The toad choir

The toad choir

The sound outside is something in between a goose quacking, a dog growling when in danger or a Buddhist Lama praying. It is loud and audible still on the 10th floor with my windows closed. It takes me a while before I realise it is actually a choir of toads. I saw one of those toads the day before while entering the hotel, it was slow and lit up brownish in the yellow light coming through the lobby window. It was in front of the door, but turned its back on us to move towards a darker corner. The hotel is called the Panda Hotel and has stolen the logo of the World Nature Fund. In the elevator there is a sign you cannot eat durian fruit while using it. The large spikey fruit has indeed a disgusting smell and taste, but then again, I also do not like peanut butter, which is considered finger licking good by scores of humanity. The menu in the hotel restaurant is a mixture of Chinese and most probably Burmese, but I am not entirely sure. The most fascinating dish served for lunch is a white kind of seaweed and for the rest variations of noodle, meat, fish and vegetable dishes in coconut milk or curry sauce. This was already pretty good, but every evening has been a feast, whether eating Japanese Udon at a restaurant called after a small lizard, the Gecko or the national dish of fermented Tea Leaf Salad at the Rangoon Teahouse. Both are housed in renovated colonial dwellings, one of them once upon a time owned by the city most famous Jewish trader. What other secrets does this city hold?

Goodnight Habibi

view from Panda hotel - Yangon
view from Panda hotel – Yangon

My friend bathes her baby girl in cold water. She shivers when a cup of cold water runs down her back and baby tummy, however minutes later wrapped in her towel she offers a big smile. She is used to it. Looking like a tiny mummy, she soon finds her way to bed. The apartment is cozy, but simply does not have any hot water. Not really necessary in this tropical country, but in the rainy season maybe less comfortable when the temperature drops slightly. I remember taking cold water bucket showers in Senegal as a student and feel that same shiver of an early morning or late afternoon shower. Some things stay with you for the rest of your life, I wonder if this little girl will remember her cold, but cozy cold water showers one day. With the girl fast asleep and her grandmother baby-sitting, we hold not much later a cold beer in our hands in what would be best described as an October Fest beer hall Burmese style. Plenty of tables for people available in a large space that has customers all around. Fluorescent light gives us all a pale complexion. We discuss with three Burmese bits and pieces of our lives, funny anecdotes about infamous drinking nights pass, a shared love of Van Gogh is mentioned, disgusting encounters with rats – as one makes an appearance in the beer hall – and that the movie the Dark Night talks about Yangon. I decide I have to watch the movie again and inform the Dutch custom’s officer about it who had no clue where I was going. When it is time to go back to my hotel I get offered a lift from one of the Burmese, who is only home for two week visit. He works for Qatar Airways Help Desk in Doha and has been there for ten years. The best advantage he can name for living this way, “Very cheap flights to go home again or anywhere else.” Recently he made it to Amsterdam and Venice, ‘Whenever I want to get out, I go.’ Somehow we end up talking about my recent visit to Jerusalem and how he would like to visit, but cannot because of his passport stamps. Middle Eastern stamps do not help to enter Israel. A colleague of him was recently refused. When answering his phone I hear him say: “Alhamdullillah, Habibi [meaning ‘My love, my beloved’ used for men in Arabic], how are you?” I am not sure whether this comes from his years in Qatar, but the word Habibi makes me feel strangely at home. When we part ways I have to restrain myself from saying, Goodnight Habibi!

Feet on a temple

“When will you come to Myitkyina?” Two anticipating eyes look at me. It is a female participants of one of the partner organisations we work with. ‘I don’t know. Maybe later this year, but my colleague will come for sure, he is your adviser here.’ She nods friendly, but there is hint of disappointment in her eyes. Of course she will have to work with my male colleague who is based here. I do not doubt he will be capable to do the job, but he will have a tough time opening up the women to consult him for advise. A woman here is in many cases considered her husband’s supporter and gender equality in the work place is far from common practice. I feel I have let the women down a bit this workshop. Yes, we spoke about gender, and my capable colleague made a great video interviewing participants about this, but this divide is not an easy one to cross. Cultural differences play another significant role. The young do not speak before the old, they listen and concur, is explained to us when we talk about youth participating in activities. Moreover people find it hard to speak up in groups. Modesty is a deeply entrenched value in this majority Buddhist nation. Finally we find in the written evaluation a comment we should not stand on top of a temple. We did an exercise to practice getting a random sample in communities for our research. A temple was symbolically drawn on a piece of paper to indicate the middle of the village and put on the floor. The colleague leading the exercise stepped on the drawing a number of times, going back and forth in the ‘village’. Nobody told us during the exercise not to do this, most likely that would have been impolite as well. I know we will try to do better next time and definitely not commit this cultural faux-pas again, but it dawns on me the immense work these people have committed themselves to. They will work on the Peace Process in Kachin in the North of Burma and will try to ensure that the people most affected can get involved in the discussions around it. Therefore they will focus a lot of their work on women, youth and children. They experience the direct brutality of slash and burn tactics, displacement, and a loss of livelihood opportunities, schooling or in short the loss of both their future and their now. To make a difference under these circumstances, in a culture where speaking up in general is nowhere near a tradition, inflated with politics of conflict and military rule, this is like a leap into a parallel universe. We will need a lot of toad choirs to make this happen.

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