I was in Myanmar for a Vipassana Meditation course. In this devout Buddhist nation, monks are first-class citizens. Coming to Myanmar for meditation is like going to Italy for pizza. And I leave wishing that was all I would find.
The nation of Myanmar held its first democratic election 3 weeks ago. The normally boisterous, loud, and occasionally horrifically smelly streets of Yangon are bare on Election Day, November 8th, 2015. All the shops are closed and there are no street vendors around. I continue walking a few blocks further down from my guesthouse and come across a gentle, long line-up of locals outside a school. The humble and modest Burmese respectfully celebrating a new era by casting their votes. One man unable to contain his joy stopped me and promoted the woman he voted for: Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy.
I didn’t come here for the politics though. My true motive for coming to Myanmar was to gloat to other travellers at the exotic, undeveloped land Myanmar is. This stop would prove that I was…. a “serious traveller”.
Growing tired of organized tours, hostels, guide-book experiences. Amusement for the westerners, nice stories and pictures to share. Seeing that travel can also be vain. Locals losing their culture to please us as their only way to provide for their family. We travel to these places to be worshipped and berated for our money. I wanted an ‘off the beaten path’ experience. I wanted to feel like the travel had changed me. That it would make me more…. interesting.
I wanted to find a place that didn’t see me as a tourist. Where I could roam the streets take in a new place and not encounter any other Westerners. Where I would be able to experience a culture unaltered by western tourism. Going to places less comfortable for the experience of seeing new things, adventure, and letting “places change you”.
Coming to this largely unknown country wasn’t enough though, I was also determined to become “spiritually enlightened” in a very serious 10-day, 100-hour silent meditation course, called Vipassana. One of the most rigorous and demanding meditation courses available to westerners today. The course demands complete silence of students: no books, music, journals, laptops, smartphones, jewellery, and modest clothing must be worn at all times. This would be the next experience legitimizing me as a true traveller.
My generation loves romanticizing travel. Baptizing it: ‘Wanderlust’. The Instagram, @worldwanderslust managed by Australian Brooke Saward has over 385,000 followers.
The idea that young people leave their homes, careers and partners for adventure is one that so many dream of. Many shared how envious they were of my courage to walk away from a high-paying job to live the carefree life of a traveller.
I had been living in that dream and had the ego to go along with it (surprisingly, the meditation course didn’t get rid of it completely). It is a life easily and willingly romanticized, and sometimes forgetting to admit that the traveller’s lifestyle is not perfect.
We see the colourful vibrancy of India, and forget about the pervasive poverty. We see the sparkle of Thai temples and ignore the infants drugged and left out on the streets alone in Bangkok. We get annoyed at the incessant Vietnamese hagglers, disregarding that I am the reason why they must haggle for their livelihood.
Travellers are idealists. Exploring the world because we believe profoundly in its beauty and want to be reminded of it. Yet there will come a time for all travellers where the mirage called wanderlust will wear off. With our young eyes we will see the things the journalists speak of during the evening news. We will at once be regretful of our journeying and thankful for the opportunity to be humbled by it. Spending the rest of our days reconciling the regret and gratitude.
In a Yangon taxi on my way to the bus station that would take me trekking through northern Myanmar, I came to the stark realization of what I actually signed up for. And how incredibly unprepared I really was for it.
We drove by a park in the city centre during rush hour, the sun about to hit its hottest.
I caught a glimpse of a dead body.
Then turned back right away. No. That’s not what I saw. It couldn’t be.
I do not know if the driver noticed or if he even minded. I hate to think of which one it was. So this question remains unanswered. My conscience grateful for this one piece of ignorance.
There were four people on the sidewalk at the gated entrance of the park. Three live bodies and one that wasn’t.
One, holding the hands of the Dead, as Two ripped the Dead’s pants off. Three was squatting and eating a mandarin.
I wanted to tell the driver to turn back. I was already late for an overnight bus. I’m sorry. Was all I could manage. I hoped they would forgive me.
I was clutched. Wound up tightly in my white and first-world privilege that so naively wanted to explore the world. Getting exactly what I asked for. Hating myself for it. Disgusted by my own privilege.
The foundation of our world crumbles at the hands of another’s mundane task. There I was, trapped in a taxi, my world disintegrating.
The not-live body was a young boy. Definitely under 16. Maybe even 12, they always look so young here. Lying outstretched, his arms reaching out for a nothing that I couldn’t see.
There was no fight. No resistance. Even in these parts of the world, being forcefully disrobed in public is something you fight. Right? Maybe if you’re alive.
One, Two and Three, were not panicked. This would never happen in Canada (or does it, and I am blind to that too?). A methodical chaos of the work ahead unfolds. What on earth do you do with a corpse on the street?
It was like doing the laundry, or taking the trash out, or washing dishes. Discarding the waste of one’s life. Cleaning the house of a life.
There were no tears. No small group around looking on. Whispering gossips to one another about what happened.
Had they done this so many times they understood the process?
Would no one grieve this person? Who would pray for his soul? Where is the mother sobbing? Where is the panic?
There was no police either. Yet to me it was a crime scene. If someone dies on a street corner, it only happens at night, in the rough part of town. The part of town where this kind of thing happens all the time. All the while we are safely tucked into our suburban homes, protected by affluence.
Where did the justice go? Maybe his death was justice? Is justice just an idea used only in the nice places of this world? Where we still believe there is always a right, and always a wrong.
Why did I come to this place? And bear witness to such things? Why would I subject myself to such a jolt? Disgustingly aware of my privilege, of how sheltered, ignorant and naive I really am.
I suppose I asked for this kind of experience. Though I never consciously wished for the suffering of others. If you travel long and far enough, you gain an invitation into the darkness living in the underbelly of all the light and beauty of this world.
Once invited, you must learn how tell the fairy tales of navigating nightmares. Speaking only of adventures, parties, sunshine and drinks on the beach maintaining the romantic ideals of your travel for those at home. Like trying to keep the Tooth Fairy alive to a child. Their innocence reminding you of why you came here in the first place.
While knowing, the robbery of your own ignorance is the true reason for your travels. Shaken. Confronting your weakest points and solidifying them. Hopefully getting closer to the Truth. Which one? I wish I knew.
All I wanted was to see something more, understand more of this world. And it came to me. A truth. We are all doomed. It does not matter what we do. We will all die one day. The life will leave our body. The smile vanishing from our cheeks.
If we’re lucky, there will be someone there to take care of our dead body.
Ripping off our clothes.