. One of them claimed to be especially fond of America, having made several extended trips to Nebraska. If anyone has ever uttered a statement which more directly implicated them in some sort of covert affair of counterintelligence, I have not heard it.


Once the music had wrapped up and the European business men had begun to pack it in out of respect for tomorrow's workday, the two guys asked what I was doing next. "Nothing," I told them. It is at this point that the scene cuts to a drug-addled montage of rave music and altered consciousness, zooming around the city from one neon-lit palace of debauchery to another consuming substances of a dubious and enlivening nature. Or at least as close to that sort of thing as I come in my life.


The first stop on our itinerary was the kind of place that one might imagine America is full of if one had never actually been to America: a nifty establishment called the "Beer Pong Bar." This title rather concisely captures the institution's mission statement. Conceptually, it is a bar which dedicates the major of its real estate to arraying cups of beer across a table and enjoining participants on both sides to sink ping pong balls into one another's cups. Beer pong is one of America's most celebrated cultural exports, like the hamburger or the iPad, much loved the world over. As with all of America' greatest innovations, it provides a highly bastardizable palate on which other nations can construct their own cultural inventions. That is how the hamburger differs from, say, classical French cuisine. If you don't cook French food the way they do it in Paris, you're doing it wrong. But anyone can take the basic canvas of the burger, do whatever the hell they want to it, and find themselves in the presence of a creation that is at once delicious and entirely legitimate. Beer pong has been similarly appropriated to great effect in other milieus. The premise of this establishment was to set up in what was essentially an empty, unlit warehouse, a football field's worth of regulation beer pong tables illuminated by the synthetic LEDs of an air hockey table or a laser tag course. The operation's feng shui was so effective that it had evidently attracted the presence of every adolescent in the province to gather with their friends, perch a Gatorade-sized vat of beer on their table, and engage in bouts of competitive drinking until long after peak performance had been achieved. Being an American, I felt a certain patriotic duty to represent my country well. I did what I could.


Having reached a point of diminishing marginal returns on any activities which depended on the use of fine motor skills, we took off to the next spot. Upon leaving the beer pong bar, I discovered that our entourage had increased in number. Instead of requiring a single taxi, our crew now required a small fleet of vehicles. I had no real idea who any of these people were. But I was friends with all of them.


When I next came to, there was wailing. Or not wailing, but rather singing. Then I immediately ascertained that we were in the plush and intimate confines of a karaoke room. Now, the western and eastern conceptions of karaoke are rather different. In the west, the essential framework for karaoke is to consume enough alcohol to demolish all sense of self-consciousness or social liability in the service of aurally making a fool of oneself in front of a group of total strangers. By contrast, the eastern framework for karaoke is to consume enough alcohol to demolish all sense of self-consciousness or social liability in service of aurally making a fool of oneself in front of a group of one's close friends. Instead of taking place on a stage for any casual observer to judge, it takes place in a private room. It is an infinitely preferable format over the western version. It is, however, still awful. The only way to make karaoke an even slightly palatable activity is to have it catch you completely by surprise. It has to develop organically, on the spur of the moment. It is in this respect like other acts of vulgar semi-public behavior, such as skinny dipping. You don't set a calendar event for your next skinny dipping session. The spirit must take you. At least that's what I imagine to be the case for skinny dipping. No one has ever invited me to go. At any rate, that same conceptual model holds true for karaoke.


Having satisfactorily expressed ourselves in song, we ended the evening with a bite to eat -- whatever the Myanmartian equivalent to greasy three-AM kebab is. I ate my fill, then a good deal more, then I regretfully informed my companions that it was time for me to turn in. Without having taken the time to develop an especially solid game plan, I got up to leave. And I found myself walking in no direction in particular toward nothing much. It was 4:30 in the morning, and there were no cars on the road. I did not have internet on my phone. I knew the name of my hostel. I knew that it was somewhere south of where I was currently at. I didn't know which way south was. At the moment I was beginning to draw conclusions about my predicament based on these observations, a taxi pulled into the adjacent intersection. I flagged the driver down and hopped in.


I told the driver the name of my hostel. Then he embarked on a protracted exposition in a language I didn't speak. I deduced from the fact that he was explaining instead of driving that I had been unsuccessful in describing the port of call at which I hoped to disembark. More words came from my mouth. I can recall them now probably just about as accurately as he could understand them then. I managed to communicate that I was going somewhere toward the city center, as we were pretty far outside of town at this point, and this satisfied him enough to put the car in gear. At length, we pulled over on the side of a desolate road. He rolled down the window and shouted something. A man emerged from the darkness into the din of nearby street lamp. There was a brief exchange, which I imagined was chiefly about where to dump my body. Then the man leaned into the window and asked me where I wanted to go. I gave him the street number closest to my destination, which he relayed to his colleague in what seemed like more verbiage that was strictly necessary. The man disappeared into the shadows, and we set off toward my place of residence and/or the body drop site. When the car came to a stop I recognized the familiar acrylic visage of Santa and his elves. I had made it home. I was alive, albeit somewhat cognitively impaired. Filled with gratitude, beer, Christmas cheer, patriotic pride, and the unassuageable desire to retire, I turned in for the night.

Inspired by Love. Guided by Knowledge.

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"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

-Bertrand Russell