When I came down this morning, the hotel lobby was full of nervous business people running around with their mobile phones trying to get reception (they couldn’t) or sitting in front of their computers. What would be a normal sight in most other countries is still unusual here. Now and then I notice a waiter or the concierge looking curiously at what all these strangers are doing.
I went to my favorite book store, Bagan Bookshop, downtown. It is a small place, based in a living room more or less, but they have wonderful books—many of them out-of-pring books about Burma, which the owners have copied them themselves. The late owner used to restore old books, like U Ba does in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. When I walked in, his son was happy to see me. I noticed books by Aung San Suu Kyi on the shelves, and other critical books. Just a few months ago, the police would have put him in jail for selling them.
"We are open now. Everything is possible," he explains with a vague smile.
I learned long time ago that the Burmese smile can have many different meanings. They smile when they are happy. They smile when they are angry. Embarrassed. Shy. Insecure. His was a cautious smile.
Outside his son was playing soccer, like so many boys do on the side streets of Yangon. I remember watching them carefully negotiate the potholes and the garbage while playing, very often falling and hurting themselves when they stepped in a pothole. They were playing like crazy today, despite the heat. The road was newly paved. (Don’t think I am obsessed with paved roads. It was just a moving sight, seeing them playing so joyfully on this fine street.)
Afterwards I had lunch with some Burmese friends. We were sitting in the shade of a big banyan tree and had an interesting conversation.
One was a pessimist. He said that not much had changed for the ordinary people. There are few new laws that have been implemented. Yes, Aung San Suu Kyi is running for election and will probably be elected. "But let us see how much power she will have in the end. I don’t trust the government. How can I, after what they have done to our country in all these years?" He smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile.
My other friend is very pragmatic. He wants to go into business as fast as possible, but it is very difficult because banks don’t give loans. There is basically no banking system in the country. "We are starting from scratch," he said. "And we don’t have much know-how. There are so many lost generations because the universities were closed for many, many years. We don’t know how to run a country, but we have to try."
The third one was the optimist. He was the youngest of them, full of ideas and hope. "This is what we have been waiting for," he exclaimed. "There is no turning back. We are opening up. Let us use the opportunities." He smiled. I recognized his smile right away. It was wonderful to see such a happy one.