Burma Diary – Part 2

Is this what progress looks like?

We are stuck in a traffic jam. Haven't moved for ten minutes on our way from the Yangon airport to downtown. The whole trip used to take no longer than twenty minutes. The air smells terrible. It is hot and sticky.

"The government has lowered the taxes and tariffs on new cars," my friend explains, as if he had to apologize for the long drive. "There are a lot of cars being imported now."

I nod and think of my first trip to Burma, back in 1995. There were only a handful of cars on the streets back then. Everybody walked or rode a bike. The air was fresh. I tell my friend of my sweet memories.

He laughs. "Yes. You enjoyed it because YOU were sitting in a car. If you had to walk and carry all your luggage all the way from the airport to your hotel you might have felt differently."

He has a good point. I decide to feel happy for all the Burmese who are stuck with me in this early evening rush hour traffic jam.


This morning I went downtown and I have to say, the city feels very different. I walked down 37th Street, 38th, 39th, streets I have walked countless times over the years. I used to carefully navigate the deep and dangerous potholes, the smell of open sewage permeating the air. The same streets are paved now. The sewer is under construction and in a few weeks it will be covered. There are lots of new shops selling books, newspapers and magazines. The new government has lifted censorship, and the press is freer and more open than at any time my Burmese friend can remember. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who was under house arrest most of the past 22 years, is everywhere now.  She smiles and waves from magazine covers, billboards, t-shirts. Is all this change real? I can't wait to talk to my friends and hear their opinions in the next couple of days.

I walked for hours. I drank great Burmese tea, strong with a lot of sweetened milk. A man was selling old magazine and newspapers on the sidewalk. He had a stack of New York Times Book Reviews in front of him. They were all from the last century, the top one from September 1990.

He saw my interest.

"You want one," he asked?

"They are kind of old," I replied.

He looked at me, a bit puzzled. "So what? Good books don't get old."

Certain things haven't changed in Burma.

Burma Diary – Part 1

Today I leave for Burma. I am excited and anxious and very curious.

I have travelled to Burma more than a dozen times. It is a country where I have close friends, where I feel very comfortable. There is almost a sense of belonging.

My last trip was a year and a half ago. For Burma, that didn’t used to be a long time. Time didn’t matter much. Things used to change very slowly, if they changed at all. Kalaw, the town where my novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is set, looks more or less the same as it did seventeen years ago, when I first travelled there: the same old and run down buildings, the same potholes in the streets. In my hotel I was the only guest, like always, in my room there was still the same fridge. It didn’t work on my fist visit. It didn’t work on my last visit.

But it could be different now. All of the sudden Burma is in the headlines. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest; she is even running for a parliamentary seat in April. Hillary Clinton visited her recently and they gave a press conference together.  Unthinkable just a few months ago.

I hear there is more freedom of the press now, people are less scared and the new Burmese government promises even more reforms.

When I asked a friend to make a hotel reservation for me he replied two days later that all the hotels in Yangon, the former capital, are booked for the next several weeks. I thought he was kidding. It is the beginning of the hot season, not exactly the best time for tourists. The hotels used to be empty. I used to walk the streets for days without noticing a foreigner. Who is occupying all the hotel rooms now? Why are these people travelling to Burma?

I wonder if the signs for political and economic change are real or artifice, a well-staged play to convince the West to lift their sanctions. Are the military and their cronies prepared to give up at least some of their power and privileges? And if things have started to change for real, how will it affect the people? Who will benefit? Who will suffer even more? Who will be able to adjust and take advantage of new opportunities, and who will be left behind? I cannot imagine a place less prepared for the influx of money, whether it is investment or aid.

What about my friends and their families? Will they be busy all of the sudden? Will they chase a dream of progress for the first time in their lives? My best friend had to send two of his three children abroad because he thought they had no future in their home country. They haven’t seen each other in many years. Will they be tempted to come back, at least to visit their father?

I am about to find out and will keep you posted.

Today I leave for Burma. I am excited and anxious and very curious.

Photos from Burma

Life in Burma’s country side hasn’t changed much for the last few hundred years.
A woman fishing on the Inle lake, the same way her ancestors did.
Burma_TransportationTransporting goods or traveling in Burma is never easy.