The Past Is A Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There

Monks, Mahamuni temple

I was all set to start writing today's Secret Bachelor Tuesday, I really was, and then I had the bright idea to quickly check the news before I did, and somehow it just seemed so awful to sit here and write about hot tubs and roses while all I could think about is how monks are being beaten and chased and tear-gassed and intimidated in Burma. As if the current way the Burmese have to live isn't awful enough.

I know you don't come here for political chat or serious diatribes or heartfelt discourses on the state of the world, and I don't mean to be preachy or precious or---worse!---a total downer, but man. I cannot read things like this---like "We were praying peacefully and they beat us. They beat the monks, even the old ones. An 80-year-old monk stood...bleeding from a baton gash on his shaven head"---without needing to acknowledge it at least.

I realize that I never properly wrote about our time in Burma last year---at least not in the same way I wrote about our time in China and Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia---and this is one of the many small regrets of my life that is insignificant enough not to bother me most of the time, but significant enough to hunt me down and haunt me at 3am when I'm just looking for things to regret and obsess over. Most of the reason that I didn't write about it is because I didn't have any Internet access when we were there---Burma, as I'm sure you know by now, is a fairly ridiculously totalitarian state, ruled by a military-based government who sees no need for outside media of any kind---and not having any Internet access means I wasn't able to update my website for close to two weeks. And when we got back, of course, there was just so much to say about Burma---so much life that I had to try and squeeze into a few must-be-fascinating blog posts fuelled only by increasingly stale memories---that I think I could only write about it twice without giving up and deciding it was just too daunting a task.

I don't know how to explain this feeling of not wanting to talk about something because you already know wholeheartedly that you just won't be able to do it justice, but you know that feeling you get when you need to return a friend's e-mail, but then you don't, and then so much happens and you put off writing to her because there'd be too much to say, and then you start worrying about how you haven't written back yet and she'll probably start hating you, but at the same time you can't write because you'd have too much to explain and catch up on and you'd end up writing her, like, a 40,000 word e-mail that you actually had to skip showering to compose, and so in the end you end up just saying "sorry I haven't written, life has been busy, so how are you?"

You know that feeling? Well multiply that by a few hundred, and it's like that. With maybe an extra little bit of guilt thrown in, especially every time I spend a stupid amount at Target and remember the shameless bargaining I did in the markets of Bagan and Inle Lake with people who actually said things to me like "please buy this necklace so I can eat tonight." Honestly, I swear on any religious text or important document you want to hand me that if I could go back, I'd hand out dollar bills on the street and buy every damn necklace I came across. I would single-handedly improve the Burmese economy with my necklace buying.

Suffice to say, I have an incredible fondness for Burma. No, "fondness" isn't the right word. I suppose, perhaps, it's more of an affinity, like when that girl you vaguely knew in high school comes on in a Clearasil ad a few years after you last saw her on a picnic blanket down by the river, and you shared a stolen beer with her while you only half-soberly traded shoes, and when you suddenly see her you're all "I know you; we used to have a good time together. I wonder what your life is like now." It's like that. Whenever I read or see or hear something about Burma, I feel terribly possessive over it, or maybe possessive over the time in my life that I spend there, and then I sort of feel this obligation to talk about it, to remember it, to acknowledge it, just to remind myself, perhaps, that it's really still there.

Commerce at Mahamuni temple

I told you I hadn't looked at my travel journal since we got home almost a year ago---the last entry is Friday October 27, 2006, and that's pretty much the last time I opened it---but tonight I got it out of my desk drawer and started reading back over my Burma entries. I kept meticulous entries in Burma, you see, what with the whole no-Internet thing, but I just hadn't wanted to read over them after we'd left, mainly in case it just made me too sad not to be there anymore.

(This is a pitiful explanation, I know. Do you feel like this? This is just how I feel. My mother used to say she never wanted to watch the old soundless video reels of herself in the 70s because she'd just get too despondent over how young and pretty and thin she was, and how she didn't know she was so young and pretty and thin, and I never used to be able to understand that sentiment, just couldn't understand it at all. You were happy then, right? I thought. So why wouldn't you be happy reliving it? Now, however, I do understand it, I understand it totally, and this is how I feel about my travels, and about my travels to Burma in particular: that being reminded of something so incredible is painful when you have to look back on it as a person who--with distance, only with distance---suddenly realizes with awful clarity how just incredible it was.)

From Burma, I wrote this:

"They all say hello here, calling it from their motorbikes---sometimes it's "hi" or "hey"---and even if they don't say it first, if you catch their eye and smile, they'll call it to you shyly, most often with a wave. They seem to get a huge kick out of you saying it back, and we've been "hello"-ing people all day. I wonder if there are people who don't call hello back when the kids call it, and if so, how they feel about having disappointed someone like that. We've seen whole groups of boys ride past on motorbikes, two or three boys on each bike, all singing their hearts out---it's just some pop song, maybe, but they've been singing it so passionately, with arms spread wide and arms closed (though not the driver, I hope), cracking themselves up as they do it. And when people smile at me, my heart breaks---kids and middle-aged men and anyone really---because their whole faces really do just light up like nothing you've ever seen before. I've been smiling all day just to see people smile back."

Our nameless monk friend at the nameless monastery

I don't know if you're the praying sort---I have to admit, I'm not---or if you just believe in the power of thinking about people to help make things better again (I do), but if you could slip a thought or a prayer in sometime for the people in Burma (including the monk above, who delighted me no end by telling me that his "hobby" was "small conversations with foreigners"), I'm sure it wouldn't go amiss. That's all I'm saying: no grand gestures of hand-wringing or garment-rending, no save the children! or this is an outrage! or quick, we must do something! I know! A bake sale! Just think of them from time to time, is all.

Ostrich feather
Sep 27, 2007

I live in Europe and it's morning here. Just settled in front of my computer with my morning coffee and the good intention of replying to all those people and emails (much like the ones you mention), that I really do need to respond to finally.

I have been following the news about Burma more or less regularly and was worried about what was going on. Yet only your post made me cry and realize how the Burmese people are suffering at the moment.

Thank you Holly, for bringing out the best in me: empathy.

I'm the praying sort (haven't tried it for a while though, I have to admit), but will keep Burma in my heart today.

Sep 27, 2007

Just like how you wouldn't know how to respond to her email, I don't quite know how to comment this post, but, thank you for it.
Out of curiosity, in the time you were living in China, did you ever hear about the persecution of Falun Gong ? It reminds me of what you have spoken about, of the monks being beaten for simply praying. Falun Gong practitioners, old and young, are being imprisoned and tortured to death in China simply for their beliefs, and this is all being covered up by the government. Propaganda is telling the people that Falun Gong is an evil cult, etc etc ... when in fact it is only a peaceful meditation practice based on the principals of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Just a little bit of something I wanted to share with you, something also along the lines the tragic current state of the world/Asia ...

More info if you'd like:

Sep 27, 2007

I am extremely touched by your compassion. Something that is unfortunately becoming way too uncommon. It's inspiring without being heavy handed. Thank you for the insight and your personal experiences. It certainly makes their plight more real to someone like me who hasn't done much traveling.

I am of the praying sort and I also believe in the power of thinking good things for people (really not all that different if you ask me). I'll be doing both today.

Sep 27, 2007

Your pictures make this situation seem more real.. like I was actually there in Burma with you and sharing life with those people. Without the pictures, I don't think sharing your message and your empathy would have been as effective. Thank you!

Phil Borges ( also has some amazing portraits of people living in harsh conditions. Looking through them the other day brought me to tears because I had no idea what was going on in those parts of the world and if it weren't for his photography to make me aware and make me feel close to those people, I probably would never have picked up the newspaper to read about them.

jive turkey
Sep 27, 2007

Just reading that one paragraph you wrote in your travel journal about the people in Burma brought tears to my eyes. The news about what's been going on there is just that: news. And sometimes (for me, at least), it's hard to remember that the news is about PEOPLE...people who love to ride along on bikes singing songs at the top of their lungs and take joy in just saying hello. I'll be thinking of them today, and hoping especially hard that the man in the picture is still smiling that wonderful smile.

Sep 27, 2007

This is beautiful, and simultaneously tragic, and an incredible way to convey the horror of what's happening. I'm not of the praying sort, but I am definitely thinking of the people of Burma, and now specifically of the monk in the photo.

Sep 27, 2007

You are a great witness to a country of people who have been denied so, so much.

Sep 27, 2007

This made me tear up just a litte. Beautiful. I was in Burma for just ten days in February, such a short trip really, but it was like nowhere else I've ever been. Thank you for reminding me of the magic of Bagan and a country of sweetly smiling people. Thank you for your post. Burma is always in my thoughts.

Sep 27, 2007

Actually when I heard the news about Burma this morning, the first thing I thought was "I bet Holly has something poignant to say about this." And what do you know, I was right.

Sep 27, 2007

"That’s all I’m saying: no grand gestures of hand-wringing or garment-rending, no save the children! or this is an outrage! or quick, we must do something! I know! A bake sale! Just think of them from time to time, is all."


Sep 27, 2007

Holly and her Readership-

If you are inclined to act, here is a website that you can contact about what protests, vigils, etc may be happening in your area. -Send them an email. And, btw, for you Chicagoans, there is a candlelight vigil planned at 5pm on Sunday the 30th at the corner of Wacker and Michigan.


Sep 27, 2007

WHOOPS! maybe I should add the website, huh?

Take care, y'all!

Sep 27, 2007

thanks Holly!:) i'm missing Burma now...

Sep 27, 2007

de-lurking to compliment you on a beautifully-written post that comes from the heart. the way you keep your heart/mind so open to other people and their stories/lives/etc you speaks volumes about your compassion. that's why I love travel so much, too. and I'm sending a positive thought to the people of Burma (NOT Myanmar, as the Time article points out) right now.

[on an embarrassingly petty note, given the fact that this is my first comment here, there is a small part of me hopes you won't click over to my blog because while you have this lovely, compassionate, worldly post about human suffering across the world, the current post on my blog is, um, about how I killed a cockroach.

*cringes a little*]

Sep 27, 2007

I read about this terrible situation this morning. My first thought was--how can these soldiers act this way toward their own people? How can they look into the faces of these people in the crowd and beat them to death? I suppose they don't see them as faces--just a crowd.

I guess that's how it happens. When people cease being people and start being groups labeled us and them, atrocities are so much easier to justify.

I'm glad what is happening in Burma is finally starting to be recognized by more and more new sources and more people worldwide. I'm glad you posted pictures of some of the faces of these suffering people.

Sep 27, 2007

Hi there! I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now and this is my first time commenting... I am also a writer/editor for a travel website and found your blog via the Window Seat. Anyways, I think you are a great writer and have had fun following your posts. Thank you for writing about this topic though. I think we shouldn’t be afraid to write and talk about these types of issues and news stories, even if they are a bit hard to swallow.

It’s funny because last night I watched a video and flipped through some of my photos and journal entries from a trip I took around the world (Asia, Africa, South America) at this time three years ago and feel the exact same sentiment you expressed about the memories, the guilt, Asia, everything really. It really can be difficult to look back, even when you are remembering some of the most meaningful and memorable moments of your life. I know I get overwhelmed by the emotions that seem to flood back into my mind and when looking at some of the photos I have, it’s like I’m standing there in Cambodia (or insert whichever country) at that moment with all the smells and sounds and words exchanged with the person in the photo. All the senses and emotions are still there.

But that’s the thing about travel, that’s the point of travel I would like to think and hope—to be able to take something away from your experiences in other countries and cultures and to be able to share that with other people, especially people who haven’t been exposed to how life really is in different parts of the world. So, thank you for this post and your sharing, I really connected with everything you said here and also wanted to finally say hello!

Sep 27, 2007

Thank you for this post, I hadn't heard about this yet, but for the past half-hour I have been devouring any news or information I can get my hands on regarding Burma, it's people and the brutality going on right now. Your post actually brought tears to my eyes, and I want to thank you for reminding me that I have a responsibility to those less fortunate; whether that is a full-fledged bake-sale (not going to happen, sorry) or a simple prayer for those who are suffering.


Sep 27, 2007

Holly - beautifully written as always. Burma has been on my mind lately as I watch the news and I marvel at the bravery of ordinary citizens as they do what they can to change their country for the better. I will hold them and their bravery in my heart and hope for them a better way of life. Thank you for reminding us that there is a much bigger world out there than just our wee corner of if.

Sep 27, 2007

This brought me to tears. This was beautiful.

I suppose if the world was full of people with hearts the size of your heart, the news would have very little tragedies of this sort to report.

I will be thinking quite a lot about the people of Burma.

Thank you.

Sep 27, 2007

Thank you for posting this! Somehow your words usually make me cry and this time was no different. I will be praying for those in Burma.

Sep 27, 2007

My country Nepal just had democracy reinstated last year with much sacrifice from the people of the country, I hope and pray that Burma sees this confusing light called democracy soon...democracy is tough, its an evolution, its always changing and its not a magic potion that makes everything right but its the only way...people get to choose what they want!! (prayer does work i feel) Beautiful blog!!

Sep 27, 2007

Holly, I read these same stories and now your post with a heavy grieving heart. I believe in the power of prayer and positive thoughts, but I so wish there was more we could do. (Of course, we should all check out the site suggested by Suggy/Stef)

I only hope that the news coverage can finally bring this suffering to the full attention of the world.

Thank you for sharing your stories of such a beautiful culture and some amazing people! All the "hello-img" sounds so charming.

Sep 27, 2007

It's heartbreaking.

last year when Holly and I were there we managed to get ourselves into a couple of situations where people we met in Burma felt comfortable enough talking about how they truly felt about the government and the situation in general.

But you could see them looking over their shoulder the entire time. We actually had a guide who would stop speaking to us entirely---even if he was telling us about something as harmless as the weather---if he saw a cop or military guard anywhere within view.

But what been happening over the last few days illustrates how helpless they truly are. If they can't peacefully demonstrate without the government bringing in the iron fist, then there's really no chance for any more progressive action.

Holly's got some more great photos from Burma on her flickr account and I've got TONS on my website, in case you're interested in seeing more.

Sep 27, 2007

I understand that feeling of almost ownership we feel about places we've visited and connected with. This was a great post, personal and yet not selfish in outlook. I've been following this story on the news, but I enjoyed (if that's the right word) having a more intimate look at the culture. Thanks.

Sep 28, 2007

I spent a month in Burma about 5 years ago, traveling with a small group from college. My heart has broken a little bit every day since these articles began coming out. I remember wandering around the Shwedagon pagoda with a friend on our last night in the country. A man asked us if he could show us around the temple, and being the somewhat reckless 17-year-olds we were, we followed him into some dark, forgotten corner. He told us that he used to be a history professor but was kicked out because the military didn't like the version of history he was teaching. Simultaneously, all the money from his bank account disappeared. He tried to be a tour guide at the temple, but if you are caught without a (prohibitively expensive) license, you are banned and beaten. He was incredibly concerned that we would write him off as a beggar and I never felt more sad then I did when he kept insisting that he is not a beggar, but if we could just help him a little...we both emptied our pockets and I'm sad that that is all we did.
On another note, I find it incredibly interesting that the British version of the names of places in the country (ie Rangoon, Burma) has come to be identified with by pro-democracy dissidents in an attempt to distance themselves from the Junta, who reinstated the traditional names after they took over (ie Yangon, Myamar)

Sep 28, 2007

I've only just recently found your site and just wanted to say what a touching post this is. I've linked to it from my little blog, I hope you don't mind. You manage to put a face to the people we have been hearing about lately and I feel like that is something invaluable. Simply watching the news is not enough. Thank you.

ms chica
Sep 28, 2007

Not that I wouldn't have enjoyed lurking through another Secret Bachelor Tuesday...This has been one of the most compelling posts I've read on your site. Heartfelt and articulate. Consider your request in the final paragraph honored.

Sep 29, 2007

Ditto all kudos above, and adding my strongest possible stream of good thoughts to the flood of others headed in that direction. Anna's comment above is right -- having actually *been* to a place that's in the news, for better or for worse, makes international current events far more compelling and personal. Your photos, and Sean's are the next best thing to take us there, and your words have made an issue I might otherwise have overlooked, come alive. Thank you, Holly!

Oct 01, 2007

Sending good thoughts to Burma...

Sarah Marie
Oct 01, 2007

Beautiful post, beautiful pictures. I miss Burma for you!

Oct 01, 2007

Thank you Holly for this post, and Sean for directing my prayers through your specific account of oppression there.

Oct 02, 2007

Makes me wake up from my own stupor and see the world. Thank you so much, Holly. Thoughts and prayers forthcoming.

Oct 03, 2007

You are good people, Holly Burns.

Oct 03, 2007

I love how you write all that, all about how amazing Burma is, and how beautiful, and how all of this is so sad, and then end it with that note of perfection - just think about them. I was all set to FEEL! THE! GUILT! and now I just feel sort of peaceful, and like I will do a lot of thinking about Burma over the next few days.

Oct 03, 2007

I just found your well-written blog through a recommend from "A Year Here, A Year There". And you live in San Francisco, too! (my other city). My thoughts are with Burma...