Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
— Joseph Campbell
I traveled to Burma not knowing what I would find. After 50 years of isolation, the country’s oppressive military regime began loosening its stranglehold on its people and opening its doors to the world. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San, was released from over 20 years house arrest. A new “democratic” government was formed. World leaders started lifting long-standing economic sanctions and the powers of globalization were preparing to move in. Instinctively, I knew it was the right time for me to visit the mysterious “golden land” before it changed forever. Monk-activists, nuns in pink, crumbling Buddhist temples, street astrologers, old trains, typewriters, and other remnants of the British, beautiful faces decorated with sandalwood paste, a brave new adventure into an unknown world... I was ready for it!
The ideal of a single civilization for everyone implicit in the cult of progress and technique impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life.
— Octavio Paz
Serendipitously, or so it seemed, something special happened to me at the airport in Yangon. As I made my way through immigration, the Burmese people looked straight into my eyes with clarity and and kindness and I looked straight back. There was silence all around in a good way, which silenced me, and the lines between myself and the outside world seemed to melt away. I felt completely safe and calm. The tropical air was soft, warm and light. My body started tingling with good energy. And instinctively I knew I was going to love Burma. This was the experience I wanted in India but never had. Change the rhythm and everything can go to a higher level. This is why I love to travel.
My first trip was fantastic and soon after I returned to teach English in Rakhine state near Bangladesh. The experience was one of the highlights of my life. With the full attention of 30+ utterly charming students, a huge stream of knowledge, creativity and love was unleashed from my 40+ year-old depths, a kind of freestyle teaching/learning that we all loved. They brought out the best in me like a new love. I never gave and laughed so much.
Ten years’ searching in the deep forest.
Today great laughter at the edge of the lake.
— Soen, Zen master
During this time, violent ethnic conflict erupted between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority, who are treated as illegal outcasts. I photographed a group of Rohingya fishermen several days before this happened and wonder what became of them. The situation was a tragedy and still is. Among my students and around the village the fear was primal, palpable. There were no police, people were walking around with homemade spears, nobody was sleeping. Despite this, I felt safe and still deeply in love with the life I was immersed in. Everything felt intensely alive and incredibly beautiful. I wrote in my journal:
A man drown while trying to catch the boat on the way to Mrauk U. Oddly, nobody can swim here, and I didn’t understand what had happened until after the fact. The whole village came out to the jetty, which was no more than a small wooden pier that had been over-crowded with people trying to get on the boat. When the man’s father arrived at the jetty, he was informed of his son’s death and went into violent hysterics. He was Muslim. Apparently this kind of accident hadn’t happened in 20 years. Everyone was stunned. After a couple hours, the boat resumed its course and life resumed slowly, cautiously, and once again I found myself having the most surreal, mystical, loving, wacky experiences with all kinds of people on the boat, strangers in a strange land, or maybe a parallel universe. This place reaches deep inside me, to my core, and I become on the surface who I am in my most heartfelt way inside — open, alive, vibrating to an energy that’s clean, raw and good — and the people here seem to recognize and reciprocate it instinctually. I get wild, hypnotic, tribally human vibes out here and am completely intoxicated by it.
To be continued...