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LETTER TO JIM 2
- A RAINY NIGHT IN BURMA

by Guy Hormel

 

August 2005

Hey Jim,

After a long night in Suratthini of treating meaningless strangers like family, by buying them endless rounds of cognac, and family like meaningless strangers, by rudely ignoring them, blowing the equivalent of a grand U. S. D., at yet another Asian gin mill called Crossroads, proving beyond a doubt that British rock icons are still more popular than Jesus with former dissidents turned middle aged pub owners, I got a break from the intensity of togetherness; my wife packed up our daughter and went back to Korea. You know I thought lust would be the cause of any matrimonial breach. Of course it was alcohol. The same night my wife's favorite heart shaped, black onyx necklace fell on the floor and shattered. It didn't seem fair to have two hearts break at once.

At the airport my girl hugged me quickly goodbye and ran to her mother. Then she suddenly rushed back and hugged me again. This time with more ardor and covertly whispered, "I love you Daddy." I said I did too and meant it. But felt numb. As mother and daughter walked into the twilight of the departure gate, everything faded to black. The next thing I remember is sitting on the bed in the hotel room; stupefied from relinquishing the tyranny of the known for the terror of the unknown. Good thing I wasn't driving.

But regardless of any other circumstance, I had to leave Thailand immediately and go to Burma and back to renew my tourist visa. There was some urgency because this was the third time I had attempted to do a "quick" visa run and the overstay charges were adding up. The first time an immigration drone told me my passport was too full. There was no place to put a stamp. So I went to Bangkok and had new pages added at the U.S. Embassy. The second time another agent claimed my last visa extension was invalid and asked me to pay an exorbitant fine. Which of course he would have pocketed. I refused, but as I was leaving dropped the name of a Thai senator whose wife had recently befriended us. Magically, the third go around there was no problem.

After leaving immigration I went to the harbor in the southern Thai city of Ranong, to take the twenty minute boat trip to Kawthaung, formerly Victoria Point under the British. The seasonal rain was coming down in blustery sheets. I was hustled onto a maybe thirty-foot long boat which had a raggedy piece of blue plastic covering a rusty frame above. My companions were Justin, an eighteen year old from Vancouver, who was spending his gap year traveling around Asia with his parents’ blessing before beginning university. Majoring in what he supposed would be Business. He seemed bemused that I would even ask. As though what else would one do in the new millenium. Study the Humanities? Ha ha ha. Long Toed Tom was a lanky Australian surfer who spoke good Thai and was working as a gardener in Phuket putting a languishing degree in horticulture to good use. Tom truly did have the longest toes I had ever seen on a human primate. And finally there were the female members of a Burmese family: a youngish mother and two teenage daughters.

As we headed out to sea it was obvious we were in for a not so amusement park ride. The boat would bounce up in the air on the large waves, then come crashing down with a thud, slamming our coccyx painfully on the wooden plank seats. To be able to chat to the two westerners I sat facing the stern. A wise decision because I couldn't see the possible oblivion up ahead. Between the rain slanting almost sideways and the waves coming up over the side of the boat, we were all soaking wet within minutes. Justin and Tom had done this before so they knew to wear rain gear. Like the Burmese women, who couldn't afford such luxuries, I was bare to the elements.

Facing backwards, I got to watch our young boatman battle the waves while he tried to keep us on course in zero visibility. His concentration was so complete, his visual focus so intensely forward, he reminded me of quarterback extraordinaire, Joe Montana, looking down field for a receiver in a clutch situation; probably Jerry Rice. You expected maybe a more artsy comparison? The Montana era Forty-Niners were plenty artistic when waging their distillation of Sunday afternoon warfare.

I mentioned the boatmen's focus to Tom who commented that if I noticed his concentrated frown suddenly becoming a wide-eyed look of terror we should begin to worry. Always good to have a cheerful Aussie bloke along on a risky expedition.

As the waves got bigger the mood became more somber. The eldest of the two Burmese daughters, I would guess fifteen, was sitting next to me facing the bow. Every time she got slapped in the face by a wave, she came closer to crying. Finally she reached over grabbed my hand, buried her face in her lap, and began sobbing gently in a chanting prayer. She had long elegant fingers with extended cobalt nails that were inconsistent with her teenagey sweat shirt and workaday features. She continued to firmly hold my hand for the rest of the voyage. 

After two hours, we finally reached the other side, actually rather than spiritually, our ablution complete. I wasn't ready for the onslaught of young Burmese entrepreneurs, who accosted us en masse at the pier. "You want go to pharmacy? Valium and Viagra only ten cents. You want see lady show?" A boxy, drunken lad, Mr. Lucky, with hepatitis tinged eyes and betel nut teeth, lurched forward, "You want motorbike? How bout beer? You need hotel?" The boatman decided to go back. But I wasn't about to chance it. I said goodbye to my lifeboat buddies and spent a rainy night in Burma.

Out of exhaustion I went with Mr lucky, telling him I needed a room. First he said we needed to change money. Except for the fact that Lucky no doubt got a commission, I'm not sure why, since the Burmese Kyats turned out to be unusable. Everyone wanted Thai baht or Yankee bucks.

Most hotels in Kawthaung are government controlled, therefore, double the price of comparable Thai accommodations. It's illegal for a foreigner to be a guest in a private citizen's home. The Ruling Junta don't want foreigners to find out too much about the unnecessarily onerous life of the native population. Mr Lucky took me to the Taninthary Guest House which was decent and privately owned. When I tipped him, way too much because the look on his face screamed, "I can drink up a storm on this much gelt", he disappeared.

The hotel was clean and the friendly sarong clad manager reassured me, "Leave passport in room. Very safe here." And he was right. Wherever I went the rest of my eighteen hour stay in Burma, I never felt in any jeopardy. I believe I could have flashed wads of Thai currency, more than an average citizen's monthly salary, drunk on my ass in an anonymous back street, and virtually no one would have taken advantage of the situation. Why? The kind-hearted nature of the Burmese people of course. But also because the populace is terrified of the government backed security forces. They're afraid of being thrown in the back of a Black Maria, carted off to the slammer, and tortured arbitrarily for any imagined infraction. And stealing from a foreigner who is bringing in much needed convertible cash? That could bring even more severe punishment to the perpetrators and probably their families. That realization made it difficult to enjoy any emancipation from danger.

The grasp the military regime has on the country incredibly extends to the time of day. All the clocks I saw were one half hour behind the rest of the known universe. The Generals in their avarice must rob their already ground down citizens of thirty minutes every day. I would have thought they would have set the clocks ahead. I guess these Lethal Duck Soup Buffoons aren't clever enough to get the metaphor for backwardness their thievery suggests. Thugs rarely are. 

In the hotel room a horrifying remorse took hold of me. The rain was still cascading down outside the window. I was soaking wet, chafing and marooned. Why had I stayed? I lay paralyzed on the bed replaying my recent transgressions over and over. Ashamed of the past and terrified of the future, I had to get into motion in the present, or things could quickly deteriorate. "Room service? Please send up a hundred bargain basement Xanax and a half dozen quarts of rat beer. Thank you so much." So I ventured out between downpours to the only place I knew: The harbor.

The waterfront neighborhood was pretty depressing. Semi-sidewalks buckled in front of crumbling nonitecture. Stray dogs looked for a handout from people with little to spare. The mixed smells of spice, human endeavor, and primitive sewers filled the air. Typical of so many tropical nations that have been ill served by their rulers. And Burmese are among the most victimized.

In the late eighties the United Nations declared Burma the least developed nation on earth. A country that was so rich in natural resources, it had been declared "the rice bowl of Asia," was now on economic par with Ethiopia and Chad. Thanks to a bunch of generals who, because they didn't have a clue what to do once their coup actually succeeded, ruined a nascent but functioning economy with extreme isolation and gluttonous nationalization. The ringleader of the 1962 military takeover is the now ninety year old General Ne Win, whose nom de guerre means "brilliant like the sun". Ironic since he irrevocably led his nation into total eclipse.

After years of cruelly imprisoning Nobel Prize winning democracy advocate, Aung San Suui Kyi, without adequate food or medical care under the euphemism "house arrest," her beloved piano, a sole consolation in a bookless existence, finally decimated by tropical rot, the Burmese government's international image was in the toilet. So they hired Washington D.C. based Burson Marsteller, the world's largest public relations firm, to spruce things up. The BM image mavens earned their money by convincing The Generals to change the ruling party's name from the harsh State Law and Restoration Council (SLORC), to the cuddlier State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). When asked about the ethical implications of Burson Marsteller representing Burma, President Bush was perplexed, "It's a free country isn't it? They can promote any brand of aftershave they want."  

Back on the waterfront the variety of ethnic groups was much more interesting than the buildings. Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, Tamil, Karen, Mon, Moken, exist together. And along with all these varicolored folks winding down their work day, were the ever present Boy Soldiers. Their oversized automatic rifles imported directly from the Middle Kingdom. China arms and trains the Burmese military in exchange for sucking up its natural resources. 

It was just beyond dusk and I wanted some dry clothes. I found a well stocked clothing store in a quiet side street. The skull capped patriarch greeted me warmly with "Assalmu Alay Kum." Mom and the kids ate supper in the back room apartment. Most everything was too small, but I found some tolerable if snug fitting threads. The patriarch asked me if I was a Christian. I replied that Jesus, Allah, and Buddha were all alright with me. He nodded in accepting contemplation.

Feeling better, I headed down one of the main arteries that ran through the middle of town. The blocks tended to be much the same. The apartments were scruffy British colonial but still quite handsome; an aesthetic relief in spite of being symbols of oppression. Groceries, pharmacies, and other staple goods stores had shelves three quarters empty. I thought of what destitute mid sixties Korea might have been like. Still the congregated families seemed cheerful. Low intensity phosphorescent bulbs illuminated the brighter glow of flesh and blood tableau. Those that had televisions sat transfixed. The programming was limited to traditional song and dance or noisy propaganda rants. Other families played traditional stick games. Some people gently called out "Hello," the extent of their English vocabulary. The parents were happy if I gave a curious child attention. As almost everywhere, neighborhood restaurants were busy serving the universal need for sustenance and socialization.

My feet started to blister in wet sandals so I began the long walk back to the hotel. A fortyish man pulled over on a motorbike. His smile was amiable with gleaming white teeth against a Tamil-hued complexion. He stuttered, "Hello." I returned the greeting and asked his name. I could only decipher "Joe," so that's what I called him. Mr. Joe concentrated very hard and then asked, "Want drink?" I was intrigued. He wasn't a youthful tourist peddler hawking cut rate gratification near the pier. He didn't seem a Burmese hooligan. I rather doubted he was gay. Before my sensible self could intercede, I got on the motorbike. Being driven away by a complete stranger, no matter how beatific his smile or how intimidating the police, in the dark of night, in an off the map country, where people are choking on poverty, to go to probably just the kind of place where stupid foreigners always get shanghaied? Were ye daft mate? Pretty much.

We headed away from the center of town. The streets quickly became unpaved as the cityscape transformed to rural. Except there were still shops and houses. Teenagers hung around what passed for corners to escape the heat still trapped indoors. The warm air was pungent with earth and cumin. We drove around a large deserted bay. A three-quarters moon shone over the water so beautifully it seemed a diorama. A magic moment dependent on a poverty of development.

We pulled into a vacant lot next to a three story barn-like structure. On the other side the street was a row of narrow two story teak houses.  Directly across the street, one glowing front door was open. The rest were dark. A flickering light shone out from inside the barn. I followed Joe into one large room that extended all the way to the rafters. Two goateed men, one middle aged and the other in his twenties, perched on crates, calmly talking around a solo candle melting atop a barrel. They gave Joe the traditional Muslim greeting and nodded politely to me. The room was full of stuff: broken furniture, piles of clothes, a bicycle with a flat tire, a small stove with a pot boiling, and other undefinable belongings. In America this could have been a scary place. But the atmosphere wasn't jagged or edgy. If anything there was a void of feeling. Something akin to boredom. Apathy probably. Joe asked a couple of questions. The elder man nodded to the house across the street. Joe motioned for me to follow.

As we walked inside we were greeted by a handsome gray haired proprietor with a game show host smile. The room was medium size. Not much there really except for a couple of tables and chairs. A doorless opening led to a back room. Hung on the walls were the globally ubiquitous promotional pin up calenders. But instead of bikinis, the ladies were clad in chaste traditional costumes advertising products I couldn't decipher. In the corner two nondescript women were sitting on a bench silently playing cards. The proprietor enthusiastically motioned for us to follow him upstairs. 

The second floor was much the same except there was an cordoned off sacred area in the extreme front of the room that housed a large Buddhist shrine/spirit house. It was done in the Chinese style with sharply angled gold and red spires. There was also a four headed, multi-armed representation of the Hindu god Brahma. Various offerings of fruit had been placed in front of the shrine. Off to the side on a pillar, hung a huge un-husked coconut wrapped in a red turban. A nod to traditional Burmese nat (spirit) worship. Nats are the old animistic gods that hold dominion over a person or a place. The Burmese hedge their devotional bets according to a hierarchical sphere of influence. First Buddha covers future fate, but is not a god so cannot be asked to intercede in everyday problems. Second and third are Brahma and the various nats who provide help with those pain in the ass diurnal conundrums. A scent of sickly sweet perfume wafted out toward us.  

A woman sat at a table. She stood up when we entered, shook my hand and in coping English said, "I'm Maki. Pleased to meet you." She wore no make up and was mid-thirties attractive with a friendly smile. She looked very Semitic with light skin and dark wavy hair down to the waist. She was dressed in gauzy blouse, traditional sarong, and comfortably barefoot. A mature rendition of the Jewish American Bohemian Nymphs who ignited such a fury in my adolescent blood. I would have thought Maki an Israeli tourist had I met her elsewhere. She motioned for us to sit down. Embarrassed he didn't speak English, the proprietor excused himself and went downstairs. It finally dawned on me that this was the brothel on the edge of town. Ah yes the women downstairs. The whole affair was so low key as to be almost indiscernible.

Maki offered me beer. She quoted a quite reasonable price, proudly letting me know there would be no foreigner inflation here. She hurried downstairs. Her gait was swift and graceful. And oh oh. Her bottom had a distinctly Mediterranean contour to it.

Maki was gone quite a while. I found out she made the effort to procure hard to find Thai beer assuming I would want the imported stuff. So Joe and I had a chance to "talk". What could have been headache inducing was enjoyable because  Joe was an affable dude. I confirmed Joe was Muslim, he has three sisters and is not surprisingly unemployed.

Maki returned with two large bottles of beer. Then it was her turn to offer up some information. She was thirty seven. She too embraced Islam. She had no children and had never been married. She wouldn't talk any more about family or lack there of. She averted her eyes when I even mildly tried to pursue it. Otherwise she made direct eye contact and impressed me with her intelligence and wit. In different circumstances we might have been friends. The world's might have beens made me melancholy.

I was facing the doorway that lead to a murky back room. I had earlier noticed there was a small enclosed space on the right side in the darkness. While we were talking a woman silently exited the space, eyes down, and went downstairs. Soon thereafter a man followed. They'd certainly been reserved in their lust. I was embarrassed to think it was because of me.

The time of reckoning had come. Did I do the right thing? What came to mind as I sat there contemplating my immediate future was a story that my daughter's favorite English uncle, White Mike the Astute, had told me. The BBC was interviewing a former poet laureate before the ancient kicked the bucket. They asked him what had he done in his life he had regretted. He regretted what he hadn't done. He said he definitely would have had more sex. Then I pondered that for a long time my wife had been telling me we should forget any corporeal fealty to each other. Convenient rationalizations? I suppose.  

Joe excused himself and went downstairs. Maki led me back into the enclosed chamber that was the size of a walk in closet. She apologized for there not being a "lamp." Although the nigrescence was the result of cultural modesty, it gave rise to an exquisite opium dream texture that heightened the other senses considerably.

Sex can be transcendent or not. With a partner or a stranger. The mechanics don't change all that much, excluding fetishes, costumes, and toys. Anything beyond the predictable is rare; particularly when commerce is involved. So I was grateful, when, in a procumbent posture, Maki wrapped her limbs around my lower legs and tenderly rubbed the tops of her feet back and forth across the backs of my calves, granting me a fugitive gift of temporal intimacy even Allah might condone.                 

The following morning the weather had cleared. While waiting at the pier for an early boat out of town, I had a chance to speak to one of the waterfront lads in a more relaxed setting. Mr John was nineteen. Like many around the world who can't afford formal classes, and some that can, he taught himself English by watching American movies. He was well groomed if in need of a haircut, neatly dressed in frayed clothing, and smelled strongly of the disinfectant soap he jokingly referred to as "Burmese cologne." A motor bike accident had left him with a small sun shaped cicatrice on the left side of his forehead that radiated beams of scar tissue. As he politely asked me questions about my life I realized he was both bright and inquisitive. He had successfully managed to carve something, no matter how modest, out of the rotten piece of wood he'd been given. He apologized for the day before. During the rainy season it's more difficult to make a living so the guys get frantic when the boats arrive. I know he was working me but also fundamentally telling the truth. When I dissed Mr. Lucky for his overall loutishness, John defended him. "Lucky have many mind ghosts. So he little drink too much." He asked if when I returned he could take me to a pharmacy that he assured me has a variety of low cost products. I agreed and paid him for helping me find a seaworthy vessel back to Ranong. A savvy business kid, he gave me a souvenir twenty Kyat note. "To remember your visit to Myanmar."  

I miss my kid most in the morning. So that's when I call her. At first my wife railed at me. Sometimes I would lose it and rail back. No surprise we found out we have a duplicate pattern of miniature marital ulcers. Who pushes whose buttons first? I think we are equally guilty, but my wife would absolutely disagree. But these lapses of emotional temperance put a heavy burden on our daughter. After my wife told me she never wanted to talk to me again, my daughter would get on the phone and say only, "Hi Dad. Bye Dad." But that's past for now. My wife is bringing my daughter back to Thailand soon. In spite of my periodic crisis perpetuation she unwinds here. She is free to drop the frequently weighty personae of Dutiful Daughter and Competitive Businesswomen and just be Fun-Loving Mom. And my kid's babbling away again about her daily activities. Then she often asks exasperatedly, "What are you doing dad? I thought you were coming last night." I tell her I visit her every night in her dreams. One night last week it was the other way around. 

I woke up at three am fretting about my daughter's emotional well being. After an hour of miserable rumination, I sat up in bed and tried deep breathing to relax. In for four. Pause for four. Out for eight. Pause for four. Begin again. In REM trance I sensed my girl sitting on my lap and felt her hugging me around the waist. "Don't worry daddy. I'll be fine," echoed internally. I simultaneously observed her sleeping in our bedroom. And for two or three heartbeats in this theoretical exile, we shed the illusion of anguish, and let the anguish embrace us, and the dream, and the daughter, and the dreamer were one.

Until That Time,

Guy Hormel   

August 18 , 2005