Information overload, near-death experiences and the saving power of tea provide the prelude to some very exciting news...
I sit under the strip lighting listening with increasing difficulty to the avalanche of information. Then around 5PM some young activists take us downtown. I am nearly dead but brought back to some semblance of life by the thrill of the streets, the exquisitely welcoming people, the street food vendors, the piles of food so artistically arranged – like little bits of pork fat served on sticks with garlic and chilies, noodles of all kinds, great piles of them, knobbly and unidentifiable animal parts, little clay ovens on bicycles that serve my favourite, the husband-and-wife. This is a rice flour pancake cooked in a large, shield-like pan, which is covered in concave blisters. The pancake mix is poured into each blister, cooked and two pieces are joined together – you get a little warm bag of them for nothing more than 5 pence and they are delicious.
Central to all of it, the great golden Sule Pagoda towers over us. The European-style apartment blocks, their stone balconies split with weeds and painted in cracked and peeling reds, limes, violets and indigos are reminiscent of Cuba.
The Strand Hotel costs $600- 700 a night, I am told, but looks out onto broken roads where barefoot migrant labourers play enthusiastic football. The river Yangon flows by and by a banyan tree I find two shrines, one to Kali and one to a Burman spirit God. Someone lays flowers before Kali as an offering.
A bus hurtles to the bus stop very nearly squashing me and Ni Ni. They are in competition for passengers and public transportation is cheap (although getting dearer, they tell me) they often risk killing everyone in their path.
We enter the Sule Pagoda. It is the Full Moon Day of Thadingyut which is the lighting festival and all the houses and streets throughout Burma are to be brilliantly illuminated, with tea-candles if not electric lights. Soaked in sweat, I watch as the faithful light candles and incense in front of all the lit-up statues of Buddha.
One woman picks up a plank and hits a huge bell with it. Ni Ni explains she is ringing to allow her dead to reach nirvana. I am allowed to have a go but only if I’ve done a good deed. I wonder if going out in the grip of vicious jet lag and a sudden, acute desire for solitude and a cold bath counts as a good deed. Tindy hits the bell – it is a beautiful, plangent noise. “See?” he says. “I’ve done lots of good deeds”.
When we leave I see a man under a tree at the bus stop having his calves massaged. They go in for a lot of massage round these parts.
We head for a local tea-shop. Thank God. It is very full but we find stools and order “normal” tea which is very sweet and strong, served from a little hatch in handless cups and apparently “Good to the last drop”.
A monk sits with friends nearby, enjoying a soda and laughing. Waiters yell and I, probably ill-advisedly, order a lime juice.
Wanna sits with me – he is 22 and from a village North East of here. It’s the last village before you reach the sea, he says. “I miss the sounds of the waves. But there is no electricity, no roads, no schools, no clinics and it’s 5 hours by motorboat to the town.” So, he says, his “battle” began when he wanted to go to high school. “The only way to achieve it was by rowing 2½ hours each way. Then when we got there, there was no teacher so I just asked older students to teach me. I wanted to go to Uni but my father was a fisherman who earnt $8 a month. He wept when he told me he couldn’t support me. 13 members of my family died in the cyclone and 400 others from my village. After that everything was gone, but my family made me go back to school.
The cyclone opened up huge possibilities for International Non Governmwental Organisations (INGO's) – the government didn’t let anyone in for 18 days until international pressure forced their hand. But it saved me, in a way, because I started work as a volunteer for Save The Children and got a couple of casual jobs.”
I stare at Wanna, his untroubled, unlined face and wonder where he’s found his strength.
When we get back to ActionAid we hear that hundreds of political prisoners are to be released tomorrow. Apparently there are upwards of 60,000. Hopefully this is prelude to many more releases. Everyone is happy but also nervous of what the apparent opening up of this country will unleash. Will the government just sell everything off to the highest bidder?
Above us, as we wind our way back to the hotel (which is far too grand but very good value I’m told), glowing paper balloons containing candles float above the city, already practicing for tomorrow’s festival.