Feet to the Fire in Mandalay

Many Burmese men wear what we westerners call skirts. Usually these subdued patterned garments are cut below the knee or hemmed just above the ankle and are tied about the waist in a mystical fashion that didn’t make it into my boy scout knot training. Regardless, I grew up in a country of skirted men. Still, when I was a child in the east side of Glasgow if you wore a kilt you were undoubtedly most unfairly labeled for teenage eternity as a poof and summarily excommunicated from your tenement community. But today it’s all different with our global kilted renaissance where you can find Scottish second-cousins once removed guising as caber-tossers on the streets of Sydney or tartan-clad hairy guys called Hamish playing the pipes in downtown Wellington, New Zealand. Who would have thought that Scottish could be sexy? Had I remotely contemplated that as a child I would have more eagerly practiced my sword dancing or recitation of obscure Burns’ poetry in order to potentially pull chicks later on in life. Come here ya wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie.

Though I love Burma and the delightfully friendly Burmese I could not possibly live there. It is hot as blazes and there are no shadows as the sun is always directly above my head regardless of the time of day. In touring the magnificent, sprawling Mandalay royal palace I drank my own weight in water and that of a small dog. I could not begin to cool down in Mandalay; even as the central character and hero in my dreams I was sweating profusely. My hotel room had a fake Honeywell thermostat that controlled the playing of an audio track of a high-powered air conditioner.

While religion has always vexed me I am continually reverential of mankind’s grandiose construction of places to worship. In Europe the cathedrals are magnificent as are the palaces of Asia. Contrastingly, in Europe it is offensive to wear hats in God’s temples whereas in Asia footwear is the blasphemy. Taking off one’s hat in a cathedral is relatively undaunting, but I find the Asian footwear removal law more of a challenge. Today, for example, my bare feet had to unceasingly endure the high solar absorption thermal qualities of various impervious floor slabs and jet-black tiles while stepping through pigeon shit. But that may turn out to be a good thing for my interminable athlete’s foot. Who knows? Certainly not my podiatrist. Israel is different altogether; they made me wear a flimsy paper hat like an upside down fish and chips container when I visited the fabulous Wailing Wall.

Hot Hallowed Ground

Hot Hallowed Ground

Life’s Multiple Choices

Long before I experienced puberty in any meaningful sense I had an inherent proclivity for multiple choice. As a schoolchild faced with fundamental questions about the world, our laws of physics, its abstractions in mathematics and other unyielding numerical yet uncanny arithmetic relationships, multiple choice was a crutch for me. If you sat me down in one of those spartan, silent, soulless, pre pubescent body odor filled rooms at exam time and handed me six or so open-ended questions relating to the laws of physics or geometric relationships between bastardized-looking 3-dimensional shapes drawn by my dog my tender little heart would sink precipitously.

But if you gave me multiple choice answers my young fragile soul would soar unfettered like one of those big birds in an updraft over the Andes, preferably aired in HD and narrated by Sir David Attenborough, or in a pinch, Morgan Freeman. Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t cut it for me with that particular voiceover although I generally admire the man when he doesn’t act and I am almost fully supportive of his charitable causes. I still don’t get that movie Inception and the notion of watching the new Wall Street thing is unappealing to me.

With multiple choice, suddenly, instead of trying to regurgitate some obscure and seemingly unnecessary sixteenth century theorem all I had to do was simply choose a latin letter anywhere from A to E. Anyone who has had trouble with their regulator when night diving at 100 feet knows the experience of elation when oxygen again starts flowing freely. At teenage exam time, my emergency air supply came in the form of multiple-choice answers. Sometimes I knew the right answer, sometimes I winged it, and if I was feeling a bit cheeky I sneakily filled in two of those little boxes. Occasionally I justifiably felt that there were multiple correct responses.

Decades after my first open-ended exam traumatization, and with puberty no longer visible in my rear-view mirror, I still face multiple-choice assessments on a seemingly increasing and frequent basis. The rapid emergence and indomitable presence of the Internet tests and vexes me all the time. When I book a flight or hotel I must answer questions from those ubiquitous little drop down menus, else I cannot travel or even proceed to the next virtual page. However, some of the questions are much easier than in my lurid childhood exams. For example, after typing the single letter U I am asked if I live in Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay or the United States of America. Dead easy that one, except maybe if you are from Ukraine and you are pro-Putin (which I find unfathomable). Likewise, the multiple choice of Virginia or Vermont is an equally simple selection for me

Prefixes and suffixes are also seemingly requisite in these days of drop down multiple choices. You can be a mister or a miss or a Ms. (I think that means Scottish spinster) and you can be a junior or George Worthington the third, with three little trailing roman Is at the end of your name. I must admit that upon coming to America the use of the Jr. suffix threw me. Whenever I encountered a junior I automatically felt some impulsion to request an audience with the parent. Heretofore I generally ignored drop down prefixes and suffixes and it is probably fair to say I treated them with a measure of disdain. For example, in 2008 when I became a Fellow of a Royal Society I was forlorn when I could not drop that suffix on my name when ordering a book from Amazon or a cheap flight on Expedia. But last year that all changed. Last year I became a doctor.

A doctoral degree exclusively offers the recipient a really cool suffix or prefix. You can be Dr. Bob Anderson or you can be Bob Anderson Ph.D. It’s really quite brilliant in terms of dealing with drop downs. I would say moreover that I am generally under the impression that the Dr. prefix affords me more reverence in certain situations. So recently I have succumbed to using the Dr. prefix on my main airline and hotel websites. For example, at hotels, freshly cleaned underwear for Dr. has some aplomb and conveys some element of dignity, as does another cup of coffee or croissant for Dr. on the airplane.

Eleven hours after leaving Heathrow my flight from London to Singapore en route to Burma neared the gate and three beautiful flight attendants (one was a guy) presented me with a little completely unnecessary and impractical floral arrangement and told me that they were pleased to know that there was a doctor on board the aircraft. The lead attendant (who goes by purser) told me that on occasion having a doctor on the plane is really handy. I tried to explain that I could only really render aid to a fellow passenger if he or she was suffering from business plan problems and we then settled on my titular rights to professor, not doctor. It was “aaaaah you’re a professor, not a doctor!” I disingenuously agreed to that statement in order to settle any confusion, although at that point I was lying as I am indeed a doctor but not qualified as a professor. Sometimes I just go with the flow as life can be short. As they waved goodbye to the professor I was again the first off the airplane. Making a mental note to check if there is a professor prefix on the airline website drop down, I was once again greeted with an individual holding a Dr. placard. I felt no need to repeat the whole professor doctor thing as this lady took me on my own golf cart through the diplomatic channels at the airport. I just went with doctor on board the cart.

Sorry if these updates are a little bit long. Since I just spent the last three years attaining a PhD, I am haunted by my professor’s urges to strive for at least 5,000 words on any form of communication. Next, I will report on Burma’s golden millennium of cultural development.

The World’s Currency

In terms of a functional monetary system, it is probably reasonable to say, using popular vernacular that Burma is really screwed up. You might say, more sensitively, that it is fiscally challenged or that it has some monetary supply or circulation issues. But no, it is totally and utterly screwed up. I use these speciously derogatory terms very carefully with some confidence and great aplomb whilst fearing no repercussions based in some part on Burma’s recent shift towards democracy and moreover its overt indications of potential future individual freedoms to the west. For example, this year, if I were traveling in some former soviet states such as Russia or Belarus I would not indiscriminately shoot my mouth off so recklessly and with such gay abandon. Especially in Belarus. I still have flashbacks to the meticulously-casted Eastern European border guards going through my pockets on the train to Belarus last year. It was snowing in a Hollywood movie set kinda way (large vertically falling puffy snowflakes) and the cast had big furry hats adorned with suppressed-looking little bronze stars, gray grim faces, inexpensive and coarse-looking overcoats, and seemingly loud over-acted accents, reminiscent of the memorable bloody prisoner swap scene in the 1996 movie “Air Force One.”

The completely useless little indigenous paper money notes in Burma are called “kyat” – pronounced like “cat” with half a cheeseburger and some fries with ketchup in your mouth. But the real currency on the street is United States’ Dollars. God bless them. Greenbacks. Little adorable verdigris portraits of George Washington smiling at you eternally in an indie Mona Lisa kinda way. May they rightfully adorn my hallway forever. As in a handful of somewhat broken countries, the U.S. dollar unofficially represents the local currency and basic means of commerce. Since they are not traded legitimately through the local banking system it means the notes just go hand to hand for goods and services, I guess for near on eternity, gathering handprints and cheese stains in a perpetually sad and declining unalterable route. The salient point here is that you need good, crisp, new dollar bills for trading in Burma, else the locals will discriminate against every fold, tear, dog-ear, ink stain, or handwritten note from Emma saying I love you John. Compounding this unusual situation, Burma generally heretofore eschews ATMs and is essentially a cash society, even for airplane tickets and the like. Therefore, in preparation for my second trip to Burma I went to a few banks in the U.S. and I selfishly amassed several stacks of crisp new dollar bills. Unceremoniously, but with careful thought and preparation for my trip I stuffed these wads of cash in my backpack along with my passports, just like Jason Bourne, albeit without the gun or any martial arts training whatsoever.

As a regular long-distance traveler I am most fortunate to receive free or discounted upgrades to business class and sometimes first class air travel (e.g., hanging out up front with Newt Gingrich or Angela Merkel). For this particular trip I received complimentary first class travel for all the big segments, assuring the receipt of much ass kissing over the world’s majestic but, sadly, overfished rising oceans due to the neglect of mankind. Flying eastward I had to change planes and terminals at London’s Heathrow airport, which is arguably much more hassle and discomforting when compared to my regular five-year colonoscopy appointments.   And true to form my plane upon arrival was placed in a holding pattern, or as the great Scottish poet and novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson famously said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” But really, he had no idea of future woes to be endured at Heathrow. We all make mistakes, even great Scottish poets. Nonetheless I still like his stuff. Moving in a holding pattern at Heathrow is just one step shy of water boarding in my humble opinion.

Upon arrival at Heathrow I was greeted by a tidy, smart looking chap of seemingly Indian decent who had a placard with my name and a fine west-London accent. He said to me, “Doctor, we thought your connection was a little bit tight so I will drive you over to your next flight, just to be sure.” Unexpectedly, but enthusiastically, I welcomed this intervention with gusto as I really had to go potty. For the record I can’t go on airplanes and, probably, I will never qualify to be an astronaut as I demand solitude and anonymity. After my expeditious transit and pit stop I got to my next flight in a timely manner but as I went to enter the plane a small black dog chased me.

The dog was attached by a leash to a member of the Heathrow constabulary. The dog (I wish I knew his name) was so happy to see me that I thought I had arrived home and my family canine, Lucky, was jumping all over me which he does even if you leave the house briefly to get the mail, by the way. His tail was wagging and I thought I must have a large open-faced ham sandwich with loud sauces in my backpack as he had his snoot way down in there. Alas, the police officer that was dragged by the dog explained to me—when she got her breath back—that the dog was specifically trained to sniff for cash. Same as my daughter and housemaid was my foremost thought. So I explained in outright and convincing detail to the Heathrow police that the wads of several thousand new dollar bills in my backpack were in part to counter monetary circulation problems being endured in post-autocracy Burma and for the paramount purpose of ensuring my ease of commerce whilst visiting the legacy and undeniable heritage of the ancient tombs of Bagan. After reviewing my Soprano stash they let me get on the plane. I assume the dog received a little snack or something for locating a potential fugitive. Of course, that would have to be administered very soon afterwards so said canine could associate action and reward, but alas I did not see that. Just FYI if you adopt a retired Heathrow Police dog you’re gonna have to throw money for him to retrieve or put a few bucks inside a tennis ball.

Next I will report on the global importance and significance of Burmese culture and its influence within an ever-changing South-East Asian landscape.

Returning the King’s Gold

Burma has always fascinated me. Perhaps unfortunately, the foremost reflection on Burma for me is Alec Guinness being unceremoniously slapped by his WWII Japanese captors, irrespective of his rank and status, and then thrown in the hotbox for several days in that badly named, but immensely successful movie, “Bridge over the River Kwai.” When I went to Burma a few years ago the country was entirely controlled by the military Junta and Aung San Suu Kyi was under seemingly eternal house arrest. At that time, tourism was discouraged by the west in order to starve the Junta of cash.

Alas, 5 years later, Burma is reforming, and the official name of the country is Myanmar (always was really). But I can’t stop thinking about Alec Guinness and other imperialist British endeavors, which defaults to the moniker, Burma. It is also much easier to say and to spell. Has a much better ring to it I think. Five years ago when I went there I felt that I was the only tourist in that land, leading to a song of the same name, which has been listened to by at least one fan in my land, but I digress.

IMG_4792

The British essentially plundered Burma as part of their expansionist imperial actions, and for Burma the initial British annexation was to protect the teak trade. (Didn’t see much teak in Scotland FYI). As was customary, the imperialist Brits also sequestered many Burma treasures including royal gold items such as crowns and orbs, which were put up for display in the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington, London. Conquests generally need some form of public platform I suppose if taxpayers foot the bill. In the 1950s, when Burma was given the right to self govern, these impressive antiquities were rightfully and duly returned to their home and subsequently displayed in the Yangon Museum. Or Rangoon as the Brits would call it.

I went to see said treasures about five years ago, and indeed they were impressive. Since I was, apparently, the only tourist in Yangon that week, I was given a private tour of the museum and treasures by the museum’s curator. She was a lovely middle-aged lady who sincerely appreciated the globally growing American culture of tipping. It was, by most accounts, memorable, and I was forbidden to take pictures (which usually does not stop me, as I consider that to be an utterly nonsense rule, but they took all my electronics before I went in there).

With a growing geo-political shift to less authoritarianism and more democracy (apart from Ukraine), Burma has opened many more doors in recent years, and more importantly has the support and encouragement of Western Governments. For that reason I decided to return to Burma in 2014 and to explore many other parts of this fascinating country, which I will report on soon.