Burma never came up in too many conversations during my childhood. There was merely gossip of a sixty-year old cousin twice removed eloping with a hideous Burmese woman and spending the remainder of his life peddling bike spark plugs in Rangoon. It was an enterprising dream – traveling to an unknown land and trading in the comfort of a South Delhi bungalow for subjugation under a crippling military regime. But the dream was short-lived when after a minor scuffle between a military general and a man on a motorbike, the regime decided to outlaw motorbikes in Rangoon altogether.
So in my head, the Burmese picture postcard was the monochrome still of a wrinkly Punjabi man, in his tatty vest and jailbird striped pyjamas, sitting on a low stool in front of a rundown shophouse, sipping tea and staring at his mound of unsold bike spark plugs.
Myanmar (onetime Burma) was an odd place in my head. Sitting in a nameless tea shop on 21st Street, Yangon (today’s Rangoon) I could tell little had changed.
The last time someone pursed their lips together and sent a piercing air-smooch my way I was at an autorickshaw stand in Bombay. In Yangon an entire language has evolved from kissing thin air with a vocabulary ranging from come hither to how much is that doggie in the window? Pitch, tone, frequency, intonation – they all played their part. So it was mildly embarrassing at the local tea shop when instead of kissing for the bill, I smooched and summoned the little waiter boy to light my nonexistent cigarette. He stood there in his ‘OBurma for Burma’ propaganda vest, clicking the lighter before giving up, disappointed.
And I thought it ironical that a nation sporting a fully fledged kiss-lexicon, would place PDA only behind touching a monk’s head in its list of absolute no-nos.
I would have paid more attention to the offending cacophony but was distracted by the food at the table; or what seemed like food.
To say that Burmese cuisine is oily would be a lie. Waging wars over the minor oil deposit in the yellow plastic bowl with curry of suspect origin would be justified though. No No, our tour guide from Myanmar’s north-eastern province Shan, explained that since meals were cooked only once daily, a layer of fat was added to prevent contamination, spoilage and any general attempts at eating the curry. One could tell that eking out the solitary piece of lamb at the bottom of the bowl risked a tiny oil-spill. And if the curry wasn’t satisfying, there was the borrowed Indian Samoosa and an unconventional tea leaf salad – both of which reminded me of meals I did not want to be reminded of.
Which is why I have a fail-safe when traveling in Asia.
A thumb rule for all Asian travel is that noodles, broth and meat in any permutation – the ice cold Naengmyeon with hand-made buckwheat noodles in a chilled beef broth with slices of boiled egg and beef, Ramen with wheat noodles served in a piping hot meat broth infused with miso or the staple Vietnamese Pho – constitute a good meal, at times with flavor worth killing kin for. The Burmese equivalent, Mohinga, vermicelli rice noodles in a fish soup with the occasional fritters, proved me wrong. It was a saffron yellow soup that resembled a turmeric concoction I was force-fed as a sick child, and it had the distinct flavor of nothing. All the herbs, spices and meat fused together to mother nothing.
I was not disappointed that Mohinga on its best days is bland and with a slightly discernible texture; I was disappointed that if ever I’m not sure of what to eat in a foreign country, I do not have a fail-safe food option anymore.
No No in many ways reminded me of Suu Kyi – a calm woman with a stubborn will to persist and break those not prepared to listen. As we advanced into inner Myanmar fatigue, a condition alien to No No and presumably Suu Kyi, set in and any trip recommendations from her were met with obvious indifference. She tried hard to sell a day-trip to a weaving village where women spent over a year weaving a single shirt and a visit to a monastery famous for cats that at some indistinct moment in the past had jumped through hoops. She found it difficult to comprehend how the burning heat, foot sores or an afternoon beer could come between traveler and weaver.
No No resorted to hyperbole, “But if you miss weaving, you miss everything!”
It seemed odd that she refused to take no for an answer. It was odd that I was still indifferent to the country. According to the biography of Myanmar that I read on my way to Yangon, the lack of a deep international understanding of Myanmar was due to a ‘singularly ahistorical’ view towards the nation. I was told that to understand its present, we needed to delve into its past. (The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint U)
I delved. And the recurrent waves of conquest, war and colonization do offer a fair explanation to the palpable xenophobia and to perhaps - ‘Why are so many homes forted in by barbed wire?’ But to conquer and be conquered by Siam (present day Thailand) time and again and still not learn the importance of lemongrass in curry – I cannot understand.
Which is why I cannot elope to Burma.