1 February – 8 February
(Ngapali beach, though beautiful and relaxing, was the most uncomfortable place for us in terms of witnessing the effects of tourism in Burma. We didn’t know before we got there, but it was a place for older, wealthy European and Chinese tourists. The area was at that sad point in development when the local residents had not yet been completely pushed aside to make way for resorts. In other places tourists go, this transition is already complete, and we are not faced with what existed prior to the tourist infrastructure. Also, just a few months earlier near Ngapali, 110 homes of Kaman Muslims were burned and seven people killed in a recent phase of violence between Buddhists and Muslims. We wrote the paragraphs below in the style of Cormac McCarthy [inspired by “Yelping with Cormac“] as a way to express our criticism and discomfort through humor. What we describe here with excess actually happened.)
There was no escaping Burma while in Burma. The furthest we got from the sweltering, reeking mix of burning plastic, moth-balls and betel chew was Black Canyon, a brightly-lit and sterile air-conditioned Thai coffee-shop chain. But Burma always seeped in, like a wicked ghost bent on revenge. Like when the guidebook-recommended restaurant we taxied to in the crushing mid-day heat has been closed for six months. A modern dance performance (by acclaimed Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz) promised relief, but only after conquering the doubt or ignorance of countless taxi drivers as to the location of the Yangon National Theater. The performers twitched and contorted and with clownish indictment mirrored our native culture’s familiar existential pain. So immersed we were that the only hint of Burma was the discomfort in our bellies from dinner at the coffee-shop: A joyless green curry spaghetti.
Could there be a place in Burma but not of Burma? The Lonely Planet promised, “Ngapali’s idyllic palm-lined beach is the place.” Still in Yangon, the resort’s marketing director and two associates met us in the smoke-filled lobby of our hotel. They carried shiny pamphlets and promises of Western breakfasts and ocean views. They expected cash up front. All of it. The promise of a lush and remote province made us do it. With trembling hands, we signed the contract and handed over the stack of cash.
We sat down next to the others in the row of beach chairs. Fleshy, sun-burnt executives and executives’ wives, refugees from long careers spent in sprawling glass containers, carefully squandering the waking hours. Pieces of a conversation that when added weighed nothing and meant nothing. We stopped listening and looked east to the hills and saw among tomorrow’s resorts and villas the wavering image of Rakhine people in a loose band carrying stones and pouring cement, children working beside mothers and men smoking as they hammered. Sunset coming and on the sandy hill coconut trees huddled like mourners. Down at the airport planes landing with Ray-Bans and iPads disgorged the nescient passengers and families streamed into minivans marked with symbols dreamt up by branding firms and those minivans drove past the parched and haggard workers as with worn and leathery hands they laid the road stone by stone. Getting ready for tomorrow. But tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them.
They pulled the chairs away from the table and pushed them forward a bit as we sat down.
” ‘Chuse-me, madame. Tea or coffee?” The young server squeaked out in her hesitant English. The resort’s restaurant had opened only a couple days prior to our arrival, and the staff was overly-attentive, like nervous new mothers hoping we’d take to breast of the breakfast buffet.
“Tea,” I said, “che-zoo-bey.” She turned the white porcelain mug over in its saucer and slowly filled it from the carafe as the yellow label dangled from its lid. Lipton. The tea the British export yet do not sell at home.
Another server approached, and, after lifting and unfolding my napkin in one quick motion and without expression, carefully placed it across my lap. I looked out beyond the infinity pool at the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag. All present uncomfortable with this situation but helpless to escape the roles inherited from a merciless history. We tried to cope with forays into casualness that only resulted in confused frowns. They tried to cope with forced smiles and offers of refilled mugs of tea.
We picked up our plates and shuffled toward the buffet for more Cornflakes and baked beans. For existence has its own order and that no human mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.
We awoke from our late afternoon nap not remembering where we were or what choices we had made to get there. No lists of things to be done. The remaining day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. We walked down the stone footpath warm from the sun and onto the beach. It was dusk and the tide low. A small design in the sand no larger than a footprint caught our eye. Squatting to get a closer look, we found tiny spheres of sand arranged in spirals and concentric circles centered around a small black hole, as though created by miniature aliens practicing crop-circle formation on a new medium.
What creature toiled tirelessly to create a design it couldn’t possibly comprehend from it’s vertically-challenged vantage? What cruel intention of nature bestowed upon this creature such a fate as to have it build such designs in a land wiped clean by the rising tides each day? Were we looking through some divine jester’s mirror into human nature?