Circles of Familiarity

Busy cities can be daunting places and Yangon, or Rangoon as it was formally known, is one busy place.

You can't contemplate it all at once.

It's busy. It's boiling. It's dangerously unkept. It's absolutely filthy.

We're talking crows eating dead rats on the upturned, broken pavements here. We're talking low hanging signs everywhere that you can cut your head open on. We're talking live dangling electricity wires. Men standing at your door with rifles…

Ok, that seemed to be a one off. He said he was “joking”.

I consider it to be like a really difficult ski slope- if you look at all of a street at once you're going to be a jibbering wreck. So, just zone in a bit closer to yourself, focus on just the few metres ahead of you and, traverse by traverse, or step by step: you'll survive. Maybe. Hopefully. Finger's crossed!

So, anyway, you arrive in this city. It's blistering hot. There is noise and traffic everywhere. People block up the pavements walking in every direction. Your rucksack is cutting into your shoulders and it feels like you're going to fall over backwards. You haven't slept on the 10 hour bus. You look like a tramp. You need food, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to wash, to do laundry, somewhere to get water, you want to eventually make a friend, to belong, for someone to know your name … But first and foremost: You. Need. To. Find. Space!

Dark space. Quiet space. Safe space. Space with no one else in it! Somewhere you can just sit and stare at the wall in silence.

Oh and just to add to your difficulties…. you're in a country with a cash only currency and you're at the end of your trip with only $80 and 4 nights 5 days to survive. So, it needs to be cheap space.

When a nice hostel owner offers you what appears to be his storeroom to sleep in, complete with two fold up hospital beds that dip in the middle and possibly two dog blankets, you're actually thrilled.

The view from your window. Smells as good as it looks!

And that's the first circle of familiarity: a small space where you can put your bag down and escape the sun.

After a few hours you extend the circle a bit by finding a supermarket, and suddenly you have food and shelter and now the city isn't just noise and heat and people rushing around: It's a place where you have a little piece of space and amenities.

Gradually, your circle extends to include a restaurant, a street food stall, a bench you like, a road you know and wifi… maybe, in Burma you'll be lucky! And all of a sudden what was off piste unknown is suddenly a more achievable green.

The second day you go to the restaurant the waiter remembers your name. You want to sob uncontrollably with joy in his arms. Somehow, you manage to refrain. He gives you an extra pot of hot water with the 50 cents cup of tea you bought so you can drag it out a bit longer and avoid going back out into the chaos…

By day three you decide it's time to befriend a local, so here's what you do: You put down all forms of electronic gadgets. Yes. Down. No, they don't have wifi. DOWN! Then you turn the corners of your mouth slightly up, unfold your arms and, now for the master part of the plan, you climb onto a local bus. Watch them FLOCK. Within five minutes you'll have “friends” and your circle of familiarity will be that little bit fuller.

And that's how we survived in Yangon.

We just took it one little bit of madness at a time and slowly, calmly, carefully we radiated out our circle of exploration and, suddenly, what was initially daunting and dangerous became, familiar.

Dare I say it, we even started to 'like' Yangon.

More so after we left.

With our $80 each we paid 40 each on accommodation, $10 on a taxi to the airport and the rest on food. This involved some cheap eating and the sampling of some street food. Surely after China our stomachs could handle it?

… And this leads me to explain how I'm going to make my fortune. I'm going to publish a book called: How to half your body weight in one week.

Step 1: Fly to Yangon.

Step 2: Try the street food.

Step 3: Get yourself a sturdy bowl. Wait…

Step 4: Come round a week late half the person you used to be.

The highlight of Yangon was visiting the Rangoon Memorial and Taukkyan War Cemetery. Superbly maintained and a real piece of tranquility. The memorial you can see above bears the names of almost 27,000 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died during campaigns in Burma and who have no known resting place. The cemetery also contains 6,374 graves. In the Lonely Planet it claims that as you walk around them the sun's stifling heat will seem cooler and the intense noise from the traffic, quieter. I was initially doubtful, but both did. Reading the messages on the gravestones was incredibly sad and we spent several hours doing so.

The bus journey there and back was hugely entertaining. With traffic that bad; when the buses get going, they're not stopping! People are dragged on or pushed off… elderly monks, women in high heels, children… literally thrown off at their stops. There's a man employed to stand at the door and hurl you out. The buses also drive at 60 miles an hour with the doors open. My eyelids turned inside out.

He may look sweet...

Someone in the process of alighting...

It was a city that signified the end of Asia for us. It was filled with inventiveness, noise, traffic and poor hygiene. It was the filthiest place we've been. A city forgotten by its government, it's name has been changed, it's capital status renounced, it's colonial buildings left in ruins: but it's still going strong. Burmese people continue to be friendly and kind even in a difficult and exhausting environment.

It grew on us.

But we're not going back.

God no.

Graffiti: How much land does a man need?


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