Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Myanmar Hospitality

Myanmar was mysterious for us before we visited, but we had heard good things from other travelers about the people of Myanmar. Honestly, having seen more temples than we can remember or count, the people were the part of the country we were looking forward to the most. They certainly exceeded expectations, which I will try to explain with a story.

We woke up at 5:00 am to rush over to the pier in Mandalay for a 12 hour boat ride down to Bagan. Early in the evening after this journey, we went on the hunt for dinner. Working from a terrible map that had just a few streets labeled, we got hopelessly lost just as it started to rain. Of course, we were without an umbrella, and moments later the rain became a downpour worthy of the monsoon season we were in. We were standing in front of what looked like a junkyard, but was in fact an outdoor body shop in front of a house. Within less than 5 seconds of the downpour starting, two young men rushed out from the junkyard area. They touched our shoulders with authority and said "come, come!" There was not the slightest doubt in their minds that they would shelter us from the rain in their home, despite our very unusual appearance, not necessarily respectable, by Burmese standards.

The young men brought us directly into the house and sat us down at what had to be the dinner table.~> read more

  Two women sat there, an older one who was likely the grandmother of the young men, and a plump middle aged woman with beautiful features. The young men immediately disappeared, but another family member delivered tea to us within less than a minute; in Myanmar a weak Chinese-style tea is kept warm in a thermos at all times, for any guest who might arrive or perhaps just for conversation. Given that the women at the table spoke essentially zero english, and we speak essentially zero Burmese, except to be able to say "thank you", which really came in handy in this situation, the conversation was slow getting started. However, we pulled out our hat-trick of language secret weapons. First, the pantomime. Yes, we've been playing pictionary all these months without you. Second, the limited dictionary in the back of the lonely planet guidebook. While we usually have no luck pronouncing anything, particularly in the burmese language, this dictionary also has the phrases written in the script of the country. So in combination with the pantomiming, it is possible to get a surprising amount of information across. The third element in the trifecta may surprise you. It is a photo of our cat, Mitten, laying in the sink. Showing this photo to people absolutely transcends language. Most people in most parts of the world have had an experience with a pet at some point in their lives, and they light up when they understand that you have had that too. It's a wonderful way to transcend the language barrier, and it just about works every time.

We were starting to get hungry since we had been on the way to dinner, but we didn't mention a word to our host family. Before long though, we were served an entire fresh juicy mango that someone behind the scenes cut for us. We didn't know how to thank them, but we tried to show our appreciation as well as we couild. Next, our hostesses broke out some family photos, showing one of the sons was a policeman, and a daughter who had been married in the last couple of years. Unbeknownst to us, the young men had gone to find the member of their family who spoke English the best, who must have been in another part of the town. She arrived soaked, but was quite eager to talk with us, and made it possible to explain all sorts of things since she could translate from both sides. We shared what the weather is like where we are from, which may sound boring but people who have never experienced such cool temperatures (like 70 degrees fahrenheit!) find it hard to believe. We also talked about our jobs and what countries we had visited, and the family shared where they were originally from and where some of the grown-up children were living, to work or with their spouse's family.

In most places where tourists bring their money, there are plenty of folks acting friendly just to get a piece of that money, and of course we had our share of such acts in so many countries. But when it so clearly comes right from the heart, and just small compensation for a mango is flatly refused, It brings straight to our heart the genuine kindness and virtue that can be found around the world. In Myanmar everyone waves at you just because you're a visitor to their country, and so many people go out of their way to help you. The people taught us a very important lesson about the good that can be found in people so different from ourselves.


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