Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a reputation for being a closed kingdom, a place where military repression is the norm, unfriendly to strangers and outside influences. In 2006, my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn, rather intrepidly, went there anyway, with her husband Frank, her sister Ileana and Ileana’s husband Peter. “The Wild Dogs of Bagan” speaks of a down-at-heel country, the constant military presence (a soldier with binoculars watches a birdwatcher with binoculars), the poverty and the sense of menace (not just the cobras). It’s an essay excerpted from Genni’s brand new book of travel and memoir pieces entitled Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place. We published an earlier excerpt, an essay about her ancestral village in southern Italy called “Tracks: An Italian Memoir” last year and before that an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize. Genni lives in Vancouver so we hardly ever get to see one another, although a side benefit of all my travel for Savage Love this fall was the chance to spend an afternoon in a Granville Island eatery catching up with her. Lovely memory.
Old Pagan 2006
8:00 a.m. I step out of the hotel bungalow to fenced, groomed, lush gardens, beyond which a yellow desert extends to the edge of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. A chain of blue hills shimmers in the morning sun. Three banyan trees provide all the shade for the restaurant, roots spread, branches clawing the sky. Squirrels run up and down their trunks. Crows shriek, flying back and forth, a murder of crows, whooshing their wings. Whoosh whoosh — the sound of lassos through the air. White-throated babblers hop into potted plants. Frangipani, skeletal grey limbs with single white flowers at the tip of branches. My brother-in-law Peter has his binoculars out, and his pencil and bird list: Vinous-breasted starlings, White-throated kingfishers, Great egrets, Ruddy Shelducks, White Wagtails, Grey herons.
At breakfast, served outdoors on the large patio, where all meals are served, on tables covered in white tablecloths, we hear that General Than Shwe — Myanmar’s iron-fisted military dictator — is in Bagan, as he often is, to visit the temples and gild the stupas and Buddhas, in a superstitious effort to fortify his power and gain the people’s confidence. “When he comes to visit a school,” a young man told us the other night, “they have to take the little money for education, and decorate one classroom, so that the General can see it. He spends two minutes there and leaves. Meantime, the towns and villages are suffering for this.”
“You won’t believe what happened to Peter,” my sister Ileana says, nudging him.
Peter, rolls his eyes at us, but is a good sport, so he tells us that he was up around 6:00 a.m., wandering about, bird-watching with his binoculars, when in his sights, he was startled by an armed guard staring at him through binoculars.
We all laugh, imagining this unlikely scene, like a slapstick comedy on TV.
“Should teach you to stay in bed until a reasonable hour,” I say.
“It was not funny,” Peter says, and tells us he quickly lowered his binoculars, and casually walked away.
“Apparently,” Ileana says, “the generals are staying at the property next to the hotel.”
“You better be careful,” I say, smiling.
“They might come and take you away,” Ileana says, teasing him, because instead of joining us today, Peter is off on his own birding expedition.
After breakfast, we head out on foot to look at temples all around us, though we could rent a horse-drawn cart or a bicycle. Bagan, formerly Pagan, is an ancient city, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, ruled by King Anawrahta. Situated in the dry zone and sheltered from the rain by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range in the west, it spreads for forty-two square kilometres along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy. At one time, the plain was dotted with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, only the ruins of about 2,200 remain, rising above and among the desert vegetation. Of these, the gold and white ones are still in use, while the red brick ones aren’t.
It feels as if we are the only people in this vast landscape of red earth, stippled with ancient spires, pagodas, temples. Desert brush and vegetation abound, dirt paths snake from one monument to the other, haphazard and circuitous. Quickly, however, two young boys attach themselves to us — Soe Myint wears a white dusty T-shirt and longyi, and Zaw Win an ochre T and jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Both their cheeks are white with thanakha and on their feet, flip-flops. In the woven bags around their bodies, the children stash accordions of postcards they sell for 1000 kyat.
“We are guide,” Zaw Win says. “We show you.”
We follow the children, who explain the history of the ruins, their voices rising and falling, their fingers pointing out this temple or that pagoda. Much of what we learn from the local people and the guides is oral tradition, difficult to substantiate through books or websites (as I later discover), but far more interesting. There has been no free press here for decades. The Internet is monitored and blocked. Ileana and Peter get their news every ten weeks in Bangkok, where they go to renew their visas.
“Do you go to school?” Frank asks.
“No,” Soe Myint says, “no money for school.”
I think about our spoiled children at home, our lax education system, the students’ sense of entitlement to good grades, the many functionally illiterate high-school graduates we see year after year. I understand why Ileana enjoys teaching overseas, in countries where education is valued, where students are eager to learn.
A military truck approaches in a cloud of red dust, its open bed filled with heavily armed soldiers, who roam, feral and unchecked, through the countryside, barking orders. We yield to the passing truck. I assume the soldiers are headed for Sinmayarshin Temple, whose golden stupa was regilded in 1997 by Than Shwe, on the advice of his soothsayer; Than Shwe, whose beliefs fuse Buddhism, Nat worship, astrology, and Yadaya magic rituals — an excellent witches’ brew for politics.
As we walk along, a venomous snake crosses the road, a slithering metaphor. We stare at the imprint it leaves in the earth. In this Garden of Eden live thirty-nine deadly snake species, many of which thrive in the abandoned temples of Bagan. Burma has the highest death rate from snakebites in the world — about 1,000 people a year just from Russell’s Vipers. Like everyone here, we walk barefoot along dark passages.
“King Cobra,” Soe Myint says, keeping a safe distance as the snake slinks away. “See it is thinner in one part and thicker where the head is.”
I try to stare at the ground from then on, but not for long, distracted by the splendour of the ruins, the brilliant skeletal frangipani along the road, and then, up ahead, a red carpet stretched to the stairs of a temple, the path bordered by red bougainvillea, and lined with soldiers who stand silent and forbidding in the sun. The children suddenly disappear.
Today was to be the start of the Popa Nat Festival, a festival that goes on for six days, beginning on the first day of full moon in Nadaw, which corresponds to our December. “Nadaw” in Myanmar characters transliterates as “Nat Taw,” meaning “Spirit Respect,” the veneration of Deities. However, because General Than Shwe is in town, the festival is not allowed.
Wherever he goes, a small army precedes him, clearing the area, setting down red carpets for him to walk on, lining these carpets with soldiers, like wild dogs keeping everyone frightened. He is enemy number one of the people, no matter how much he travels around, pretending to spread goodwill. It is obscene to see the money spent on pomp for this regime, for the new capital Naypyidaw, for the red carpets and lavish houses for the generals, whose disregard and disdain for their own people is staggering.
We walk past the guards and climb the steps. This temple has padlocked iron gates at every entrance except for one — a security measure for the general, though we have seen no one all day. We remove our shoes, step on the red carpet and tiptoe inside, walking anti-clockwise through the long dark passages, admiring the Buddhas, stucco carvings, frescos. As we come to each opening, we find a padlocked gate, and soon we feel as if we’re in a maze and have lost all track of where we entered. A motorcycle revs outside, a warning surely. Then a wild dog barks, a man shouts, the motorcycle revs, other wild dogs join in, growing in magnitude until the air reverberates with deep sonorous woofs, yappy small-dog yaps, snarly Rottweiler growls, howls like wolves. A cacophonous canine symphony, an ominous soundtrack. It’s easy to imagine we’re locked inside. It’s easy to imagine a King Cobra slithering toward us. My heart beats faster, recalling the pack of soldiers, the ruthlessness they’re known for. My feet speed along the red carpet, and finally, there, the open gate.
We rush out, relieved, and avoiding the red carpet, scramble away from the temple. The soldiers watch us go, their faces impassive.
The two boys now reappear from behind a bush, eager to resume their guiding duties. We turn a corner and find a soldier facing us. Startled, we nod and walk on. At the end of another path, the soldier. The children are wary, furtive. They duck behind bushes. For the rest of the afternoon, no matter where we go, the soldier follows, sometimes surprising us at the top of a temple, his proximity threatening, like the wild dogs circling below. The children disappear whenever he’s visible, as if tuned into a collective memory.
“This is biggest temple,” Zaw Win says, pointing to Dhammayangyi Temple, a step-pyramid made of identical bricks without mortar.
“Look at the bricks,” Ileana says. “They are so precise. According to legend, while this temple was being built, King Narathu would execute masons if he could stick a pin between the bricks. Can you imagine? It was never completed.”
“No wonder,” I say. “He must have killed all the masons.”
This temple has dark long corridors — approximately twenty-five metres per side — surrounding an enormous central core completely filled with rubble. No one knows why, or whether this core is simply a buttress to support the massive building.
We follow the passageways around, tall narrow walls pressing in, and when we get to one end, where small, perforated stone windows let in light, Ileana stops. “You know what this reminds me of?” she says. “Pozzecco.”
I stop too, and think about that. Pozzecco is a small village in the north of Italy, where my father’s aunts lived and farmed various fields. Ileana and I visited in summers, lay on top of hay wagons, watching the thin dusty road winding among green fields. “You’re right,” I say. “The paths, the colour of the earth, the feel of this is like Pozzecco.” And I recall the magic and superstitions of those happy days, when we slept in the stone mansion, which our great-aunts had convinced us was haunted. “And the ghosts, remember?” I say to Ileana. “Scrabbling in the ceiling, over our bedroom.” I look up, where high in the darkness hang hundreds of bats.
“They had silkworms up there,” Ileana says. “You didn’t really believe the ghost stories, did you?”
“We both did,” I insisted, and recalled a memory within a memory — a visit I made to Udine in 1982, to my father’s ancestral home where his sister lived, and how, on hearing I was going to visit the great-aunts, she had dissuaded me from staying overnight, citing malevolent ghosts. It grieves me to think how heartless I must have appeared, returning after so long to visit the last two octogenarian great-aunts, with whom my childhood summers are entwined, and not even spending a night with them in that mansion, with its long dark stone corridors, like the ones here in Myanmar, decades later.
“Actually,” Ileana says, “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. What I was recalling were the times — maybe you weren’t there — when I went to Pozzecco with the boy cousins, who would dare me to do crazy things in order to let me play with them.
“One day, I was wandering through the fields with our cousins, and we found an underground passage, a fallout shelter — I think that’s what it was, or maybe it was a bunker for soldiers during WWII. It was a cave, really, with a very small opening. Of course, the cousins dared me to go inside.” She pauses. “We had been warned about poisonous snakes that lived in crevices in the earth, so naturally, I was afraid. However, I wasn’t going to let the boys get the best of me. I was such a tomboy!”
In the winters, when Ileana came to visit me in Rutigliano, she was considered too loud, too rambunctious, an unbroken pony who galloped through the house, broken objects and scoldings trailing behind her.
“And did you?” I ask, though I have no doubt.
“Of course. I was petrified, but I crawled in and it was dark and dank, just like in here, only the walls were closer. I thought a snake would bite me. Oh, they were so impressed with me after that.”
“I was definitely not there,” I say.
“One of the boy cousins was Australian,” Ileana says. “Tulio, I think his name was, and what I remember is his mother, who was everything I wanted in a mother. She took the time to sit with me, to teach me to embroider, and do all the things that little girls did back then. I wanted her for my mother.”
I think about the childhood longing for this perfect mother in those years when there was none. Yet we’ve become who we are because of our pasts. Would we be here, now, in this remote location? Would we have travelled as we have — I for years a vagabond musician on the road — my sister endlessly displaced, returning every year to an altered home? The two of us, rediscovering each other in a foreign land?
At breakfast, in the morning, we continue to tease Peter about the binocular incident with the soldier, and blame him for our being followed the previous day.
“Careful when you’re in the pool,” Ileana says.
“Watch out for the King Cobra,” Frank says.
“Don’t go walking on any red carpets,” I say.
And suddenly, in the midst of our hilarity, arrives a pack of soldiers flanking a general, who strides directly to our table, as if he’s heard everything we’ve said.
“I am General Soe Naing, Minister of Hotels and Tourism,” he announces. He has a large white star on his uniform. “How long are you staying?” he asks, which feels like a trick question.
Our laughter wanes. Our earlier defiance dissipates as the twelve armed soldiers surround our table. Beside me, Frank’s face is set. I wonder what consequences there will be if he speaks up. The general looks carefully at each of our faces, but returns to Frank’s repeatedly. What could they do to us? I recall the statements we had to sign in order to secure visas, statements that say if we speak against the government, we can be imprisoned. Oppose those relying on external elements, holding negative views.
I listen to the murmur of our innocuous responses, to the wind through the banyan tree, the clatter of coffee cups against plates, the chatter of White-throated babblers, the soldiers’ boots on stone, the echo of growls, the barks of wild dogs around us, and when the general leans forward, his face in a tight smile, and holds out his hand to each of us, I watch myself from a distance, as if my arm does not belong to me, as it moves up to shake his hand. And the dogs howl.
Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. She has published three novels: Solitaria (Signature Editions), nominated for the Giller Prize 2011; Tracing Iris, made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections, two poetry collections, and two translations of poetry collections by Dacia Maraini. Her books have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Prize and the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri. She has written the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions, produced in Montreal in 2007, and showcased at the Opera America Conference in Vancouver, May 2013. She is an avid traveler, and her experiences are reflected in her most recent book, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013).