I arrive red-eyed. By the time I leave after only 36 hours here, I’ll still be jetlagged. Sensations are heightened at times, at others attenuated. Energy comes in uncertain surges, sleep arrives in waves, deep and short like a choppy surf.
As we passengers file from the aircraft into the terminal building a panoply of comic opera Military appears, variously uniformed. One bunch wears jackets of magenta and orange, a vivid combination. Armed with the Lonely Planet guide to Burma I gather Authority in this country is no joking matter.
The pink and orange boys wear serious expressions and serious firearms. One of these fellows watches humourlessly over the shoulder of each of the lady officials in Immigration.
My immigration lady has a moustache and no syllables to spare for conversation. I do not lighten her day with my jokes.
Outside the terminal an informal looking character beckons. He grabs my suitcase and leads me towards a ramshackle Japanese vehicle held together by desperation. My driver smokes through the half-hour drive to my hotel. His smoke of choice is Red Ruby. Lest he run out he keeps three reserve packs, unopened, on the sill of his dashboard. The vehicle smokes too. This is Cuba revisited, sanctions country, a land where the motor vehicle is forbidden to die.
The road from the airport has many lanes, each a stream of cars of a similar character. We come to a stop where streams meet and merge. The pavements flow with Burmese people, uniformly slim, delicately slim.
Topeed traffic police stand and semaphore the traffic from their small circular islets of cement. Theirs is an improbable serpentine beauty. Everyone is thin: do the Burmese have enough to eat? Or do they simply lack western junk food?
But the armed traffic cop who sits wide-arsed on his motor bike is a fat man. Eager to read an entire society from these early signs, I decide: In Myanmar if a man is fat man, he is a boss, ergo corrupt.
At a distance of a hundred meters I decide to dislike the fat cop.
While our stream sits becalmed, awaiting the signal from the brave traffic policeman in the white helmet, pedestrians at all sides flow fast onto the roadway towards us, striding purposefully, carrying books for sale. The books are all the same: the fine features of Aung San Suu Kyi gaze earnestly from the covers. The booksellers show no fear of milling cars or officers of the Law. The police pay no heed to the book trade.
We pass a number of golden pagodas that turn out to be one, seen vertiginously from a number of angles: this is the Great Shwedagon Pagoda. My driver says it is 6000 years old. (The spoilsports at Lonely Planet reckon it’s a mere 2500 years old, frequently remodeled, with the present incarnation dating from the 19th century.)
We arrive at my hotel and I pay the driver the derisory pittance he names. No extra charge for the gift of passive smoke.
I drop my luggage at my hotel. I have but one plan and objective in Myanmar, which is to meet the remaining eighteen Jews of Yangon.
I show the concierge the address of the Synagogue. He says it is not many miles away. One could walk.
Outside the front of the hotel I am greeted by heat and noise and bustle. And a young lady. Energy drains away. The young lady, clad in a demure suit of bodyclinging white and wearing a sort of cloth helmet with gorgeous stripes, smiles. Hers is the first of the many smiles of my 36 Yangon hours and one of the best. Would I like a taxi?
Yes, I suppose I would. No rush; I’d like to bask in the sunshine of that smile for a while.
Smiling lady procures a cab, converses with the driver, negotiates, reaches agreement. She instructs me firmly not to pay more than the stated eight dollars. The local currency is kyat, pronounced ‘chat’. The rate of exchange is inscrutable so in every transaction I allow myself to be screwed gracefully. These likable people have less than I and they ask very little.
The ride to the synagogue along sinuous ways is an inching progress and all the better for the intimate closeness to the man in the street – and the woman and the child and the beggar and the cripple – all pushing, pulling, carrying, selling, cooking, eating, feeding, begging.
We arrive at number 85, 26th Street, near Mahabandoolah Road. The driver smiles. His open mouth is a blood-red bath. His intoxicant is not Red Ruby but betel nut. Did I say blood-red? Thinner than blood, more vivid than blood, truly scarlet, the betel juice flows and splashes with the driver’s speech and smile. After decades of distant acquaintance from the printed page, betel in the flesh startles.
The Mosea Yeshua Synagogue is a bright white place in the Bhagdadi style, built to capture light. The trustee, one of the eighteen, expects me. He is a slim man, fine boned, his face a map of smile lines, his skin varnished. Gravely courteous, elegant in his pressed longhi and a very white shirt, he might be in his late fifties.
He speaks English softly, his vowels betraying the play of a number of languages behind his words.
I ask my artless questions of admiration and sentimental prejudgement but the replies slide past my understanding; my informant suffers from a serious affliction of his larynx, a poignant disability in the one person who might tell the story of the place that he embodies.
With quiet pride, he shows me photographs of an extraordinary congregational past; a Torah scroll, its parchment nut-brown; the entire house pristine, flooded in white and silence.
I came with hopes for conversations that would unveil touching details of flight, exile and faith among the remaining sons and daughters of the Jews of Mesopotamia. My hopes fade with the damaged voice of my informant.
When I ask to meet his fellow congregants, he replies opaquely. I never meet any.
Back at my hotel after my Synagogue visit, deflated, absurd, I am not myself. I need sleep.
But first a shower.
The water is clean, the soap lathers. Quickly I am restored. I look outside. Broad daylight, not sleeping time.
Seven storeys below my window the traffic races around a bend. At the corner a slim woman sells papers from her makeshift newspaper stand. While she is engaged in a sale I sight a minute child in pink running from behind the woman towards the kerb, towards the rushing traffic. From my glassed-in vantage I shout a warning.
No-one would hear.
The child toddles on.
She is almost at the kerb when her mother wheels without haste, intercepts her daughter, scoops her up and embraces her.
Mother removes the child’s shift, lies her prone across her lap, and slides her hands up and down the slender back. The slow ballet of skin on skin continues for a good time.
Massage completed, mother dresses her child again and releases her to attend to a customer. Once again the roadway pulls the child, once again the child responds. Mother busily counts change.
My fingers work frantically at the window latch, but it will not open.
No sound from below as mother arrests her child at the kerb.
The newspaper vendor now sits and brushes the little girl’s hair. The child acquiesces, her hair falls in rich showers of black from the strokes of the busy brush.
Another customer. Mother sets her child upon a low stool and makes her sale.
She takes her child onto her knee, brushes again for a while, before securing the hair with ribbons of pink.
In addition to the outdoor newsagency the footpath is a restaurant. Clusters of people take their breakfast on low stools at the kerbside while others, squatting, cook in woks on spirit stoves. Are these family groups or are they customers? I cannot tell.
Meanwhile mother – mother of my child – prepares a meal in her own right. I see her feed the child something that might be noodles. The child sits on her mother’s knee, opening, accepting mouthfuls, while mother feeds and keeps her eye open for passing trade.
I gaze down from my eyrie, a grandfather empty of his young. I came to Yangon seeking one thing: this eluded me. In its place a mother and her child absorb me, urgently.
I discover I am not sleepy.
I decide to buy a newspaper.
Standing at the busy, busy street, I calculate the odds of a safe crossing. At length a break lets me through.
At the newsstand the mother cradles her child, curious about the old foreigner who peruses her papers and magazines.
In actuality I am simply enjoying the company. Mother’s cheeks are largely concealed by discs of the ubiquitous yellow-pink makeup. Smaller circles of the same cake the face of the little girl.
I am charmed.
Close up she has chicken limbs. Her face, a little too big for her body, is fullest in her cheeks, which are ripe apricots. She looks about 18 months of age. About the same as my newest grandchild.
Pretending it matters, I indicate the papers and magazines and ask: English?
A raised eyebrow.
The lady is sorry. She shakes her head.
I am not sorry. I don’t care for the papers: these two are all the news that interests me. My purchase is a pretext, a means to allow me to thank them. I select a newspaper with its exotic typeface.
I pass a banknote in US currency.
The lady indicates she cannot change the 50 dollar bill.
I place it in her palm and close her hand around it.
Time to change the subject: I show her my camera; would she object if I take a photo of her child?
She is delighted.
I take a few snaps as mother looks on and beams. Beneath the discs of yellow-pink cake, her cheeks colour deeply.