By Lakshmi Jagannathan
The flat round leaves, anchored with bulbous stems, float gently in the water like giant saucers. A black-and-white bird steps on a leaf delicately with one leg, walks on water and gently skitters on to another leaf. Scattered throughout the floating barge of green are ethereal blooms of water lily radiant in the morning light – pale yellow, pink or with a peach colored hue. In Asia, the lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence – of purity rising from the muddy waters.
I am in a cottage on stilts on Lake Inle in Myanmar. The lotus-filled water stretches out for miles to hills in the distance. It could easily be the time of the King Anawrahta, who founded a kingdom by developing an irrigation system in a dry land and turning it into the rice granary of the region. In a way, this trip is also a quest for roots. A great uncle lived in Rangoon in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, Burma was a province of British India. An aggressive Burmese king had prompted the conquest, not to mention the need for teak and rubies.
I hear the gentle splish-splash of a boatman who stands on a stick and uses his leg to row the boat. It’s far away from a world of mass shootings and barbaric terrorist attacks. No traffic gridlock, no phone calls or appointments. It is life reduced to the bare elements, water, sunshine, air and lotus. Except for one thing – the 4G here is better than in the U.S. For years the country was undeveloped because of military rule, but now, since there was no slow evolution of technology here, cutting edge mobile connectivity is instantly available. So I post my lotus picture on Instagram – not so much for validation, but in a feeble attempt to freeze the present moment.
I love that the women seem empowered, somehow, in their fitted blouses and stylishly draped longyi skirts. No hiding hair with scarves or hunching behind veils to cover their breasts. Whether it’s a village woman cleaning fish on the banks of the lake or a smart businesswoman in the capital, they seem confident and are treated with respect. The only restrictions are in pagodas. For some reason, the management is obsessed with “spaghetti straps” and there are warning signs everywhere not to wear them. Or shorts. And women are not allowed in the inner sanctum.
Lotus cloth is a big industry in Lake Inle and designers from Europe pay big money for this cloth more expensive than silk. I can see why as a woman at a weaving house extracts lotus fiber from a stem – the process is very labor intensive. And the end result is cool like cotton – not smooth and fine, but a great alternative if you have ethical concerns about silk.
The night sky feels primeval as a full moon shines over the lake. This phase of the moon is considered holy, and there is chanting all night in the monastery across the water.
Coincidentally, the next day is also a major national holiday – Martyr’s Day – the day the “Father of the Nation,” General Aung San, was assassinated by a political rival. When we get back to Yangon we discover that admission is free at the Bogyoke Aung San museum (his former home) because of the holiday.
From the crowds that throng the house, it is obvious how much the brilliant statesman is still venerated. There are pictures of him with world leaders. I read a letter he has written to the British government announcing Burma’s choice for independence. A picture of him playing joyfully with his young kids shows so much hope and promise, that it’s sad to see the following one – of his wife weeping over him on his last day. The sadness seems to permeate the house even now.
At the doorway, you have to take your shoes off and carry them (this is something you have to do a lot in Burma – in temples and, apparently, sometimes even in offices). The furnishings are stark and simple – a teak bed with a mosquito-net stand, a coat rack and a glass cabinet displaying the leaders uniform. A wedding picture graces the wall.
Another bedroom contains Aung San Suu Kyi’s crib. As it is with Burmese names, her name actually consists of her father’s first name, her mother’s (Kyi) and a grandmother’s – Suu. I can relate to this because in South India – we don’t have last names either. It’s hard for me to understand the sacrifices Suu Kyi was willing to make. She refused to leave the country to see her dying husband because she knew the military regime would never allow her back. But her prioritizing country over family can be explained by her spiritual beliefs – the Buddhist concept of embracing suffering as a meditation practice. It might also explain the patience and gentle demeanor of the people that we encounter everywhere, despite the poverty and the hardship they must have endured.
Even though Suu Kyi’s party won a historic election in 2015, rules concocted by the military did not allow her to become the President. Instead, she is the “State Counselor” and also has to share power with the military which retains 25% of the seats in parliament. She is poised to implement agricultural and infrastructural reforms so Myanmar can join the global economy, but the path could be difficult since democracy is so new. Another serious issue is the persecution of religious minorities and armed ethnic tension. I learn that for an American NGO based in Yangon, conflict management education is an important task.
On the last day of our stay there is a heavy downpour – it’s peak monsoon season. We are in a fancy new pizza place, that serves microgreens, but when it’s time to leave, the compound is flooded. “No problem” says the manager. A taxi is hailed and people place benches on the water so we can step across and sit in the car seat. Burmese hospitality at its best.
Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi came into office, expectations are very high for her, but the challenges are many. I hope the peace they have now lasts and the country continues on its path of reform and accomplishes its goal of a brighter future for its people.
Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer, startup cheerleader, reiki healer/counselor and tree-hugger. “Lately,” she says, “I have found that if I call myself a writer I get asked too many questions by immigration officials in different ports, so now my official occupation on application forms is ‘counselor.’ It works — the junta left me alone in Myanmar.” Follow her @BeavertonWriter. Read her Living La Vida Pura blog on WordPress and her Veggie Travel posts on Facebook.
Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writers program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world. Through her VOA posts, I feel as if I’ve traveled to multiple Asian and African countries.
Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, A haven for political junkies