Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rat Soup (In China)

I seem to recall that some sort of field rat is considered a delicacy in the tourist playground that is Guilin, in southern China. I've never had the pleasure of eating it, so I can't be sure whether this is just tourist trappings or a rather minor example of the Cantonese tendency to eat, well... everything.

Unfortunately, last night Kiera and I came quite a bit closer to inadvertently dining upon rat than we had intended.

The scene: Eating in one of our favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants across the street from our apartment. The time is late, perhaps 9 pm. Kiera works late some nights, so we eat late. All the other customers have cleared out. The family that runs the place is cleaning up; some of the older members are relaxing at another table to chat until their last two customers finish. Our food is a vast pot of stewed chicken, potato, and other veggies. The preponderance of cumin betrays the origins of the dish as coming from the Turkic western frontiers of China. A rat falls from the ceiling onto the table directly behind Kiera.

Kiera naturally stands and screams. Not the full-throated wail of a horror movie vixen, but a frantic warble that also somehow communicates her embarrassment to be making such a commotion. She also jigs about as if she's caught the tarantella. The rat scurries as fast as its little legs will take it, back towards the back of the restaurant. The staff saw us, and the rat, but they didn't seem very bothered by it--mostly just amused at our reaction to the unwelcome intruder from above.

The rat had fallen from a crevice (an unused light well, perhaps?) that ran around the edge of the restaurant's ceiling. We'd seen it scurry by earlier that evening, but hadn't worried too much. As long as it wasn't near the food, I was willing to be sanguine about the whole experience. In countries like China (not to mention in Myanmar and Africa and other places I've traveled to) you just have to accept that such critters are everywhere... or spend all your time cloistered in decadent 5-star hotels. We were even joking that at least the rat hadn't jumped into our pot of food, when it did in fact jump. Just not into the pot.

So, I still haven't had rat. But I've certainly come a bit closer to that culinary milestone. I was thinking that in the US, such an event would get a restaurant shut down permanently. In China, owner and patron alike just shrug and get along with their everyday concerns. I'm a bit torn as to which is the better reaction.

My Burmese Days (1): Yangon, Not Rangoon

The British had a liking for renaming the distant corners of the world that they ruled. Local names in obscure languages often didn't sit well on a public-schooled tongues of officers and government workers, much less upon the palates of the Irish, Scottish, or Cockney laborers and seamen doing the dirty work wherever Her Majesties shadow fell upon the globe. They had difficulty enough with standard English, much less towns like Pyay whose names changed pronunciation depending on which Burmese who happened to be speaking with. Thus there were the city of Rangoon (Yangon), the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwaddy), Prome (Pyay), Moulmein (Mawlamyine), The Mergui Archipelago (Myeik), and Burma itself (named after the majority Bamar ethnicity) where the ancient kingdoms of Myanma once stood. The names thus composed still evoked exotic destinations, but without spraining the average British tongue in the process.

The names have been changed back in recent years. Like regimes everywhere in the recently decolonized developing world, de-anglicization was a good opportunity to wave the bloody flag of nationalism. Historical names brought pride to the average Burmese--the colonial overlords were well and truly gone. I sympathize much more now that I know the names do have a historical basis and weren't just cooked up by the junta. But unfortunately for Myanmar, names are not the only historical trend that has returned to the living. Myanma of old was a place where cruel, war-like kings forced serfs to build grand monuments to themselves and the gods. These lords have seemingly returned to flesh, dressed in camo rather than golden raiments, but just as capricious and cruel of temperament, just as unwilling to consider the fate of their peasants as they lavish themselves with proceeds from sales of Myanmar's wealth of resources. This is the aspect of Myanmar for which it is famous today: an isolated totalitarian state ruled by a military junta who have used conscript labor to build infrastructure for themselves and live in luxury as the rest of the country molders in abject poverty. There is more complexity to the story, of course, but the basic idea is correct. Myanmar is a totalitarian, impoverished pariah of a country.

* * *

Day 1

Arriving at Mingaladon Airport in the northern suburbs of Yangon, there was nothing particularly shocking for us to see. A modern airport with all the conveniences. The security apparatus and immigration control procedures gave us no hint of the draconian regime. Even the touts waiting outside seemed relaxed and diffident about the newest batch of tourists to arrive. Our fellow foreign arrivals seemed largely of the elderly, wealthy persuasion. I had expected to see more backpackers--this being one of the last frontiers of travel--but I suppose the necessity of flying in and out of the country (as well as the general higher cost of travel) keeps most of the shoestring budget types out. Other parts of SE Asia (and China) can be traveled on as little as $10 - $14 a day. We averaged more like $25 a day per person, in country.

Our hotel sent a van to pick us up--free service and much appreciated after the ordeal at Bangkok Airport--and we sped away. The appearance of Myanmar was much like the Philippines: low-rise architecture of impermanent mien, palms and banyans sprouting like weeds, decrepit architecture, the occasional grand, rotting colonial edifice. We spotted the great Shwedagon Pagoda rising high above the city like a vast golden bell set to rest upon a molding tablecloth. Its alien architecture was the most clear signal to our sleep-fogged brains that we had arrived in Myanmar, a place like no other.

Exchanging money is the first of many hurdles for the traveler who reaches Myanmar. Dollars are accepted, as are Euros. Yuan might be accepted, at least in some parts of the country--business with China and Chinese tourism are one of Myanmar's few relatively open windows on the world. The first catch is that none of this exchange is done under official auspices. The official dollar exchange rate for kyat (sounds like the word chat spoken in the Cockney form of English) is about 6 kyat per dollar. The black market exchange rate is more like 1,000 kyat per dollar. Thus, no one exchanges at banks or the airport. The second catch is that only pristine new dollar bills will be accepted. A microscopic tear or wear or fold upon the dollar will render it worthless as far as the Burmese are concerned. Larger bills (100s preferred) get a better exchange rate. I exchanged some money at the hotel and some money with street changers (not a mistake I intend to repeat in future).

Errands attended to (and nap had--I hadn't slept for more than a couple hours in the previous 24 spent traveling from China), we headed down to the center of town: the Sule Pagoda. Squatting upon a roundabout amongst the dressed up colonial buildings, the newer constructions of glass and steel, and innumerable hawkers, the Sule Pagoda is a gleaming bell of gold and incense. Salary men on their way home from work, children just off school, and housewives stopping by to take a hiatus from their shopping errands all congregate in that patch of serenity. A little boy and his father washed an image of Buddha (and what appeared to be Buddha's pet dragon-lion-monster). In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the facade of millennial culture dressed up for tourism and giggles--as it generally is in mainland China. Buddhism is a way of life, and we could see that common people both rich and poor made a space for worship, meditation, and solemn contemplation. Even young people who sat along the cool marble courtyard facing the inner spire of gold were subdued, giving way to the spiritual impulse. For our part, Kiera and I shed our shoes and socks and strolled a circuit through the worshipers. I could see that while religion is a more common and serious duty in Burmese life than it is in China, there are some great similarities in its incarnation. First, the love of gaudy baubles. Diamonds and gold encrusted the upper surfaces of the pagoda. The Buddha images had been (recently, I guess) adorned with halos of scintillating, multihued neon electrified and set to dance and shimmer like the lights of Las Vegas. Second, the commercialization of hallowed ground. Temples, pagodas, and other religious shrines were often preceded by government tourist toll booths as well as hawkers. Thirdly, the overlay of Buddhism onto older regional pantheons. But more on that later.

Outside the pagoda, with the sun's last light withering into tropical gloom, we decided on our first meal in Myanmar. An elderly Burmese woman with haunting blue eyes had advised us that the street side woks of biryani (Indian fried rice) were a good choice, and certainly cheaper than some of the nicer restaurants touted in guide books. The biryani stalls, unfortunately, were tapped out. Clearly the hoi polloi also favored this form of dinner. Perhaps that was fortune, however. I had other plans for our valentine's/spring festival dinner in Myanmar.

It was in the upper stories of the well-to-do--and romantically dimmed--restaurant, Monsoon, that I proposed to Kiera. She was dutifully scribing the names of our dishes in her pocket notebook. She handed the booklet over to me so that I could advise on spelling. I did so, and then wrote my proposal and handed in back. The answer was affirmative. A good note on which to end our first day of adventures in Myanmar.