Sunday, 29 December 2013

Rangoon jottings


Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon - a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. It stood upon a green knoll…"there's the old Shway Dagon,"
said my companion… The golden dome said, "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.  - Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East
I got to Rangoon, as I like to call it, very tired, after eleven hours in the plane from the city I choose to call Peking. The plane was diverted because of rain. Yesterday my flight
from London also took eleven hours. But immediately I liked Rangoon. It was not exactly about feeling the vibe. That would be too strenuous an idea. Rangoon is not strenuous at all. But it has a great charm, with the dilapidated beauty that really does reminds me of Havana, that overworked comparison. It also has the feeling of being a village, even though it has four and half million inhabitants or, according to Yan, my not very reliable guide today, six million. It is clean, much cleaner than India and much calmer too.

The men wear skirts. Boy monks in pink chant in front of my hotel at seven. Yan told me they are singing about how beautiful life is.

I am here (just) before the deluge. I am too late for the 1950s Cadillacs - for two years the Burmese have been permitted to import second-hand cars and everyone complains about the traffic though it is nothing compared to most big cities. They even recently got Visa and Mastercard and - allegedly - hole in the wall machines which take both. We shall see. I, like everyone, came with the small very clean dollar notes in small denominations secreted on my person.

Britain's disastrous legacy to her colonies was socialism, of course, and no country suffered more from extreme socialism than Burma, but unlike Communist countries the Burmese government did not create heavy industry. Disastrous economics protected Burma from the modern world which is why I am here. Rangoon is unpolluted and very poor. 

I crossed the water to the village on the other bank and was in the eighteenth century. Yan who grew up in a village before winning a scholarship to California, says the people in the village are happier than the people from the city. The city dwellers think only of money, the villagers think only of survival. California did not impress him. There is too much freedom there, he said, and too many Mexicans and blacks.

My first ever pagoda and a very fine one, the Shwedagon Pagoda which towers above Rangoon and is said to have been founded more than 2,600 years ago. It is odd when you see for the first time one of those things you know from reproductions but not from life. Pagodas are not a slight disappointment like Niagara Falls, but after a while looking round I have to admit a fear that three days of solid unalloyed pagodas at Bagan might get a bit samely. I look at the pagodas with the same unseeing eyes that Japanese tourists look at Salisbury Cathedral. 

Orwell said in Burmese Days that British rule in Burma ran on large quantities of alcohol. Last night tired I went to the famous Strand Hotel, which Orwell (Eric Blair) often did. In the bar (air conditioned, no punkhawallah) I drank the Strand Sour, the hotel's version of the famous stand-by of the British in Burma, rum sour, and very good it was, though not very alcoholic. Kipling stayed at the Strand on the one night he spent in Rangoon. I had a Burmese curry, which seems to mean a curry with meat and potatoes made in the style of the Raj. 

The Strand Hotel has, like the Imperial in Delhi, huge colonial charm and like the Imperial it fell into squalor by the 1980s and has been deliberately restored to emphasise colonial chic, but, unlike the Imperial, it is purely for foreign tourists. I had toyed with the idea of being extravagant and staying there but it was full and it would be like living in Disneyworld. 

Still I shall have another Strand Sour this evening, inauthentic though it is. Authenticity is a specifically bourgeois idea, like the dignity of manual labour. I have much more to say but this is too much like labour for me and probably for you, so I stop here.

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