Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Belated RIP to Par Par Lay, Moustache Brother #1.

Belated RIP to Par Par Lay, Moustache Brother #1.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to see this incredible political comedy act with all of the original Moustache Brothers.

Here's the obituary from the Democratic Voice of Burma:


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

City of Asylum on Stage!

In case you were wondering how the show at the University of Pittsburgh turned out, here's a review from the Coal Hill Review!


Friday, January 4, 2013


If you haven't guessed already, we are in the LAND OF TEMPLES!  Holy Cow!  (Or should I say, holy dragons, guinea pigs, clown birds, elephants, and snakes!)  
That is me next to a guinea pig and an elephant, figures from the Burmese Buddhist horoscope (I'm a dragon)

We haven't quite reached the point where they are all starting to run together,  but we have certainly reached the point that you all should be seeing some of these amazing pictures.  Yesterday I was trying to imagine whether or not we have equivalent monuments in the United States, and I think we came to the conclusion that there are absolutely no grounds for comparison.

Cobra Dragon outside of Botataung Paya, Yangon

Each temple is lavish in its own way and each has its own specific rituals.  Yesterday we were in a small group with a some Thai tourists, and our tour guide made sure to point out the kinds of things that he thought would please Thai tourists.  As American (and not Southeast Asian Buddhist) tourists, we are pretty impressed by the whole thing, and we have enjoyed taking part in some of the rituals.

Each act of devotion is a performance in itself.  Here are a few that we have experienced.

At Sule Paya, in Yangon, you could put offerings into a little boat that you cranked up to heaven (a little shrine in the pagoda).  I'm pretty sure that these offerings went towards the upkeep of the pagoda itself, since each shrine had its corresponding offering box, all devoted to construction and maintenance of the temple, wherever we were.

Ric with our offerings.

Boat to Heaven

Central pagoda at Sule Paya

Many of the smaller Buddhas could be washed.  At Shwedagon Paya, you were supposed to wash the Buddha that corresponded to your birth day of the week.  We were both Saturdays, so we washed the Buddha by dousing it with 8 cupfuls of water, then one on the spirit behind it, one on the post behind that, and one on the dragon at the base.

Here is a man washing a Buddha at Sule Paya

Buddhism isn't the only religion practiced in Myanmar, although it might seem that way - about 70% of the population is Buddhist.  Other religious groups are legally recognized and have temples, mosques, and churches in most major cities.  

Hindu temple in Yangon

However, tension between religious groups is a growing cause for concern, as was evident in last June's violence in Rakhine state in which a violent mob of Buddhist citizens killed 10 Muslim men after the rape of a Buddhist nun.  I learned through speaking with a specialist on AIDS prevention in Myanmar that rape is sadly common throughout Burma, and that it was her opinion that this particular incident of interreligious violence as provoked by the high profile that the rape of the Buddhist girl by a Muslim man received in the media of this country that is still grappling with issues of ethnic warfare and human trafficking.  This is what I mean when I say that it is difficult to reconcile the awe inspired by the spectacular temples with the plight of the people living in Myanmar.

Shwedagon Paya in Yangon with the moon rising in the background - staggeringly beautiful - a picture doesn't do it justice

The original pagoda of Shwedagon Paya, currently undergoing renovations

A temple ruin in Bagan

River temple of Bupaya in Bagan, currently being renovated

Bagan at dusk

A practice that seems to be common among Thai and Burmese Buddhist temple-goers is a three-times circuit around the central stupa.  According to the Thai woman we were traveling with yesterday, it is considered good merit for the world and for you.  Let's hope our circuits put some good energy back into the world, and Myanmar in particular - we all need it!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Burmese Days

We basically lost email for most of our time in Burma.  And, then we got a little sick again.  So we're a little behind on our blogs.  But, we did see some interesting, thought provoking, beautiful, heart-breaking scenes while we were there, so please stay tuned for those reports.

For now, please enjoy this assortment of images from our "Burmese Days"

Coconut Nat (household spirit) in northern Burma

A bowl of Nats in Mandalay

Graffiti in Yangon

Cobra dragons at Shwedagon Paya, Yangon

Bagan sunset

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Moustache Brothers

Go to Mandalay and see their dancing - it's important!

“Take pictures.  Free of charge.  On the house.  Put them on the internet.  Put them on your blog.  Let them know that we are alive.” - Lu maw, Moustache Brother # 2

This is the quote that is repeated time and time again by Lu Maw, “Moustache Brother Number Two”, from the ground floor performance venue of Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers.  They are a family vaudeville act that mixes traditional dance demonstrations with comedic dance numbers with an education in Burmese history of the last hundred and fifty years, with Lu Maw’s bittersweet sense of humor.

Lu Maw, explaining how things work (or don't) in Myanmar

Like everywhere else in Burma, Obama’s recent visit was a leitmotif sprinkled throughout the established routine intended to amuse and educate a primarily Western audience.  And it did that very well.  The show opens with Lu Maw’s audience patter.  He asks people where they are from.  If we were from the US, he referenced Obama, and also pointed out a poster of Derek Mitchell, the first Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, appointed by Obama.  If we had been from Italy, as some other audience members were, his response was, "Italy - Dario Fo," naming another outspoken political comedian.  

He sprinkles pieces of information about life in Burma under military occupation over the last thirty years throughout the patter, but just to be absolutely clear (he also occasionally spelled words and used placards to drive home points throughout the show), he began with a video of celebrities who shared facts about Burma (Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson, Will Ferrell, Sylvester Stalone - did you know that Rambo V was set in Burma?  I didn't.  Ric did...).  Facts such as that Burma has the highest percentage of child soldiers in the world.  Horrific anecdotes (dramatized in Rambo V) about how the government had used civilians to clear landmines before sending soldiers in to raid those same civilians' land.  Facts about poverty, wars between ethnicities, internal slavery, and prostitution.  This was the shorthand so that while we were enjoying the dancing, we would also understand the suffering that the people of Myanmar had been enduring for the last thirty years.  And also so that we would understand signs and Lu Maw's acerbic jokes.

Par Par Lay, Moustache #1, who was imprisoned for his political comedy act

Their show is outspoken because they openly state inside of Burma that things are broken.  But perhaps a more interesting aspect of the show is that it truly is a family vaudeville act.  Between the jokes and the political anecdotes, Lu Maw's wife, sisters, sisters-in-law, and Lu Zau (Moustache #3) perform traditional dances, as they have been for the last thirty years or so, as evidenced by a photograph of Lu Maw's wife on the cover of an old Lonely Planet.

All of them 60 plus, the family show endures, despite regime changes and the ever-present KGB (a sign that Lu Maw particularly enjoys threatening the audience with - a mark of the show's longevity).  It's a sincere introduction to culture and politics of Burma.  We should have begun our trip here, since the show serves as an excellent reminder of the hardships that Myanmar's people face, even as the country attempts to market itself as a tourist destination.  The Moustache Brothers remind the audience that everything in Myanmar should be taken with a grain of salt. You should go if you ever get a chance - and put it on your blog!

Moustache Brothers troupe performing a traditional dance of the Karen people

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Money: Laundered, Unfolded, and Pressed

This is a picture of Ric ironing twenties.  He's really good at it.  It's how we're spending the second morning in Yangon.  The money system here is strange.  Officially, the US dollar is the currency, but you buy everything in kyat.  SO, you have to change your dollars, but no ATMs work with foreign ATM cards.  We were advised to come with cash, and we did, but many of our twenties are not in perfect condition.  Even though most of them are quite new, they do have some creases, and worse, some ink marks.  This makes it harder to get a good exchange rate.  We successfully changed some yesterday, but the frowny faces even from the roadside money changers inspired us to spruce up our bills for the rest of our Burma adventures.

Last night on our way back to our hotel, we met a man who had emigrated from China several years ago.  He was on his way home because he had promised his wife that he would be home before ten from drinking whiskey.  His English was excellent and he seemed very pleased to have met some Western tourists.  Apparently there has been a directive from the government instructing all citizens to be helpful to foreign visitors.  He was very pleasant and let us know that Obama had come to visit in the last month, but also reminded us that our president only stayed for 6 hours, a point that seems to come up a lot.

I can't quite figure out if the people are insulted by such a short visit or happy to have had a US president come at all - Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar. We also learned today that President Obama was born on a Friday, as we were informed by our guide at Shwedagon Paya, as we learned that we were both born on Saturdays (this guy carries around a hundred-year calendar dedicated to informing tourists of their birthdays so that they know which Buddha to pour water on.)  Not the same day as Obama, but close!  That means that we're dragons in Burmese astrology, by the way - not sure what it means for Obama...

Speaking of governments and directives, the English language hotel newspaper lists the "National Objectives of 65th Anniversary Independence Day for 2013."  They are:

1.  All the national people to live together in the Union through thick and thin
2.  All the  national people to conastantly safeguard non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty
3.  All the national people to participate in the tasks for bringing about genuine, eternal peace putting an end to the armed conflicts
4.  To make relentless efforts, in building a modern, developed and democratic nation, in order to better serve public interest, to ensure poverty reduction and bring about righteous legislative, administrative and judicial pillars.

Easier said than done?  Perhaps?  We'll find out more tomorrow night when we meet a bunch of performers and artists ( and performance artists) for dinner and drinks!

Stay tuned for some gorgeous photos of Shwedagon Paya!  It's an amazing historic and religious site, and so hard to reconcile such friendly people and beautiful national treasures with Myanmar's ) ongoing (but hopefully resolved by 2015 - people have different opinions about that as a realistic goal) inter-ethnic fighting as well as its recent history as a country with an extremely high rate of internal and international human trafficking.  All things to keep in mind while exploring a country that is "opening up".

And they are - Angry Birds are everywhere!!  Weird.