Thursday, October 29, 2015

Messages From Myanmar #05

Messages From Myanmar #05
29 October 2015

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

One of the great perks of being posted overseas is that State Department personnel get to celebrate local holidays in addition to our own. In Argentina, where holidays were often seemingly declared for no particular reason, this resulted in numerous shorter workweeks, which is always a good thing. Myanmar, alas, has significantly fewer holidays, so we are appropriately grateful when they roll around.

The Thadingyut Festival is held on the full moon day of the seventh month of the Myanmar calendar, this year on 28 October. Also known as the Lighting Festival, countrywide celebrations encompass the days before and after, but the full moon signifies the end of Buddhist lent and commemorates the Buddha’s descent from heaven back to the mortal world. This is a very big deal; so, about two dozen of us met up at the Embassy and sallied forth to Shwedagon Pagoda, the epicenter of Thadinghut activities, to take it all in.

The CLO (Community Liaison Officer) had engaged a small but very nice bus, so we had a good perch from which to observe Yangon’s increasingly crowded streets. People were out and about everywhere, walking or packed into buses, taxis, and pickup trucks. The traffic, problematic on a normal day, eventually succumbed to gridlock; so we elected to disembark and walk the last few hundred meters.

When we arrived, our guide (who had previously enlightened us as to some of the history of Shwedagon and the Thadingyut Festival) procured our tickets. Then we took off our shoes, readied our cameras, and joined several thousand celebrants riding the escalators up to the Pagoda.

From this point, I find it somewhat daunting to conjure a suitable narrative (seriously, look at the photoz), so permit me to default to the highlight reel.

Lights & Photography - This was our second visit to Shwedagon, but the first at night. For those of us with decent, though not extravagant cameras, twilight is the perfect time of day. Naturally, the Pagoda is always spectacularly lit, but add to that the scores of paper lanterns and thousands of burning candles suffusing the sky with smoke and the effect becomes somewhat hallucinogenic.

People Wall-to-Wall - Smiling, contemplating, praying; making offerings of fruit, flowers, and light; picnicking, visiting, skylarking, taking selfies.

Old Gringo as Tourist Attraction - On several occasions I observed locals taking my picture on their cell phones, which is a thing here. As is folks wanting to have their photos taken with Westerners, as is mothers encouraging their babies to wave at the white guy. It was all very friendly and charming, so of course I was happy to oblige.

After about 90 minutes, we had circumnavigated the Pagoda, so we decided that it might be a good time to make for the egress. Good call, since there where thousands more people streaming in as we departed. Where they were going to stand, I have no clue, but the festivities continued unabated. As for the Americans, we took the bus back to the Embassy, where A.J. and I hailed a cab, making it home just as the full moon was rising. A special night indeed.



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Messages From Myanmar #04

Messages From Myanmar #04
15 October 2015

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Thought I’d catch you up on the news from Myanmar. Because, really, who else will. (Actually, these folks will.)

Weather Report - Rumours declaring the end of the rainy season have proven premature, as it still rains nearly every day, and sometimes all day. Severe flooding and landslides have occurred in the northern states. But the nice lady who runs the gym downstairs says that we can look forward to cooler and drier climes in November, and I choose to believe her.

Election Update - National elections are scheduled for 08 November, and there is a collective holding of breath as we wait to see if the military regime is, in fact, willing to relinquish more power should the major opposition party (the NLD) poll as successfully as expected. Since the regime has a well-documented record of violently suppressing the popular will, a healthy skepticism is warranted.

Just this week, the national election commission floated a trial balloon suggesting that the election, still nearly a month away, be postponed due to the recent flooding. The resulting outrage was immediate and very loud, and the commission backed down. Good news, but the threat of electoral mischief is omnipresent. My hope is that the generals are not so obtusely arrogant as to recklessly endanger recent (not to mention very profitable) economic developments.

Job News - Congratz, kudos, and general huzzahs to A.J. on her recent promotion. Respect, yo!

Job News Too - My interview for a position at the Embassy went very well, I think. So now we… will… wait… some… more.

Health Bulletin - Two things any gringo must bear in mind while living in Southeast Asia: (1) The jungle is full of nasty, microscopic bugs that are out to do you in, and (2) The jungle always wins. I was lucky; my bug was of the 24-hour variety, but it took me almost five days to completely recover. ‘Twas gross. ‘Nuff said.

Music Review - Last week, I had the great pleasure of presenting a small concert at the American Center Yangon as part of the Embassy Speakers Program. Modestly titled “A Personal History of the Piano Accordion,” the program featured a short, but brief, history of the instrument (about which I know quite a bit), interspersed with tales of my personal music journey (about which I mostly remember). Also, seven musical selections from various stages of my “career.”

The audience for this epic was a couple of dozen local high schoolers. They were great kids; very polite and sincerely engaged. In addition, their English was good and they asked some pretty cool questions; e.g., “Can you play the drum with an accordion?” (The answer is yes. Imagine bongos on the bellows.)

But the best moment came when I introduced the Carlos Gardel tango “El día que me quieras” and translated the title into English: “The day that you wanted me.” Their response was a youthful collective sigh at the sheer romance of it all. It was a perfect response… a perfect moment.