Travels and encounters/Reizen en ontmoetingen By/Van

The real life

The real life, an introduction to Myanmar

You have been absent for a month. Where have you been? It seems easy to answer: Myanmar, in 2012. But the seven letter word is worse than nothing, a red herring. No one visits an abstraction. Try again. Burma? George Orwell was once there, in Burma. But Burmese Days are words of the past, no longer of here and now. Yes, one has seen his book on the steps of pagoda’s. Not in any way officially recognized, not copyrighted, but in anonymous copies, printed by stealth. Things tourists buy, no local reads. So try again, was one in Burma?

One visited Mandalay. No doubt, but what did one visit? Kipling’s Road to Mandalay is remembered , because one has to say something easy. A soldier’s song, a colonial conquest, also a thing of the past. A mirage for British tourists, forgetting the dead white elephant being dragged along the street, the symbol of pride, higher than the people, higher than the court, dead as soon as the king had surrendered to the British. But who remembers. Some antiquarian states he died in a zoo, the White Elephant, rare native to the forests. No albino as the tourists think. Now a beast of the past, like Kipling. The King’s White elephant stood higher than the court, than any courtier. He had his own courtier, the Keeper of the Elephant. He had his own regalia. They disappeared as the court was finished. The gold and the rubies may still lie buried within the walls of the palace. But he whole palace disappeared, went up in flames, died down in ashes, when a handful of Japanese soldiers resisted the bombardment of the British, at the end of the War, in 1945. Hardly anyone remembers the White Elephant.

Yet in dusty, forgetful Mandalay the nearby river is present, accompanied by sloping villages. The river has not vanished. The Irrawaddy as the invaders from Albion, another White Elephant that disappeared, called it. Ayeyarwaddy as it is presently named. It seems to mean the River of the Elephant, in Sanskrit. Perhaps one has not visited the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, though the visa is given in the name of that state. Perhaps one has not visited the Mandalay that vanished. Even not the River of the Elephant, but just the nameless river, the only real thing.

The river rises once a year with the rains of summer. Months which stretch endlessly from early June till mid-October. Long as the Rhine, the Danube or the Nile, from the Tibetan Highlands till the Indian Sea, the river gathers water in the rainy season. To carry it with mud slowly and broadly through its flat valley. This river is a slow motion epic, rising to reclaim its banks in early summer, releasing land the size of counties in the autumn.

All year round the population shuns the sun. One has visited the land of the white dusted faces, the women staring at you over whitened cheeks and under whitened foreheads. They have the sage custom of grinding bark into white dust to deflect the sunrays from their light brown skins, keeping healthy skins from a bombardment of ultra violet rays. One thinks of visiting a country of cosmetics and finds underneath a country of real life. One registers white masks like sunshades. One should not forget the land of necessity.

The tourists flock to the long bridge, which in tourist season rises on its teak pillars far above the water. But when the tourists leave, the river rises. The banks, the ponds, the lakes fill with rain. The pillars of teak have been grounded since ages, and do not stir, the planks on top of them wobble and break under a million footsteps, but the feet will remain dry. The wisdom of the country knows that the river cannot be stopped, but that it will stop rising in time.

What country has one visited? Perhaps one has visited a people that sleeps with danger. Most of them live on the sandbanks and mud-creeks of the Ayeyarwaddy, especially where it broadens to meet the sea. Now and then, and just recently again, the storms start to blow over the waters. The rain will thrash the roofs made of dried leaves for days and shake the walls of sticks and rattan, bound with care by women and men, stripping with knives the sharp strings of silicone fiber. The storm will blow for days and lift the roofs off the homes, lift the boats out of the water and topple them on the banks. And the river will rise. The river will drown the pigs and the bullocks, take over the altars and the mirrors and the kitchens. The people will retreat to higher banks, climb trees. They will cling to each other, the trees will bend in the water, and parents will feel their grip loosening on their children and the children or the parents will later be found or not, miles away. Miraculously some of the dogs will survive and some of the people.

Then one day, as the rain still batters the mud, the wind will die. The waters will slow down and retreat. The people will start to gather sticks and hammer them down and recreate their elemental bridges, on which they may sleep again, and make fire and eat. And make love. And dry the wet rice, no longer good for sowing. Against the wind and the river there is no recourse. There is only grief. There is only reality.

The deep song of the monks is the song of the people. The gleam of the pagodas, the golden pagodas, is similar to the baking of bricks from the mud of the river. The people coat these bricks with gold, the gold of survival. One has seen a people that will never give up, because there is no surrender to the river, the sun, or the evils of life, only acceptance that one has to fulfill the circle of being.