Running in the Breeding Grounds of Yangon

The weather forecast is for a hot day. That’s the forecast every day in Yangon. My own forecast – it’s hot now at 8.00 am, it will be hotter soon: if I am going to run today I should leave now.
I take a taxi to the park. Were I hungrier for inhaled hydrocarbons I’d run there, but I’ve already breathed enough smog to create a decent cancer.
Yangon boasts the largest city park in the known world. I do like to boast that I have run around the largest park in the known world: in Vancouver I ran around the world’s biggest, then in Bristol I did the same on the Downs.
But this beauty might just be the real thing. I can’t see its further end. Its jewel is the lake, a lime green affair that stretches further than my eyes or legs can follow.
The world’s longest boardwalk is a joy, bouncy and springy underfoot, launching my every next step upward and onward – and backwards in time to when running fast was effortless. Zooming around the lake, I find myself running parallel and close to the shore, close enough to feel like a voyeur as I pass numerous courting couples. The young people, engaged discreetly in the business at hand, hear my footfalls and look up in surprise. I keep my eyes on the winding boardwalk which flings me around bend after bend. At every turn I disturb another couple’s progress.

The shoreline is ringed by tall trees and shrubbery. Between the botanical specimens the park’s designers have placed benches large enough for two adults to recline, one beneath the other. The plantings afford privacy which the occupants appear to enjoy and take for granted. So when an old foreign mountain goat speeds into their breeding grounds, the locals are surprised. The consternation is mutual and thankfully brief.
After a time the boardwalk deserts the shore and heads off into open waters. The circumambient lime-green is the colour of too much life, of a watery milieu where plant growth is phenomenally fast and rotting keeps pace. The confectionary colour makes me slightly uneasy: I’m not anxious to take a dip in it.
Abruptly that becomes a real prospect as the boardwalk comes to a fullstop. I jam on the brakes and retrace my bouncing steps. Once again I disturb the courting couples, who, I cannot help noticing, are making good progress.
It reminds me of Buenos Aires, city of the long slow kiss. Another town where the poor are many and libidinous and strong urges find no indoor accommodation.
I leave the lake and head deep inland. Atop a rise I come to a large emerald of lawn. Eight slim men, bare chested, wearing longhis, trim the grass, each wielding sort of scythe, a linear metal blade about a metre long, with which they shave the green. Labour must be cheap: the area they ‘mow’ is about the size of a doubles tennis court. Hot work on a hot day, their bronze bellies shine in the sun.

***

I’d like to have a longhi. Which man wouldn’t?
I enquire and the smiling men of the mowing brigade direct me to the market. Happily I get lost many times: lost among the strong-smelling smoked fish sellers, lost among the fruit vendors, lost in the laneways clustered with jade merchants, lost among the corn on the cobmen, the hot food stallholders, the fabric traders, the toysellers, the tobacco factors, the beggars, the amputees, the gleaming smiles of white, the grins that drip red with betel juice.
At last I ask: longhi? – indicating my below waist area. More smiles on every side. The word goes around, people point and smile and tell their neighbour about the old foreigner who points to his privates.
A kindly soul – they all seem kindly – taps my shoulder, points to the shop directly behind me and nods: longhi, longhi.
The shop is narrow, but easily wide enough for the four or five – they come and they go, so the count is fluid – four or five fetching females who attend to me. They show me bolts of fabric, all smartly pattered cotton affairs. I choose the two lariest fabrics. The four or five fit me with my longhi. I leave, beaming, a prince among princes, splendid in my longhi in Yangon.

Done Because We Are Too Menny

I think maybe we are done; humans I mean.

I am a baby boomer. My generation is used to the success of antibiotics. We contracted tonsillitis, we saw the doctor and he – it was almost always a he – prescribed penicillin and we recovered quickly. We didn’t develop a strep pneumonia, we seldom developed a post-strep kidney disease or heart disease.

Same story with ear infections: penicillin cured them.

We had an ear abscess, we had antibiotics and we won.

That might have been our first mistake.

We used them so often and so promiscuously they stopped working. How long is it since penicillin – plain, old fashioned, shot-in-the-bum , narrow spectrum penicillin – worked for an ear infection?

Yonx.

Because we killed off the susceptible ear infecting germs and bred resistant ones.

Those days of successful antibiosis are going. In fact they have probably gone.

My generation never saw siblings dying from whooping cough or double pneumonia. Parents gave birth to a litter and raised the full complement to adulthood.

That might have been a second mistake: we enjoyed the survival of the second-fittest.

My grandparents’ generation – growing up in the nineteenth century – lost numerous siblings to infections. It was natural. It was not unexpected.

That was the way in the battle between germs and humans through all history. All too often, the germs won. It must have been unbearably sad.

In the ‘seventies we were visited by herpes. For a while herpes won: we said herpes is forever . Then came acyclovir, also known as Zovirax. Herpes skulked off with its tail between its legs – our legs, actually.

In the ‘eighties we were visited by AIDS: incurable by definition. But bugger me (and that might have been how some of us contracted it), anti-retrovirals slowed the virus, survival lengthened and now the disease is a disease, but not universally a death sentence.

Horrible horrible hep-C is in retreat too.

So much (and so little) for the immortal killer viruses.

Meanwhile bacteria are doing better. Go to hospital nowadays for surgery and there is a good chance you’ll emerge with a multi-resistant resistant staph. All the perfumes of Arabia, all the antibiotics of Big Pharma won’t touch those staph.

Go to Asia for traditional sex tourism and there’s a good chance the gonorrhoea you bring back will resist all my antibiotics.

We have had our successes. We have seen off smallpox. The only copies of this germ live in research and germ warfare labs. Humans have it in our power to extinguish the smallpox germ utterly. The germ that killed many many more Australian Aborigines than shooting and starving blackfellas is abolishable. And replaceable. Whenever we change one population we affect another. Take antibiotics for your sore sinuses today and your vagina catches fire with thrush tomorrow.

I happen to be a human. I am on the side of humans in this epochal struggle. But nature does not seem to take sides: she seems to love the earthworm, the spider and the king brown snake precisely as much as she loves the species that gave rise to Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King and the Beatles.

Nature, unlike the writer, is not sentimental. She wishes species to survive. She loves us all equally. So fondly does nature love the plasmodium (I refer to the parasite responsible for malaria, still the greatest killer of humans), that she raises the temperature of the infected human to a maximum in the evening, at just the time that mosquitoes take their evening meal. The anopheles aegyptii drink the infected blood that superheats the human skin.  Frequently the infected person expires, but such is the grace of nature, the plasmodium species survives such deaths and is transmitted by the mozzie into the next human it stings.

(If you read any of the works of plasmodial theology, you will understand that their god created humans and mosquitos alike as expendable vectors for the plasmodium, which was created in the image of that god.)

It is possible that nature – implacably fair, resolutely unsentimental, big picture regarding nature – having observed the humans that have bred so successfully that we overrun the earth, has decided that she must reduce our numbers.

Perhaps we humans, like the boy in Jude the Obscure, are done because we are too menny.

Sorry.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 30 January, 2013.

(Of course, if I truly anticipated the imminent eclipse of my species, would I claim copyright?)

The title is a quote from Jude the Obscure, a deeply depressing book by Thomas Hardy. Only go to Hardy if my little article has failed to spoil your life or your day. My piece is cheerful in comparison.