The anniversary of the death of Burmese comedian and activist U Pa Pa Lay this month has comedian Matt Roper looking back on his love affair with the country of Burma – also known as Myanmar. Here he publishes the second extract from his journals written during his visit there five years ago
The waiter at this guesthouse, I’ve noticed, in is the habit of calling everyone “Sir” regardless of whether they’re male or female. Lightly toasted fluffy white bread, soft-boiled eggs, lukewarm coffee and terrible service. But the staff here do their best – and they do it with a lot of love – which is all we can ask of them. I ask without much hope if there is a newspaper lying around. To my amazement a copy of the English-language daily – the New Light of Myanmar – hits the table in front of me. “Thanks!” I yell over my shoulder as the waiter tends to another guest wondering where their eggs might be.
The newspaper – a mouthpiece for the Government – carries a comment about Thingyan, the annual Water Festival, alluding to the historical symbolism of its traditions, while lamenting the fact that young people see it only as a chance to dance to techno in the streets whilst soaking each other with water-guns. When I look at the young people of Rangoon, I see the same things I see when I look at young people everywhere. They want to be part of their own generation. Which is as it should be.
Elsewhere in Rangoon there’s a train that loops right the way around the city called the Circle Line. It’s the Grand Sloth of trains, shunting its way downtown, then up through the green leafy suburbs that surround Inya Lake, before heading back down again along the west side of the city, past the canals and back to the city centre. The sight of me sitting on the the Circle Line seems to fascinate the locals and the sight of the locals fascinates me. I share the carriage with six families; a group of old ladies who just sit and stare; three live chickens and four sacks of rice. Who needs television when you have days like these?
Out on the street, the locals steer right-hand drive cars on the right-hand side of the road. Being the passenger while the driver attempts to overtake another car can be a potentially murderous experience; fingernails digging deep into the dashboard. This ordeal I’m forced to live through is largely thanks to an episode back in the day of the dreaded dictator of Burma: Ne Win.
Truth, at times, can be more riveting than fiction.
One day Ne Win consulted his personal fortune teller, as he so often did, who advised him on all things auspicious and also how to avoid a spout of bad fortune. One morning the people of Burma woke up to be told – completely out of the blue – that from now on they must no longer drive on the left. They must suddenly drive on the right. You can imagine the chaos.
On a similar occasion – again on the advice of a fortune teller – Ne Win decided that no longer must the national currency, the kyat, be printed in denominations of 10. So he had all banknotes demonetized and reprinted. You could, for example, find yourself spending 45 kyat banknotes, and 90 kyat banknotes, and any other banknote that is divisible (or adds up to) the number 9 – Ne Win’s lucky number. But for the people who woke up to find their life savings rendered totally worthless, the number 9 must have a somewhat luckless ring to it.
It seems today that we’re back to 10 again. 10 is alright by me. But confusingly if you have the whole 9 thing in your mind, the current exchange rate is 900 kyat to the US dollar. US dollars being the only currency they’re prepared to exchange. And they will only accept US dollars in absolutely perfect, pristine, condition. At the time of writing, there are no international ATM machines in Burma.
Ordinary Burmese also place a lot of store on the advice of palmists and fortune tellers. Yesterday I ran into one myself as he sat beneath a tree and for a few kyat he sat me down and looked at my palm. “You will have bad luck with car accident” which was vexing if not surprising to hear. But he continued. “Be careful of a stone damaging your left eye.” Fuck. Anything else? I wondered, as I pictured myself with a nasty case of whiplash from a road accident and one only eye left. But he went on. “You marry within one year.” Christ, I thought, as I tried to picture myself with whiplash from the road accident, only one working eye and married. Who could this lucky person be? But after checking my date of birth, he did tell me something disarmingly positive. A lovely sound to my now cautiously expectant ear. “You were born same day of week as Siddartha the Buddha. Friday. This is good. Very good.” As I reached into my pocket to cross his own palm with a wad of kyat, he added “lots of people love you. You lucky man. You will make a fortune. But be careful.”
In bed later that night, I stare at the ceiling fan while I stew over those words of the fortune teller. I’d rather have two eyes than a fortune, I tell myself. Then I remembered his final words as I paid him good money for telling me things which would eventually keep me awake all night and staring at the ceiling fan. You will make a fortune… but be careful.
How careful does a man have to be?
I drift off to sleep and dream of Armageddon.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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