Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Myitkyina: Way North of Mandalay

I am in a so-called first class car in a funky, rattle-y train, chugging north out of Mandalay on my way to spend a week in Myitkyina in the state of Kachin in northern Myanmar.
I’m sitting in a single, hard seat with a small table, facing a man in a similar seat.
I’m facing forward, at least. I don’t like riding backwards on a forward moving vehicle.
It’s night. I can’t see, what must be beautiful scenery outside the window. However, I can see the beautiful life in the train car. I can see the family with small children playing quiet games across the aisle. The aisles are filled, filled with boxes and bundles and small trunks. An old man is stretched out on some of the boxes…a colorful textile covers him.
Two refined women sit talking and sewing and eating food. One of them offers me an orange. “Thank you, I say…”Chay-su-tim-bah deh”
Someone coughs, someone snores, someone whispers, someone laughs…Every now and then an orange robed wizened Monk passes through our compartment. We make donations. He asks me, “Hallew, Where you fron?” “United States” Oh veddy good, America…” He smiles. His face crinkles with joy. He tells the other passengers. More faces smile at me.
I am the only foreigner in the train car and I am in my element---“out of context.” I am a fellow traveler—in so many meanings of the phrase. I am on my way to rendezvous with my Burmese “Sister Friend” and her husband. We will be staying at the home of her
Boarding school roommate from long ago. It is the week of Kachin State Day and there is to be a big festival. I am excited and curious…
Several very hip, western-dressed Kachin teenage girls meet me at the station. They have returned for the festivities from their various schools and jobs in other parts of the country and abroad. Hundreds of Kachin people are returning to Myitkyina from their jobs and homes in Thailand, China, India, Korea to participate in the big 60 year anniversary Manau. A Manau is a sacred festival composed of animal sacrifices, dancing, singing, drinking…I’m up for it all.
The teenagers lead me to a big comfortable SUV. We pile in and are driven to the home of my hostess. It’s a large compound composed of three buildings: a mansion; a sleeping house and a cooking/eating house. I meet my friends U Tin Win and his wife Sanda (my sister-friend) and I am introduced to the Matron of the House, a truly regal woman. She is dressed in a shimmering longyi, a royal blue silk blouse and a golden brocade shawl. She is richly bejeweled with rubies and diamonds and gold and emeralds everywhere that one could bedeck oneself in jewels. Her smile is warm. She embraces me. We have no common language---beyond my few Burmese sentences. Her first language is Kachin. Through Sanda, our girlfriend-in-common, I am urged to get ready…we are going to Chetch. I quickly change from my train attire into a plain longyi and simple top. I don’t know where Chetch is or how far away or what we will be doing there but I am prepared to be astonished. The whole household is alive with preparations for the trip to Chetch. But wait…we’re not getting in cars…We’re walking…All the way to Chetch!?
In a minute, I realize that we’re going to church. Myitkyina is a Christian city---as is most of Kachin State. It is the Kachin New Year’s Day---something I had not read in my guide book. Because the church would not be big enough for everyone on this special day, a giant tent has been erected. It’s quite wonderful. There are hundreds and hundreds of people gathering. Everyone is friendly and I am introduced again and again. I am sitting on the second row with some relatives of my hostess who is on the first row. People practically bow to her. I am given a Kachin/English prayer book and hymnal and I can follow along because the Kachin people use our alphabet---not the mysterious and beautiful circles and curves that make up the Burmese alphabet.
The whole small city is a celebration.
This first night there is a musical stage presentation with act after act after act. Each new performer is presented with multiple bouquets of flowers. There is food and more food. The large pavilion is hung with scores of wonderful paintings. There is an abundance of local rice wine. Each of the four or five nights of the Manau there is a banquet honoring the food and culture of one of the neighboring countries where many Kachin now live: China, Thailand, India…and more entertainment. It’s remarkable. In Myitkyina, it seems that everyone can sing. And every night my hostess is in a more beautiful ensemble---always with rubies and other jewels.
And every day, everywhere we go, I am asked if I will be dancing at the Manau. Well, yes. I love to dance.
The day of the dance my two sister friends and some other women dress me. I’m wearing a Kachin tribe longyi, a black velvet jacket covered with real silver discs and small bangles. I have a woven belt and my head is wrapped in a special woven scarf. The women wind and re-wind the scarf until it is just right. They put some make-up on me. Throughout the compound there is the excitement of preparing for the dance.

…We arrive at the pavilion. It’s as big as a football field. The surrounding area is filled with people in native costumes: distinctive colors and patterns, specific head dresses. Now…I think there will be music and we will all dance in our own dance styles. Nooooo.
It’s like this: there is—in the middle of the vast dance pavilion---a cluster of big drums, BIG drums…and in a single line, upwards of a thousand people snake around, following a leader with a giant head dress.. There is a specific step and a specific way to move your arms and everyone holds something in their hands. The women in our clan are holding fans…and we follow with our certain step and with our arms moving in a certain hypnotic, rhythmic motion; pah, pah, pah, pah…thousands…and the way the line snakes, one is always passing someone going in the opposite direction…new faces, new costumes, new smiles…pah, pah pah, pah…and I am the only non-Kachin dancing. On the sidelines are some travel photographers and a few western-looking spectators…But I am a Kachin, pah,pah,pah, pah…and I am dancing…and I am so perfectly happy and the drums are inside of me and I am holding my fans and moving in just the right way, and I am following, following the friendly Kachin woman in front of me, in step—out of context--smiling…and there is nothing but wonder and goodness and community…there is no war, no poverty, no evil whatsoever…there are no boundaries, there are no strangers, no worries, no sadness, no loneliness…only the drums and the smiles…and I am safe and at peace with the world…

1 comment:

  1. Kachin by marriage, I appreciate your report on the Manau in Myitkyina. My wife, daughter and I danced in the Manau at Ban Mai Samakki, near Chiang Dao and the Burma border in Thailand in November.
    As young photographer at DTHS in 1959-1960, I went to Philadelphia and the art museum almost every week.
    I'm pleased to see your Burma-Myanmar postings. As a journalist in Bangkok I'm employed by a Thai government-owned media group, MCOT, and consequently have not been allowed a visa to Myanmar in six years.
    I look forward to following your blog, and hope to meet you if you come to Bangkok again.