The rain clears and the light becomes surreal. A small visual glimpse around Downtown Yangon.
Much thanks to ARTISTRAVEL! Who interviewed me for – you guessed it- Travel and Art.
Valerie Parisius, who in herself is a source of huge inspiration (check her out on TEDx), interviews traveling artists from around the world. Instant pep-to-your-step for anyone needing a push out the door.
Below is a snippet of the interview, where the full text can be found here.
At night I know it as a dark death trap of a playground. No lights on this small city corner that I walk past on my way home, and my big feet always catching those low bars raised only two curse words off the the ground.
During the day it’s the ultimate jungle gym in the purest, most extreme sense of the words. …and the evening brings out the coaches.
It’s a neighborhood gathering. Kids on guitars and random instruments harmonize to surprising beauty. A Burmese coach hands out snacks of chips and ice-cream. An American coach helps some with their pull ups and a third coach yells in Burmese with delight as he swings a kid so high on the rings that the kid’s feet touch the tree.
It’s concrete gymnasium that would be torn out of the American ground faster than you can say “law-suit money”. But here. Here it seems to bring a bonding that is far from pack and not far from family.
One of the hardest things for me to adjust to in Burma is the horrible internet. The majority of the time I’ve been here, my Blog wont let me upload any photos. Even my Credit Card company’s website doesn’t work here. It’s a 21st century annoyance for me.
So let’s hope this works. As I sit at a bar far nicer than any I would sit at back home (or anywhere else at that), I sip on draft beer while watching the image upload bar and I think back to 52k modems and SimCity.
Here’s the Pegu Club. A friend introduced me to this abandoned British gentleman’s club surrounded by embassies in the middle of Yangon. It’s helped me decided that a personal project of mine will now be focused around the enchanting architecture mix amongst the Burmese smiles.
A friend introduced me to this building in downtown. Yangon is probably the most photogenic city I’ve had the pleasure of photographing.
I haven’t seen a country read as much as Myanmar. Workers, lounging adults, soldiers and even kids pour their attention into the folds of newspapers – their lunch, checkerboards, or AK-47s at their side. I ponder the reasons that this country seems so active in reading. Is it lack of electronics, lack of electricity, lack of internet, the need to know what’s happening daily due to government uncertainty and constantly changing policies / implications / events that affect each and everyone? Is it a flat out act of rebellion at government attempts to censor information? Most likely all and more than these reasons.
Whatever may be the cause, I’m fascinated as I try and track down a copy of the Myanmar Times in English. I’m told to try the “book street” which continues not down a small street, but one of the main roads and continues for blocks. They’re less ‘stores’ than they are stalls with book walls; books stacked as high as a blockade or mimicking wallpaper. Customers squat down on the sidewalk as they page through potential purchases, and the amount of browsers would make Amazon.com jealous. I’m in awe of people submerged into books as much as Americans are submerged into smartphones. Prehistoric mobile entertainment.
Finally getting my hands on the copy of the Myanmar Times, I’m stunned at what I’m reading. The Katchin conflict in north Myanmar is plastered on the front page, making you look down the barrel of a KIA soldier‘s rifle (what happened to government censorship?? – it must be chipped away inside the writing, right? …?) The second and third page is fully dedicated to the ownership-struggle of the Myanmar Times, itself. Then, more and more relevant substance. Electricity shortage for the year, foreign business laws changing, religious intolerance in the north. Important and developing topics on page 6, 7, 8,..11 U.N. actions, political prisoners, Yangon fires, refugees, Chin National celebration… as I read I feel like I’m reading a Newspaper the way they were meant to be – each article you want to read, and many you HAVE to read. It’s packed full of events and issues that are relevant to the community and as opposed to light, sensationalist fillers and ads like a good majority of our papers back home. It’s like the first time you eat a Californian Las Barcas carne asada burrito after eating Taco Bell burritos your whole life.
My next thought was: THIS is their newspaper in a country that censors cleavage, thighs and kissing on TV?? I’m not allowed to see a girl blow a kiss at me on a TV ad, but their newspapers print about the Katchin conflict on the front page? (Another example of quite a different picture than I had printed in my mind before I came here – experience overrules education). Is this another obvious change of recent life in Burma or am I not looking close enough?
I entertain more thoughts of how things might change for these people in the coming years with more access to the internet and Western products. Will these venders eventually go the way of Borders book stores (the modern day Dodo)? Will the internet offer an endless supply of information, articles, opinions, text books, resources and news updates, only to be mainly used 90% of the time for online video games, Facebook and porn? (which is what I witnessed on most Internet cafe screens in Yangon). How will the politically active and aware population of Myanmar be affected by these new influences?
I think this, and then think back to America with such a low approval of Congress, watching constant undesired and unhealthy events unfold that drastically affect our living and enRAGE us to yelling and shunning the other half of the country, yet most of our activism is curtailed to unfocused protests, overly-simplified “solutions” such as “less government” and how facebook “slacktavism” is slowly replacing a knocking down the doors to congress.
… but I ventured off topic as my over analytical mind skims undetermined directions. When rants such as these occur, my mother’s voice pops into my head, “An unaware life is almost not worth living, but an over-analyzed life is also, almost not worth living.” Do what has to be done today, prepare what you can for tomorrow, don’t worry the future, feel the grass beneath your feet … time get some Burmese tea-leaf salad, write a blog post and explore this place a bit more.
(3rd week of Feb 2013)
The Yangon Photo Festival is in its final stretch, and skilled photographers and journalists still roam the streets, chasing storys and photographing during the day, drinking and storytelling at night over mounds of BBQ and empty beer mugs. Local restaurants leave the empty glasses on the table to keep track of your bill. Once again I find myself inspired at the talent and energy from the people that form a ring around our empty mug fortress.
Matt Grace from Witness Burma, Min Zayar Oo from Reuters, Martin Spaak the Sweedish Journalist, Nick McGrath, BKK based photographer and David Walker from Painted Roads are among the empty mug contributors. Each serves their daily debrief of work, events and leads – multitasking as a way for processing, inspiring and feedback for the others. Each debrief, is a story in itself, coming from an individual that is worthy of a human interest article, himself. There’s an underlying energy that crouches in their voice that is unfamiliar of them – similar to excitement, and new since we all last met in Chiang Mai. I assume it’s the same energy-charge from the Yangon air that I feel in myself, or the result of being in a catalytic country in transition.
Myanmar (formally named Burma) is currently undergoing an evolution that has earned it the hot-spot in the photojournalist, N.G.O and international business world. The country “opened” two years ago when the Military Junta uncharacteristically started to appeal to the world’s demands by putting on a democratic voting show for the leaders of the Western world and Western sanctions.
This transition, growth, opening to the world… it’s blatantly obvious. Within one week of being in Myanmar, we see Visa ATMs being used for the first time and hear rumors that the land boarder crossing into Thailand through Mae Sot is possibly opening up with special permission. So far, you must fly into the country to be allowed to be a “tourist.”
I think back to when I watched BurmaVJ and try to comprehend that the Saffron Revolution (led by monks) happened only 5 years ago, and that it hasn’t been that long since a Burmese friend of mine had been tortured and force-fed mercury for being apart of the protests. The vibe and smiles of the streets reveal nothing of such a struggle. At least from what I can read during my limited time here.