Dec 2, 2013

Myanmar after Midnight

Arriving in a new country after midnight is like watching children sleep - you learn some about their inner nature when the clutter of the day is stripped away. Myanmar at 2am is tranquil, clean and classic. The airport is empty and spacious, not the Ghanaian gauntlet of thousands of hands reaching to drag you to their taxi, nor the frantic hands reaching through cracks of Zaire glass hungry for mail. Just a deathly slow immigration officer hunting&pecking his way through your documents without once uttering a word. He takes your photo to remind you that this is still a military regime you're entering into, barely-active remnants of an all-too-recent time when your every move would be watched and recorded and suspected.

The taxi driver walks is a foot shorter than me and walks faster than me, polite but strong and not offering to take my bag. The old taped-together white Toyota with low busted seats is familiar, as is the lack of seatbelt, but his driving is not hurried, not honking, not weaving in and out even when there is an occasional other car on the road. This isn't the Egyptian nascar-wannabe terrifying my entry into Cairo; he's a hint of the active but collected, friendly but measured pace I expect will still be here by daylight tomorrow.

The road from the airport sports the usual brightly-lit car dealerships - the clientele who can afford to fly are the best target for selling new cars too. Big billboards advertise high-tech products, laundry soap and margarine. Skinny tall cement building each have a gate and a name, like an endless row of commercial city-states, each selling some product on the ground floor and housing multiple generations up above. Then out of nowhere the golden temple rises above all, shining gold with grandiose gates guarded by 100-foot-high lions in all 4 directions.

Unlike New York or Kinshasa, this is a city of 4 million people who do sleep. In a 40-minute drive I see only one roadside snack seller (ground nuts, bananas...), 2 long-legged & short-shorted sex trade workers, one group of young men sitting roadside with a guitar, and one homeless couple sprawled liberally in bright pink on the sidewalk corner. Not a single child the whole drive. Poverty most certainly is rampant in this city and country, but not along the cleaned-up streets that bring tourists and dignitaries past the golden temple and down to the hotel district.

At the hotel, no crowds of young men try to force the trunk open to "help" with the luggage. The night staff wake up quickly and cheerfully from the foyer couches and easily remember my reservation. The room is as clean and spacious as the website pictures, the AC noisy but functioning, the wireless internet works, and the streets are free from honking, fighting, laughing, trucking, in fact free from any noise. Only the king-size bed, covered only with a sheet, calls to me to enjoy a legs-stretched-out, horizontal, peaceful sleep after a 20-hour plane odyssey. I'm 13.5 time zones from home, but with just enough touches of the familiar to have a feel for what I'll wake up to - a welcoming, mature, steady and mysterious new place that will be my learning and sharing ground for the next 3 months.

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