Le poète est celui qui regarde Gide
Everything started with a few sounds. Two minutes later we saw their source. We drove slowly along the school playground, catching curious glances coming from behind a small fence and if it was not for the man who greeted us cordially, we would not have stopped at all. We would have kept on cycling in the scorching sun towards the town called Bago.
We got off the bikes and approached to a friendly-looking man. Having exchanged the Burmese greeting mingalaba (a word from Pali language, roughly translated as ‘auspiciousness’), we broke the ice, and then crossed the gate which separated us from the school courtyard.
Apparently, we came across a sort of graduation ceremony. We left our bikes not far from the gate and stood at a distance from the main stage, on which everything was taking place. Unfortunately, our intention of merging into the crowd, and disappearing afterwards ended up in total failure. Our presence aroused greater interest than the celebration itself.
Although it was the third week of our trip to Burma, we still could not get used to the confusion caused by our unexpected visits. This confusion is so embarrassing that both sides do not know how to behave or what to say. We say something and we try to communicate, but the mutual vocabulary ends in a few sentences. We are able to say hello, we can order tea, ask if food is spicy, we may say goodbye and that’s all. The rest are guesses or speculations.
Often we would like to stay invisible. Very likely, they have similar feelings when they see us. A human being appears, an alien, a stranger (call them as you wish) and suddenly there is an intimate space that will either bring us closer or not. You never know how the meeting will look like. Even when you try to get out beyond your own habits and preferences, when you try not to compare, to evaluate, to judge, even if you do not pay attention to the disgusting-looking dark red spots of saliva on the ground (you see – I could not refrain from that negative epithet) – it is not certain whether you will be accepted by them. Thanaka – a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar will not help, either. Even if you paint your face with this yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark, it will be still clearly visible that you are not from here, you are a stranger, or just a guest.
One of the most important concepts in the philosophy of Derrida, the concept taken from Manuel Levinas, is otherness. What is more, words guest and otherness are connected. The arrival of a guest always implies meeting with the stranger. In the philosophy of Levinas this otherness is the source of our humanity. It explains how much we can go beyond ourselves, beyond our identity, habits, and if we are ready to meet with another person. Putting precisely, if we are ready to encounter and accept what is surprising in them, and what is not just a repetition of our own identity. Levinas called it infinity, something that makes us human beings.
No sooner did we enter the courtyard, we were greeted by one of the teachers and presented to the school headmaster. Half an hour later, we were invited to a semiofficial party, but the most interesting part of the day was about to begin. The artistic show was planned to start at 5pm.
In the meantime, we talked a bit, just a little, concerning our mutual poor knowledge of English (although, please excuse me, I have to admit, our linguistic skills were, let’s say, a bit more advanced – I apologize for self-flattering). But that linguistic barrier is not the main obstacle in attempts to communicate with the Burmese people. What usually causes misunderstandings is on the one hand broadly understood abstinence in contacts (including the official, strictly observed ban on home-accommodating foreigners), and on the other hand – a sort of idiosyncrasy that would be difficult to find in any European culture.
Burmese society operates on ana (အားနာမှု). This term could be characterised by hesitation, reluctance or avoidance to behave in a certain way because of the fear to offend other people or make them confused or embarrassed. Also, there is the concept of hpon (ဘုန်း), which is used as an explanation of various levels of ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities among people in the society. This concept justifies the existing in Burma opinion that women are lesser than men, who are considered to have more hpon.
So, we do not know, and probably we will never find out what the people at school really thought when they saw us. Very likely, we were personae non gratae, but nobody told us so, in order not to offend us.
The main show – children’s dances – began only after 6pm. In the meantime we were offered paan, which is one of the most popular stimulants in the world.
During any visit to Burma, sooner or later our attention will be drawn by dark red spots covering the ground, roads and sidewalks. It is a pigment from the spitted paan. In Myanmar everyone chews it – children, adolescents, adults, elderly people. What is it?
Paan, known in Burma kwun-ya (ကွမ်းယာ) is a combination of a betel vine leaf (Piper Betel), areca nut (plants originating from the Philippines, but cultivated throughout the tropical Asia and the Pacific Islands), slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and powdered milk (reducing the acidity of saliva, which allows for the release of alkaloids acting on the nervous system, causing a feeling of bewilderment), and additives such as cinnamon, cardamom, tobacco, and sometimes even heroin or coca.
The wrapped leaf is chewed. After a while paan releases a red substance, which you need to get rid of somewhere, hence the common spitting. Blackened teeth visible in many smiles are a side effect of excessive consumption.
Since areca nuts and betel pepper leaves contain many substances that possess psychotropic or antibacterial effects, paan has been used for centuries as a means of improving digestion or killing parasites.
At school, where we waited for the performance, betel became only a neutral element of an interaction. How I felt and looked like after taking it to my month may be seen during the video accompanying the text.
We could not stay till the end of the show. About 8.30pm so-called immigration officer appeared and gave us a clear sign to leave, saying shortly – we were to leave the school grounds and made to go to the hotel, located thirty miles away.
Perhaps the essence of every journey is based on what cannot be told about it. There are moments in life that we would like to experience again. There are also moments we seem to be experiencing, although they have not really come yet.