Before and After Life in Bagan, Myanmar — By Jennifer Shipp
Myanmar Southeast Asia

Before and After Life in Bagan, Myanmar — By Jennifer Shipp

These temples sit in various place throughout the city. We jog past them, walk past them, ebike past them every day. They’re awe-inspiring but I’ve also gotten used to them and I suppose I’ll miss them when we go.

I’ve given myself just enough time to write about 1000 words about Bagan and our lives at the moment. I’ll probably write more than that, but I have other things to do and I need to get on it! I try to dedicate time to learning Burmese every week. As a language that’s not regularized at all and that I’ve never ever heard before in my life, the process is going slow. I don’t have a dictionary yet, for example. Getting a Burmese/English dictionary isn’t that easy to do. Lydian and I have started compiling a database of “words we know”, but that’s all we’ve got at the moment.

In many ways, my life revolves around this process of language acquisition right now. I know my grandbabies will likely speak this language. And it’s possible that I’ll end up spending half of my life or more in this country. So I have to learn how to say things like “banana” in Burmese (nge: pyo thi’) and that means there’s not a lot of time leftover to write except for clients.

And I have to learn to drive the ebike. Lydi and I have already gone out alone on one grand excursion to the print shop across town. In a place where it doesn’t matter which side of the street you drive on, this was a pretty big adventure for us. And the ebike got a little scratched up. But we survived and, if I spoke Burmese better, I’d probably know what kind of things the men said to us when they helped lift the bike up off the street after it crashed. (Lydi and I luckily, we weren’t on it…the throttle kinda got away from us as we were boarding the bike–it was hilarious, I’m sure.)

The oppressive heat and humidity has made it hard for John and I to identify things we really love about here, but lately, it’s been cooler. And that’s helped make the place more lovable. We jog along a lonely road that leads to a tiny village about two miles away from Bagan, turning back to the city at a three-way intersection on a sandy road. Along the stretch, groups of women thresh some kind of grain by hand, clothed in hats, with an ancient wood table over a very modern pink tarp. Ox carts pulled by cebu sometimes emerge onto the main road from trails that lead out into small fields that are cultivated by hand or sometimes a lawn-mower-sized cultivator that has to be managed by three people. In the distance, there’s a temple that rises up with grandeur behind a misty cloak that gives it an otherworldly appearance, not unlike the way the Taj Mahal looks in the humid Indian air. We’ve gone out on foot to try to get closer to the temple twice now. It sits in a meadow where the hot air balloons land every morning as the sun rises.

Once, while jogging, we ended at a thicket that closed in around a primitive walking path that was just beyond a lone farmer who was chopping down small trees with a machete. The second time, we ended up at the small, nameless village outside of Bagan, hot and tired from our jog and still nowhere near the temple. We turned back in the midst of bamboo fencing under a canopy of acacia trees where a flurry of early A.M. scooter tracks were left in the sand. 

Meanwhile, Lydian still does not have hot water, but she says she’s gotten used to it. And I believe her because her shower is outside (where it’s always hot) in an outhouse-type-of area. She bought herself a big fluffy towel, a rare find that she stumbled across accidentally at a pagoda-festival with Naing Naing and his family. She now wraps herself to go between her house and her shower area, a big event for the young students next door. There are perhaps a hundred teenagers who spend hours next door every day studying for their exams. They occasionally distracted by Lydian’s transfers between the house and the shower. But Lydian loves Naing Naing, so she doesn’t complain about these things and instead makes light of them to me, which always awes me a little. Indeed, I’m proud of her adaptability in this situation and I almost have no words to say more about it. Naing Naing has proven to be such a worthy young man. I honestly can’t believe a boy his age exists in the world, so I’m very glad that she returned here to be with him. And John and I feel very blessed to get to be close to them right now.

John goes daily to get vegetables as part of his Burmese practice. He and I are regulars at the local YadanarMart now where we can get most of the basic essentials for survival except food. There’s nothing fancy about the YadanarMart. In fact, they don’t even have air conditioning which makes the upper floor, where all the furnishings and appliances are located into a true test of endurance. The woman who staffs the desk up there is kind and patient with us though and that has made our appliance-buying excursions considerably more comfortable. We practiced the greeting, “Have you eaten yet?” (sa pi. bi. la?) two days ago and I failed miserably at the transaction. Every time we buy a blender or even a light bulb up there, a team of 5 young adults help us extract the items from their boxes, plug them in, test them,  repack them, write down the inventory of our purchase in a small notepad, and then we pay for it all. Often, the cost is over 100,000 kyat which is less than $50 at the moment, but of course, it depends. We’ve left the bank and ATM’s with giant canvas bags full of money because the currency here is so weak.

To say something like, “I want to go home,” I have to create a sentence in Burmese that’s structured as “I home go want.” And syntax has always been the thing I struggle with the most in foreign languages, so Burmese, which is tonal and based on rhythms, glottal stops, and “creaks” along with particles that are used to designate all kinds of different things…leaves me muted and blank much of the time. Naing Naing keeps working with us on it very patiently (he teaches Burmese online to other students too), though. Every Thursday night, we go to The Moon (the restaurant where Lydi and Naing Naing met), to practice Burmese and Spanish. 

But, despite any difficulties here in Myanmar, I do love to ride on the back of the ebike between New Bagan and Old Bagan where all the temples dot the landscape. This is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes John and I will go to Sharky’s and stop at the NorthStar convenience store (which is an open-air market, but “very modern”) on our way to pick up oatmeal and coconut water when they have it in stock. At Sharky’s we can buy freshly made bread. We wait for it to bake while we eat dinner there and listen to the chanting or singing, or whatever noise is emanating from the temple in the quarter across the road. Sharky’s is on the edge of Nyaung U in an area that has the look and feel of a carnival during the tourist season. Sometimes, when we drive this route, I say to John that I can hardly believe that we’re here. This was a place that, less than a year ago, was a very challenging destination to reach. From Bangkok, we had to take three more flights (or several trains or buses) to get to Nyaung U. But now here we are.

Regularly we look at each other and say, “This is where our son-in-law grew up.” And then we shake our heads in disbelief and smile, but…while it almost seems incomprehensible that Lydian would have found this young man, who is so perfect for her, here, in Myanmar, it also makes a lot of sense. But not the kind of sense that’s logical in the forward-moving kind of logic that you might think I’m referring to, but rather, the kind of logic that makes sense only if you believe that life has meaning and that one thing leads to another in a meaningful way… and that we can, accidentally, end up living out incredible stories not because we knew what we were doing, but because we had no idea what we were doing, but just kept moving toward The Challenge of whatever seemed intuitively good for us.

I miss Mexico. I’ll be honest. It’s so easy to get what I want in a consumer-kind-of-way there. But in Myanmar, I can reach out and touch the native plants that grow everywhere. And that’s a pretty rare thing to be able to do. We walk in the sands that pave the city streets and touch the earth without thinking about it. The air is clean here and the food was grown nearby. There are no big brands here. It’s easier for me to find a horse and cart with people riding on it than it is for me to find a billboard. Cows, cebu, and horses graze in open fields next to our houses. Snakes cross the road and leave swirls of sand in their wake that last for hours until the next scooter or ebike passes by. But perhaps one of my very favorite things about Bagan is how the kids here are still excited about absolutely everything. For the first month that we were here, John and I debated about what it was about the kids that was different from…everywhere else in the world we’d ever been. And after much thought, we finally decided that they “have a look in their eyes” like a sparkle that American kids have lost and even Mexican kids often lack. One day, we saw a group of four boys who had built a fort out of a piece of cardboard under a tree and John and I arrived at the realization that what we saw in the kids was that they’re excited about everything. Cardboard is an opportunity. Walking outside and seeing two white people jog by is an opportunity (they wave excitedly and giggle or sometimes run with us in their flip flops), the plants, a ball, the sand, a stick…they play with whatever they’ve got. And so they’re never bored. Burmese parents are active and attentive to their young kids and so, the kids are happy overall. One day, John and I played a game for 30 minutes using some leaves and a few sticks, a bottle cap, and the words 1 through 4 with a brother and sister ages 2 and 4 (probably). That’s what happens when parents are actively involved with their children’s lives and when kids don’t spend all their hours in front of a screen.

Yes, there are problems and discomforts and plenty of inconveniences in Myanmar, but…I wonder at the meaning of it all. Why are we here (in Myanmar, that is)? Sometimes I imagine Lydian and Naing Naing, their spirits before birth quietly whispering to each other mischievously discussing the terms of their future meeting on earth and I wonder why Myanmar was the chosen destination…

Sometimes it seems obvious why we would be here and not in other places we’ve been…

When we were in Mexico, I wondered why we felt so motivated to move there and for a long time, it seemed like an arbitrary decision. But without our move to Mexico, Lydi and Naing Naing’s relationship would’ve been even more challenging than it already has been with the incredible distance between their two home countries. Lydi, John, and I needed to have the experience we’d already had with things like temporary residencies, learning a second language, and adapting to living in another culture just to be okay with how things are right now in this Very-Foreign-Place. And we needed to know enough to navigate through the red tape involved in marrying across borders.

The before-and-after of Myanmar is something I contemplate daily with total awe and to such an extent, that I don’t often spend much time thinking about the mundane details of our daily lives here. But it’s strange. I’ll just say that.

Life… all of it, from beginning to end and beyond… is strange.

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