Moving to a new country is overwhelming, and last year's shift to Myanmar which included visas issues and a limit on how much currency you can access was a particularly tough one. But away from the (im)practical side of it, there is also a huge amount to try and take in, and the relative comfort zone and routine that you previously had takes time to build back, regardless of whether you’re coming from a country next door (Bangladesh) like we did. The feeling of being out of place manifests itself in many different ways, felt primarily when I had things stolen from me, like a pair of (expensive) European sandals from a sacred Buddhist site, or cash whilst getting it illegally changed in downtown Yangon, attempting to get regular access to outside information (internet and tv) and in trying to set up a new network of friends (still working on it, but my wife has done a great job so far for me).
Every (almost, and increasingly less) Sunday I join a group of cyclists at 6:00,
and we take a truck out of Yangon and go mountain biking. It is huge fun, and
everything that I was not able to do living in Dhaka, and so I am quite
insistent about getting out of bed as regularly as possible. And one Sunday last November,
whilst riding to meet the group I was overtaken by a scooter (rare in a city that still bans motorbikes). The rider
stopped a short distance ahead of me, opened a box on a street lamp, and
suddenly all the street lamps turned off for that section.
I overtook him as he did his job, only for him to speed past
me again and stop at the next section of lamps, and repeat his task. And again,
all the street lamps that I was riding under turned off. The process continued
itself to the end of the road. It was a wonderful moment, to be able to
directly observe the idiosyncrasy with which the city manages to keep itself
Equally, the moments of wonder which are many at the outset, diminish as the newness wears off and you get the new comfort zone and routine in place. There becomes a moment when it is possible to see the Shwedagon Pagoda and not notice it, or drive past the Lady’s house and not think subversive thoughts, or get frustrated because the new City Mart doesn't have Marmite in stock. Added to that are the changes in-country which is being so closely followed around the world. So far in Yangon, I've only noticed it through new road surfaces and a bigger wall built round the offices of the NLD and more traffic on the roads in general. So already that first experience I had riding down Univerity Road and stealing a glance past the portrait of General Aung San hanging from a bamboo gate post is no longer possible. As opposed to the whole new experience, there are now individual events that stick out and which will remain memorable forever.
|I don't even notice that 99m tall gold plated pagoda any more...|
|Riding a motorbike in a white bikini top is banned|
I told the story later to my wife, who pointed out that it at least proves that Yangon is modern city. After all, the Victorian lamplighters in 19th Century Britain worked with gas, whereas this guy had a scooter and electric lamps. In another year's time, there will probably be a whole lighting grid in place.