Monday, November 12, 2007

With all the problems in Burma, I was amazed to find this book of matches that made me remember more peaceful days. I stayed at the Strand Hotel in Rangoon in 1987. Don't know how I managed to hold on to the matches for so long.

it was a pretty interesting trip. I had been working at a refugee camp in Thailand for over a year at that point. All the expatriate staff lived together in traditional houses in a town near the camp; there wasn't much to do there so we all became good friends, going to Bangkok together after work on Saturdays and taking vacations together. So I went to Burma with some of these friends.

At that time, there wasn't any hint of the upheaval to come - everyone was uniformly depressed and struggling to get by. I knew a lot of Burmese who were working as medical staff in the camps and offered to bring a letter or say hello to their relatives. One woman gave me a bundle; I didn't even think to question what was inside. So I was rather surprised and weirded out to be questioned by customs as we entered the country. I opened the paper bag and all the gift wrappings on the presents - which turned out being wrinkled apples and scraps of brightly colored fabric. The guard lectured me on bringing this junk into the country. I felt ashamed that my friend was sending what seemed to be valuable to her - the love behind the sad little gifts.

Meeting her relatives was awkward. They came to the hotel - the Strand - and left as quickly as they could, maybe before anyone could report them. The Strand itself was ten dollars/ night with the three of use staying in one room. The plumbing was shot and the paint peeling from the walls. The finest hotel in the city at the time.

You were allowed a one week visa, which was barely enough time to spend a day in Rangoon, travel to Mandalay, Pagan and back. But the images just stayed with me. The people were radiant for all their troubles and very happy to see tourists, just because of the connection with the outside world.

Some of the highlights of the trip included the train ride from Rangoon to Mandalay - one of my friends and I had gotten off the train, and when we got on, we realized we were in the wrong car. There was no way to move between cars - so we had to wait until the next station. Meanwhile our other friend tried to sit still, wondering if he'd ever see us again.

Climbing up Mandalay Hill, the whole hill covered with staircases and temples until we got to the top after making offerings at many shrines along the way. We flew from Mandalay to Pagan. Pagan, an ancient city, is one of the most beautiful and haunting places in the world. We hired a horse cart to take us around the temples.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts that came back when I found this matchbox in my desk drawer. May the Burmese find peace and happiness - and democracy very soon.

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