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Eventful times in Yangon

The last 18 hours have been quite eventful, including a mugging, an accident involving first aid, two more confrontations with the military, a visit to the university, and a monk drowning a fly. Fortunately, the heat has gone down quite a bit, the thermometre at the pharmacy now measuring 44 degrees in the shade.

When I left the Internet cafe yesterday in the early afternoon, thick clouds covered the sky and it was starting to become quite bearable. Thus, I decided to visit Shwedagon Paya that afternoon, but not before getting a massage (for $3), which was duly necessary after the two hours of almost continuous typing during the hottest hours.

I reached the pagoda sometime around 16:00 and almost got into a fight with the ticket office. Admission is $5, and since I am keeping my dollars until all the Kyats are spent, I was asked to pay 8000 Kyats. The current exchange rate (which fluctuates +/- 50 Kyats per day, it's very unstable) is 1450 Kyats to one dollar (it was 850 just one month ago), so I'd have to pay a little more than half a dollar more if I paid in local currency. The lady tried to tell me that she's paying 1550 or 1600 for $1, so I tried to tell her that she better find some other exchange place because she's being ripped off. After ten minutes of a heated discussion, I turned around to leave and she finally settled for 7500 Kyats. You may wonder why I make such a fuzz about 500 Kyats, but the reason is simply that the money goes to the government, which I don't want to support unless I have to.

The pagoda itself is quite impressive, rising 100 metres into the sky from atop a sixty metre high. In as such, you can see this pagoda from many places in the city, unless enclosed by tall buildings that usually line the streets. It's said to contain the hairs of Buddha, from when he shaved his head to go and contemplate under the tree in the forest for six years at the age of 29 years, while in Bagan I was told that Buddha threw his hair into the sky, where it hovered and bring luck as long as it remains up there. I suppose he had to shave more than once, so the theories can both hold.

I had a guide show me around, but I ended up knowing more about Myanmar history and Buddhism than him, so it was kind of a joke when he asked me for $5 afterwards. I gave him a lecture that he needs to announce his price beforehand and gave him $3, then left him protesting. Again, I am not here to rip people off, but I also won't pay $5 for a half hour tour, when the guide should instead be at home and reading books about the stuff he told. Still, I found the pagoda quite impressive, even though the overcast sky prevented me from seeing the sunset, for which it is famous among tourists. I would come back again at night to watch the supposedly beautiful lighting after dusk, and headed back to the city, with a number of detours thanks mostly to hopping on the wrong busses. As I mentioned before, "yes" apparently means "no" and "yes" and "I don't understand" and "thank you" and almost anything else, if used as a response by a not-so-fluent Burmese.

For dinner, I treated myself to a somewhat expensive Sushi dinner, came back to the pagoda to watch the evening life of families and couples strolling clockwise around the stupa (resembling a little the evening family strolls in small Italian cities), found the lighting too bright and still boring, and made my way to the hotel, on foot because I only had a $20 note on me, which is useless when trying to pay for a taxi.

... and then I was mugged; not by some evil Burmese or one of the many muslims living in the city, but by two American rednecks, who apparently ran out of money (and it's very hard to get more without going across the Thai border) and were desperate enough to threaten me with a knife. I really didn't feel like a hero and prepared to hand over the $20 bill, when I saw a military truck drive up the road behind their backs, and remembered the Burmese call for help ("Keh-ba!"), which I shouted just as they were about to pass. The rednecks tried to make a run but had no chance (the military did not even think about using guns, they just called out to a police man at the end of the street, in the direction the rednecks were running). There was not much discussion, the two were loaded onto the truck, and the police officer then explained to me that those guys will be held in prison for two weeks before handed over to their embassy for further prosecution in the US. He asked me if I wanted to press charges against them, in which case they could get sentenced to up to ten years in prison in Myanmar for use of a weapon against civilians (with no right to a lawyer or help from the embassy), but I declined. Curiously, just in the morning, I had read a bit in a doctorate thesis on Myanmar prison life in the bookstore on Merchant Street at the corner of 38th, and it was obvious that the next two weeks for them were going to be hell on earth and enough of a punishment for their misdeed. While handing over my passport, I was assured that the "prisoners" were not going to find out my identity (and I doubt they'll find this blog), and with still somewhat shaky legs and a slight feeling of guilt, I climbed in the back of a police truck to take me to the hotel, wondering a little about how friendly and cool the police were towards foreigners.

The next morning, I rose early to confirm my flight reservation and make some arrangements for tomorrow's departure, then headed off to the university by public bus in the hope to talk to the folks at the computer science department about Linux, and to hand over some of the Ubuntu CDs I have left. In Mandalay, it was not possible for me to set foot on the campus, and here in Yangon it would not have been much different, had I not met a zoology professor on the bus, who took me to the campus and refuted everyone's claim that I could not enter. Instead, she called the computer science head professor, who then explained to the officials that she had been waiting for me and would come and pick me up.

While waiting, I witnessed a Burmese student just falling to the ground and ran over to help -- nobody else did. With the military folks chasing me (I had not thought about that), I didn't actually have to explain a lot when I knelt down next to the guy, obviously trying to help. The officials just stood close by and watched my every move, as I scrambled to remember my first aid training, diagnosed the guy with a heat stroke, or something in that direction (no sweat, very hot forehead, rapid pulse, white face, mild seizures, uncontrolled movement of the eyes, and delirious lulling), and gave orders to the bystanders to help me carry him to the shade, get water (I had some electrolyte rehydrating solution left), sugar, to have someone fan his head, and someone else call a doctor. Nobody understood anything of what I said until another student with very good English skills translated. Nevertheless, noone wanted to get a doctor because it was too expensive, so I offered to pay the charges and off they went, and I handed over 10'000 Kyats (more than enough) to the translating student with instructions.

In the meantime, the computer science professor had arrived, and took me to her office, where I found out that the university is already using Red Hat to teach some of their courses, that she's the vice president of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, and that she's also a member of the Myanmar Linux Users' Group. She set up a meeting for me with the founder of this group tomorrow morning, and I proceeded to show off Ubuntu's Live CD to her, and to explain the benefits of Debian over Red Hat, which she understood very well and seemed delighted, because "dependency hell" has been a major problem for them in the past. I left her with half a dozen CDs and information on how she could obtain more, then had lunch with two of the teachers (where I witnessed a monk drowning a fly into his soup while laughing! Imagine that!), who wouldn't let me pay no matter how hard I tried. Upon leaving the campus for the city centre an hour or two later, I was informed that the guy had recovered and was okay, and the officials gave me 3000 Kyats, which I suppose must be the return money from the doctor. Another instance of honesty.

I'll spend the afternoon strolling over the market to spend some of my excess Kyats (the rest of which will go to an orphanage), probably get another massage, and finally take in my last Burmese dinner, together with the Burmese white wine I had picked up at the vineyard on the way to Taunggyi, possibly accompanied by the Portuguese traveller I had met before in Bagan and Inle, who's now in Yangon as well...

... which is good, because I found a new argument pro beggars the other day, as I was resting at a street tea shop: I witnessed plenty of Burmese people handing money to a bunch of beggars on the other side of the street. One benefactor then came over to the tea shop, sat down at the table next to me, and answered my question as to why he just gave them money with a simple "because I have some at the moment, and they do not." To me, it could not have been more convincing, and by now, the only argument against supporting beggars is the one raised by the Portuguese: if begging is lucrative, people will give up their self-sufficieny in the countryside and come to live on the streets in the city, in the hope for more money. I'll be looking forward to tonight's discussion.

Tomorrow's my day of departure (after meeting the Linux Users' Group founder at the MICT park on the way to the airport), and I'll be in Bangkok for 24 hours before going home. And already the thought of Bangkok makes me sad, because it surely was a great trip in this lovely country, even though I wasn't always happy with how it turned out. I'll be back.