“This way, please,” Aung Kin Win (not his real name) gave a formal bow and gestured for us to climb the wooden steps from the dock to the main room of his wooden house, built on stilts at the banks of a waterway. We were on our way to Inle Lake, and the heat of summer that April had dried up some parts of the waterways, so it was slow going. We were stopping for lunch, arranged in Aung Kin Win’s house.
The table was set for three, and Aung Kin Win had the table setting as formal as his manner when he welcomed my Dad and me to his home. Cloth placemats, stiff from starch marked each person’s set of porcelain dish, knife and fork, soup spoon and an extra spoon beside the knife, for the rice. He bid my father sit, and when Dad sat down, Aung Kin Win unfurled the cloth napkin onto his lap before he did the same for me. Then he sat.
Lunch was an assortment of simple Burmese favorites. Aung Kin Win’s eyes sparkled when I asked if I could take notes. He said, “Of course. You must learn names of things you experience.” The consonants of his speech enunciated crisply, and the vowels sounded like the slightly flattened tone of Queen’s English speakers.
Each time a dish came to the table, he would announce its name and describe its composition while I wrote notes in the little pocket Moleskin that was to be my Myanmar diary. There was kyat hnin khar thee chat, the bitter gourd curry, ngar hinn, a fish dish, and a kyarzan chat, chicken soup with vermicelli noodles and sweet gourd, all accompanied by mounds of hta min phyu, plain rice with the steam visible rising from it.
Aung Kin Win had been a journalist and read for his degree at Oxford. He told me the story of why he stopped writing and retired to a life in this house by the waterways to Inle Lake, serving lunch to tourists whenever he could, to earn some extra money. He also ran a vegetable stall at the local market, traveling by sampan to neighboring floating gardens to buy tomatoes or gourds wholesale for his vegetable stall. “It is what it is,” he says simply, gently dabbing at his mouth with the table linen as if we were sitting at a dinner somewhere in his English-educated past.
Lives like silent poems
Years later, I’ve met many more people like Aung Kin Win, and not just in Myanmar but in many other places and climates. The people I’ve listened to are not names we might read in the news, and their lives are like the silent poems we might never hear from the places we’ve been. But since that day, I’ve listened to the story inside the story, the unspoken narrative of persistence to be of value.
“Within a system which denies the basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day…it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” This passage from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear wouldn’t be something I would read until months after the trip to Myanmar with my Dad, when in Bali, I read it and Perfect Hostage under another mosquito net in another hotel room.
But the message reaches beyond the stories in Myanmar, reaches into the lives of people I’ve met since then. The people who entrust me with their stories of oppression when I coach them through a conversation. The woman who lives with abuse long after the divorce. The man who is passed up for promotion because of someone else’s manipulative undermining of his work. The child who whispers on the phone because she’s afraid if her father heard her he might pick a fight with his ex-wife, the mother she misses. The big stories aren’t the only stories, I learn. And sometimes, I learn, those with little power over another can cause the greatest harm in a daily trickle of abuse.
In 2009, I spent the nights at Inle Lake furtively reading Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell under the mosquito net. Not sure whether it would get me into trouble just for possession of the books, I had also risked bringing Freedom From Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi and A Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle, about Aung San Suu Kyi, and kept them underneath all my clothes in the luggage. I don’t know if these books would have gotten me into trouble in 2009 in Myanmar. There was no one to ask, who would answer. They too, might have been afraid.
A new story?
I promised Aung Kin Win that I wouldn’t tell his whole story (“write only the narrative in which you were present,” he said), and today, nearing the end of 2018, we already know of the stories of others like Aung Kin Win. We have access to many stories of long and ongoing struggles for identity and dignity in Myanmar, perhaps know already the swim through the thick river of oppression that seems to endlessly flow in waves in his fatherland. We’ve seen the movie The Lady. We’ve glimpsed the news.
And now, Myanmar is open to the public.
In 2009, the year I traveled with my Dad to Myanmar, there were only over 760,000 tourists coming in through Yangon International Airport. In 2017, there were about 3.4 million visitors.
It was my third trip in three years. The previous trips had been with a small group of camera toting nuts, and Myanmar for that group had always been a race against the changing light. Dawn to dusk we would troop with our cameras through markets, into temples and in fields with stupas, rushing to find the next image.
Learning to see anew
Traveling with my aging father, the pace slowed considerably. And I appreciate that slowing down now as I revisit the Moleskin notes and the few photographs that have survived my nomadic existence (hard drives died in storage) because I realize I saw differently when I traveled with my Dad.
There was time to listen to people.
In those days traveling to Myanmar strictly required a local guide at every state, and we could not venture out on our own to explore areas outside of the itinerary. But the man who accompanied us on the transition to Inle Lake, Zaw Htet (not his real name) took us to his village, and we walked around and met the village leader Myat Naing, who proudly showed us his recent, abundant mango harvest and the large screen television in his house. As he showed us around the village, we listened to his stories. When we had finished the tour, he and my Dad were laughing over some obscure football news, and somehow my Dad had got us invited to the village for a sleepover.
Not really a sleepover. As they talked about the World Cup news, Myat Naing had mentioned that the entire village was going to congregate at his house to watch the game that night. We would eat mangoes and drink the local liquor that had enough alcohol in it to light a wicker lamp, and watch the football.
I’ve forgotten the game that night, but what I have not forgotten is the revelry with villagers, united over mangoes and a World Cup game. I also remember teaching the row of spectators the wave and the loud laughter as inhibitions fell away and the ripple of movement grew more frequent as the soccer game progressed.
It was a different victory that I celebrate from Myanmar on that trip with my father. When I traveled only for photographs, the day ended with twilight. With my groups of photographer friends, we would stop moving and interacting with the places we visited as soon as it got too dark to get good handheld shots. In that village, my camera did rest after dark, but I kept learning about people and relationships and the joy of a village sharing a common experience.
Encouragement to climb
In Bagan, on our way to Shan State, my Dad had struggled with the narrow steps to the top of a stupa so we could view the sunset over the pagodas scattered in that popular landscape. I knew his health was poor before that trip, but I didn’t know how it had sapped his strength, this man who in his youth had faced fifteen-foot sharks as he dived the ocean as a marine zoologist.
At InDein village, the climb to view the pagodas involved climbing a slope. Although it was a short hike, my Dad was tired from the past week of almost-daily transitions from place to place, and when Zaw Htet described the climb up the hill to the pagodas, my Dad sat down on a bench at the foot of the slope and waved me off. “Go,” he said, “Take your time. I’ll wait for you here.”
When I have difficult times, years after that trip to Myanmar with my father, it is not the forceful voices of other mentors that urge me to continue traveling my life. It is my Dad’s quiet voice saying, “Go.”
Today I find myself with a simple idea. Although oppression isn’t new, and in our travels we find it in the small stories of those we meet and whose lives we slide into for a while, it is not impossible to find light in dark days and see the world anew.
The spaces you’ve never been can beckon like bright postcards. The allure of borrowing another reality for a week or two is a facility we enjoy in these times. And, at times when you find your bliss without, life is good. We can always return home when it becomes inconvenient.
It is only when the default place you live in oppresses your spirit that you must travel through a personal tundra of change. Would you quit what you love doing, like Aung Kin Win did, and disappear into a nameless riverbank, enacting your freedom in the rituals of a past life? Would you say never to tell the story?
Or would you struggle through the climb, up and up toward a brilliant sunset?
I hear my father saying to me, “Go, go.” Go and find someplace new, and write another story.