Tuesday, January 16, 2018

just passing through

I had jumped through so many hoops to be allowed to stay in China overnight without a visa. Now I had to jump through hoops to leave. 

How do you feel about virtual customs officials first thing in the morning? This video figment appeared, like something out of BladeRunner 2049 (but dressed), to warn us cheerfully about customs as we left China.
Guangzhou airport is full of warning signs.
Whatever you do, don't jump in the elevator.

The departure lounge did have this snazzy vending machine. I read 24h as 24th (Street) and felt momentarily at home. What kind of machine has instant ramen in it? And I was intrigued by a snack called giga bytes. Still, I didn't have the right currency, Chinese or otherwise, so I ate the junkfood the airline provided.
We flew for about an hour and then everyone was forced to disembark with all our carry-ons in Wuhan (Hubei province) and go through exit immigration. It had been steamy in Yangon and warm in Guangzhou, but it was close to freezing in Wuhan. The transit building is cavernous, with not much in it, and wifi I never got to work. Kind of the way I picture the afterlife, if I believed in the afterlife, which I don't.

They do have a Hello Kitty lounge, to welcome mothers with babies. I think that's Pooh bear with the goggles. Washrooms were a different story.
Why yes, that is an app projected onto the mirror above the bathroom sink. Confirming it's 0º Celsius outside. (Brr!)
The app changed quickly to an ad. You know, in Communist China.
This was the final ad, before I got completely freaked out by the two-way mirror. Who are these shouting chicken people?! 

Eventually, I found a cafe with noodle soup and 8 treasures tea (for cash only—I scraped into my emergency pouch and found a few dollars I'd hidden away a month earlier) and amused myself until it was time to board again.

Like most travelers, deep down, I love airports. Their poorly marked signs are job security for me. They are filled with people coming and going. Standing in line in Wuhan, I met a lovely Mexican family on their way back from Thailand. My seat mate for 15 hours was a teenaged exchange student, on her way to Atherton. 

That all seems so long ago. Now I'm back at home in Northern California, drinking pots of tea from Shan state and dreaming of the next adventure.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

the elephant in the room: Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

Before I left, we considered several times whether to cancel the trip to Myanmar because of the Rohingya refugee crisis and go somewhere else like Borneo. Based on TripAdvisor forums and hotels at 1/3 capacity, many other travelers had the same question.

In the end, we decided to go and were glad that we did. We did not go to Rakhine state, but the question wasn't ever our safety but patronizing a regime that is attacking large numbers of civilians.

Under the terms of the tourist visa, I agreed not to openly criticize the government, so I waited until I got back to post this. (This sounds terrible, but it's not unusual for countries to insist you follow their laws as a visitor or be expelled. US visitors agree to this too, whether we enforce it evenly or not. It's a sign of our privilege as visitors that we can speak out without fear or repercussions, while local residents often cannot. We did not want to compromise our guides or people we met.)

The situation with the Rohingya, dark-skinned Muslims who have lived in Myanmar near the Bangladesh border, has been disintegrating for at least five years, but it got much worse this fall. The UN has described it as ethnic cleansing.

Roughly 700,000 Rohingya are now refugees in Bangladesh. More than 6700 were killed by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) in August and September, by their own admission. Women were raped, children brutally attacked. UNICEF found 1/4 of the children in refugee camps are acutely malnourished. Although Myanmar has said they will be allowed to return in coming months, it's not clear where they could go that they could be safe.

The NY Times, when it decided to cover the story, posted powerful photographic evidence. Warning: the linked stories are graphic and heartbreaking.

The accepted narrative inside Myanmar is quite different: the Rohingya are referred to as Bengalis. Otherwise reasonable people, usually ethnic Burmese, insist the Bengalis do not speak the language, they don't fit in culturally or try to. They should go back where they came from.

Burmese will point to Muslims (and Christians) who live in other parts of the country, and we did see mosques and churches in Yangon, Dawei, and even Kalaw.

The issue seems less religious than tribal and perhaps, given how dark-skinned the Rohingya are, racial. Myanmar is in many ways a fragile constructed nation, at the intersection of Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, with a variety of ethnic groups dominated by the Burmese.

The story falls apart with the incident that was used to accelerate removal: an attack on a police station. You will hear that Bengalis are terrorists, that they burned their own villages to the ground. (Why would they do that?) That Aung San Suu Kyi only wants peace.
The Dalai Lama had just been to meet with her when we arrived in December; he pussy-footed around the subject and then made increasingly stronger statements. One trouble is she doesn't control the military and so far, hasn't been able or willing to tackle this directly. Meanwhile there are other insurgencies with ethnic groups in the north and the east that potentially threaten her tenuous peace process and unified federalist democracy strategy.

Meanwhile two brave Myanmar reporters from Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, face long prison terms for exposing the mass graves. And they aren't the only journalists facing arrest, just the ones employed by a Western news agency.

If you've been reading my blog posts on Facebook, perhaps you, like my friend Ruth who first commented on this topic, have been confronted by the ugly juxtaposition of my accounts of friendly locals and sparkly temples with FB-suggested stories on ethnic cleansing. My Mom emailed me, worried.

A Canadian diplomat who is ambassador to Indonesia, Peter MacArthur, got into trouble after tweeting photos of Ngapali Beach in Rakhine state over the holidays; his wife is Canada's ambassador to Myanmar.

Obviously I'm not an expert. The political situation 20 years ago, when I first planned to visit Myanmar, was not exactly better than it is now; average people had much less freedom then, and most areas were off limits to visitors. We just didn't have photographic evidence of a horrific, manufactured refugee crisis on the front page of the NY Times.

That's not an excuse. I have traveled in Tibet and China, and in South American countries with repressive governments, as well as in the Middle East. On my way home, I spent the night at a Holiday Inn in Guangzhou where the room binder assured us internet speed might be slowed down for sites like Google and Facebook and Twitter, for surveillance, and for our own good.
It's always appropriate to ask whether your tourism is supporting a regime responsible for violence, just as we ask those questions of our own government. And to consider what you can do, aside from vacationing elsewhere.

Globally, especially in activist circles, you'll hear great disappointment in Mother Suu, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, from the world community that knows her as a political prisoner who was freed and won elections for her party. Why doesn't she do more?!
But her leadership derives at least as much symbolically from her father, the founder of modern independent Burma, which he did not live to see, as from her own limited political experience experience.

I found this sympathetic explanation in a TripAdvisor post:
We felt very safe during our time in Myanmar and only saw police/soldiers outside Mandalay palace (as their barracks take up part of the complex). As noted above, the people were really friendly but the struggles which Myanmar still faces to improve its country’s and its people’s prospects were apparent to us. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is only quite slowly managing to make some changes as it is very, very hampered by so many things: an extremely biased constitution which guarantees one quarter of the parliamentary seats to the military and enables them and their allied parties major control in parliament; the demands of the country’s many diverse ethnic groups; and the need to address the multiple problems her government has inherited after years of corruption and mismanagement by the military government (debt, poor infrastructure, underinvestment in education, health etc., the bad deals which the corrupt military elite had committed to with overseas investors such as the planned Myitsone dam (which will have primarily negative environmental & economic impacts for Myanmar). 
‘The Lady’ has made some progress in brokering peace deals with some of the separatist and armed groups in ethnic border regions (many of these groups’ discontents festered under the military dictatorship) and was on the verge of trying to develop a solution in Rakhine on the basis of Kofi Annan’s recommendations for Rakhine when, just hours after Annan submitted his recommendations for resolving the distrust and conflict in Rakhine state, a Rohingya militant group coordinated around 24 concurrent attacks on police posts killing around 30 people. Aung San Suu Kyi has almost no power over the military who have responded to this groups' attacks in Rakhine in a very heavy handed manner and once again this region is in a terrible mess of conflict and abuse (The Constitution dictates that the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's Armed Forces is his own boss and cannot be fired). Thus, in Rakhine, Aung San Suu Kyi faces another situation where she has limited power and has to work a political tightrope as she tries to address the very complex and long-standing conflicts in the Rakhine region.
I would add that while we experienced relative freedom of movement exploring the cities and main towns, major roads are controlled with checkpoints. Tourists are only allowed to stay in official lodging, and airline tickets, bus tickets, and train tickets require a lot of passport copies. It's not clear anyone is looking at all these copies; they feel like leftover British empire bureaucracy. But the same checkpoints digitized are easy to map.

In Myanmar, I heard praise for Barack Obama, who first visited in 2014 and then officially lifted sanctions against Myanmar in 2016, and some muted sadness that Donald Trump had not chosen to visit Myanmar. (That's one silver lining, in my opinion, though a very small one.)

I hope to return to Myanmar. There is so much more to see, and while ordinary people who work in tourism are definitely feeling the lack of holiday season tourists, I'm not sure the military cares. The Hindu says this year is critical for Myanmar. I agree.

Is there an end game or a strategy by which these refugees end up safe, with children in schools, rather than in refugee camps on either side of the border?

Organizations where you can learn more or donate to the Rohingya refugees:
BRAC, UN Human Rights, Islamic Aid, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders

A thoughtful update on Myanmar's journalists and media under threat, with background on the repressive Colonial-era laws being used to charge them

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Gate 20

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to try to get a transit visa so you don't have to sleep in Guangzhou airport overnight. (BTW there are at least 4 steps left out of this diagram, including getting your boarding pass for the connecting flight, filling out a transit visa request, promising you've never been arrested in China, and retrieving your luggage long after it came off the carousel.)

But first, a few more monks. (Sorry, Declan.)

I was assigned a seat next to a barefooted monk on my flight to Yangon. Monks aren't allowed to touch women, even accidentally. So he had to be moved. I wound up with a bare-footed baby next to me instead.
My Grab driver had golden owls! I took this as a good omen. The Airport Hotel was wonderful, if you don't mind an occasional plane flying overhead! I even spied a bottle of our favorite Myanmar wine and persuaded the cute server to open it for a glass. He made a big show of chilling it, letting me sniff the cork, and pouring a taste with great flair.

Quick pool retrospective: Myeik, Yangon, Guangzhou (no photos allowed but huge and indoor)

No, you were watching 10 to Million Myanmar in your room, wondering what the question was. (Heartbreakingly, the answer was Donald Duck.)

But back to airport hell. The first issue with Guangzhou is you don't want to inhale. Gasp.

The second is figuring out the lines and paperwork to get the mythical 72 hour visa free transit. I had prebooked a hotel (for free) with my airline ticket.

I knew from Pam's terrible experience that I might get stuck in the airport, at the hourly hotel, trying not to inhale.
So I was determined to figure this out. Down to the basement. Upstairs by 7-11. Through the long hallway toward Parking 2.
It was all made worse by not being able to connect to any of the free wifi zones. And having way too much luggage, now heavier with all the tea and goodies I'd been buying, trying to spend my last remaining kyat. (Done!)
And then, like a rat in a maze, I found it! Gate 20! 

I had to stand in another two lines, showing off my voucher, for which I got another sticker: the magic valet will find you and transport you to the Holiday Inn.

If you've never traveled in Asia, you may not realize that Holiday Inns are 5-star hotels here. I won the prize! Too bad I have to leave in 12 hours for the airport.
 In case you need to breathe....There's a big picture window but you can't see anything.
They do have cool labeled mood lights all over.

And matador art outside my room. And fake orchids in the revolving door. It's a little like Vegas in China, complete with buffets filled with seafood and a chocolate fountain.

Guanghzhou is the home of Cantonese food! I meant to take a day trip to Shenzen when I was in Hong Kong, but I'd already left PRC and didn't want to pay for a second visa. 
Ironically, China Southern won't let you use your iPhone even in airplane mode. Even though you're flying over Foxconn, where they're made. But that's a story for another day. Time for a swim. See you on the other side.

Monday, January 1, 2018

later that same day…

It's not like we were looking to visit another pagoda, or three. Today was my last full day, and all I really wanted was to splash in the pool and find some golden owls. Pam needed to buy a bus ticket to Thailand. Dawdling in the mall, I wished a young woman "Happy New Year." She laughed and did a little dance move, and then gestured to the roof. Recognized for my dance moves at the party last night.

Also I wanted to check out the cashew nut factories. But it was hot and seemed like too far to walk, and there aren't really any taxis in Myeik, except scooters without helmets. 

Yesterday I got two separate rides with people who weren't taxis, one a motorbike with sidecar we randomly flagged down and later, someone's friend who agreed to drive over to the fancy hotel after the party. This is what it's like to be a white person in Myanmar, treated like a guest of honor.

And then today we found this perfect tuktuk. The driver even spoke a little English and headed out of the city centre, away from honking scooters.

First stop: a cashew factory. The workers are almost entirely women. They smiled broadly when we came in and didn't seem to mind us taking pictures.
Cashews are boiled so they can be deshelled.
These women are hard at work deshelling. Many wore gloves and ad hoc wrist braces with rubber bands. My repetitive strain injury flared up in sympathy just watching them.
The atmosphere was convivial. Women in Myanmar tend to laugh and smile even under duress.
After the cashews are deshelled, young women (some very young) use a knife to flick the skin off. The nuts are divided into grades: whole cashews, halves, and pieces. Most are shipped to China and Malaysia. There weren't any we could buy.

I will never complain again about the (comparatively) high price of cashews.

How about another golden stupa? This pagoda, known locally as Shwedagon after the famous one in Yangon, is modern, and didn't have any exciting Buddhas inside.

The inside felt like a baroque carousel.
Groups of students lay in wait, ready to take selfies with us.

These paintings depict the planning of the new pagoda. They felt like Chinese propaganda.

I liked the bells a lot. Nearby was this Buddha with the teapot.

At the top of the hill is this golden globe.
This bridge goes over the Tanintharyi River. Young people park their motorbikes on the roadway and were just hanging out on the rim.
Last stop: Kyweku dock yard where they build and repair fishing boats.

The ships are huge.
 This one is even in international orange.
The ships go out to sea for 4 to 6 weeks. Other ships light the fishing area at night, or ferry caught fish back to shore, where it can be shipped off to Thailand.

These women do the detail work, carrying wood for repairs and cans of accent paint to the crews.
For dinner, we returned to Yadanar oo Chinese, a few doors down from our hotel. This time we asked to sit up on the balcony, and the servers hastily carried a table and chairs up. We tried sautéed ta nyin, which was like a spinach or watercress, with garlic.

The sun was setting and supermoon rising. Then we heard the music and saw a parade of young men marching. The psychedelic floats from the Buddha festival yesterday! Here's the ogre, and the clown.
And finally a live band, with chorus and dancer. 

For once, we were in exactly the right place at the right time. A good omen to start the year.