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August 28, 2009

The People of Burma and Me

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: This is the third of six reports on Tom McLaughlin’s recent trip to Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, a nation controlled by its military.]


Mandalay, Burma (Yangoon) – The joys of visiting a new country and the experiences with local people assemble a wealth of knowledge about a nation. Even though I spoke nary a word of Burmese, I managed to communicate.


English, a required subject in Burmese schools, is rarely spoken outside the classroom because of the lack of contact with native speakers. One can usually elicit a “good morning” or “how are you” from the rote memorization learned in school.


However, if one…speaks…slowly…and…enunciates…each …word…then a rudimentary understanding is achieved. For example, book is pronounced bach. For awhile there, I thought they were all lovers of classical music and I rambled on about the Brandenburg Concertos. They politely nodded in agreement not having a clue. I am sure the more fluent wondered if I spoke English.


Very few beggars roam either Rangoon or Mandalay streets; however one old lady managed to find me everyday. She walked up smiling, showing her red betel nut stained teeth and sang to me, at least I think it was singing, as it was more like a cat yowling. Her arms were wrapped around a tarnished brass urn, a vessel to hold money, at least that’s what I think it was. It could have been her late husband.  I contributed about one dollar for her tenacity. I really don’t know how she found me, as I went a different direction each morning, but she was a persistent lovely old thing.


Unlike Hanoi or India, children did not chase me down the streets for money. They stopped and stared, like kids anywhere when confronted with a strange sight.


To them, I must have looked bizarre with my big gut, white hair, shorts and glasses. At one restaurant, a group watched me eat with chop sticks, glued to my every move. About three quarters through the meal, I snared a piece of veggie and speared a chunk of meat, examined it carefully, brought it to my ear and started chewing. The children’s’ eyes became saucer wide and then we all had a good laugh.


Some friends back in Malaysia had asked to purchase some jade. While in Bangkok, I read up on the subject and had bought an expensive stone to make comparisons. Unfortunately, as I reported in Part 1, this had been held at customs. I had been warned about people who try to sell fake stones, claiming it to be the real product.


Forming a plan, I taxied to a jewelry store and told the dark haired, freckled Chinese lady I wished to purchase stones to be set in a bracelet. They produced a tray of every shade of green jade possible, from deep envy to emerging spring leaf. I examined a couple, holding each to the light. I asked for a jewelers loop as I hoped this request would make them think I had some knowledge. The first tray was whisked away and another brought forward. I could not tell the difference between the two.


Using long tweezers and the loop, I selected a stone and pretended to examine it in natural light beaming through an upper window. Now remember, I don’t know what the hell I am looking for. I made a face and set the stone down. The lady then took it and placed at the back of the tray. Using her fingers, she selected three other pieces, and pushed them to the front for my fake examination.


I finally chose one and the bargaining began. Accomplished on a calculator, she punched in the price. I bulged my eyes and grabbed my chest and feigned a heart attack. I threw in a cough as well. Also remember, I don’t have a clue what this stuff is supposed to cost. She immediately punched in a much lower number and passed over the calculator. I halved it. We then punched the keys back and forth until an agreement was reached. Sometimes, I would smile, shake my head and walk away. When they didn’t chase after me, I knew I had gone too low. If I really wanted the stone, I walked back and the game began where we had left off. One must remember this can be a long process over tea and smiles, not an adversarial contest.


Most of the guide books and Internet travelers’ sites advise all to stay away from the jade market in Mandalay. Warnings of unsavory characters, people who would rip you off and other predictions told of dire consequences. With that advice, I had to go. I love unsavory characters because I am one myself.


By this time, I had acquired enough knowledge to know when looking at jade, the clearer the stone and the more light that passes through when held up to the sky the better the quality. Armed with this information, I climbed into a rickety taxi and traveled the five kilometers from the hotel.


Three long rows of buildings each housing a coffee shop were enclosed in rust covered, falling down, and vegetative covered metal fences. In front of the shops, portable card tables with men selling jade stones on white pieces of paper formed a rough line. Some vendors had many stones, others just a few. All sizes of jade, the largest being about the size of a pocket calculator key to others just a pencil point were jumbled in one pile or carefully separated into different sizes. Mostly all were all shades of green with just a few white or lavender colors pushed off to the side.


One guy, about my age, joined me for a coffee and said he purchased jade and sold it in Singapore. He spoke perfect English and we stuck up a conversation. After a chat about President Barack Obama, he oriented me about the market. He pointed to where the tables holding the cheap jade and then the more expensive pieces were located. To me, everything blended together with no discernable separation. Continuing to dispense advice, we became the best of friends.


Like in the movie “Casablanca,” people would come up to me, secretly reach into their pocket, pull out and then open a white piece of folded paper. They then named a price. With my limited experience, all I was looking at was a green orb. It could have been a breath mint for all I knew. I had been repeatedly told, even by the desk clerks at the hotel, these were the worst of the worst, not to be trusted under any circumstances. I kept saying no.


One persistent person showed me three white stones. He wanted $100 each. He followed me around during my three hour visit continuing to drop the price and I kept saying “no thank you,” paying him no mind. Finally, to be rid of him, I offered him $8 for all three. To my amazement, he accepted. (When I returned to Malaysia, I found they were worth over $400 apiece.)


On an aside, only green jade holds any value to the Chinese who are the main customers. Although many sellers know lavender and white colors are valuable elsewhere, they are impossible to sell in a Mandalay market. After all, if one is to smuggle, then one wants to take a chance only with the best.


Meandering around, I wandered near the area where I had coffee. My new friend beckoned me over and I enjoyed a cup of tea and he introduced me to the person sitting next to him.


My friend told me he had some nice jade to sell very cheap. Alarms sounded in my brain. The neighbor produced three stones and I asked for a jewelers loop. A look of concern flashed across both faces. I held the stone to the light. One could not get the beam from a strobe through it, the density was so great. I looked at him quizzically, he had a sheepish look, and I walked away with a smile. He smiled back as if “no hard feelings.” And there were none. I had been warned.


Taxi drivers often receive a cut on purchases made by the customer they bring to a store. I knew that when he asked if I wanted to visit an antique store. Well, he didn’t say it exactly like that, he said antique? I said okay, knowing what he meant and not referring to me.


I entered a workshop where young ladies were sewing tapestries. Row upon row of antique gold marionette puppets hung on the wall. Stacks of tapestries, that looked like they had once been red but now a faded pink color held intricate stones and designs sown on them. To me, they looked as if Marco Polo could have owned one. They had to date at least to the 1600s, I was convinced.

Turning a corner, a row of ladies sat on a straw-mat-covered floor sewing and embroidering these “antiques,” They all looked up and smiled as I clumsily tried to utter a Burmese greeting.


The owner of the workshop, as he called it, introduced himself as he spoke excellent English. He learned I was from America and wanted to know how Mr. Obama was doing, as if I knew him personally. We had the usual Asian conversation about family.


I asked him about the tapestries and puppets and he replied he was constructing them for shipment to Bangkok. “They sell these as antiques in Thailand,” he said. Open and honest, he was not apologetic for his livelihood.


He then asked me if I wanted to see the really old tapestries and puppets hanging on a separate wall in another room. I looked at him and smiled. I knew the con and he knew I knew the con. He smiled again and put his arm around my waist and walked me to the waiting taxi. We talked about some things that I can’t relate here, if you catch my drift, and I was on my way.


Almost all of the desk clerks, guides, taxi drivers, military, waiters, street vendors and store clerks were very friendly and helpful. Some spoke excellent English and, with others, I danced my animated communication, usually always finding an answer and receiving a warm smile.


…life is good….


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