BY BIANCA-OLIVIA NITA
It’s 11 in the night, end of May and I’m in Yangon, sweating through every single pore on my body. I’m in the very center, walking through the web of streets, just around the corner from the Shwedagon pagoda, the high golden temple dominating the city’s skyline and believed to contain relics of the Buddha.
It’s the end of the hot season. The city didn’t see any rain in more than 7 months and the streets are dusty and hot, waiting for the relief the monsoon will soon bring. It is my last night in Myanmar after a three week trip across the country, exploring what until recently was called ‘the last Asian frontier’.
As I walk around, I try to imagine what life used to feel like in the long years when the country was closed to the outside world. Five years ago I could not have been here, and that makes being here right now feel like everything around me has a layer of depth I should grasp, but that is way beyond the reach of an outsider.
Life is slowly changing now, but for the time being, Yangon, once one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, seems trapped in time. Every time I reach a crossing point, I have to decide whether to turn right or left. I have no reason to pick one over the other; I have no goal, no final destination. I just want to have one last walk. With my return trip ahead, part of me is worried in anticipation of the end of my freedom to explore, getting back to my dull office job that keeps me between walls all day long.
I find my way through the hive of people and dogs. And as I move forward, wrestling the sweat all over my body, I feel foreign yet part of the puzzle of micro stories happening all around me. In Yangon, life doesn’t stop at sunset but quite the opposite. It’s during the day that the pace of life feels slow and laid back, with few people walking under umbrellas, the asphalt melting under their feet. But at night the streets come to life, and after a torrid day everyone comes out to shop, to chat, or to share a meal with family or friends.
Food halls and merchandise booths, intermittent sidewalks and busy driveways, people and cars—at night all these combine into a mesmerizing chaos. Many of the food halls and small improvised booths with groceries are placed right on the driveway, next to garbage piles with cars passing by them dangerously close. Car drivers seem used to avoiding sudden unexpected obstacles. In the light of their headlights you can spot people crossing the street with heavy bags, or dogs running after each other.
The main sources of streetlight are improvised lightbulbs hanging from fences around small terraces or from the top of the food halls. As I walk, headlights flash by as the cars pass by me and disappear into the night. People seem to find places to sit everywhere in these streets, yet I cannot see one for myself. This whole maze of sporadic lights and constant movement seems there for me to observe but offers me no moment of respite.
My eyes catch glimpses of life everywhere around and for a moment I feel sorry to leave behind this world that is so much different from mine. Technology and many of the comforts I normally take for granted are new here. Yet this place is so full of things that are unknown. With every step I take, a new unrecognizable smell surrounds me—strong mixes of spices, fermented fruits, and sharp awful smells I cannot identify. Food is being cooked everywhere on these streets. Small halls and street restaurants serve food on tiny plastic tables laid right on the pavement.
Most men wear longyies, the traditional sheets of cloth wrapped around their waist, while women wear beautiful bright colored skirts with traditional patterns. The women’s elegance contrasts with the rawness of the street and the exhausting heat. Their hair looks neat, and their faces are decorated with thanaka, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. There are also monks; according to local customs one should not stare at monks or walk in their shadows, but at night they seem to lose their sacred aura as they sit eating quietly, dressed in their rusty-colored robes.
And then there are also the children. Yangon is the city where children have no bed time. They play in the street, run with cats winding between their legs, jump over tiles and piles of garbage, skillfully avoiding cars.
Perhaps because it is the end of the season, I hardly encountered any other tourists. I enter a small street shop and I feel eyes turning towards me. My wide eyes and my skin are a strange kind of ‘business card’. I feel that no matter where I go, no one would stop me from entering, but instead they would observe me from a distance, smiling with kindness if I looked their way. I only encountered kindness during my entire trip—only open, curious and welcoming people.
As I pay for my water, the young shop girl smiles and I smile back at her. The local culture does not allow men to stare too much at a woman, but the women look at me openly, sometimes studying me from afar. I fear that it is not me that catches their eye, but my whiteness, a highly desired feature and a local standard of beauty. Every single beauty product you can buy here promises to make you white, quite the opposite of our ideal of beauty in Europe. I thank the girl for the water and walk out into the street again.
I step across a pit, carefully avoiding the bright red splashes scattered everywhere on the pavement. They are betel nut spits, the unavoidable discharge that comes with chewing pouches of betel nut. This popular stimulant is much similar to drinking a cup of coffee, but the sight of people chewing betel nut can be shocking, because it makes their mouths look bloody, over time damaging the enamel of their teeth irreversibly. Every now and then, they spit this red liquid from their mouths, leaving blood-like spots on the asphalt.
All around, there are cafes packed with people watching the UEFA Europa League final between Sevilla and Liverpool. Watching football is a popular pastime in Myanmar, everyone gathering together in street cafes, sitting on small plastic chairs around a TV. Korean soap operas are also popular, and so are the 90’s western movies I watched in my teenage years. I get closer to see the screen, and I attract all the eyes around me. Sevilla just won the game, but no one seems to really care. It is like they are witnessing a distant event that means nothing personal to them. When a team wins a match, it only means that the game is over. And what they love is the game.
A rat runs across the street, but only I seem to notice it. Next to a stall with fresh fruit, a bunch of dogs are laying down, flat on their belly. And as I look around idly, I notice a narrow inlet between two stands selling rope and plastic buckets. I get closer to see where the inlet leads to, and the man at the rope stall signals me to go in.
I see shoes right in front of the entrance, so I take my slippers off and step inside on the narrow pavement, which feels like entering a parallel world in the middle of the city. As I walk forward, an island of light and fresh air opens up, walls dressed in gold, small fences guarding small basins of water surrounding a temple.
Behind a glass wall, a giant golden Buddha is peacefully looking at me, and as I move slowly searching for a place to sit, his eyes seem to follow me. Other people pass by me, kneeling on the carpet in front of the statue. In this highly devout Buddhist country, temples are islands of quietness where people come even at night. A woman is reading sutras in low voice, while a man holding a naked toddler walks in and lays the child on the floor. A tiny bat flies above our heads, and all of a sudden I feel part of this golden island. The burden of the heat, the overwhelming streets, and the perspective of going back to my life—all of them are somewhere far, far away. And right now, there’s no other place to be but here.
Bianca-Olivia Nita fell in love with the North Sea, so she left her native Romania for The Netherlands 10 years ago. Her articles, essays and reviews are mainly focused on documentaries, photography, people and places. She is a regular contributor to Feature Shoot and ModernTimes.review, and her writing has appeared in numerous other journals and magazines, such as Guernica, Coldnoon and The Holland Times.
Bianca Olivia 愛上了北海，於是十年前離開故鄉羅馬尼亞，來到荷蘭。她的文章、隨筆和評論主要是關於紀錄片、攝影、人與場所。Bianca 供稿於《Feature Shoot》和《ModernTimes.review》雜誌，她的文章也在很多其他期刊雜誌上出現，比如《Guernica》、《Coldnoon》和《The Holland Times》。