I paused to gaze into the window of a 5 star restaurant in the downtown district of Yangon. I studied the inside environment through the gaps of the white blinds like a stalker.
The beautiful people dined on white clothed tables in a large dimly lite room. A few patrons enjoyed cocktails that were being whipped up by a friendly looking bartender with an impressive handlebar mustache behind the highly varnished western saloon style bar counter.
The clientele were nicely dressed and had a healthy glow about their presence. After completing a days work and efforts, what better way to spend an evening? The cheerfulness rubbed off on me a little and I began to miss loved ones back home…
Deep sounding growls of a pair of hoodlum dogs startled me as they tumbled in an aggressive squabble across the street. They get up and take bites at each others necks as they begin to walk forward in a brisk pace.
They lead me northward along this downtown street. Them on one side of the street and I on the other…
In sync, they take a sharp right turn into a space between abandoned khaki colored 5 story tall apartment buildings. Three adolescent heads emerge from the black dumpster that seems to guard the tight spaced entrance of the alleyway.
The trio of scavengers are dirty, skinny and hungry. I ponder the scene I witnessed a few moments ago of the beautiful people dining…The contrast is too much to take. The curb is the closest thing to sit on.
Looking further down into the dark alley, I realize there are many more people further in. A small fire from a street vendor cooking food on a grill illuminates the darkness somewhat. I see lean-to make shift homes made of battered blue tarp, rusty tin and card board boxes further inward.
Two of the dark skinned guys of the group standing around the food vendor look directly at me sitting across the street. I’m peering into their domain… They don’t cease their hard stare for what feels like eternity. Through their eyes, they communicate that I am not welcome to look, enter or even feel sorry for their living condition.
I get up to carry on toward my hostel. The experience burned into my brain and bothers me long into the night.
I walked down the tourist district the following morning and met a valiant 16 year old who was able to speak Burmese, English (in a British accent), Chinese and French. His language skills allowed him to sell post cards to tourists. The money earned provided food and shelter for his three younger siblings and widowed mother. The family live a ‘hand to mouth’ existence across the Yangon River in the slums since the land his family once owned had been taken away for economic development reasons.
For some reason I heard: “The hard work and struggle they currently face will give them incentive to learn more skills, thus allow them to rise out of poverty” inside my head…A lesson that I had somehow retained from a past economics lecture years ago.
That may have been his deceased fathers mindset at one point in time…Now he possesses that same mindset..and I’m sure some people who live out in the alley I witnessed the night before also possess it.
I can’t blame them. The reality is that the average person needs money to enjoy a comfortable, healthy and modern lifestyle in this day and age.
The things that I couldn’t help to ponder were the transitions some of these people were going through. Not everyone benefits from economic growth-especially those living in a city in a developing country.
City life demands modern skill sets and a complete shift in mindset for the newly arrived country folks (and preexisting folks already on the land that is targeted for developed) who seek a modern lifestyle. What were skills out in the farmland serve little purpose in the city for a person who desires (or has no other choice) to join the game of economic hustle – making money, spending it and making more. I couldn’t help but wonder if life out in the farmland could be a better lived life (for those who may have that option)…
In general, the people with low skills usually end up doing the grit work that economic growth entails. The low wages obtained and high cost of living in the city make saving their earnings tough. There is a slim chance that there would be enough money left over for further education to sharpen one’s thinking capability or gain qualifications for specialized skills that will lead to higher earnings. It seems they only just get a chance to sustain a minimal quality of life for them and their loved ones at best.
My western trained mindset that economic growth was great for everyone involved was being challenged for the first time. I now pondered the dynamics of economic growth for a developing country – particularly its effects on the society. Its a complex matter…
Hours later, encapsulated by a magical twilight that is only produced by a tropical atmosphere, I stood against a black iron lamp post on some lonely sidewalk.
A tug on my shirt sleeve startled me. I look down and hunched over is an extremely impoverished pregnant woman and her young child in rags. They look up at me with bulging malnourished eyes as the mother slowly raises and opens her wrinkled right hand which is aged beyond her years.
Immediately, I dig through my pockets to empty out the contents, placing a handful of thousand kyat bank notes into her frail trembling hand. Her eyes give a hint of thankfulness and slight amazement at the unexpected generosity. Dismayed, I looked into her weary eyes momentarily before they shuffled ahead and vanished into a nearby dark alley.
A few days later, I find myself in a crowded bus terminal standing in line to board another bus on yet another early morning. This one would take me north to the ancient city of Bagan. I would be fortunate enough to be given the option of pre-selecting a window seat and would not have to pester another person for that prized seat as I did in Part 1
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