After having managed to convince my hosts that I would surely survive some time alone in town, and that it was not a pretense of politeness when I said that I really do enjoy walking, I eventually went for a walk in Rangoon.
This is a worthwhile experience. On most streets there isn’t too much traffic and you are threatened only by missing paving slabs that offer you an unsettling view of the hazy sewage down below. Unlike in Mandalay, people in Rangoon are not on the verge of falling off their bikes when spotting me – a tall white foreigner going for a walk. The locals smiled, they even laughed. Maybe I looked incredibly absurd in their town. Or they felt relieved to see a Westerner immersed in his thoughts, like a swallow as the omen of an approaching political thaw.
This was in 2006, five years ago, and the thaw has yet to come.
In the town center every now and then people talked to me: “Hello!” – they tried to catch up with my steps – “Where are you from?” I let them know: Czech Republic, where I live. And then, after a while, as sure as death and taxes, they asked: “Change?” No, thanks, I don’t need change.
After maybe the twentieth time: “Hello! Where are you from?” I made it really short: “Czech Republic. No change.” The tiny man laughed, visibly amused. “No change,” he confirmed. After a minute or two while he kept on walking next to me: “So, where are you from?” “Czech Republic,” I patiently repeated, knowing that people usually don’t know that country. Even not in the Western hemisphere. He nodded: “Ah! …” And after a while: “Change?” I quickened my pace.
In Sule Pagoda, still irritated at the donation I was forced to make by the girl at the shoe boxes who impatiently yelled at me “Pay! Pay!”, I had another encounter of a memorable kind. When I entered the inner compound, a young, brawny man in a monk’s robe who has been lingering about in one corner walked straight over to me. His questions came as if he read them from a list: Where are you from? Are you traveling alone? Where are the others? Where? I gave vague answers and tried to make my way past him. European history implants in you a firm distrust when people in an atmosphere of surveillance approach you in the same way that sloppily camouflaged spies would.
My friends later assured me that there was nothing to worry about. Burmese people simply love to try their English skills on foreigners. Well, this monk’s English was definitely well developed. But, still, his questions left a bad aftertaste.
For more information - http://www.ecoburma.com/
EcoBurma is a non-profit project run by the Czech non-governmental organization Burma Center Prague. They promote responsible travel through awareness raising and capacity-building. Tourism Transparency and EcoBurma work closely together.