29 November 15 – Sunday – DAY TWENTY-THREE
It will be one of those long hallucinatory days that never ends – due to the International Date Line. You may remember how this worked on the way over – it’s hours and hours of staying immobile, being somewhat infantilized. It is very disorienting – the clock spins the wrong way when you cross the Date Line, and you don’t really know how many hours you are actually in the air, but it’s way more than you think. You can look forward to it or not, but it doesn’t much matter. It is terrible and comforting at the same time.
At one time in my medical history I took Haldol, and I liken airline travel to a good dose of this powerful tranquilizer. Every emotion is clipped at the top, like an audio limiter on your feelings. You act like a machine.
Sean was apparently up all night packing and repacking; carefully taking a single item out, placing it in another case, removing a similar item, and placing that the first case. As far as anyone can tell, this affects nothing in the long run. But he kept Minshi up all night doing it – and after spending a few hours snoring too loud he got up to do it once again for another hour or so. So Minshi is wrecked.
At the airport we are stopped for trying to take our camera aboard. The cases are too heavy. These are the same cases that we were able to bring over fairly easily as carry-ons. Now they want us to check them in despite the fact that they are full of sensitive equipment. I let them take the sound case – there’s nothing that delicate in there. We wonder if we’re going to end up bribing them again. But no, they simply insist – once again – on packing Lithium Ion batteries in the luggage. We make one case lighter by removing all the hard drives and packing them in our personal items. These are not weighed for some reason. So we simply shuffle things around, Sean-style, and end up not really reducing the weight that is carried aboard the cabin. Useless.
After a few queues for x-ray, immigration, and x-ray again (why do they do it twice?) we’re in the terminal, waiting for the flight to be called. Minshi and Sean are on their precious wifi again – not sure what they’re checking all the time. Sean, particularly, is busy with both his phone and iPad out, a pair of over-the-ear headphones fitted snugly to his skull, grim expression on his face. All business.
In the air, en route to Taiwan, I see an American movie playing on the plane. The plane is one of those old 737s with the flip-down screens that show only one movie to the whole vehicle. I cannot hear the sound. But the acting is unbearable. It’s all tears and fake expressions, 20-nothing actors overdoing it. They’re rolling their eyes, sarcastic, faux-sophisticated, bored with life and clutching their phones like security blankets. What a stark contrast to the people I’ve seen and met in the last three weeks – none of that US snarkiness, that total insecurity. I’ve hated that precocious weltschmerz since I was a kid and now it occurs to me that the worst purveyors of that fake ennui are the sons and daughters of rich TV and film executives who have been making my entertainment for my whole life.
None of the kids I knew when I was growing up were like the ones portrayed on TV. None of the kids I just met in Myanmar had that sense about them. But the worst part is the cheap theatricality of this crappy movie. I dunno, I worry that the language barrier could cause Gavin’s movie to be filled with flat, bad performances. But at least it will not be these phony American performances. We’re hoping for Bresson-style understatement. But these petulant teens in this movie are positively nauseating. Which is worse, that they are allowed to act like that or that this heavily stylized and thoroughly fake treatment is accepted?
When we land at Taipei we have a seven hour layover. So we all get in a taxi and drive 30 minutes to the night market, with a bedraggled but still generous and good-natured Minshi as our host. He’s slept some on the plane, and knowing he is home at last has lifted his mood considerably. The last thing we will do with him is play, as it should be.
Night markets are always fun, and this one is particularly good as it was a neighborhood affair, not a touristy place. We ate our fill of street treats and gawked at the hawkers.
We ate such atrocities, like pork blood cake, which was quite good. Fish balls, sausages, taro and fried chicken – we skipped the intestine soup and the live snake the blood of which we could have drunk.
We end by eating rose apples at a local Guardian Temple – a nice way to end the evening, and say goodbye to Minshi – for who knows how long this time? We give him the rest of our Taiwanese currency – and hope it’s enough to get him home in a taxi.
No hassles getting back into the airport and only a minor wait in line before boarding.
While waiting for the plane I start talking to Jennifer about Burmese politics. What’s next for the country? As we know, Burma is incredibly old and has centuries of recorded history. The part that interests us most begins in the 19th century, when Burma becomes a colony of the British Empire. The Anglo-Burmese wars go on for about 60 years before the British finally take the region. They reign for about 40-50 years maximum until the Japanese aggressions during World War II. Burma suffers under Japanese rule until General Aung San drives them out. Thus the hero of the war, Aung San, is considered the father of Burmese independence. Before he can become the leader, though, he is assassinated. His title, “Bogyoke” is the same one used by the market in Yangon. It was renamed in his honor.
The new Burmese government lasts about 20 years before the current military junta takes over in 1962. Aung San was a communist, thus the “new” government maintains the fiction of communism (reflected in propaganda materials taught in schools, of course, but little else) while actually being just a totalitarian government. It’s during this time that there are the famous Rangoon University riots (Rangoon is no called Yangon). It’s at one of these demonstrations that Eric attends a rousing speech in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda and the military suppress the activity by opening fire. Hundreds are killed, including Eric’s friends. He’s not even that political.
Knowing that they’ll be after him at some point, since they killed all his buddies, Eric decides to leave the country. He runs to a nearby hospital, disguises himself in the confusion after the massacre, and prepares to leave the country. This also means leaving behind his family and the family fortunes in Pyin Oo Lwin. He was, in effect, disowning himself. To this day he has wealthy family members in Burma who inherited the money and property. Eric has been cut out of all that.
He walks to Thailand, where he lives for about a dozen years. This is all before Gavin is even born.
When Aung San Suu Kyii, the daughter of General Aung San, comes of age she spearheads not only the NLD, the National League for Democracy, but a nonviolent movement culminating in what’s known as the “888 Uprising.” For her own rousing speeches in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda she is arrested. For years. She is kept in her home, which is in the middle of a lake, and difficult to get in or out of. She is finally released in 2010. It’s 2015 when we visit. In the ensuing 3 years Aung San Suu Kyii finds herself the titular head of a government but unable to wield any power. The generals continue to wage ethnic war around the country.
But in the 2015 election the NLD was overwhelmingly victorious. Why has the regining military party allowed an election at all? They’ve had elections before in which the NLD swept the polls, and they declared that one null and void. No one gave up their seats. Why now? This is an election they could not possibly win. And when they did they did not really vacate their positions. That “military man” is still running the show.
I asked Jennifer – what of the Green Party – the military? Certainly they do not want to give up power – how could they? Jennifer said that the days before and immediately after the election Yangon (which she still calls Rangoon) was silent. Little traffic on the streets, few dared go out. The people have spoken, but now what? Well, the world is watching. Obama was just in Myanmar in 2015 and he’s coming back soon. With our current joke of a president we can expect no help from the US as our leader struggles to find his own ass on a map.
Even Aung San Suu Kyii is telling her NLD party to go slow. Maybe Thiha’s dreams of a better Burma – with industry, education, and wealth of their own – is possible, but its looking grim. Jennifer opened and closed her discussion with the ultimate gesture of surrender to time and events. Fingers crossed.
We board. On the plane this big dumb American blowhard bastard (not me, some other guy) is chatting up the tiny Asian woman next to him. He must be going through every detail of his damn trip to Cambodia, complete with pics on his laptop. God, this guy loves talking about himself, and he loves lecturing her even more. I so hate Americans most of the time – I have missed many things about the U.S. but this guy is not any of them.
The guy on my left is sticking his elbow on my side – he seems unable to keep his body parts in his seat. Now he’s eating the airline meal I declined (the night market food is still carrying me over) so I’ll cut him some slack for elbow movement, but even when not navigating a tiny fork and knife over a lilliputian box of food he seems to rest with hands clasped in his belly, just ramming those elbows out in either direction like he owns the place. He’s watching that Aronofsky abomination “Noah” with keen interest as well. I’ll let him eat in peace because it’s really hard to do that on a plane. But I’ll not be able sleep with someone else poking my kidney the entire way back. So far, not such a good flight.
Holy Cats, now the big dumb American oaf is telling that poor beleaguered woman about his online dating experiences. he just can’t find that special someone. Kill him, please. he is making the moves on her and he has hours to do it – she is trapped. But slowly, surely, and after I endure a couple hours of tortured sleep waiting for him to shut up, the soporific effects of transcontinental flight work on him, too. He finally sleeps, as do we all, a flying mausoleum of half-alive people. The “rest” you get on such flights is a real laugh – shallow sleep, back wrecked, fitful moments of REM in there maybe. You wake with neck and shoulders cramped, dehydrated, mouth feeling like a sponge.
But it’s also a kind of purification ritual. With the cheerful assistance of flight attendants – your spirit guides – you spend half a day largely immobile, fairly quiet (unless you are the Cambodia-loving white guy) and in a state of half consciousness, either because you are binge-watching the idiot screen placed so close to your face or wrestling with the powerful but fairly distracted servants of Morpheus, who strike you down from clarity and attention, but don’t seem to finish the job. It’s a trip down the River Lethe, but the fever dream version. How flight attendants do it is supernatural.
The plane lands easily and we stroll through the various checkpoints and customs officials. One such, Mr. “C.” at LAX (name obscured to protect the innocent), is quite confused by us. We have so many cases, and what were we doing over there? Our usual answers (we are photographers, amateur, but serious) only serve to befuddle him. Who is with who? Who owns this stuff? What is it? But we answer his questions to his satisfaction eventually, and we skate through.
I am given to understand that in many cases one wants to prepare a proper “carnet” for such a trip. A carnet is also called a “Merchandise Passport.” One prepares (and undoubtedly pays a tidy sum for) the carnet so that one can pass through multiple airports in various countries and not have to declare equipment or ask questions like we did with Mr “C.” It is the correct way to do things. So, naturally, we did not do it.
The crew waits curbside for Cecilia’s dad to arrive with his van. It appears we’ve done it – we’ve made a film in Myanmar. I ride on the van floor, munching a spam roll that Cecilia’s mom sent for us. She knew we would be hungry. We speed back downtown, and Los Angeles has never been so foreign, so welcome.
At home we drag the cases to the Demon House (a garage at the end of our property – Cecilia’s Mom finds it scary and named it “tokebi jip” a long time ago). We find our cats exceedingly healthy – Lulu has gotten fat and Zero seems better than usual.
And despite my day of sleeping on the plane, I’m still tired, still have a cough, and smell terrible from not bathing and sweating with all those cases.
I never thought we wouldn’t do it, but I could not imagine us having done it. With 17 to 20 TB in the can we have shot a feature in Myanmar for under $70,000. And that includes our equipment purchase. But I do not feel triumphant. I only feel the regular “post ARTum” after such an ordeal and the vague trepidation about getting back to my regular life.
Which starts now…