Friday, January 25, 2013

Reporters, girls and Facebook - Rangoon, Burma

Another photo by my friend IZ
It's almost dinner time, We've been in Burma for few days and we haven't got tired of exploring and be surprised, even if only by a heap of trash on a riverbank. This is true for food as well. So far we've tested the probability to get food poisoning by always trying a different place and for tonight's dinner we've already narrowed down our choices to a couple of burmese-indian restaurants. We had a late lunch though, and we also ate some cookies at tea time: we still haven't got enough appetite to fully enjoy our meal. We stop for a beer at a fancy (for Burmese standards) pub: Japanese name, menu in English, international cuisine, rich local customers and some expats. 
We've almost finished our beers and we're about to leave when my friend IZ and a Burmese guy sitting in front of us - both equipped with professional cameras - look at, observe, understand each other and then start a conversation. For a while they only talk about photography. I listen to them in reverent silence. Then they switch to general topics, I get hold of the rope dangling from their hot-air ballon, I let myself be lifted up and soon catch up with them. The Burmese guy is a photo reporter who works for a local English language paper.
For about an hour he answers the questions that we tactfully ask him, explaining us that as a consequence of the last year reforms the press is now basically free. While a couple of years back every article had to be submitted to the filter of the government censors it can now be directly published, if the editor wants to. The professional market hasn't reached excellence level yet: if a 2000 USD/day top gun wants to work here he has to accept a much lower wage or he'll have to change country. Overall though, there are some outstanding photographers who choose this place because they are fond of it or for the great interest it is raising after the recent reform plan. 
When he asks us what we do for a living IZ is not very keen on telling him that he works as a TV cameraman: for decades foreigners who have media related jobs and just want to visit the country have been advised not to mention their real occupation in their visa application forms. International media representatives have never been too welcome in a place where dictators have based their grip on power on a tough control of the information flowing into and out of the country. The Burmese guy tells us that we shouldn't worry about that anymore. Visas are granted to pretty much everybody now. Even one of the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand) chiefs, who has been on the government black list for years, has been recently allowed to visit the country. Most likely nowadays the secret service can't even be bothered to put a tail on potential busybodies. The reporter himself still remembers when he used to hang around the city with a camera just for practice and he kept meeting the same fishy passerby at every corner. Bygone times, according to him. Actually, judging from the little we have read, it seems to me that everyone is still very wary of what they are publishing, as if from government controlled the national press had become self-censored, but I hope that his optimism will prove to be well founded.
We switch to another interesting topic: Rangoon's colonial architectural heritage. For three days we have been walking along the city's sidewalks looking up like two idiots, enchanted by a window, a ledge or some decorations on a wonderful building whose layers of grit flutter like pashmina veils and the cracks on the plaster are like fascinating scars. "Like you, I also thought that this was all the colonial heritage we had, then I went to some faraway and unknown little towns for work and I found some jewels that are comparable with places like Malacca, in Malaysia (Malacca's city center, a mix of Portuguese, Dutch, English architecture, Chinese buildings and religious places is nowadays a spotless Unesco Heritage site).
We order another beer and we give up our gastronomic tour for a night, contenting ourselves with some ordinary noodles in order to listen to what the reporter has to add. Unfortunately for us though, as he already mentioned earlier, Burma is also developing fast: satellite television, mobile phones and internet connections can be found anywhere in town. The girl he has been courting for weeks has finally answered his latest message on Facebook. He gets stuck to his smartphone like a soldier in a trench might do with the picture of the lady who is waiting for him at home. He will stop using it only to let us know that he would like to talk to her in person but this is all he can get from her for the time being. "I know, it's not romantic, but…"
We finish our noodles and beers and take our leave. Had we known what would have happened we could have gone to eat somewhere else, something tastier, cheaper and - judging by the hygiene of the kitchen that we have to walk through to go to the bathroom - endowed with the same capability to get us stuck to a toilet bowl for a couple of days. However, long time ago Hemingway taught me that when a marlin is biting you do all you can to take it to the shore, even if you know that the other fishes will eat it, leaving you with a bare shiny bone. 
Besides, in only one day we had a chance to talk to a young Burmese photo reporter and a retired globe trotting American correspondent who promised to travel until the day he dies…our fishing trip could have been worse than that. 

PS Have you had a close look at that picture? Peace inspired title and a photo of two artillery men shooting a mortar right below it...

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