Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part four

Friday, April 13, 2012 - 10:02

Feeling a little bit oversized, Emma picks up a little Burmese, talks politics with an analyst - while a romantic festival threatens to overwhelm her.

This jet lag is monstrous. Neither Tindy or I can sleep even with the aid of pills. It’s 7AM and I am outside slapping my face in an attempt to wake up. There are no westerners at all in the hotel.

One interesting thing – as a foreigner arriving for tourism, I would not, I don’t think, be able to tell that this place had been in the grip of a savagely repressive military junta for decades. The city and its people do not reveal it. In fact as Tindy points out, it seems so much more open and alive than Liberia whose trauma is far more immediately perceivable.

I have a breakfast discussion with a man called Richard Horsey, a political analyst who has lived here for years and is rather hopeful about the shifts. He says that certain parts of the army have perceived that its status is at an all time low both at home and abroad. These elements think of the army as the Father of the nation and want to restore its honour.

Apparently 25% of the military voted for the release of political prisoners. He thinks the reforms have teeth but it will be important not to exclude the army. He mentioned encroaching risk from unscrupulous Chinese border interests. The mind reels.

Transparency is everything. I wonder how they will achieve it after so many years of secrecy.

We make our way, Jo, Tindy, Ni Ni, Wanna and I, to the ferry terminal for a short visit to the other side of the river – the big, open ferry ploughs backwards and forwards all day conveying huge numbers of people to and from the centre. I wonder what they are all going to do – the decks are crowded with children’s plastic chairs upon which we perch, sweating. A man sells small plastic bags full of quail’s eggs. A woman, her cheeks smeared with a pale paste of some sort, carries a tray of chopped watermelon on her head. Most of the women and children have this tree-paste on their faces. It protects them from the sun. Children sell fruit-flavoured gum and cigarettes. They are exquisite, their faces pleading but not tragic.

Everyone wears beautiful pointed bamboo hats.

Our driver has bought us necklaces of jasmine – it is a festival today – its scent mixes with the diesel fumes. I watch two lovers grinning at each other and am suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to weep. Jetlag of course, but also the poetry of the place.

The boat is a floating market of sorts. I discuss the perils of cigarettes with a young vendor who looks about 8 and tells me he is 12. He’s half Gaia’s size and works on the boat from 6 AM until 4 PM. He says his parents aren’t working – he doesn’t know why. He’s happy he’s got cigarettes to sell.

On the other side, a small army of tricyclists wait for fares. Wanna has already negotiated with some on the boat, so I am immediately wedged into a tiny sidecar seat surrounded by people shouting and buses tooting and aware of the blistering sun on my uncovered head.

Everyone is very amused when told that Tindy is my son. Oh! They say. Your skin is black! Hers is white! How interesting! And they yell with mirth. Wherever Tindy goes, people smile and point and come to ask him questions. They find him very beautiful, and will often stare, slack-jawed with admiration, for ages. Tindy finds this immensely enjoyable. In fact, we don’t see a single black person for the entire week. No wonder they’re so fascinated.

Everyone here is slender. Much amusement as I wriggle my lardy western bottom from the tight seat to buy a hat. They are all too small. My tricyclist, gives me his which for some reason fits me and I buy him a new one. He is a great beauty by the name of Koko. He is 28 and he is a very happy father of a 2 month old by his 33 year old wife. He teaches me a little Burmese as we cycle past bright red water lilies dotting the electrically green paddy fields.

I learn ‘love’, ‘beautiful’, ‘I am happy’, and ‘Are you happy?’

Carry on reading Emma Thompson's diary