Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Letter from Burma

Prisana in Rangoon, 1996

A writer's struggle with what it means to be free.


Author's Note: A relevant letter from the past followed by present thoughts on Myanmar and freedom.

October 17, 1996

Dear Eric,

I'm flying over some barren brown Burmese mountain tops on our way to a primitive place called Heho. Although we have only been here 3 days, it feels like 3 months since I last saw you leaving the parking lot in Bangkok. I went outside on the balcony to watch you leave, but you had already gone.
You've been on my mind ever since then...I've been trying to act OK and so far have managed not to drift off too much into my own head, however it has been difficult being here with my head elsewhere..."Headless in Burma."

Yangon or Rangoon (I prefer Rangoon) is a charming city, much nicer than I imagined it would be. We went to the DAB bar that R recommended and met the manager Brent and had a few drinks...AJ was elsewhere.

My brother-in-law Cyro

I can't believe we're already landing! The landscape here is entirely different than what we have seen so far. Rugged mountains, more brown than green, perhaps victims of deforestation or maybe just not enough rain.

We only spent the first night in Rangoon and then flew out the next morning to Bagan, a magical backwards place, an ancient dusty land of pagodas and striking sunsets. The dry air reminded me of Koh Si Chang. Cacti, palm trees and horse carts.

We hired two horse carts for the day. The horses had no names, only numbers. No...mine was not 69. I asked the driver his favorite color. He said that it was Yellow, so I named his horse Yellow Sun. In Burmese you say Wansunny. "Malingalaba means Good Morning."
We've landed...more soon.

My Brazilian niece.

We're back at Heho airport. Yesterday was amazing. After landing we hired a car and drove nearly two hours to Pindaya cave that houses an estimated 9,000 Buddha images. On route we stopped at a village to take a break. It was market day and the villagers acted as if they had never seen foreigners before. We bought some shoes while a group of sixty peasants gathered around us.

Two hours more and we arrived at Inle Lake at sunset. There were a number of gaudy Chinese style hotels, but we were in search of something more cozy when we finally discovered the perfect place called 4 Sisters Inn. Dinner was by candle light and they even made us gaucamole! The bill for our delicious meal was "as you you like."

The next morning Sister #2 asked me; "Sister, how being your egg?"..."Sister...your boat is here."
I actually had been awake since 4 am, awoken by some energetic roosters crowing at the full moon. By 6:30 am, we were out on the misty and glassy calm lake. We passed fishermen rowing their boats with one leg, swimming water buffaloes, villagers bathing and children walking arm in arm along the river bank. Flocks of birds were everywhere, flying above us and over nearby boats.

The morning was incredibly cold. My feet quickly went numb even though I had taken a thick blanket from the Inn. After an hour we arrived at Jumping Cat temple, where an old monk greeted us with a warm smile, treats and hot tea. The tea tasted awful but made a good hand warmer. The temple on stilts was 200 years old and built entirely of wood. Cats roamed everywhere. The monk brought a hoop out and showed us how his cat could jump through it.

The hours pass by with games of Hangman with my niece and villagers playing takraw nearby. We are waiting for yet another delayed plane. The planes here are always, always late. A lanky Burmese man just came up to me to ask me what I was writing. I told him poetry. He gazes down at my notebook and tells me that the planes are always late because of the "snow in Rangoon." I tell him he must mean fog. He reassures me that he means "snow". He walks away and it dawns on me that he is talking about heroin shipments. 

Beneath Burma’s Yellow Sun

A yellow sun is setting over the ancient temples of Bagan, where out of the midst and dusty plain,
#89 clip clops down the dirt road.

Won Oou smokes his cigar and tells us
about the "ass crack" in 1975.
"Ass crack?"...a moment later we realize he is saying: "Earthquake."
We laugh with relief...followed by silence.

The Ayeyarwady River flows to the Sea,
roosters crow and fires burn,
flowing robes; pink, red and saffron.
My Brazilian brother-in-law searches for shoes...
I search for the right quote...

"Rivers and roads lead people on." ~ Georgia O'Keefe ~

Hidden tortures lie beneath a dream-scape of peace and tranquility.

This dream-scape story offers you a glimpse of Burma, void of the endless conflicts that lie behind these peaceful scenes. While we drift on this calm and tranquil lake, innocent Burmese are being killed and tortured by the brutal military regime that reigns over this broken country. For years, I struggled with my decision to visit Burma, supporting The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi in her steadfast declaration that tourists should: "Stay out of Burma. "Tourists are merely keeping the present regime in power," she warned, so out of respect, I waited...hoping that eventually there would be some sign of progress. After years of waiting and seeing nothing that indicated even baby steps toward Democracy, when I had the chance to see Burma in 1996, I jumped through the hoop like the Cat and landed in a place more Wonderland than you could ever imagine. What a vast difference it is to see, smell and taste a place first hand...the sensual trip of visiting a place rather than the distant armchair experience.


Truth can free us and imprison us.

The letter to my husband never ended...there were pages torn and missing from my worn Burma notebook...I have no idea where they went, or how they were lost? What I do remember is that Eric and I were losing each other when I left for Burma and for years after my return, we struggled to find that peaceful union between two would be decades of what someone once described as a Half Leaf love, only he used the word "Democracy".

My unfinished letter remained buried among pages and pages of notes about SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winner who was still under house arrest at the time of my visit. My editor at the time was envious of me and told me that he was forbidden ever to enter Burma. "You are lucky," D said. "You are free to go anywhere. Still, I don't regret what I wrote...even if it closed the door for me to a country that I love. My intention was to help the Burmese and if my words helped them in their struggle for freedom, than it was worth it."

Prisana at a Burmese Refugee Camp in Thailand in 2012

What it really means to be free.

I am free to go anywhere, because I don't have the courage, insight, nor the immense knowledge of my editor. I admire D for what he has written and the risks that he has taken. D -- if you ever find this letter, excuse me for paraphrasing what you actually said. The truth can free us and imprison us. If we write the truth, we take great risks. Look at Snowden. Will the world really change now that we know what we already knew? Was it that big of a surprise that the NSA has and always had full access? It certainly was something I suspected from the beginning of email, or even before, when my NASA friends first explained the concept a decade before email became a public form of communication.

My story of Burma will never end. For as long as I live, I will dream of returning and of seeing my special little ones; the Burmese children that my husband and I cared for and cherished and their lovely parents. In spite of everything that they have suffered and endured, their spirit is always free. They sing in the face of adversity and have taught me what it really means to be free.

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