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Burmese Transit

By Suzanne Schefcik

            I had gotten into this gold and rusty 1981 Toyota van expecting to see Pyay, Myanmar in a matter of a few hours. Eight hours have passed and my Ipod is dying. Annoyed, I try to sleep as we hit pothole after pothole. As I pondered the status of our situation, I realized that there we nearly no other vehicles on the road. The chance of maintenance here really seemed slim. Governmental assistance in this area was obsolete, although we passed numerous toll booths to pay governmental fees that were supposedly for road maintenance. Where is this money really going?

            The adventure began after I had looked at a complementary map of Myanmar I found in Purser’s square. A small picture of people riding elephants was located in the bottom corner of the map. I was determined to get there. Our Yangon friend had found a couple gentlemen who ran their own travel agency who had agreed to take us on our journey. As we settled prices, Robert, our travel guide, made sure that we exchanged our cash privately in the car. By doing so, authorities could not see that they were making the transaction. Apparently, the government takes large amounts of taxes from all companies. This way, we were illegally helping out our friends immensely. As we stepped into the rusty old van, I was shocked it still was up and running. Unfortunately, the number of automobiles in Myanmar is so limited it was the best they could afford. In fact, nearly all the cars in Myanmar were made in the 1980s. It is very rare that Burmese citizens own their own automobiles.

            The amount of technological advances both in transportation and in daily life really showed how impoverished and behind the modern world Myanmar remains. I had not envisioned the country to be as primitive before our arrival. The lack of technology and materialism was refreshing. Although the government has a long way to go in order to maintain a healthy state, the country seemed rather stable. In accordance with Monique Skidmore in the article entitled Darker than Midnight: Fear, Vulnerability and Terror Making in Urban Burma, “it is not ethically feasible to conduct a detailed ethnographic study of Burmese everyday life at this time.” I agree. The lack of privacy one can obtain with Burmese people limits the information one can learn from them. Although we were in a private car, our guide did not feel safe discussing certain topics in the presence of our driver. Regrettably, we were with the driver the entire length of our trip to Pyay, making discussions on government, family and daily life unavailable. As we drove on, we felt rather distant from our guide, but made the best of it.

            As the only car on the road driving through the mountains, we were a major attraction. People from all over the villages would run to the road to wave. The sight of white people also must have been foreign to these villagers. My hand hurt from waving for so long, but it was really exciting to see their faces light up at the sight of us. Along the way, we encountered a few stray elephants along the road.

            We pulled up to a small village in the mountains and met our guide who would help lead the way through the jungle. As we hiked the muddy terrain of the area, we had no inkling of what was to come. We pressed on down the path and reached a village in the middle of the jungle. It was so crazy to see how the people lived. Elephants were their only mode of transportation through the terrain. There was no electricity and they used the resources around them for their survival. I had never seen anything like it before. Time was an issue we had to deal with, and we had little time to stay with the people. I was disappointed, but also felt privileged to see this place first hand. As we patted the elephants on their trunks, we took one last look at this paradise and ventured back to the van.

            The use of animals as the sole mode of transport reflects that Myanmar remains in a primitive stage of development. Along with this, the limited amount of automobiles and the lack of good conditioned vehicles signify that the country is doing very little in order to grow technology wise. I feel that during the eighties, a boost in the economy and industry began, but it has long been abandoned. In the future, Myanmar may have problems working to catch up with more advanced societies.  


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