Reading about Myanmar

In case you haven’t read too much about Myanmar before you go there, rest assured that you can catch up on your reading. At every place where there are tourists there are also vendors selling books. Exiting from a temple in Bagan I sat down to wear my shoes and found a stone lion next to me with books piled up on its rump. George Orwell’s Burmese Days is available in as many languages as Amitabh Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. I’d liked the second one quite a bit. I presented a copy to my oldest uncle when he was about 90 years old. He read through it in a week and discussed it at length with me over the phone.

Books about BurmaIn preparation for my trip I read a few other books. There was a graphic novel (although novel is not quite the right description for a travelogue) by Guy Delisle called Burma Chronicles which I enjoyed reading. It largely confined itself to Yangon, but described the cartooning scene so empathetically that I regretted missing the exhibition of cartoons in Yangon later when I saw an article in Myanmar Times (featured photo).

There are many books written about the last years of the military regime. They are mostly despairing about the chances of a restoration of democracy, and from today’s point of view somewhat dated. I read several, but one which I liked because of the sympathy with which it described ordinary people of Myanmar was Rosalind Russell’s book called Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times.

I read about Burma’s millennium old history from a book by the historian Thant Myint-U called The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. The author is the grandson of U Thant, once Secretary General of the UN. The personal part of this history was about the last thirty years. This book is a very good introduction to the history of Burma. Its recounting of recent history meshed with personal accounts that I heard while travelling. I recommend this book very highly.

The books provide a context, but it is travel and talking to people which make a trip come alive. Here is a story I was told by a man in his late twenties. A Burmese man goes to India to get his teeth checked by a dentist. The process is simple, and the dentist says “You could probably have this done in Myanmar” The man replies, “I’m not allowed to open my mouth there”. I laughed. My companion told me that the man who told this joke was arrested and put in prison for five years, and freed only on the restoration of democracy.

That’s the past. Young people are growing up in a new country. There is no guide book to the new country yet, and that’s a problem. Nothing prepares you for the Burma of today.

I emerged from yet another temple and sat down to put on my shoes. Next to me a pre-teen girl desultorily tried to sell me a book. When I told her I’d read them she went back to her phone. I heard the music she was playing and asked whether it was Burmese. "No, K-pop", she said. She switched to something else: "Burmese" she explained. I listened to a song which was, to my untrained ear, similar to the other. Then she switched to something else. "Bollywood. I like the dance" she told me. I recognized the tune. It had been popular a few years back. This was performed by a Burmese boy band in drag. George Orwell, kings and generals seemed far away.

Getting started on getting ready for Portugal

The easy part is over: we have tickets and hotel bookings for Portugal. The next step is harder: getting to know the little bit about a new country which makes your stay more interesting. There are many different directions to explore.

The sounds of a country are often hard to anticipate. I’d heard very little Portuguese a week ago, it has more or less disappeared from Goa. A few words: velha and novo, saudade and igreja are all that remain. Now, listening to Fado on youtube, my exposure to the language has exploded. Just shows how little I started with. The written language is a different ball game. If you have bluffed your way through a couple of Romance languages, then surely you can navigate written Portuguese.

The Family and I sat down and researched writers. Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago are names we already know and have some familiarity with. Brief searches quickly threw up many more names. But surprisingly, it was difficult to find books in English translation. On second thoughts, if translations had been available then we would have known more authors. I guess this is a part of what one of the articles calls "cultural marginalization".

Films? During the years when I was immersed in world cinema, Portugal had just emerged from the worst period of its recent history. Its cinema was not available in India. This lack of familiarity meant that Portugal was overlooked in most video libraries in the decade after that. If Portugal had a consulate in Mumbai perhaps one would have been more exposed to its culture. But the Portuguese consulate is in Goa, and it hosts no events in my city. So my exploration of Portuguese cinema has to start from zero. Given the number of major awards Portuguese film makers are winning today, this is bound to be a pleasure.

Maybe I have some familiarity, at second-hand, with the food of Portugal. Goa has sorpotel, just the right accompaniment for long relaxed evenings with a drink on the beach. The word xacuti sounds Portuguese to my untrained ear, but it could well be a local Goan dish. Vindaloo is definitely practised very differently in Goa and in England, so I wouldn’t be very surprised if a Portuguese version turns out to be different. I’m prepared to be completely surprised by the food in Portugal: I expect lots of fish.

But the real fun is to look for sources on travel to Portugal. One part of this is to choose a guide book. The first search on Amazon threw up half a dozen books. The Michelin Green guide is not my plate of cod. I’ve had a wonderful time walking around Rome with the Blue guide, and would not mind doing the same in Lisbon, except that it is currently unavailable. That left me with the usual suspects: the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, AA and DK. After some thumbing through the books in the usual downtown bookstore I settled for the Rough Guide.

The other part of the fun is to browse blogs. A comment on my previous post led me to the very new Kat’s travel blog, and on. A great find was the addictive Salt of Portugal; I’m still dipping into it for tips on what to do. A food blog called (as nearly as I can make out) The Algarve Kitchen caught my attention with an explanation of the phrase "Cha com agua salgada". I’m sure there’s much more out there, just waiting to be read.

In this slow way I’ve just begun to figure out how to collect the material I need to go through in order to become an instant expert on Portugal.

Shantaram Tourism

When I saw this cab ahead of me on the road I did not make the connection. I figured out that Gregory David Roberts is Shantaram only after I googled. I bought the book some years back, and found it was a great story: an Australian on the lam comes to India, begins to live in a slum, blunders about before beginning to work for the Indian mafia. The story’s probably mostly made up, but it is wonderful stuff, worthy of three movies at least. It was interesting to find that tourists might want to follow a Shantaram circuit while in Mumbai. Of course, it would lend a cachet to the experience if you were driven by a friend of Shantaram.

The 6+1 probably means that the taxi can hold 6 people and the driver. It would be a bit of a tight fit, I think. The words below the wheel of Dharma (Dhammachakka) say "Jai Bhim", a slogan used by neo-buddhists in their rejection of caste.

I wish I knew what Bindra means. Is it Bandra mis-spelt? Is the driver a friend of reality TV star Dolly Bindra also? Or maybe of the first Indian Olympics gold winner, Abhinav Bindra?

Reading about China

Of course we know about China from the TV and newpapers. But we also grow up reading about the Opium Wars, the Rape of Nanjing, the Long March, the invasion of Tibet, the India-China war, and the Beijing Olympics. Beyond that?

As lamentable as the obfuscations are the depths of ignorance from which foreigners approach Chinese
history.

For several years I have been trying to read through John Keay’s history of China, a magisterial book from which the quote above has been taken. I guess that by the time I work my way through it my ignorance will not be quite as deep. All I can remember now are two facts: first, that the terracotta armies of the first emperor in Xian were forgotten by the time the three kingdoms were at war, and next, that the beginning of the Ming dynasty is closer to us than it was to the time of the three kingdoms. The article on China in Wikipedia is substantially shorter, and may be enough to prepare me for the trip.

There are many guides on the web, and I Google and scan them. But I’m happy to be old-fashioned enough to want to read a book. After browsing reviews on Amazon I settle for the Lonely Planet’s massive tome on China. I plan to read it on my Kindle, and find that it is very nicely cross linked. The maps don’t seem very readable on my Kindle, so maybe I’ll have to print out a few before leaving.

Go and ask this river
Running to the east,
If I can travel further
Than a friend’s love.
(Li Bai)

A large number of books I see on Amazon are on conflicts between India and China, past and future. I agree with a Chinese friend, The Striver, that the best that aam aadmi like us could do to prevent conflict is to visit each others’ countries. It could be a beginning. Getting back to books, I should read Red Sorghum. The Family was reading it a couple of years back when Mo Yan won a Nobel prize. A decade back we saw quite a few Chinese movies, I should try to find some. Also poetry: in a gathering of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, all quoting Chinese classical poetry, I feel I’m missing something.

I’m a little jittery about the language. On my first visit to China I had learnt the numbers with a lot of effort. They have slipped away now. On a layover in Hong Kong I’d managed to pick up a little phrase book by Lonely Planet which had phrases in English, Pinyin and Chinese characters. This had turned out to be really useful. I found it lying between my French and German dictionaries.

That’s a lot of ignorance, but no obfuscation, I hope.