Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Barbers and Stars.

Mingalar Bar (hello)!

I had been in Myanmar for a few days (also called Burma, but for a lot of complex political reasons that I’ll dive into at a later point, I'm sure, I’ll just refer to its current name for now). I was in Yangon (also called something different. Yeah, it can get complicated) and needed a haircut and my beard trimmed. I woke up late due to partying with some random, Myanmar family on a lake for New Years. That's a story in itself. But, I digress.

So I went out to the street to look for the nearest barber.

Yangon, the fomer capital of Myanmar, is wild, just like most other Southeast Asia countries. The honks are still there, the loud, sometimes obnoxious streets full of madness are still there, and the street vendors with cheap ware and a bargaining mindset are certainly still there. What is extremely different, and this is a little hard to explain, is the feel of the country. It really is like taking a Dolorian and time traveling to the past. It really does feel like Thailand, but catipulted 50 years back. Every couple steps I get greeted with a warm hello, sometimes hidden behind a light peach colored sunscreen that comes from tree bark. A couple steps more and I get bombared by a million temples (and no, that number is a realistic figure. In Bagan, it's mindblowing how many there are. This post is pictureless though, because Wifi is little to nonexistant and only really works, somewhat, at certain 5-10 minute windows throughout the day). The next couple steps brings me to a carnival where I ride rides, like a Ferris wheel, powered simply by monkey-like teenagers, not an engine to be found.

But if you didn’t guess it already, this is a story about people, not the temples or the sights. Like usual. Temples and visuals are dandy, but you can Google the pictures and wikipedia the rest if you want. You can't Google the people. Well, except for Kevin Bacon. He knows everyone. Do you know your Bacon number?

I wandered around for about an hour and found absolutely nothing. My sense of direction borders and skirts the line between the horrible and the adventurous, let alone in a new city that has zero tuk-tuk drivers. So I went to a nearby park to do some reading in some shade (and in case you’re wondering, I’m re-reading The Passage. And my God, it’s just as good the second time around. I know I say this about everything, but honestly it's one of the best books you'll ever read. Last night, I got through the tragic halfway point [fellow fans, you know that part I mean] and got pretty worked up and thanked God my two new friends I shared the room with, Julie from Belgium and Frank from Holland, with were dead asleep). I only got a few pages in before a nice fellow invited me over to his shaded concrete spot under a large bush. It was a blazing hot day, hitting 34 degrees (93.2 F), with the next few days forcased around 38 (100.4 F).

I learned about how this tiny man, teeth stained in red from a street tobacco, was an interior decorater and just started to take English classes a few months prior. He was fasinated by me and I was intrigued by him. The perfect mix for a good cigar and coffee conversation.

Now, I'm not going to come out and simply say these are the nicest people I have ever encountered, because they say that's a cheap way to write. I'll show it instead. Like a legit writer does.

He offered me a cigar wrapped in some kind of leaf, and, of course, coffee. He even went out and got some coffee from a nearby vendor and came back. We had a fine Myanmar cigar and bitter coffee and it was wonderful. I asked him where a barber shop was in walking distance. He smiled and told me to follow him.

I did.

Ten minutes later we're in a back alley barber shop, all locals. If this were any other country, my irrational fear of getting my throat slit from a beard trim would have surfaced (I watched way too many Godfather films as a kid. I know what's up and the easiest way to take out a Don). My new friend, whose name I won't even try to spell here, grabbed a newspaper and waited and smiled.

Always with the smiles.

Sidenote. I love barbers. I love going to one in each new place I visit. Back home, growing up, I used to go to one of those chain, we-dont-give-a-shit-about-your-hair, establishments for years. Then, I got my haircut by a man I befriended from one of these chains and he did a great job for years. We became good friends, I even helped him move to Spokane. That was four years ago. The last time I talked to him, he called me up late one night, drunk, crying, and telling me that he wished his son had been me. I haven't seen or heard from him since. As they say in the Neverending Story book, that's another story for another time.

I started going to this very Repulican barber in Tacoma. We have a great repotorie, me the bleeding heart social worker, him the Fox News diehard who still peppers his sentences with semi-racial remarks. It makes for great conversation and I love it, even if we completely disagree on everything in life.
After every trim, he does this electronic back massage thing and puts this cool lotion on your neck that makes the world feel alright and good and gorgeous for a few blissful seconds.

It's the little touches that make barbers wonderful. In India, they gave weird head massages, one popping my ears so hard I yelled "shit!" as I convulsed in my seat.  Barbers care about their job. It's their trade and they work on it as hard as they can.

This man trimmed by head and face like it meant the entire world. For readers who have or have ever had a beard, you know those little tiny stray hairs that poke out and settle on your lips, or worse, get in your mouth? I hate those. With an extreme passion. This man trimmed each hair with heart. So much precision, so much care. Clip, pause, inspect, clip, pause, inspect.

And then it was done. My friend who had brought me, put down his paper, smiled a gigantic smile and gave me a big universal thumbs up of approval.

We hit up a small outside food vendor and I ate parts of a chicken I didn't think ever, ever existed (since when did chickens have tubes?!?).

And then, we parted ways. Simple as that. No trying to sell me anything. No trying to get me to go to a tailor shop for a gas comission (here's looking at you Thailand tuk-tuk drivers!). He just smiled, shook my hand, and said, "Thank you for coming to my country. I hope you like it."

It was small. Subtle.

And then he was gone, lost amongst a crowd that was dangerously crossing a street. Just as quickly as he appeared, he had left.  In a life of both big and small human interactions, sometimes its the small that really hit you. That really knock on the heart to see if anyone is still home.

Like all of these countries I've lived (yes, I use that word because I feel they are all a home to me now) in, these are people who lived and are living through unstable governments and great poverty. Their kindness is unreal. I know I say that about most cultures I meet, but this country takes the cake. It's like nothing I've ever felt before.

But tourism is coming here. This country still feels mostly untouched by Western culture, but the cloud is forming. You can see it just barely in the distance.
I'm glad I'm here now. 2015 B.T. (Before Tourism).

Tourism brings in money, sure, but it comes with a price. Everything comes with a price. Tourism is sometimes like that big Wal-Mart that comes to that small town and destroys the community. It's great when you need toilet paper at 3am in the morning, but is it really worth the rest? Its rough to drive by the fancy hotels popping up. They look wrong and ugly amongst this ancient city of a million temples.

A piece of my home and heart are now in this country as well. This country is like the old grandfather, gentle with wisdom, but scared by a conflicting past. I have yet to really talk about the problems of these countries, mainly poverty and corrupt institutions of power, because I don't know where to begin. Its easy to write about the good things, the great and funny things, the beautiful things. But there's a lot of ugliness, in fact some of my travels have intersected with some of the worse things I've known to be in the world. Its rough and I haven't had time to process it. So, for now, I focus on the people and their human spirit - which is a majestic, shining thing of the utmost importance - and the good things, because the bad needs time to simmer.

I wish you, the reader, were here right now. Because, if you stay away from the 5-star hotels and dive into the heart of the people and the cities and the slums, you wont be the same person. You cant be.

The world is so small yet so massive and complex.

And wherever you're reading this from, whatever country, whatever night sky you stand under, our stars are all just as big and bright.

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