January 09, 2013

My Myanmar Moment

Last night I ate grilled meat on a stick while a street kid begged for scraps. It was just another moment during this journey through Myanmar that has reminded me how lucky I am.

In a crowded laneway of Rangoon myself and some lovely guests feasted on soft shell crab, grilled fish and tasty bits on skewers. When the beer ran out we ordered more beer. When the sticks ran out we ordered more of them too. As usual we ordered a little too much and struggled to manage the 200 metre walk back to our bus. 


Myanmar is not a third world nation, it's just a country that has been hidden from the west and has developed more slowly under a military regime. Myanmar shares first world problems and third world problems. As we gorged on protein and alcohol a team of prostitutes walked up the laneway, heading for night clubs or bars. I wondered if the little street kid belonged to one of those women.

The contrast in fortune was powerful at that moment, the lottery of life that begins with where you were born and what your parents do in order to live. Back at the hotel a bunch of privileged white American males were screaming on CNN about their right to own an room full of automatic weapons. 

Few people ever rise above their upbringing, it's a failing of our education system in western countries.

We like to think that class mobility is the norm, but in reality the idealistic potential for mobility is offered as a smoke screen for grinding socio-economic factors that begin long before we can talk. Our lot in life is heavily loaded by pre-existing conditions. The achievement of the few to migrate to the next class is mistaken as the promise for all. 

Not everybody wants to move up a class, or even recognises they are in one. The majority of Australians are ignorant of their good fortune. Ignorance is bliss but it does little for sensible voting patterns. As a nation we have squandered our wealth and as individuals we are lazy and underachieving. Watch this space when China doesn't need our minerals any more. Ignorance is a ticking time bomb.

My parents were nut jobs, but at least I didn't have to grow up on the streets of Rangoon like a lost puppy. There was a time when I thought I had it tough. My father was deeply depressed and tried to kill himself so many times that I wished he had succeeded the first time and saved everyone else the grief. My mother made a bid for freedom from a violent marriage and ended up with a violent alcoholic.

A little childhood trauma goes a long way. I rarely feel guilty for having good fortune these days, I figure I've done my time and have earned a little good luck. That doesn't always cut it of course. Increasingly I feel my luck outweighs the hardship and anything resembling a "trickle down effect" is just a cop out when it comes to the genuine struggles of the poor majority on this planet. 

The numbers are staggering. So many human lives are intensely difficult while so few in the west enjoy massive wealth. 

Some people see this imbalance and devote their live to changing it. I have not done that, which makes me almost as bad as those gun-loving idiots on cable TV. I have an ethical awareness about my good fortune, and rejecting corporations who put profits before people, but deep down I am resigned to the fact that inequality is the human condition. I have no expectation that across the fullness of human existence on Earth that life will be any different. 

There will always be winner and losers. What matters most is learning to win gracefully and still be able to recognise your own good fortune.

For two weeks I have travelled across Myanmar with the most wonderful group of people. Some are recent "regulars" to my adventures with the camera, some are so regular I forget how many times we've had each others company. All are unique and different, all are exceptional companions on the road. The very fact that we are here means we are the fortunate ones in life. 

One is our guide, a local fellow of immense charm and kind spirit. He will be one of life's winners, he will continue to be successful and will rise above his childhood too. That little street kid was not invisible to him either.

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