The Beautiful Grit of Burma: Part One

This week, Guest Blogger and Jaunt Contributor, Jeff Duncan, takes us to Burma for an in-depth look at life behind Burma’s military dictatorship.

Professional musician and GM of Stage Three Music, when he’s not in the Former Soviet Union competing in Jujitsu or trekking into dangerous third-world countries, Duncan can be found performing around LA or composing soundtracks for feature films. Currently, his music can be heard on the film, Exact Bus Fare, set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Beautiful Grit of Burma
By Jeff Duncan

Part 1: The Docks at Yangon
We were uptight. It was a week after a Japanese photographer and untold numbers of locals had been killed when Myanmar military goons fired shots into a crowd of docile protestors. We’d applied for our passports a few months in advance, before they stopped allowing foreigners in, so by chance we ended up on one of the first flights back into the tense Burmese dictatorship after the borders were reopened.

One of my travel pals had picked up “The Fever” in Bangkok and was generally pissy; the other had some strange allergic funk of unknown origin spreading across his muzzle, swelling his lips to cartoonish proportion. I had stepped deeply onto a nail in a sludgy red-light grease-trap of a back alley and was concerned I’d contracted Hep C. It all added to our anxiety.

Our taxi driver, who felt strangely ‘assigned’ to us at the airport, spoke perfect English and German. He asked us several times if we were journalists or if we thought America was going to come and challenge the junta. He was very funny and engaging and provided much history on the place, but I sensed something was not altogether right. We later agreed it was very likely he was on the government payroll.

After dumping our bags at Traders, we headed to the docks, passing the house-cum-prison of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist. Our driver told us “ABSOLUTLY NO PHOTOS” and that we may look, but only as we dove by. He added, “Don’t stare, the Army is watching!” From the quick glance I was allotted, I saw razor wire and a pathetic looking barricade, likely there to prevent the protestors from springing Suu Kyi from her in-house arrest (since ‘88). The army was out in force, but after a few days in country we noticed that the soldiers were oddly friendly. Gentle and curious, many were equipped with outdated AK47s & flip-flops. I got the distinct feeling that the bastards who stole power in the 60’s, and continue to maintain it with savage brutality, are the only real criminals Burma has to offer (as they send their wives on shopping trips to Tokyo & Paris and their children to schools in the West while the rank and file starve). It seemed that the average foot soldier was simply trying to get by. Then again, we know where “just following orders” gets you… what a mess.

The country is known for its swarms of monks; however, we saw only a small handful in eight days of heavy travel. They were lying low or otherwise detained.

For many decades the relentless heat and swamp-like humidity have molested the colonial handiwork the Brits left behind. Unchecked by upkeep, the Anglo buildings and roads have fallen into a semi-Jungle state.

Their man-made edge dulled by nature and leaded fuel; they’ve taken on a dirty camouflaged appearance. We drove through the disrepair and chaos to the waterfront.

I was immediately mesmerized by the teeming microcosm that sprawled before us. Vast ships docked to be loaded and unloaded lined the wharf with smaller contraptions ferrying cargo from vessels anchored 200 yards out. It easily could have been 1918. Hundreds of laborers schlepped large bags of rice, tins of lard and other essentials from the bowels of the ships and off to massive green warehouses for storage. Grinding work made only more difficult by the mauling heat. An impromptu bazaar had sprung up catering to the workers and selling beverages, food and betelnut.

Chewing betelnut is a local tradition that delivers a mild coffee-zing and gives the chewer ghoulish red-stained teeth and gums, as if they’d just eaten a child.

The work was ordered and rhythmic but there was an overwhelming, broad lawlessness as well. There must have been a system holding it all together that I was ignorant to. We walked unquestioned down the pier and onto one of the boats. The laborers we passed, clad in their traditional man-skirts were interested and friendly but focused on the .01-.03 USD cents they earned per load. There were more than a few young boys carrying sacks on their backs that must have equaled or trumped their weight. We soaked in the scene and chewed some betelnut …I damn near choked myself to death on a mouthful of red spittle, laughing at my zombie-like friends. The guys on the pier had a laugh.

Returning to the car we noticed our driver was on his cell phone which he quickly clapped shut and put in his glove box when he saw us. The government had pulled the plug on internet and telephone service several days prior and we posited that he was either on a government channel or a 2 way walkie. Perhaps sensing our suspicion, he proceeded to tell us a sex anecdote, a surefire way to reroute our paranoia. He said that as most people aged 18-35 live at home with their parents there is little time for enough privacy to “Make the fuck”. He claimed that going to a local motel was out as well because it was commonly known that the owners of such places spied on young lovers through holes in the wall and often video taped the act for sale on the streets. The solution to this was for the lovebirds to go naked under their longi (aforementioned skirts) and tear a quick one off in the car parked innocently by the side of the road. “This way we learn to make the fuck very quick!” We laughed as expected, but remained uneasy.

The place was amazing and filled with color and brilliant humanity, but the fear and oppression was palpable and more than a little depressing.

To be continued…

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