The Burmese Dreams Series

The Burmese Dreams Series

From Post Road

The pictures tell you I was there. I took the pictures of the cows lolling and the water buffalo lumbering in herds. I took the pictures of the novice monk with the suitcase, walking along the road, between towns, in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. The photographs are blurred and soft; the greens are especially vibrant. I have no pictures of myself in this landscape. I was only behind, never in front of, the lens of a large and powerful camera. 

I saw the countryside of Burma through the windows of a bus. I can’t say the others on the bus were a friendly bunch—at least, there was little of the camaraderie one might hope to find while traveling. A short while into the bus trip, we went over an unexpected bump as I was taking a swig from my wide-mouthed water bottle. The water flew back and soaked my face, my dress—water dripped down my chin. I sputtered and looked around for someone to share the joke with, but the Canadian across the aisle from me just turned, observed, and then went back to his bus-riding stare. I was pretty much on this trip alone, though it was a group trip, a paid-for package.

We were on our way to Kyaiktiyo from the capitol city of Rangoon. The trip would take all morning. I was spread out across two seats—the bus was only half-full—with my camera in my lap, and, in the seat pocket in front of me, a bunch of miniature bananas I’d bought from a pushy girl on the street. I was going to Kyaiktiyo to see the Golden Rock, a miracle of physics and a Buddhist pilgrimage site. I’d seen pictures: a boulder like a misshapen potato dangling on the very edge of a cliff. Supposedly, a hair of the Buddha kept it balanced there. Buddhists had painted on layers of gold leaf and a stupa, which housed the hair, was built atop.

Because I would only be in Burma a few days, I experienced a vague anxiety while staring out the window, watching the rural landscapes blow past through grimy glass. I wanted to be going to Kyaiktiyo, to see a new region of Burma, a Golden Rock, but I didn’t necessarily want to be on a bus. Outside there was a world, with air: buffalo herders kicking aside reeds; rickety bridges leading to huts on stilts; men fishing with holey green nets. I saw a one-room wooden house that had lost many planks, next to which sat the longest pig I’d ever seen. In my fantasy I was out there in rubber boots and a straw hat, a few dollars worth of kyat in my pocket, a scrap of bread in my knapsack, my camera slung around my neck. Maybe an extra memory card tucked into my front pocket. A water bottle. And something to share with the Burmese I’d meet, something edible. I’d heard salt was gold in Burma, but it was just something I’d heard. I’d have to ascertain what was of high value to the senses in these parts, and hope it was something that would fit in my small, imaginary burlap sack.

Of course I didn’t want to be on a bus. But on foot, in one morning, I would have interacted with the pig, perhaps, and one or two farmers. Tearing through the countryside like this, I watched the landscape change at breakneck speed—I saw miles in minutes. A town busy with fruit-shoppers at one glance, a ramshackle village the next. Marsh, tracks but no trains, crowded bus stops, crowded trucks carrying people away from bus stops, baskets on heads and on the backs of bikes, solitary monks standing on the side of the road. The child monk swinging that mysterious suitcase.

And so I did what only an amateur would do, because this was my chance: I took pictures out the window. This would be my Burma. The blurry buffalo and soft-focus bent willows. A sign in Burmese streaked with window glare and freckled with dirt. In four hours I stopped shooting long enough to eat two mini-bananas and spill water down my dress again. The rest of the time I kneeled on the seat, my camera at the ready. Sometimes, the people outside the bus saw me, smiled from the road, or cocked their heads in curiosity.

I had my favorite interaction in Burma this way. For a few moments, our bus kept time with a truck, its height our height, with a black plastic tarp covering the goods it carried. Three young men—they could have been eighteen or thirty—had hitched a ride and were sitting on the tarp, their legs dangling over the back. This looked like a fun way to travel, out in the wind. The men wore baseball caps and thin clothes and nothing on their feet. They saw me right away. This was one of the only times I was eye-level with anyone outside the bus. I lowered my camera, smiled, and waved. They smiled with their mouths open, waved back. They motioned for my camera, mimed taking a picture, so I lifted my lens and aimed it at them. Then I put my camera down and we stared at each other with wonder until the bus pulled ahead of the truck. I can’t know what they were thinking, but it felt to me we’d shared something akin to the mute awe of people who’d just realized they were in love. We weren’t ten feet away from each other, but if they’d spoken, I wouldn’t have heard them; they knew this. We all knew not to bother speaking.

The Burmese I’d met did not seem worried about speaking to me. I’d been told that it might be dangerous for them to talk to foreigners. If they were caught telling us about the government, the nature of their oppression—the systematic rape, the burning of villages, the economic chaos, their beloved rightful leader under house arrest—they risked big trouble. We risked nothing. But still I held fear. I feared I had the power to cause big trouble just by being in Burma. But my first hour in Rangoon, at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a monk approached me and asked me if I wanted to visit his monastery. He led me into a gilded room for shade and I sat with him on the floor and he answered my questions about his life as a monk. Suddenly he said, “Listen. I can only talk to you longer if you are serious about learning about Buddhism at our monastery. If you’re not serious, you understand, I need to spend my time talking to someone else.” I recognized that I felt nervous; I was worried about letting him down, but also about being tricked. Perhaps it would have bettered me had I gone with him. But all reason told me not to wander off alone with a stranger in a city I didn’t know, even if this stranger were a monk. I offered my regrets; the monk smiled and wished me peace. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. This meant he’d only known life under the junta; they’d ruled as Big Brother for forty-six years. Still he managed to hold peace in his heart. There is a chance I might have disrupted his peace just by changing the subject. Monks were imprisoned for marching in the streets. All they had to do was hold up a sign saying “democracy” or “freedom” and they’d get three years in jail. Monks were not off limits for legal murder. When I saw the boys on the back of the truck, I knew, because of the glass between us, that I could do them no harm.


In Kyaiktiyo, I hiked with a small group to the top of the mountain towards the Rock. It was a long, winding, mostly-paved road up, and the vistas were muffled by fog. We stayed in a hotel that reeked of mold; I sneezed the whole night. I felt guilty because, after I had booked the trip, I read in The Lonely Planet: Myanmar (Burma) that this hotel was owned and run by the military junta; it was the one place Lonely Planet had singled out to avoid. As a tourist, it was hard to get your money past the strangle-holding junta. Any kyat or dollars spent probably went to them, unless you hired a private truck or bought your wares on the street. So far, I was pretty sure the only kyat I’d gotten to the people was to the pushy girl with the bananas.

In the morning we hiked the rest of the way to the Rock. It was more magnificent than it was in the pictures. It’s not always this way with landmarks; I’m just as often let down. But this rock did defy gravity. There was no reason it should be there. Natural laws should have ordered it rolling down the side of the mountain. As much of a miracle, to me, was how men got the gold paint all over the rock, or built a stupa atop, without being the straw on the Rock’s back, or falling off themselves and dying. Maybe men did die doing this. I got as close as I could, but only men were allowed past a certain stretch of rope. Men were touching the rock, pleading and praying. Monks wandered the courtyard asking for alms, their bowls overturned, a few kyat on top.

On the hike down, we passed pairs of monks heading towards the Rock in walking meditation. I didn’t take pictures of them. It felt sacrilegious. I looked forward to getting back on the bus and taking pictures that way. I didn’t care that the other tourists on the bus thought I was doing something fruitless and possibly immature. I illogically hoped the windows had been cleaned, but when we arrived at the bus, I saw that they were grimier. The ride, towards the end, had been a mud-splash.

Before heading back to Rangoon, we did some things that eased my mind. Our tour guide took us to a small town and led us on foot down a dirt road where a woman was weaving longis in her floorless wooden house. The woman did not seem to care that we were there; she kept her eyes on the loom. She pumped her feet on the pedals and braided the strings, her fingers fast as spiders’ legs. Longis are like sarongs, Burmese wear them every day, and I might wear something like this not knowing where it had come from. But seeing it woven, watching the antiquated wooden loom move and listening to its clack, I had to buy two. The longis smelled like mold. I would wash them by hand so the dye wouldn’t run. I knew the money went to the woman weaving. My guide deserved his cut. Afterwards, while other tourists selected longis, I wandered to the street into a small clot of boys and young men. None spoke English, but one spoke Spanish. “How do you speak Spanish?” I asked the boy in Spanish. “Someone came here once who spoke Spanish, and he taught me.” I’d spent ten years in school and two years abroad learning that language. The boy’s tongue baffled me. Our guide, similarly, had never been outside of Burma, and his English might have been better than mine—it was British English.

I took few pictures until I got back on the bus. Then I shot, shot, shot. A man leaning on a motorcycle in a rain-washed mud town. Miles of reeds, willows, cows, buffalo. Eventually, when I got them up on the computer screen, I saw they were blurrier than I’d expected. Some part of my brain had convinced me that the images would be there as I saw them, sharp. 

I showed a selection to a friend Patrick, who was a real photographer. “Why are they blurry?” he asked. He looked longer. He frowned. “Did you take these out a bus window?”

“What if I said it was a filter?” I asked. Technically, it was.

I discovered that I liked the blur in the photographs. I liked the haze. They made the images of Burma dreamy, surreal, which is how it was to me. I liked that the filter was the tourist’s shield. I could even say I’d done it on purpose: the work reflects the tourist’s view of Burma. The countryside looked easy and peaceful to us. Herders and workers lived their daily lives outside our fast-moving machine. What we saw and remembered did not reflect the true Burmese experience, lives lived suffering memories of torture, a sister raped, a son stolen. No. I saw willows.

I had the reasonable suspicion that no one liked these pictures as much as I did. They were blurry—the primary photographic flaw. My pictures were like misspelled poems. Nevertheless, I felt happy when I looked at them, and I submitted them to a few shows. One was taken by a gallery, and a Boston café offered me two walls for two months.

I hung my show on May 2, 2008. I called the series “Burmese Dreams.” The monks, the buffalo, the boys on the truck. My favorite is of a child standing with his hand against a brick wall, looking up at the viewer with a curious alarm. The boy leaned on a sign that said several things in beautiful, curly Burmese, and, in the middle, in English, SHMOL IN POWER. It was a scary mystery to me, this painted scrawl: I’d glimpsed something that may have been sinister without even knowing it.

When I was done hanging, I stood back and admired the evenness of the frames with the hammer in my hand.

The girl at the register said she liked them. Then she asked, with what I took to be respect, a query regarding my artistic vision: “Why are they blurry?” I told the girl my lies, which had become the truth.

The day after I hung the show Cyclone Nargis came at Burma from the South and blasted the Rangoon region, where my bus ride ended. I always thought cyclones belonged in the plains of my country, like in The Wizard of Oz. In many ways Burma is, to me, like The Wizard of Oz, which was Dorothy’s dream. It seems like a place I’ve seen in a movie or read about in a book, some kind of inspired exaggeration.

If you look at the satellite maps of the day it hit, Cyclone Nargis is a lovely swirl over the country of Burma. But on the ground it was mean and brutal. It left over two million hungry and homeless, over one hundred thousand dead. There were a few things that upset me in particular when I heard about Nargis, aside from the obvious. One was that number of children wandering alone in Rangoon looking for their families, how many had been orphaned. Then came the news that the junta was not accepting aid from certain sources, and no aid workers period. They accepted supplies. Many of those supplies they decorated with their own stamp to make the Burmese people think it was their own government’s aid. I started to think about Somoza in Nicaragua after the earthquake razed the capitol in 1972: he took the aid and kept it for himself. He took the blood the Red Cross gave them for the wounded, and sold it. The junta had already done worse things than that, a little genocide here and there.

But still, it was a hazy, distant kind of dread I felt about Burma post-cyclone. For two months I visited this café, which was near my home; as I walked there I meditated on the powers of espresso. I stood in line at the counter and examined baked goods. At some point I would look up, and there it was, neatly organized on the walls: my Burma. Oh, right—Burma. A land far away. 

It dawned on me slowly during the first days of my show that much of what was in my pictures was not there anymore. The cyclone had wasted the landscape. Fishing rafts had been washed away. Trucks stripped of their tarps. Stilts kicked out from under houses. How many people in those pictures must be dead. Most of those people—I know they’re dead.

Maybe the boys on the back of that truck still live. There are miracles, maybe. As far as I’ve heard, the Golden Rock still rests on the lip of the cliff.