“People must consume to survive, and the world’s poorest will need to increase their level of consumption if they are to lead lives of dignity and opportunity.”

Life in Myanmar is something I couldn’t have imagined from my home back in the U.S.  Before I left, I was cursing the country as I struggled to find pristine, never-been-touched U.S. currency (the only kind they will accept for exchange and use), and dreading the lack of internet availability.  But all that was forgotten on my first day in Yangon.  I instantly fell in love with Myanmar and its citizens.  For a country who’s recent history is defined by a violent and unimaginably oppressive government, Myanmar is home to the most beautiful and pure people I have ever met.  Walking down the streets, people gaze at you curiously, and when their gaze catches yours, their mouth curls into a sweet smile.  The people of Myanmar, after everything they’ve been through, are triumphant.  How is it possible that such beauty can emerge through such devastation?

This video clip is one that I saw in Mandalay, at the Moustache Brothers.  The Moustache Brothers wanted it to be known that even though this campaign was launched in 2008, and although their country has made major changes in the last four years, the campaign is still relevant and important for the world to see.

In the small mountain town of Nam hsan, I walked up the street exploring the different shops along the road.  Suddenly, the road ends, and there is rubble as far as the eye can see.  There are burnt remains of shacks that people once inhabited, and trash and debris all over the ground.  The story of what happened there is vague, and you will get a different story depending on who you ask.  Some say it was a fire that wiped out those homes.  But the braver ones…they tell you it wasn’t a fire, but it was from a military invasion that displaced those people.

Even within the last 10 years, it was illegal in Burma for the people to talk to foreigners.  Smiling was illegal, punishable by indefinite imprisonment.  There were very few foreigners allowed into the country in the first place, but those that were there were tiptoed around very cautiously by the locals.  If anyone was seen talking to, or  even smiling at, a foreigner, they would likely be “snitched” on, and turned into the government as an informant.  You absolutely could not talk politics with a foreigner, let alone divulge information about military actions.  So the contrast from then and now is big, but there are still traces of the fear lingering in the people.  You can see that people are still unsure of why foreigners are there.  So many asked me, “Why you come to Burma?”  They weren’t asking suspiciously, but instead out of sincere curiosity.  Foreigners only very recently started coming here.  And the brutal government only very recently stopped terrorizing its people.  But why would you come here?  It’s a question even my closest friends asked me before I left.  Why Burma?

It’s not just that Burma is finally a place that you can go so why not go but going there now allows you to see the people in a state of  existence that most people can’t fathom.  Having just come out of a brutal and unjust era, the people have a certain innocence about them, a love for life, and genuine childlike kindness.  They don’t have anything near the same outlook on life that I do: that the world is a big place, to be explored, and I will be safe outside the borders of my country because I can pay for it.   I realize that my world perspective has only to do with the fact that I was born into a country that cultivated my personal character of individuality, adventure, and expression.  And it’s because I was in a country far far away from the wars abroad.  I am lucky enough to never have experienced war like this within the borders of my home.

I have been thinking about the family that took me and another backpacker into their home one night when we were tired and hungry (which, by the way, is against the law for them to do).  They had little by way of facilities to offer us, but they did everything they could to provide for our needs.  I remember the father of the household filling a bucket with water and carrying it up the stairs of the house, along with some laundry detergent and face wash.  He got me a towel, and indicated for me to wash myself up there over the window.  I guess he wanted to give me privacy; there was a showering station just outside his house where the local girls were cleaning themselves, but he went to all the effort to give me a separate, albeit much more awkwardly positioned, bathroom.  This was just outside the town where I couldn’t get a straight answer about what happened at the end of the road.  This was a family, with a father who told me he’s a soldier, living in the mountains.  They were kind and gentle, and they must have lived through violence.

But I fear that that generosity and purity is in jeopardy.  Burma is on the brink of a shift towards more development and more exposure to the outside world.  It is undeniably a step towards freedom, because with a government that interacts more with the international community there will have to be more transparency with their internal policies.  But this world that they are about to emerge into will also introduce them to many things that will replace their old customs perhaps desensitize them to things that we see as commonplace in the Western world–like sex, drugs, criminal violence, etc.  Currently, sex and courtship is a private affair; drugs are strictly forbidden, and I found that the only people doing drugs are the ones wealthy enough to pay off the government and avoid consequences; and crime is unheard of.  You can pass out on the street as a foreigner, with no concept of where your “valuables” may be, and not have to worry about anyone even considering rummaging through your belongings.  It’s a mixed bag.  They will receive more freedoms, but with those freedoms, they will sacrifice many beautiful aspects of their culture as they accept the influence of the Western world.  All that said, the bottom line is that the steps being taken by the current government, seem to be what the people need.  It is the best for the people, even though there will be a cost.

In Mandalay, going around with Angelay, we stopped at the river to watch the sunset.  Approaching the river, we encountered children that came up to me and asked me for pens and paper.  I started searching through my bag.

“Don’t give them anything!”  Angelay said firmly, yanking my arm towards him and leading me away.

“Why not?  They don’t have anything! It’s just a pen, I have a million of them.”  I said.

“Yes, but you tourists just give them things, and then they learn to beg.  That’s not how the people of my country are.  They never were like that.  I hate it.  It’s nothing to you but it’s a lot to them.  You can’t just give them money, what does it teach them?”

Point taken.  I was just as bad as the tourists I saw in Bagan handing kids money.  Just because it’s pennies to us, and it feels so wrong not to give money, Angelay had a point: handing out money doesn’t help.  And accepting a ridiculous taxi fare, by the local standards, just because “it’s cheap compared to home,” is not OK either.  It just inspires kids to beg and taxi drivers to be pushy and persistent to get the tourists to take their rides.  It might make us feel charitable or like we’ve done a good deed, but it’s changing these people and their culture.

The people in Myanmar live with frequent daily power outages and very little access to clean water.  Only the very very very wealthy households have refrigerators and washing machines, but I only saw one such household  during my visit.  There is only one grocery store in Yangon, and throughout Burma I could not find one other one the entire time–and trust me, I looked.  I thought a lot, towards the end of my stay here, about the luxuries we have in the U.S. that we take for granted every day.  Strolling through a grocery store back on Cape Cod, or being able to drive somewhere quiet on streets that have traffic rules that are generally enforced.  Being able to hold others accountable for their actions.  Yes, we in the United States are a overly-lawsuit-happy, but the fact that we are able to sue the person that smashes into a pedestrian while driving recklessly is a privilege, and it certainly does not exist everywhere in the world.  There’s no one to run to and express your woes to here; no court to defend your personal rights violations of every scale.  It’s not like that everywhere.  You don’t always get compensated for “pain and suffering.”  Where I come from, I take these things for granted.  Clean streets, without noxious fumes.  In Burma, the streets are littered with burning piles of rubbish.  The people aren’t dirty or careless, but there is just  nowhere for the trash to go and no trash removal infrastructure.  They can’t hide it in big industrial landfills like we do.

This was an aspect of their country that made me feel like they are honest.  I’m obviously not talking about the government here, but the people in their daily lives. Everything they do just seem so honest.  The trash they produce is out in the open.  The toilets aren’t ceramic thrones where you sit comfortably before flushing away the waste.  They’re holes in the ground where you squat like a human has to when there’s no seat to sit on, and the waste goes where it goes while you pinch your nose trying to ignore the truly putrid smells.  It’s raw.

The country has very little graffiti  but the couple of times that graffiti caught my eyes, I saw the same words written in English in a number of different places:

How much land does a man NEED?

For a country whose issues came largely from ethnic differences and religious clashes, this quote makes a lot of sense.  Each ethnic group wants their own state–that’s why in a step towards reform, they wanted to call Burma “Myanmar,” because Burma is named after the ethnic group, the Bamar.  But there are different states in Burma, and each one is home to different ethnic groups, so calling it “Burma” ignores those groups.  The reason the U.S. and other nations weren’t keen on accepting the name change, though, is because it happened during the military rule, which the international community did not want to acknowledge as legitimate.  Different groups want their own land, their own territory to exist within the borders of Myanmar.  But how much land does a man need?  How much is too much before the fighting destroys it all anyways?  Why is one group entitled to more than another?

I’ve learned a lot from other travelers, and from looking around.  The only thing I can tell you for certain is this:  the world can’t have super-powerful over-consuming nations like the U.S. without other nations living the way they do in Myanmar.  Some claim that any country can be like the U.S.: a champion of freedom, wealth, democracy…and so on.  But any country can’t, because if every country had the freedoms we do–the freedom to consume like we do–the world would not be able to meet every person’s needs.  In order for someone to be on top, there has to be someone on the bottom.  And we are on the tippy top.  The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the other one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.  How is it possible that 25 percent of the world consume 75 percent of the world’s resources?  While the people in developing countries are living in filth and struggling for food, the U.S. is  spending over $20 billion per year on air-conditioning for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and consumers  on Black Friday are acting like monkeys raiding a banana emporium.

Here are a couple more important facts:

  • The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas.
  • As of 2003, the U.S. had more private cars than licensed drivers, and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were among the best-selling vehicles.
  • New houses in the U.S. were 38 % bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average.
  • As many as 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water.
  • The U.N. reports that 825 million people are still undernourished; the average person in the industrial world took in 10 percent more calories daily in 1961 than the average person in the developing world consumes today.

Friends, I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad about living where they live or buying what they buy.  I don’t feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want anyone to get the impression I’m trying to make them feel guilty.  But I feel like I need to say something about the immense power and resource distribution inequality throughout the world, because many of my fellow Americans will never visit a country like Myanmar and see it with their own eyes.

I am happy that I visited Myanmar when I did.  I met countless other travelers who shared their opinions and worldviews with me, which I started to realize is one of the most valuable aspects of traveling; I think it is one of the best ways for a person to receive a real education.  I found myself repeatedly having to defend myself as an American against (mostly Europeans and Australians), who tell me the world is laughing at us, while simultaneously sinking in honest fear.  These are other Western, developed nations, mind you, that think the U.S. is power hungry and will stop at nothing to get what they want.  And the number one thing I hear from these people is the phrase “ignorant American.”  We are not all ignorant, and we are capable of amazing things.  I wanted to write this post to shed light on a little area of the world, and remind us in the States how incredibly privileged we are.  We consume a lot, and it’s important to keep that in perspective.  It’s the reality.  As we come into the holiday season, please take a minute to think about the people around the world who don’t have as much as you do.  Give thanks and maybe a little help to those in need.  Also, remember that Myanmar is still in the process of improving, and we shouldn’t assume all the pain and suffering is over and just throw our faith into their new government, which only came into power by democratic vote in 2011.  A country just praised by the United States for making steps towards democracy, we still see a government struggling to prove it’s commitment towards protecting human rights, while a genocide might very well be taking place right now in the Rhakine State .  We are quick to praise progress, but let’s not ignore the fact that the current elected President of Myanmar was a General in the previous military dictatorship.

Finally, listening to the radio on a crowded bus on one of my last days in the country, this throwback song came on.  I sat there listening, knowing that the people around me couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I could.  It was a solemn moment for me, as I listened and remembered this video.