Thousands of miles from the Beltway, and I’m still stuck in traffic.
In Rangoon, the former capital and home to an estimated 5 million people, cars and buses jostle on roads resembling a child’s doodle on a placemat. Drivers converse, or curse, with their horns. Pedestrians freeze mid-crossing, aware that in the pecking order of street life, they occupy the lower rungs.
A year ago, the city’s roads were less congested. Unable to afford the $50,000 price tag for a used car, residents had to rely on buses and bikes (motor and pedal) and their own two feet. Then the new government lowered the cost to $10,000, creating a sticky conveyor belt of metal and exhaust.
Fortunately, progress hasn’t usurped nature or recreation. One early morning at Lake Inya, an artificial body of water created during British rule (roughly 1825 to 1948), a group of women exercised with long bamboo poles while runners sweated along the trail snuggling the shores. Butterflies fluttered among bushes of acid-pink bougainvillea.
Compared with our company, my guide, Win, and I were sloths. We moved in fits and starts, stopping to chat with a trio of Dutch women (part of the baton-wielding crew), resuming our walk, then pausing again to talk to an elegant Burmese woman gazing at the misty water. She spoke of her good fortune in life, measured by the success of her family: her husband, a former Royal Air Force serviceman, and her sons, a globe-trotting mariner and a university student. After we parted ways, she turned back to the lake, a proud matriarch surrounded by silent beauty.
Until this point, Win and I had barely touched on the political situation. Only the sight of Suu Kyi’s stately white house on the opposite shore of Lake Inya sparked the once-taboo topic.
“Now she is very busy to save us,” said the 43-year-old, who relocated to Thailand after the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the nonviolent anti-government protests that the junta swiftly and aggressively quashed. Win openly explained his need to flee the tyranny for gentler arms: “The government killed Buddhist monks and people. This is never very good for the future of our country. I had to find democracy.” Last June, encouraged by the peaceful and progressive changes at home, he returned to Burma hoping to find democracy waiting for him.
So far, he’s withholding his full endorsement. He acknowledges the positive advances. After then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama visited, “a lot of English-speaking tourists came. It gets better every day,” he says. But he’s wary: “I know the political situation is not very sure.”
He looked toward Suu Kyi’s house, a cradle of possibility and promise. “I believe her,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of Burma believes her.”
Our conversation continued at another lake, Kandawgyi, and on another path, this one patrolled by a family in charge of collecting the entry fee. The littlest toll agent, about 2, posed for a picture — a “Toddlers and Tiaras” head tilt, hand to cheek, cherubic smile. She was a pro, probably conditioned by many Westerners’ requests for a photo.