Burma. It occupied a special slice in my mind, one murky with half-remembered news headlines and foggy recollections of local military history that had been looked up and forgotten. Other travellers talked about Burma as though it were a secret hidey-hole, a hidden place accessible only with great cunning and with great effort. The ability to enter Burma required the cleverness of the djinn, the swiftness of the Pegasus, the strength of the minotaur. According to backpacker legend, controls on tourism had only recently been relaxed, and entry past the border necessitated unmarked, non-sequential US currency in a pristine leather valet case, several hidden bottles of high-quality foreign whisky, and the rights to your unborn children.
In actual fact, going to Burma involved booking a ticket, then talking to Jane, the nice lady at the travel agency, and handing her a neat stack of yuan for my visa.
My feet hit the ground and still I felt a tiny swell of pride, the surge of self-assurance that I was achieving something. Sure, our plane was packed full of Korean tourists and missionaries, but wasn’t I still something of a ground breaker? Forging into new lands? As always, the myth is more endearing and enduring.
As we woke on our first day in Yangon, our friend declared that he had already seen much of the city, and wondered if we might explore what lied across the river on the opposite banks. The journey was simple: bypass Sule Paya, veer through the verdant park just beyond, and ride the ferry to bucolic quaintness.
Though the dock screamed with commerce and transit, with trishaws and fruit sellers and people waiting everywhere, the streets just beyond settled into the gentle calm that we thought characterized the village. Street after street, people were lazily sloping through their day, easygoing and kindly, returning our greetings with open smiles and pleasant nods.
We explored the nearby temples and watched impromptu soccer games amid enormous, dusty fields. People peered at us as they passed—tourists didn’t usually venture this direction out of the big city. Soon, a pair of college-aged gents motored up on a scooter, declared us “friendship,” and asked if we all wanted to speed off into the distance and enjoy a refreshing serving of farmer drink. We declined, thinking the offer spurious, but much as every curious stare we received soon blossomed into a booming smile, the guys returned minutes later with sacks of the questionable fluid for free and wanted to gather together for a photo.
With an enormous bellyful of sackjuice in us, we marched on into the town, ready for whatever adventures and pleasantness the people of Dalla would apparently like to toss amicably into our stupid laps.
A cacophony arose down a dusty alley, people and noise swelling along a grassy path. Naturally drawn to a crowd and the possibility of quality rubber-necking, we journeyed down the road to the bewildered eyes of several dozen local people. I spied a few images of Lakshmi resting amid a halo of green parasols and tried to place the nature and purpose of the festival for which these people were preparing. I couldn’t see any telltale food or garb, any particular music or statues, and I began rifling through the Hindu rolodex in my brain, desperate to seem worldly and knowledgeable about this roadside celebration we had stumbled upon.
In time, we came to notice that several men nearby were sitting on kitchen chairs while friends slid iron hooks through the skin of their backs. I gawped, losing my sense of polite demureness, and followed the rope leading from the hooks to the piles of coconuts on the ground, sagging heavily nearby. I felt suddenly and extremely out of place, that this definitely must have been a private affair, and eyed around for an exit.
Quickly some local men grabbed for us, pulling us into the crowd and bringing us to the forefront of each celebration. They gestured to each of the men with the hooks, and through inelegant pantomime we all agreed they were bad-asses. So too bad-asses were the gentlemen who had jammed long skewers through the meet of their cheeks, piercing side-wise through their mouths. Even greater in bad-assery were the men I now saw supporting the Lakshmi apparatuses, which were enormous metallic carousels pinioned to their bodies with pikes jammed into their torsos.
I felt certain, with every passing moment, that the leader of the ceremonies would give us the hairy eyeball and point us back from whence we came.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” a man cried over loudspeaker in sudden, ostentatious English. The crowd was once again reminder of the extra dollop of weirdness of our presence, as if weird was not the order of the day. The man shouted further greetings in Tamil, in Burmese, and soon the celebration got underway. People everywhere swarmed to shake our hands or say hello, to bring us to the front of the crowd to allow for higher-quality gawping, to wonder at where, exactly, we had wandered in from. Periodically, someone would ask us to dance, to join with the crowd, excited to share the experience with someone new. Just as frequently another person would issue forth from the crowd, uneasy with non-believers jamming up the area for the actual people here to celebrate and worship, and would ask to finish up and mosey along. But every time we prepared to leave, to tip our hats and thank everyone kindly, someone new would pull us into the fray.
When we finally departed the festival, saying our farewells to the sackjuice gents who had just arrived, we travelled down another dusty lane. People walking to and from the festival jogged along with us, occasionally painting our faces as they felt the urge to.
It was our first full day in Myanmar, and we had already been quickly pulled into a religious festival, and offered the chance to squeeze lemons onto the puncture wounds of the skewer-mouthed gentlemen. It was a thrill, unexpected and exhilarating and surprising!
And when we were pulled into another Hindu festival happening 100 metres down the road, it was still just about as exciting as the first.