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Sunday, December 30, 2007


A little subtle Myanmar propaganda across from the U.S. Embassy

I loved driving through Bulgaria in 1969, and not just the bit that was on the "Hippie Trail" between Nis and Istanbul. I took the better part of a month and drove from Sofia to the Black Sea, met up with some fun-loving Bulgarians and drove all over the country with them. Earlier I had decided I liked Budapest more than Vienna; it seemed freer and more... romantic, less uptight and stuffy. I was blind to the oppression and tyranny in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria even though it pervaded these places. I just didn't notice. Years later I was living in West Berlin. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the wall dividing the city was coming down. There were already holes in it and most of the guards looked the other way-- at least when West Germans went back and forth. I persuaded some West German friends to take me across one night. It didn't look free and romantic; the oppression, tyranny and decrepitude were apparent and tangible... and chilling. It scared and repulsed me. I was happy to get back to West Berlin.

A few hours ago, decades later, I just returned from a place like that, a place you read about in books by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: Myanmar.

Myanmar was Burma when I was a small boy (and avid stamp collector). I remember there were military coups when I was in elementary school. It was one of those closed off places-- exotic, mysterious, impenetrable, vaguely dangerous, like Albania, Mongolia, North Korea... places no one ever went. In the 80s the military junta took the name SLORC (an unfortunate-sounding acronym for State Law and Order Restoration Council). It sounds like something from a James Bond movie. For the people there, I just discovered, it doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a nightmare that never ends. Paid Republican lobbyists and operatives in DC got the military dictators to ditch the SLORC moniker for SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, which sounds far less ominous-- like Bush's Clear Skies Act).

One of the first things I noticed is that the oppressive, paranoid tyranny in Myanmar exists in a parallel world next to a beautiful traditional Buddhist culture. The gentle people, predisposed to kindness, seem a little nervous-- hundreds of beloved and revered monks were brutally and ruthlessly murdered by the regime a few weeks ago after peaceful demonstrations-- but when you shoot anyone (except some of the soldiers) a mengalaba (hello) their wariness invariably breaks down and they smile. They are friendly and the reserve often vanishes quickly and, at least in Yangon, more of them spoke English than anywhere else in Southeast Asia I've ever been.

The whole city seems to be rotting and breaking down, although it may also be a work in progress of sorts. The city is immense-- but kind of slow and quiet... kind of left behind as the rest of the region rushes headlong into the 21st Century and globalization. Roland says Yangon reminds him of Havana in many ways.

It is easy, fast and cheap to get a visa directly from the visa section of the consulate in Washington, DC-- way smoother, quicker and far less expensive than working with the outsourced visa company India now forces you to work with to get a visa for that country. We flew Air Asia from Bangkok, a kind of Southwest Airlines for SE Asia. It is cheap and only takes an hour and a 15 minutes. (The flight back was delayed for a few hours and they gave us a signed chit so that we can get our money back, an Air Asia policy for flights that are delayed for over 3 hours. (The guy who runs it, Tony Fernandes, was the head of our Malaysian company when I worked at Warner Brothers. He learned a lot more about customer service than most music industry execs ever did.)

The currency exchange system in Myanmar is a real mess. If there even is an "official rate" it's around 500 kyats for a dollar. But dollars are the preferred currency in Yangon-- as long as the bills are new and crisp and have no marks or tears-- and even taxi fares can be paid with them. The street rates of exchange vary between 1,000 and 1,500 per dollar (depending on your bargaining ability)-- a very wide disparity. The whole thing is kind of shady and bizarre and, for a normal tourist probably pretty disorienting. Few places accept credit cards and the ones that do, charge an exorbitant fee. When you leave the country you pay a $10 airport exit tax. They want it in dollars. If you insist on paying it in worthless kyats (which can't be exchanged outside the country for any real currencies), they charge you 16,000-- not just far more than the "official rate," but more than the best black market rate!

On the other hand, we found the December weather absolutely fantastic-- warmer than Delhi and cooler than Bangkok. Bangkok is hot and steamy, never under 90 with lots of humidity. Yangon is dry and in the 80's. It gets hot in the sun in the afternoons but it's pretty comfortable and without the hellish man-made weather of Bangkok.

Part II next time I get to a computer.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I travel with my pal Roland a lot and he loves going to strange and exotic places, as I do. He also likes checking out weird scenes like synagogues in bizarre countries. Recently I wrote a post about the remnants of the Jewish community in Cochin in Kerala, India. In 1991 we were traipsing around Egypt and Roland talked me into getting on a Sinai bus for a dusty drive to see the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. A few years later he even managed to find an Iraqi synagogue in Singapore and 3 days before it was blown up, a synagogue in Istanbul. He's an atheist whose distant ancestors he thinks were Catholic (he's unsure).

Anyway, now we're in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly Burma) and a less "Jewish place" you could never imagine. I thought about looking into it and thought, "Nah; not a chance." I was wrong. We were wandering around in a squalid Muslim neighborhood this morning when all of a sudden we see a star of David and Hebrew writing on a building.

It isn't "officially" a synagogue any longer. There are only 8 Jewish families left in town, most of them having fled when the Japanese took over in 1942 and the rest when the nationalistic socialists got control in the early 50s. The last rabbi left in 1963. So officially the synagogue is a museum and community center. There's a trustee instead of a rabbi, Moses Samuels, who helps keep the joint going and he has a son in NYC, Sammy who graduated from Yeshiva University and says he plans to return to Yangon and run it after his father. The official name is Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue and it' on 26th Street, not that far from the Bogyoke Market.

There weren't any Jews around, just a Burmese caretaker. Later a Canadian Jewish tourist from Thunder Bay wandered by. We saw pictures of Sammy Samuels and he looks Burmese. Outside I asked a couple of guys lounging on the street who looked like Al-Qaeda recruits if they were Jews and they giggled.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Flying out of Delhi's international terminal is, to put it mildly, stressful-- even more stressful than air travel has become in general-- and chaotic. Not only is it the most aggressively anarchistic place I've ever been in, at least 75% of the passengers look like they could be featured in a Watch For Terrorists ad-- if not an al-Qaeda recruitment poster. An American profiler would short circuit.

There may be, on an office flow chart in someone's desk somewhere, a schematic for how it's all supposed to work... but I doubt it. At every step along the way, among the pushing, shoving crowds-- many of whom seem to have never been confronted with the concept of "a line" before-- there is something designed specifically to hold up the process and make you return to Go. If you ever thought getting to the airport two hours before your departure was too big a waste of time, let me assure that they must have had Delhi in mind when they made that rule of thumb... and they were being optimistic.

The first nightmare involves getting the bags you intend to check into a great big cavernous black box and collecting it on the other side. Somewhere along the arduous quest for departure someone is bound to tell you about this-- usually the man at the end of the 30 minute line in front of the check-in counter. Black box first, check in after. But once you get through the crowds to the black box and figure out vaguely what's supposed to happen and how, you need to confront several hundred Osama bin-Laden look-alikes jostling in front of and all around it. I thought I was at the Kaaba. Nothing really seems to happen-- just a tremendous amount of seemingly unfocused kinetic energy but no discernable movement towards any goal. I knew I'd be OK eventually but I couldn't help wondering if the fragile looking elderly ladies lurking apprehensively on the outskirts of the melee would wind up stuck at the airport forever.

Eventually you find someone with an airport smock, slip him 10 rupees (like a quarter) and he shoves your bag into the box, gets a security string tied around it and you're good to go-- back to the boarding pass counter line. It was worth the 10 rupees because he alerted me about the need for a security stamp or some kind before you can get your boarding pass that allows you to proceed to the security check. I'm sure regular Delhi Airport commuters are well aware of this quirk.

Once you pass through security, it's less chaotic-- but just a little less. There are families (or tribal groups) camped out on the floors, apparently not having chairs as part of their culture. (Later, on the Air India jet, I realized some of my fellow passengers were among the 700,000,000 Indians I wrote about at DownWithTyranny a few days ago who have no access to sanitary facilities. Besides explaining seat belts and oxygen masks, the flight video does a tutorial about how to use a toilet.) But first I had to find a gate for my flight. There were just 3 question marks where a gate number should have been on my boarding pass and the loudspeaker announcements were so garbled and so unintelligible that it was impossible to tell if they were in Hindi, English or something else. Eventually some airport employee started walking around the terminal shouting "Bangkok flight, Gate 11." That worked. I won't have to brave this nightmare again for another month. And in a couple of years this will place will be left to domestic passengers since India is building a new international airport on the other side of Delhi. I only hope it is as well-planned as the brand new Bangkok international airport.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I've always loved Indian food and I've spent enough months in India since 1969 to not need a getting-used-to-it period when I get here. Now, I know it sounds a little trite, but you know what they say about how the best food in any country is what people prepare in their homes? Well, it's even more true in India than anywhere else I've ever been. But that isn't only because the home cooking is so good-- which it is-- but because the restaurant culture is so, surprisingly, stunted and undeveloped.

A few nights ago I went to see an operatic presentation sponsored by the Italian embassy at Delhi's 16th century Purana Qila (Old Fort) with my friend Daleep, his mom and cousin. By the time we got back to their house, around 9pm, we were all starving but no one much fancied a restaurant. As we walked up the stairs, Daleep's cousin mentioned that he had a hankering for brains; I mentioned that I'm a vegetarian. By 10 we were eating a sumputous 7 course feast-- including brain curry and lots of vegetable preparations. [I passed on the brain curry of course, but as always in India there was plenty for non-brain eaters to feast on.] Of course, it helps to have lots of good help. I only wish, though, that Delhi restaurants were nearly as good.

The problem-- and a silver lining-- is well-illustrated by 2 very different Connaught Place eateries within a minute of two from each other, Veda and Vega. Ask any concierge at a top hotel where to go eat and they will invariably mention Bukhara (more on that later) and Veda. Most of the top restaurants, like Bukhara, are in hotels. Veda isn't. It's a trendy, transnational Indian fusion restaurant catering to the call center crowd and to tourists daring enough to eat outside the hotel scene-- but only so far outside. The food isn't bad; it just isn't exceptional, although the prices are. Basically the food is kind of Indian and kind of arty/trendy... but not really Indian, just arty/trendy.

Down Connaught Circle a block or so is Vega, a vegetarian restaurant no one will ever call in-crowd. Vega is just behind the lobby of a small, modest hotel, the Alka. It's the next best thing to home cooking I've found in Delhi. And they just keep bringing heaps of delicious food until you absolutely insist that they stop. I ordered a thali and it included any and every kind of bread as well as every Indian veggie dish you ever heard of although just the normal, traditional ones, all cooked without onions and garlic. And the bill came to about a tenth of what the fancy places-- like Veda up the street-- cost.

Park Balluchi advertises that it has been voted the #1 best restaurant in India year after year. They're mixing up "best" either with "popular" or "richest food." The setting, in Hauz Khas' Deer Park, is lovely, the service is fine and the plates are gargantuan. The mewa paneer tukra (grilled balls of soft "cheese" stuffed with nuts, raisins, mushrooms and cream) was opulent and over-the-top. I managed to eat almost half an order.

Bukhara, in the Sheraton, makes the Park Balluchi seem like a soup kitchen by comparison. If being around trendy people turns you off, skip this place but it really is "the best" restaurant in town, at least from the international, cosmopolitan perspective. They started with 17 items on the menu when they first opened and they've never changed anything. Daleep's cousin works in mangement at the hotel and he told me that the ratio between lentils and butter in their famous dal makhrani (black lentils simmered for 12 hours in tomatoes, ginger and garlic) is one to one! It's impossible to get in without a reservation.

The Imperial Hotel-- the best in town unless you don't like traditional places-- has a whole slew of top restaurants, from a sumptuous All-India epicurian festival, Daniell's Tavern, to the hipsterish Spice Route, a pan-Asian (mostly Thai-oriented) extravagenza in one of the most gorgeous rooms in the city. They've also got the best Italian restaurant in Delhi, San Gimignano. Three other hotel restaurants of note are Masala Art at the Taj Palace, Dum Pukht at the Sheraton, both over-the-top, and the more reasonable Chor Bizarre, a Kashmiri restaurant in the Broadway Hotel.

I tried a couple of South Indian places I liked a lot, Swagath, which serves the unique seafood-and-coconut based cuisine of Mangalore (in Defense Colony Market) and Sarvana Bhawan, part of a very reasonably-priced, respectable chain. My advice is to stick to the free-standing places that non-trendy, middle class Indians eat in and to avoid the over-the-top (mostly hotel-based) joints that will be as bad for your health as they are for your wallet.