“I’ll have this ice cream float”
I pointed to a picture on a menu while a waiter to my order before wearily slumping into the comfy cushioned seating of a quasi-upscale restaurant in Myanmar. Soon, this would be the location of an important personal lesson on gratitude.
Let me provide a little background for those of you not familiar with Myanmar, also historically known as Burma. Myanmar has one of the longest running military dictatorships in the world, and its oppression of their citizens and human rights violations and are well known. But things are changing. Recently, their most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, finally was allowed to leave the country and accept the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed upon her two decades ago. Hopefully, this is a sign of more good changes coming.
Last year, I had the privilege to visit this economically isolated, and thus culturally isolated, country. There were some small hurdles to get in, but it wasn’t particularly difficult, like entering Bhutan or Tibet from a western border. Once inside, I found out from other travellers that the hurdles were mostly superficial. Many, in fact, took advantage of the disorganized tourist tracking system and overstayed their visit by months to illegally do volunteer work.
Random events led me to show up in July, when the country was still baking in the simmering midsummer heat. Perhaps you’ve experienced extremely hot, humid weather at some time or another, whether it be in New York or Hong Kong, but Myanmar’s heat is different – since it’s a developing country, there’s very little escape, making one very aware of it at all times. Aside from a cooling break at the famed high-altitude Inle Lake, air conditioning could not be found – not at my hostel, not in any shops or in the taxis. To top it off, frequent brownouts also meant that often times, I didn’t even have a fan. The motor vehicles, all of which seemed to be at minimum, 30 years in age, only aggravated the humidity by creating a thick haze of pollution from their unfiltered patchwork exhausts. Needless to say, my appetite came to a standstill in the weather.
In the arid ancient city of Bagan, the heat was so intense that the horses wouldn’t move during the daytime, and so I would wait until 5pm before wandering out into the valley of temples. I killed time by either sitting in random caves and temples, or chatting with other travellers and locals. I made a valiant attempt even to teach hip hop at an orphanage, but ultimately wasn’t allowed, so I taught the kids on the street.
Returning to the day in question, by my own fault, I had just lost my phone, whose only function in a country with almost no communication services was as a Burmese dictionary. To top it off, I was also scammed for $40 earlier while exchanging money on the streets. I was pretty furious over being tricked by sleight of hand, especially since I do card magic, but I wasn’t going to get in a tussle with the ten guys who swarmed me as I became confrontational.
An earlier rainfall only made the humidity more unbearable, so it was then that I sought solace in ice cream, which is surprising since I don’t have a sweet tooth. In a city with daily brownouts, anything cold is rather difficult to come by, let alone ice cream, which boasts a much lower storage temperature, so I had commissioned to myself a pretty daunting task. With the aid of my guidebook, I located a high-end restaurant by Myanmar standards, though it would probably make your average Olive Garden look like a Dubai hotel in comparison. The interior was overly dark, either to emulate the look of a Western jazz club or to hide its true disheveled appearance, and I found myself stumbling along my way to my table, where I ordered said ice cream float.
When it arrived, my anticipation was dashed as I dug into a dissatisfying mountain of warm fruit with an almost-melted, miniscule dallop of vanilla ice cream (or lukewarm heavy cream – I couldn’t tell the difference) on top. Alas, it wouldn’t give me the momentary luxurious relief from the heat I was seeking, and with it’s sticky sweetness, it just made me thirstier than before.
Sorely disappointed, my mind started wandering I thought about all the things that sucked to be in Myanmar. The dirty, polluted streets and rivers. The smell on the streets. The god-awful humidity. The poorly imitated western food. The tattered clothing and beaten look of everything. The immoral scam artists I met earlier. The horrendous teeth some locals had from chewing too many areca nuts. The constant harrassment to buy postcards.
Although I didn’t bark at anyone, I was more or less doing it inside my head.
As I stepped back on the street, I took a few deep breaths, as is customary when I have any heavy feelings. In doing so, I caught my negative thinking and began to choke up, submerged in a wave of chagrin, regretting the thoughts that I was possibly above the Burmese people. Here I was, my stupid, little universe crumbling before me because of mild physical discomfort, something that I had willingly chose by travelling to Myanmar, and yet, everyone here had quietly accepted this way of life. Shamefully returning to my black market motorcycle, I handed the 10-year old child backpacking his younger brother the local currency left in my pockets. He had been waiting patiently for my return.
For the rest of that night, I sweated it out in my room without a complaint to be had.
A week later, I would be sitting comfortably in the extravagant confines of an air conditioned Bangkok mall, surrounded by happy-go-lucky shoppers, the splendours of the internationally themed food court, and the myriad of vendors busily attracting customers. I spent most of my day in that mall, just people watching, writing, and reflecting. Given the stark contrast from where I had just returned from, I didn’t have much heart to do anything else.
As I sat there, and as I write now, I realized that as simple as I’ve tried to live over the past few years, I still have so much to learn on gratitude, and that life could be much more modest. Do I really want to be cruising the cool, wide shopping lanes of an enormous Walmart Superstore back at home, or do I want to be dancing in a valley of 4,000 temples and stupas? It’s not a rhetorical question. When the unforgiving heat is as inescapable as it is in Myanmar, combined with loneliness-creep of solo travel and rampant dirty conditions, my mind starts wandering, and once-forgettable creature comforts emerge to tempt me.
Myanmar is a beautiful country. The people are beautiful – I mean it, I’m not saying it in some patronizing “all people are beautiful” way. The guys have strong features, and I would date a Burmese woman in a heartbeat – I even started to like the yellow thanakha face paint they would smear on their faces. Yes, I had an unpleasant experience with one fraudster, but the general population is extremely honest. Without any bank machines to be found, I carried all my money, huge stacks of low denomination kyit, their local currency, around me the entire time I was there. I never worried about it, even though all the locals knew I was a walking ATM. The lack of development means they still have a nature reserve few countries can match, if you’re able to get out there. It also means that the Burmese people are caught between two worlds, and they can’t be blamed for what they don’t have or how they will adapt to new changes.
Are you unhappy with your car, your house, or your financial situation? Are you unfairly comparing yourself to other who have more? Or is something entirely different getting you down, like your work? The truth is, we have a lot of choice, but fail to see it when we have our gratitude blinders on. Take some time today to write it down all the things you are appreciative of. No one has to read it but yourself. Then, read it again, take a deep breath, and marvel at the opportunities that lay before you.
If we fill our hours with regrets over the failures of yesterday, and with worries over the problems of tomorrow, we have no today in which to be thankful.
– Author Unknown