It was another of the same white letters on a red field, but the message was different, something about the duty of the citizen to reject influence from outsiders.
“I wonder who handles their public relations,” Spurgeon said. “That’s quite the thing for the tourists, and who else travels this road? ‘Welcome to Myanmar, and keep your outlandish ideas to yourself.’ But of course that’s not what it means.”
“What’s it about?”
“Our Lady of Perpetual Indignation,” he said. “Aung San Suu Kyi.”
I was looking at the back of our driver’s head when Spurgeon spoke the name, and it seemed to me his neck muscles went rigid at the sound of it. I nudged the Englishman’s arm, nodded at the driver.
“No harm,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to engage a Burmese in conversation on the subject. Might be awkward for him. But it doesn’t matter what he overhears, so long as he doesn’t need to acknowledge it.”
“But foreign influences,” I said. “How-”
“Ah. Well, she lived abroad for a time, didn’t she? Got an Oxford education and married a don. Came back to her homeland, which you or I would regard as an act of patriotism, and foolhardy in the bargain. SLORC’s line is she’s been tainted by her time and associations abroad.”
“Are they serious?”
“No, they’re just trying it on. The Japanese could take a stand like that and be sincere about it. Look at the lot who emigrated to Peru. When their sons and daughters tried to move back, they were regarded as gaijin. They’d lost their Japaneseness for having been raised overseas. But the Burmese aren’t quite that xenophobic. This is just SLORC trying to get around the fact that her father is the greatest hero the place ever had. There’s a street named after him and the city’s major market, and there are statues and pictures of the man everywhere. So they’ve got to say she’s not a true daughter – of her father or of Burma, either. She went abroad. She got corrupted by foreign ideas. I don’t know if this fellow buys it” – he indicated the driver – “but if he does he’s an exception. The people voted for her, and they’d vote for her again if they got the chance. But SLORC’s got the guns and the soldiers, and they’re not going to make the mistake of calling another election. Why embarrass themselves?”
“Why bother with the billboards?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say the campaign’s the work of a genius, Tanner. It’s entirely wasted on visitors, unless the idea is to show who’s in control. As far as the native populace is concerned, I daresay there’s something in the Big Lie theory. Say it loud enough and often enough and people will believe it in spite of themselves.”
“And there’s a ‘Big Brother is watching’ effect, a verbal equivalent of having an oversized statue of Mao or Lenin forever glaring down at one. Now there’s an importer’s opportunity!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Lenin statues,” he said. “They’ve pulled them down all over Russia, and nobody has any idea what to do with them. They’ve carted some of them to the smelter, but there are still plenty left. Here’s what you do, Tanner. Get yourself over to Russia and find the largest and tackiest one you can. Then see if you can’t peddle it to that town in Arizona that bought the London Bridge. Be a perfect companion piece, wouldn’t you say?”
There were more SLORC billboards in Rangoon, along with signs welcoming us to Yangon and a hideous multicolored statue of a child who was evidently the mascot of Myanmar tourism. She had her hair in pigtails and carried a little basket, and if she’d been a living breathing child you’d have wanted to smack her one. In comparison, the billboards looked pretty good.
Spurgeon asked me where I was staying. I hadn’t booked a room, and didn’t want one. I wouldn’t be sleeping, and was traveling light enough that it would be no hardship to keep my pack with me – and a blessing if I had to leave in a hurry. And I wasn’t sure how it worked in Burma, but in a lot of countries they wanted you to leave your passport at the hotel desk, reclaiming it when you left. I didn’t much want to do that.
All I told Spurgeon was that I hadn’t selected a hotel yet, and the look he gave me showed he thought I was daft. “We’ll see if they can find room for you at the Strand,” he said. “It’s like Raffles in Singapore, one of the great old hotels, and they’ve kept it up well. You’ll be happier there than at one of the sterile new hotels.”
I didn’t say anything, but when we pulled up in front of the Strand I shouldered my pack and told Spurgeon I thought I’d rather walk around first and see something of the city. “I might want to stay someplace a little more modest,” I said. “This looks awfully grand. I’d feel a little too casually dressed for the lobby.”
I was wearing khakis and a bush jacket, and he assured me my attire was perfectly acceptable. I said again that something smaller and more modest would suit me, and he caught on that the Strand was a little too rich for my blood.
“Smart man,” he said. “Save your money for rubies. Mind you don’t pay for a load of cut glass, now.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be buying any rubies. First I want to do a little sightseeing.”
“I suppose your first stop will be Shwe Dagon Pagoda.”
“Well, I don’t want to miss it.”
“No, and it’s quite the experience to be there at sunrise, but you won’t spoil it for yourself by trotting over there now. You know about shoes?”
“You can’t wear them into the pagodas.”
“Can’t even wear them on the grounds of the pagodas. Have to leave them at the outer gates. Not that you’ll have much chance of making a mistake on that score. There are plenty of signs to tell you to remove your shoes, and of course you’ll see other people’s discarded footwear. That should give you a clue.”
“I guess they take it pretty seriously.”
“The business of shoes? It’s the one thing guaranteed to set them off. Buddhists in Thailand have the same passion for bare feet, but they’re a little more relaxed about it. It’s only the holy areas of a Thai pagoda where you can’t wear shoes. Here it’s the whole shooting match.” He raised a hand, scratched the blaze of white hair at his temple. “That all you brought, that little backpack? Why, you can pop your shoes in there, carry them with you. Not that you have to worry about anyone walking off with them – or in them, eh? They’re an honest lot, the Burmese. Just a little bit queer when it comes to feet. Never point your feet at anyone, shod or bare. I suppose you know that.”
“It said something to that effect in one of the guidebooks.”
“The feet are considered unclean,” he said, “and small wonder after they’ve been traipsing through filthy pagodas all day. Never point them at a Buddha image either, although I can’t imagine how you would avoid it. Wherever you aim them, they’re odds-on to be pointing at a Buddha image, aren’t they?”
He wouldn’t let me split the cab fare with him, and after the poor-mouth act I’d pulled to get out of staying at the hotel, I couldn’t very well argue with him. I walked a block, checked my map, and set out for Shwe Dagon.
There was no dearth of other pagodas en route. As far as I could make out, the Burmese felt about pagodas the way Imelda Marcos felt about shoes. You can’t have too many of them. If you’ve got two fine pagodas standing side by side, why not build a third right across the road? And wouldn’t it be a neat idea to put a fourth one right next door, and… Well, you get the idea.
Shwe Dagon dwarfed them all. I walked barefoot down a long aisle lined on both sides with shops selling handcrafts and, yes, Buddha images, then rode up on an escalator, then walked some more and climbed some more to emerge into what has to be one of the wonders of the Eastern world.
There was a stupa in the central portion, of course, a sculpted upended cone, blindingly white and topped with a gold finial. Around it was an enormous marble courtyard, with shrines or chapels of one sort or another on either side. What you did, as far as I could make out, was walk around the courtyard circling the stupa. Every time you turned a corner another fantasy landscape struck your eye. It looked like the ultimate amusement park, but with no rides or food concessions and no lines to stand in.
It didn’t seem to matter whether you walked clockwise or counterclockwise. The locals, including the monks with their shaven heads and red robes, walked in either direction, and so did the camera-toting Westerners. The latter made up about a third of the company, and were the only ones who got charged admission. The Burmese got in free.
They weren’t there to worship. For all the innumerable Buddhas to be seen there – Buddhas made of every material, Buddhas painted or gilded or left unadorned, Buddhas sitting or standing or, yes, reclining – the Enlightened One was not adored or beseeched or asked to intervene. He was there in all his forms, as I understand it, to raise the level of one’s thoughts and improve one’s chances for a better life next time around. Meditating in a place of high spiritual power was, with alms giving and pagoda building, a way to make merit, and the more you made merit the higher you stood in the Reincarnation Sweepstakes.
You could also make merit by releasing captive animals, and while I was contemplating a sealed Buddha strung with lights like a Christmas tree, a woman came into view carrying a small cage made of twigs. She found a spot she liked, smiled gloriously, and opened the cage to release a white dove, who looked around suspiciously before trying his wings and heading off for the wild blue yonder. The woman followed him with her eyes, then walked off in the other direction.
All well and good, I thought. She’d made merit, and the bird didn’t even have to wait until his next life to have a better time of things. He was out of there, up up and away, free at last.
At least until some enterprising chap trapped him and caged him again, so that another seeker of merit could purchase him and let him loose.
Jesus, talk about the wheel of rebirth! There you had a bird’s-eye view of it. And, if all the people who took turns ransoming and liberating the bird were making merit, what was being made by the people who kept trapping the poor little bastard? Did they pile up demerits? Was the whole deal another zero-sum game, with every bit of merit gained offset by merit that someone else lost?
I decided not to worry about it. Maybe the bird catchers were earning merit in their own way by making it possible for their customers to perform a righteous act. Then again, maybe not. If nothing else, they were earning a few kyat. It was an odd little dance they were all doing, and I didn’t really get it, but these people didn’t need my understanding or my approval.
Maybe it wasn’t as crazy as it looked. In the West, most of us earned a living by taking in each other’s washing. Here they took in each other’s karma.