Woman and red umbrella, Mandalay Myanmar. (c) Aloha Lavina.
â€œSheâ€™s not that nice, but she is quite interesting,â€ says John, introducing me to a girl he knew who wanted to be a model. He is kidding. Of course. She has asked me if we can collaborate on her portfolio, and I right away say I didnâ€™t have time; I am leaving for Myanmar in a few days. John catches the end of the conversation, and shaking my hand, turns to the girl and adds his joke.
The girl does not know what to do, so she smiles and asks for my business card. As I hand it over to her, I force a smile, but Johnâ€™s introduction has left me thinking. I am already drifting away from the sangria and Coronas with lime, floating away from the cheese quesadilla which begins to cool and coagulate into an unappetizing mass on my plastic basket at La Monita. The traveler whoâ€™s been in Bangkok for 10 days sitting beside me on the picnic style table speaks, and I can see her mouth but cannot really hear all that sheâ€™s saying.
Myanmar sounds so silent when I retrieve it in my head. In 2007 I went with five other photographers, in the heat of the Southeast Asian summer. In those days, the names meant nothing to me. I followed everyone into the car every day, and when we piled out, I was already taking the lens cap off and framing someone elseâ€™s moments so I could take them home and call them my own. The names meant nothingâ€”where we were, what the people were called, why they wore different headscarves. All they were to me were images.
I remember no names, no locations. When I recall Myanmar, I am struck by beauty and gestalt sensations of vivid light and rich pattern. I experienced the country as an unfolding design: elements of it appeared in small bits every day, until each lyrical surprise became a stunning, vague tapestry.
In the weaverâ€™s workshop on Inle Lake a woman wove a lungi, a manâ€™s sarong that Burmese men wear, out of 2172 threads. In the low light, her hands repeated the same gesture over and over until before her spanned hours of red. At some point she added a smattering of yellow. As the burgundy wrap grew, the small and seemingly inconsequential yellow line led her eye to itself again and again, and once more, until she finished the fabric. I thought of how her life must be, this woman of Myanmar. Finite lines governed her life. Those lines led her from the early morning when she careful brushes tanaka on her cheeks, to the midday laundry at the riverbank, to the evening when she fetches water for the teapot and soups Burmese love to eat. Night fell. Every day, the shuttle moved from one end of the loom to the other without failâ€”until the fabric was finished at last, a precise and unfaltering sea of sameness with the one bright yellow thread trapped amidst the red.
Repetition with Variation
When we went to the market in Yangon, all the women had flowers in their hair. It was their New Yearâ€™s Day, and the women commemorated another year, another auspicious wish. One of them painted her lips and she cradled a basket of lemons as her eyes darted around in anticipation. Perhaps it would arrive that day, her future. No one knew what hid behind her slight smile, and it was the perhapses and the maybes that moved her hand quicker than usual at a glance from someone.
The flowers in her hair came loose and a strand of hair floated and tickled the air. It was an unexpected and wonderful disorder, and perhaps someone came closer to her, wanting to put the flowers back in place, and tuck away the stubborn strand of hair. Instead people stood around, and I watched her arrange the lemons in her basket. She looked at me, she looked away. I began to leave, hoping that she sold her lemons before they soured, and putting down the telephoto focus on the one woman, my vision widened to take in the hundreds of them in the market place. Each voice, each gesture, each life combined in a cacophony of anticipation. I realized I could not give any thing to every one. Humbled and helpless I stared at the flowers in their hair, glinting in the ripening light like so many small and bright wishes.
The men were fascinating, less conspicuous. They did not wear tanaka. They were gradations of white shirt and lungi. It was almost like they did not want to be noticed and strove for sameness. It was in their stories that I heard the levels of separation. In a society where everyone is encouraged to be a straight line, a slight syncopation attracts the mindâ€™s eye.
The one man lived in the Mingun Home for the Aged. Everything, down to the cheapest plastic toothbrush, depended upon the generosity of donors. Yet he dressed meticulously every day. He cleaned his face and feet. He buttoned his faded green tunic so the collar was neat. His lungi was precisely tied. Every day he walked around the compound, hands folded behind his back, or sat on a chair in the courtyard and prayed with a string of beads. Like the prayer beads, his life revolved around uniformity and predictability, although a visitor only needed to look at the half-empty donation box to realize that his life was entirely variable.
It took only an instant to erase my pity. I emptied an envelope of kyats into the donation box and wished I had more to give. When again my eyes glanced at him, he gave me a slight respectful nod, and I watched him walk and pray, the picture of dignity in a faded green tunic.
There was also the man at the Inle Lake temple with the sack of discarded food. His children surrounded him, clutching old bread in their tiny, dusty fingers. I was the one who looked away from his gaze. A man should never have to beg in front of his children. In this too, there was a dignity I needed to learn.
I discovered studies in contrast. The design demanded an understanding that there was no running water in the floating villages on Inle Lake, but that every other house had a satellite dish. Transportation on the lake was the sampan, a flat one-piece boat made of hard wood. This nimble taxi is traditionally carved by hand and burn-polished to a black finish. Some of the sampans I saw sported smart new Johnsonâ€™s outboard motors.
There was the soldier and the monk.
On the way back from Heho to Yangon, two soldiers and one monk boarded our flight during the stop in Mandalay. Twenty minutes in the air, we encountered severe turbulence; the air hostess who was standing as the air pocket hit flew one foot above the floor and banged her head on the aircraft ceiling; people screamed. As the plane rattled in the electrical storm, the soldiers held on to their hand phones. The monk reached for his prayer fan and prayed.
Like a slowly spinning prayer wheel, the patterns from Myanmar churn as I think of returning. And when John puts up a mirror in front of me with his comment, I see myself for the traveler that I was. Did I really go just to collect photos, to collect experiences? Did I lie at night in Yangon sweating under an itchy blanket, and irritated, wished for home? What do I know except how to say mingalaba, hello in Burmese?
I did not even know how to say thank you.