All night it was the same. Fidgets and cramps and running to the washroom not knowing which side to put down first. But it was the reoccurring nightmare that really got to me. Each time my eyes closed and the abdominal pain subsided enough for some kind of momentary escape from this living world of pain, in that brief moment of sleep, the fever-dream came again: a khaki-clad General that looked a bit like Raj with a thick moustache appeared through a curtain of flames. He made a gun out of his hand and put his finger to my head. He said “you deserve this” and pressed down his thumb.
Bang—my body shook and I found myself in a sickly room in Yangon (or Rangoon, as some prefer), it was bare but for a fan that chilled the sweat on my forehead as its blades rattled round. I went to the bathroom and back. My stomach constricted. Maybe I would fall asleep for an instant and return to the place where the General would be waiting for me. Bang—I awoke again and again like this, and so passed the night in a strange kind of delirious state. My head full of aches and holes. All of this from an undercooked road-side chicken omelet. I was smack in the middle of a variety of food-poisoning I didn’t know existed. Sometimes when you flip the coin of adventure it twists in the air and lands in a pile of shit.
My body landed in the same place. I felt terrible in every way: dehydrated, quasi-delusional and weak to the bone. It took me a life-time to get to the bathroom. There I found a fresh bar of soap and a stiff toothbrush waiting for me. Free and with purpose out in the world, I had to say, despite it all, it was the start of another good travelling day. Through the hazy memories of blood and Bangkok I remembered my simple goal: to reach the house where Aung San Suu Kyi’s house had been kept under house arrest for most of my adult life. This was a personal pilgrimage, my Kumbh Mela, my Hajj. Food poisoning be damned.
It took me a long time to pull myself together, but I did it, one painful motion at a time. After some time, I entered the guesthouse hallway and immediately caught sight of a bronzed western girl, about my age, struggling with the lock on her door. Her mediterranean figure had fought hard to keep its shape over the years—and won. I felt like a zombie, but sick and alone, desperate for the warmth that comes with sharing some words with somebody with whom you share a language, I spoke up.
“Hey,” I offered along with a weak smile and a sad wave of the hand. Nice one, I thought.
She stared back with a tilted head, and a curl of black hair fell but stopped short of touching her shoulder. She stared through me—perhaps I had thrown up on myself earlier. Great, the only westerner I’m going to meet in Yangon is crazy.
Then she took two steps toward me—confident steps—like she knew me, and then, just as she neared, her mouth opened slowly, and with a curl of the tongue to the top of her teeth she asked: “What are you running from?”
The question hit me like a punch in the gut. I thought of Alberta and Bangkok… I knew what she was getting at, but this just wasn’t the right time. I’m too weak for this. She had thrown it all out: the well-honoured traveller’s script. Her first line was supposed to be: ‘where are you from?’ or the slightly more thoughtful ‘how long have you been travelling?’ or if she really wanted to be creative, ‘where have you been so far?’ But faced with this bald and provocative new question, I just wanted to slide down the door and collapse into a puddle of limbs.
“I’m from Canada.” I said, desperately trying to steer her back toward her proper lines.
“Isn’t it true?” she said, her dark eyes taking another step toward me, “aren’t we all running from something?” She had covered a remarkable distance with those few steps. A moment ago, she was but a mysterious figure down the hall, and now, all of a sudden, she was an imposing presence, as if the moon had wandered too close to the Earth and consumed the sky.
There is a strange and wonderful breed of traveller that purpose casts far into the world. The kind of traveller you come across in the early hours of the morning, alone, in a hallway of a government-run guesthouse in one of Earth’s most repressive military regimes.
At last, I said: “It’s a long story.”
She said nothing, as if the vacuum of her silence would draw more out of me.
A heat wave erupted in my toes, shot straight up into my head where it boiled for awhile before cascading back down. Followed by a chill that ran in the opposite direction. “Maybe we’re not running from anything,” I said, “maybe we’re running toward something.” Weak.
She slanted her head ever so slightly, the hand on her hip asked the obvious question: so what are you running toward? At least now we were talking about what could be, always preferable to what has been.
I rested part of my weight on the door, “I’m running toward—” I said, before pausing to decide how deep I really wanted to get into all this, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.”
She didn’t wait a breath to respond: “So you want to be like that American, who thought he was a hero and swam across the Lake to her house? And for what? So the military can use it to extend her house arrest? Is that what you want?”
The good thing about travellers in general is they tend to know a good deal about the country they’re in, the bad thing about this traveller in particular, was that the accuracy of her comment killed that last little spark of life not quite killed off by the food poisoning.
I took in her brown eyes, they were so much kinder than her words. I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do there. All I know, is that the world is not free until the people of Myanmar are free, and the symbolic leader of this fight has been locked in a house for most of my life, and I would like to see it. That’s all.”
She smiled, lighting up the hallway with the warm Mediterranean sun. “Aren’t you a bit run down for that?” she said, and spun around, and with those same confident leggy steps that had so recently brought her to me, took her away.
“Where are you going?”
‘”I’m flying out today.”
Before she reached the door, I said “Wait.”
She pressed one hand on the door frame. I cleared out the aches in my throat and yelled down the hallway: “What are you running from?”
She turned her head just enough so that I could see a cheek. “It’s a long story”’ she said, and disappeared. I never saw her again. There was that little taste of death again, that feeling of saying good-bye to somebody whom you know in your heart you will never see again.
Outside the guesthouse, people and buildings put on their sad, but resilient faces in the sun’s introductory daylight. Holes large enough to swallow a person nibbled away at Yangon’s sidewalk, revealing sewers that conveyed more plastics, bottles, tins, and pop cans than water.
Even displays of modest comfort were just a facade.
The place had the airs of a prison.
After about an hour sauntering north through the former capital I reached the Shwedagon Pagoda, rising above Yangon like an oversized golden bell placed gently upon the Earth by the hand of a god. I removed my sandals at the southern entrance and ascended the staircase one bare foot at a time.
At the summit, the stairs gave way to the titanic gold-plated pagoda, proudly commanding a ring of meditating caves, which housed a following of buddhist disciples, sitting cross-legged in bowed contemplation before buddha statue’s situated in front of an LED-disk that projected patterns of mesmerizing colours, adding a certain psychedelic-concert element to the whole business of reaching enlightenment.
When I felt the light touch of a hand curl around my wrist, I thought for a moment that it might be the breezy girl from the morning—but it was a monk. Great. The monk was a vision of the sun: rising in the amber of his shaved head and setting in his maroon robe. We stood together before a gold pedestal, one of the eight planetary posts set in orbit around the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was crowned with a white Buddha statue resting in the shade of a small fig tree. The monk passed me a metal cup, and resting his hand over mine, together we dipped the cup into a cauldron of cold water nestled at the feet of the idol.
“Please, pour over the buddha’s head,” he said.
I followed his instruction and he smiled, which made him look younger. How did I get sucked into this?
“This is very important, this is for yourself,” and he pointed to my chest.
Then he took my hand again, but I pulled it back, “Don’t worry,” I said “I think I’ve got this,” and refilled the cup.
“Now please pour over buddha’s chest, this is very important, this is for family.”
We repeated the cup-filling ritual for just about everybody—“for teacher”, “for strangers”, “for your enemies”, and finally “for all beings”—on each occasion dowsing a different body part of the buddha, and concluding with the remark: “this is very important.”
For the finale, the monk plucked two leaves from the fig tree shading the buddha, joined my palms together and inserted the two leaves halfway into the top of my fingers. “As long as you keep these, you will never be sick.”
“Never?” I felt like I was dying.
But in this way the monk had taught me Loving-Kindness (Metta), or nurturing a sense of love toward all, which together with Compassion, Empathetic-Joy, and Equanimity, complete the Four Virtues of Buddhism.
“Let me show you something special please,” the monk said, reattaching himself onto my arm. This guy is killing me. He hustled me around the gilded pagoda to an exact place that he found by carefully examining the floor pattern. “Please stand here,” he said, and pointed over my shoulder, toward the diamond bud at the top of the pagoda. “Do you see the sparkle?”
A brilliant red dot burst from the pinnacle. “I see.”
It looked exactly like this:
“Please come, come,” the monk said, and led me to another precise place. “What do you see now?” he asked.
The point of light reemerged. “It’s green now,” I said.
“Please come,” the monk said, and took hold of my hand, but I brushed it off.
“It’s ok my friend, really. I appreciate that you must have spent a long time finding all these spots to see the diamond change colour and everything, but I’m not up to it today. I really just need to go.”
“You don’t like?”
“Yes I like. And I appreciate the leaves, but there is somewhere I have to go.”
“Where are you go?”
What are you running from? Where are you go? Ah, leave me alone.“I’m going to Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s house.”
“Oh. This is a very special house. If you wish, I will accompany you there.”
“You know where it is?”
“Of course, in 2007 we marched from this temple to her house in protest of the government.”
“All things I will tell you on the way. Please come.”
I followed his prickly head down the southern staircase where we reacquired our sandals. The sun had reached it’s apex and taken hold of her empire in the sky, and the residual affects of food poisoning were still having fun with my system.
“I’m going to need a drink for this,” I said.
We crossed the street to a junta-run outfit called Happy World—a name only possible in a miserable country—and I purchased two bottles of warm water, one for him.
“This is the road we marched down during the demonstration,” the monk said, in between dainty sips of water, “Thousands and thousands. The people walked beside us holding hands to protect us. All together we were like this,” he said.
I took a shallow drink of water, desperately hoping to keep it down, then asked: “What do you think of your government?”
He tutted, “The government is very bad. After they close down the demonstrations they close down our temple and send us to different temple.”
“I think you were brave to stand against the military—you have taken part in the one true cause, the cause of human liberation.”
The western media’s affection for colourizing political movements dubbed the monastic demonstrations of 2007 the “Saffron Revolution,” based on an incorrect assessment of the colour of the monks robes. Monks actually wear maroon robes, a fitting colour for demonstrations that took the lives of 40 monks and 70 civilians, with another 200 beaten.
“I have a question for you now please,” the monk said, “why do you want to go to Daw’s house?”
Daw is roughly translated to Lady and is used affectionately for Aung San Suu Kyi.
“For the same reason that you did.”
He let out that young smile again. I liked this monk, not only was he brave enough to march against the junta, he was now leading me right to where I needed to go. Then he grabbed my wrist with both hands.
“Why do you keep doing that?” I asked.
“I like European.”
“Yeah, I’m really glad about that, but I’m not European, I’m Canadian,” I said, and I pulled my hand away.
The monk placed an arm over my shoulder “Yes, I like European.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me?”
The monk asked “Can we meet tomorrow?”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen my friend.”
We walked at the same gentle pace, but for different reasons. After the better part of an hour of this hand-grabbing, brushing-off charade, we stopped at an arterial intersection and he pointed down University Avenue, “This is the way you must go, but I cannot follow you there. Maybe we meet again tomorrow, at Happy World.”
“I don’t think anybody is going to be in happy world tomorrow.”
“If you come, then I lucky, if you don’t come, then I not lucky.”
My first thought was that the impressive handlebar moustache I was growing in preparation for India was attracting gay Asian men. But the truth of the matter was that it had more to do with Myanmar’s repressive laws against homosexuality. Despite the military’s attempt to grind down the internet connection, images and videos of the relatively free western gay and lesbian community left a general impression that a foreigner was less likely to take offence and report advances to the authorities. It’s not that they think Europeans (to use his parlance) are all gay, its just that its not very risky finding out.
“Listen, nobody is going to be lucky tomorrow.”
The monk tusked, and said “I hope you come.” He waved, and crossed the street, and I never saw him again. There was that taste again.
Still, good to his word, the monk had brought me to the avenue leading to Aug San Suu Kyi’s house. Though the road clung to the southern shore of Inya Lake, no water was in sight, blocked by berms on both sides topped with cement walls and wire fencing. Underneath the great red sun burning up the sky, my stomach was going through the final throes of death by food poisoning, mixed equally with the vivid excitement of approaching her house, and the tight apprehension provoked by a military barricade I could see up ahead. Every step towards the barricade brought the Mediterranean girl’s question a little bit closer: what will you do when you get there?
I reached the checkpoint by shuffled, short steps. There I met two boys relaxing on plastic chairs behind a wood-topped table, they wore blank faces with their military uniforms, complete with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
“Hey there boys, how ya doin’?” I said, complete with a double thumbs up. Nice opening.
They responded in a delightful combination of Burmese and smiles. I said “can I,” patting my chest, “walk down there?” signalling the road.
While they chattered between themselves in non-English, I touched two fingers to the wood-top like an inverted peace sign and walked them across the table. They giggled, leaving me with little idea whether or not they understood.
Might as well give it a try. “Thanks,” I said, turned away and made two more steps toward Suu Kyi’s house before the pair sprung from their chairs, and gave up their smiles—ah, now they understood.
I turned my head so that I could see their eyes, and they both reverted back into smiles. They were so young these boys with their metal guns and their plastic chairs. There was a fair chance that their assault rifles were empty—military governments tend to have more guns and soldiers than ammunition—but the only way to find out would be to make a run for it. I looked far down the shore-side of the road for anything that looked like a guarded entranceway. If I could just see her house. For me, her house was a greater shrine to the pursuit of human justice than all the gold and diamonds of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
An invisible plain cut through the world where I stood. Beyond a brave soul stirred in a house imprisoned on behalf of her people. Behind young men clutched their guns on behalf of an authoritarian regime. Is this what the end of the road feels like—the bitter end of individual power?
I felt weak and sick, this takes everybody: the monks to march by the thousands again, the people to walk at their side linked arm in arm, the young and courageous to throw back tear-gas, brave military men and women to break ranks, we needed everyday heroes and leaders all in pursuit of the singular cause of human liberation.
I could make a run for it, I thought, before remembering the words from the girl in the morning: You want to be like the American journalist who swam across the lake to her house, so the junta can use you as an excuse to extend her house arrest, you want to be a hero like him?
But it had to start somewhere, it always takes a first act of defiance. My heart quickened, and I felt nauseous. I saw flashes from the nightmare. The fire and General Raj. “You deserve this”, he said and raised his hand to my head.
Bang—I lurched to the side of the road, and fell to a knee, where a ditch spread out before me. I felt so bad that if I could snap my fingers and end the journey right there and then so long that I could teleport home, I would have done it. Surging up my throat came a stream of vomit, followed by a bit of bile. I shook, defeated and weak at the edge of the road, watching long drips of saliva dangle from my mouth. I thought of Raj’s couch in Bangkok. When Daw Suu Kyi said: “Please use your liberty to promote ours,” I don’t think she meant vomiting at the military check-point down the road from her house.
Hands at my knees, I looked down the road. It was so long. Too long. But there was an end.
Six months later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It was November 13th, 2010 and the world greeted the news with jubilation. I did too as I stood over a newspaper in Sri Lanka while trying to negotiate my way through another military check-point, the one dividing that island into north and south. It was the end of a long journey that began in Delhi, where a humble shopkeeper told me the most powerful story in the world.