By Howard Wolf
All travel to a “foreign” place turns one into an amateur cultural anthropologist, if one is observant and interested in learning something important about a new country – and there are endless things to learn.
I returned recently to Cascais, Portugal, from two weeks in another city in another country – Yangon, Myanmar, formerly known as Rangoon, Burma.
“Another” is a key word.
Just about everything I saw and felt in State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s emerging Southeast Asian democracy differs from daily life in the picturesque seaside town of Cascais.
“Picturesque” is a key word.
Cascais and Yangon represent contrary realities, and the contrastive differences are not just a matter of scale. One is like a large village, the other a sprawling metropolis, and they stand for variations of the human condition.
In old Rangoon, the wide Yangon River separates the Strand with its remnants of late Victorian buildings from Dala, a series of impoverished villages. I visited a small orphanage on that side of the river in which 15 children bathe in a common cistern and sleep on a wooden floor under the care of an evangelical Christian.
In Cascais, I look out of my window overlooking the praia and am inspired by the expanse of the vista as the Rio Tejo gives way to the Atlantic and Costa da Caparica fades in the distance. It could be the seascape for a painting by J.M.W. Turner or Joao Vaz.
In Yangon so many tourists pay 8,000 kyats to visit the world’s largest Buddhist shrine, Shwedagon Pagoda, that it is hard to distinguish those who are praying from the statues of the Buddhas to whom they are praying.
At night in Cascais, one can walk through empty streets and, in solitude, take stock of one’s life. I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night.”
Standing on the upper terrace of the palatial Rose Garden Hotel – a luxurious retreat from surrounding urban poverty – I see over the trees of a large park the gold-leafed stupa of Sule Pagoda and know that the essential facts of life in Myanmar lie beyond my comprehension on a short visit.
In Cascais, I feel as if I’m about to step into a painting by Paul Cézanne or José Malhoa, and I know that I am living a privileged life. In Yangon, winding my way through the crowded stalls of betel nut merchants and over slurry-filled potholes, I know that I can’t help Myanmar’s warm-hearted and stoical underclass.
I only can help introduce a few students to some of America’s best writers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald – in the hope that their imaginative work will help these students reimagine a new future for their country.
Between the “foreign” and the “picturesque,” I know where I stand. I flew into Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay,” found out it doesn’t exist and returned to a place that feels like an artistic version of my home in Buffalo.
Needless to say, I saw only the southern tip of Myanmar. Its interior and borders – Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand – to say nothing of its many ethnic groups, demand further exploration.
I didn’t stay long enough to warrant wearing a longyi (Myanmar’s equivalent of a sarong), despite the intense heat. Nothing would be more presumptuous than “going native” after two weeks.