It has always been my belief that if you can communicate with locals in another country, you can have an authentic, personal experience no matter where you are. Toss in a little quoi de neuf, saludos, shalom or salam aleichem, and you're half way there.
But Myanmar (Burma) was daunting. I couldn't read the script, couldn't comprehend one word of what people were saying and, when I opened my mouth, no one could understand me either.
Then two things happened. First was that I went into a market in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and purchased a colorful T-shirt with an image of opposition-leader Aung San Suu Kyi on it. From the moment I put it on, locals smiled, gently pointed, referred to it, said something that sounded like "Ama Suu," and connection between us began. I asked a receptionist a the Summit Parkview Hotel what "Ama" meant, and she said, "Mother." From then on, when someone acknowledged my T-shirt, I said, "Ama Suu," the way they did. Then I gave the thumbs-up sign. First they were surprised, then they grinned. Now all I needed was some language.
The guide for my group was nicknamed Turin, and he provided a steady flow of intriguing information about his country. Every time he mentioned a word or expression in Burmese, I wrote it down. Then I repeated the easiest ones to myself. Mingalaba. Hello. Lah-day. Beautiful. Soon I was concentrating on expressions like: Did you sleep well? Have you eaten well? How are you? Do you speak English? Good-bye. Thank you. What is your name? My name is Judie. How much is this? Stop bugging me. Where is the bathroom? Each time I memorized a new word or phrase, I tested it on locals. If they understood, we were in the communication business. If they didn't understand, I checked my pronunciation with Turin, and corrected it as needed.
What happened was nothing short of a travel miracle. I was able to have conversations with people. I would say to a vendor in a market, "Did you eat well?" and he or she would reply what I thought meant, "I haven't yet eaten. See? My bowl is in front of me, full of food." I would laugh. The vendor would laugh. We both understood that I didn't know how to say, "I hope you enjoy your meal," so I used what little I knew.
I was flexing my fledgling Burmese muscle, and reveling in the contacts made. Of course, if I wanted to talk about art, literature, politics, dating, music or anything else, I was sunk.
One day, we took a long tail boat on the magnificent Inle lake and arrived at a large tourist market where two Padaung tribe members greeted us; one was a woman in her 60s and the other a teenage girl. Everyone had been looking forward to seeing the Padaung, who are famous for the gold coils that encircle their necks. When they are girls, about eight coils are placed around their necks. By the time they reach adulthood, they may have 14 or 15 coils. Their necks are elongated, their shoulder bones are displaced, and I am sure if they took the coils off, their necks would have no strength at all.
It was like a sideshow and I was dismayed. We weren't in their village. The Padaung women were hired to pose for photos with and by tourists. It trivialized the Padaung culture. But then Turin suggested that the women were happy to have work and income. I thought about it. Maybe it was true. Maybe it wasn't true. I would try to make the best of it.
When the photo frenzy died down, the visitors started shopping and I noticed that the teenage girl was sitting alone. I sat down next to her. "How are you?" I asked. "Fine," she answered. "Did you eat well?" She was very surprised I could say anything in her language, and responded enthusiastically. Then I pointed at her and said, "Lah-day." Beautiful. She pointed at me and said, "Lah-day." "No, no, no," I insisted, pointing back at her, "Lah-day." We giggled and went back and forth and finally I realized what it was about me that she found beautiful: I have green eyes. She was not used to seeing them.
I asked her where the bathroom was, even though I didn't need it. I asked her name. I inquired if she had slept well. Then Turin signaled that it was time to go. I pulled out my little notebook and wrote clearly, in large, block letters, in English: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. I pointed to the word "You" and then to her. I pointed to the word "Beautiful" and said, "Lah-day." She nodded. She understood. I tore out the page and gave it to her. She folded it up carefully for safekeeping and touched it to her heart.
All I had were about 10 superficial expressions in Burmese. But somehow they enabled me, even in touristy situations, to have personal contact with the beautiful, friendly Burmese people. And it made all the difference in my world for the 19 days of the trip.
IF YOU GO:
I traveled with Eldertreks (www.Eldertreks.com) which offers small, customized, cultural trips to exotic locations for people over 50.