2015
05.23

About my accommodations and a few things of daily life I observed during my first walk on the first day in Yangon: sex in the park, the perils and the blessings of rain, money, and an artist’s co-op.

The daylight filtered into my room by 6 AM — I can’t exactly say the sun was rising, as it wasn’t. And so I was awake even before the pitter-patter of rain on the roof would have woken me up shortly thereafter. That was 4 hours of sleep after 36 sleepless hours in transit, but I reasoned that it was just as well to get up and into the local rhythm than to linger restlessly.

If this guesthouse wasn’t located at millionaire’s lane! In fact, it must have once been a rich person’s mansion. Picture a short tree-lined dead-end road with a huge iron gate on one end flanked on one side by multi-storied apartment houses and on the other by about 6 or 7 mansions, some a bit run down, others undergoing ostentatious make-overs. This was definitely an up-scale neighborhood.

The modern looking whitewashed Thanlwin Guesthouse is a two-story residence with about 12 rooms, two shared bathrooms, and a courtyard with flowers and grass over which a rectangular thatched hut had been built, sheltering a long picnic-style table, a small bar and a vending machine. Detached, in the back, there is a kitchen which produces one wonderful home-made local breakfast noodle dish after another. Too bad that after half the meal I had to excuse myself… obviously my stomach was in no mood for food yet. I don’t think this has ever before happened to me this soon after getting to a new country. Not a good way to start the day. But nobody seemed surprised.

After some rest and re-hydration I decided to walk towards downtown. Walking would allow me to take in little details here and there which by taxi would escape me. The first annoying detail is that pedestrians seem to be third-class citizens here. The sidewalks are narrow, badly in need of repair and at times even missing. Traffic lights only take cars into consideration. At most intersections I could not even find a crosswalk but I had to outmaneuver heavy traffic. I guess I am expected to take a taxi, or more likely the bus.

I realized that I was very close to Inya Lake, North of downtown Yangon and famous for the home of political leader, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence. I headed up a footpath which would get me out of traffic. Map in hand, I climbed up a grassy bank only to find myself literally within 2 feet of another type of “traffic”. Two people on a small, roofed park bench right in front of me were happily and heavily making out. Whoops. Better turn the corner on this scene! The park seemed to be favored by lots of young couples who more innocently than the first one were cuddling up and holding hands. Umbrellas seemed to be the preferred method of providing privacy and as of yesterday, they are in order for everyone: The monsoon season has started.

Throughout the day there were three more major showers coming down on us, coupled with gusty winds. A bit early as Thomas, the guest house owner told me, but it’s coming and soon there will be solid rainy days — two months in a row. We shall see what that means for traveling…

For the artists at Studio Square, one of the very few, if not the only modern art gallery in Yangon, the rain was a welcome relief. “We don’t have air conditioning at our houses” the manager explained. The rains cool things down. We need it. Our land needs it. How could I stay in the way of that? A comfortable 30° Celsius certainly feels better than the 40+ degrees of only last week!

Studio Square is run as a co-op by 5 (male) artists who all happened to be around when I arrived. None of their work blew me away even though I would have bought a small piece by Min Zaw, who combines traditional Buddhist wall mural fragments with abstract backgrounds. But all of their work seemed a bit too much “cookie-cutter” for my taste. The same faces, the same motifs over and over, in some cases hardly varied. But they seem to have a market as their 3×4-feet works on canvas sell for around $2000!

Hein Thit combines Myanmar Manga Comics with outlines of the female nude. When in the catalog he described that the encounter of a book on female genitalia changed his life forever and that ever since he has “approached the internal rather than the external beauty of women” — I was too afraid to ask what he meant by that…

All of these artists are graduates from the Fine Arts Academy of Myanmar. They are up-and-coming and some of them have been “discovered” and have moved on to bigger and better already. I wish them the best of luck. Too bad that they did not sell any works on paper, or any small-scale prints at a more affordable price level. I do like to bring back at least one work of art by a contemporary artist from every country I go to, preferably a female artist. They don’t have one in their co-op, but they do exhibit works of female artists. Ok, that is a start.

As good as the rain is for the locals, it created a bit of a dilemma for me. When I reached the bank to exchange money — money which I had carefully selected back in the US for their absolute pristine and unfolded condition — it turned out that my money pouch, a rectangular quilt, had gotten wet and had leaked a nice purple stain into my $100, $50 and a few single dollar notes. The 5, 10 and 20 dollar bills in between were nicely protected. The bank refused to exchange any bill that was discolored in the slightest! Thank goodness, I had only taken one “set” of bills to be exchanged. I obviously have to prepare better for these rainy conditions. Lesson learned. You should have seen some of the local bills I got from the bank though! Stains were the least of it. Crumbled, worn, dirty. But this is not about fairness, right? It is about rules and who can make them.

This wasn’t the end of my day, but it will be the end of the blog. I reached the Shwedagon Pagoda and will write about it in conjunction with the Sule Pagoda, which I will visit tomorrow.

I managed to eat some rice tonight. I think I am winning this one!

Good night!