Thank goodness our flight on September 15, 1982 from Bangkok to Rangoon’s (now Yangon) Mingaladon Airport was short because Burma Airways seats were intended for small people. I am not small and my knees almost reached my nose.
I looked forward to returning to the Strand Hotel where I had stayed on my first visit in 1971 where I had had several memorable experiences – one of which was the letter that the hotel clerk had given me, addressed to a Dr. Joseph H. Howard that had been held for me (not a doctor) for several years. I have already written about my first trip there.
I was anxious to show this seedy, but wonderful, old colonial hotel to Pat. During the colonial period, the Strand was one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire. It didn’t disappoint. The lift, or elevator, after 11 years was still out of service and we were privileged to carry our bags up the beautiful teak staircase that had, in its better days, been used by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Lord Mountbatten 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma). One shouldn’t complain.
Our room, with beautifully polished teak and marble floors, was large – large enough to hold a dance for perhaps 20 friendly people.
In the bar, we met fellow Library of Congress employee, Gene Smith. He headed the LC Office in New Delhi which covered Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region. Here we fantasized about all of the plots that had been hatched here, both good and nefarious. We were sure that some of the fellow drinkers that day were up to no good.
Daw Ruby Pein Aung was our Library of Congress representative in Burma. Her responsibilities included acquiring Burmese books, periodicals and other materials for LC’s collection. Ruby was a wonderful person as well as a super employee. The Library of Congress was very lucky to have her; however, she was also very fortunate to be an employee of the U.S. government in this quixotic country.
Gene, Pat and I met Ruby and her husband for dinner. This turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of Pat’s and my considerable eating experiences. We walked from the Strand a few blocks to a back street where we found an unprepossessing storefront restaurant. We entered into the dimly lit room – dimly lit, not to create an elegant ambiance, but because there were only a few naked low-watt light bulbs in evidence. We were led to a table and chairs with a not-too-white table cloth and, when we were seated, the owner pulled another not-too-white cloth that was attached to a wire over the doorway and, voila, we had our own private room with our own naked light bulb.
Wonderful dish after dish kept arriving. Each was delicious and just when you thought you could eat no more, a platter arrived containing the ultimate – a large whole fish that had been deep fried until crisp. It was covered with a hot (with chilies) sweet and sour sauce. It was the best fish that I ever ate. Even Pat, who is not a fish eater, thought it was wonderful although it came complete with head and tail.
All of this was eaten, not with chopsticks in the Chinese way, but with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left which was used to push the food into the spoon – like the Thais.
After this exceptional dinner and in the privacy of our own little space, I was briefed on issues that should and might arise in my meeting the next day with the Ambassador, Hon. Patricia E. Byrne. The issues did not present any major problems.
The meeting the next day was pleasant and the Ambassador seemed to be pleased to have Ruby on her roster. Important to us was that she was not going to recommend that her position be abolished in her retrenchment plans.
While Gene and I were at the Embassy, Ruby took Pat sightseeing. They went to the magnificently beautiful, awe inspiring, and, to mind, a wonder of the world, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Later they went to the town of Pegu and visited an enormous reclining Buddha.
One evening Gene had arranged for a car to take us to the campus of Rangoon University where we were to be the guests of the University Librarian, U Thaw Kuang, and his wife. There wern’t many cars in Burma and the cars that were there are held together with chewing gum and baling wire and probably date from the late 40s and early 50s. Burmese mechanics are miracle workers by keeping them going. The car that picked us up was typical. Of special interest was the windshield, broken in many places. It had been repaired with leading – very much like a leaded-glass window. Had the windshield been replaced with colored glass, it would have made a reasonably pretty abstract window for any church.
In order to shift gears, the driver had to ram the shift into place, thereby making the car shudder and lurch forward with an unhealthy noise. Not wanting to shift gears unless absolutely necessary, the driver worked the horn continuously to warn pedestrians who thought that the street belonged to them.
As we entered the campus which was dimly lit by street lights, we saw hundreds of students studying in the streets under these dim lights. We were told that it was exam time and that the dorms had no electricity. To see students to whom education was so important was a humbling experience. We projected this to an American campus and were sure that these hardships would be grounds for not taking exams.
The only memorable thing about the dinner with the Librarian was the abruptness with which the dinner ended. We were ushered into the living room where there was a big box with a black cover. The cover was removed with reverence and there was a TV – probably one of the few in all of Burma. We proceeded to watch, in silence, Million Dollar Man.
As we left in our car, lurching along the way, as it was wont to do, we found the students still studying under the lamplight.
My per diem was paid with PL 480 monies – in kyats. Kyats were not exchanged on the international market and therefore were worthless outside of Burma. I don’t recall exactly how much my per diem was but it would have been in the neighborhood of US$200 a day. We found that the Burmese government, desperate for foreign currency, would not allow us to use kyyats to pay any of our bills. Instead we had to pay our bills in our own US dollars. Upon hearing this, I said to Pat “What in the world are we going to do with all these kyats?” Quick as wink Pat answered “I know.”
She asked Ruby where she could buy gemstones. Ruby, knowing that gems in the government stores were very expensive, took us to her jeweler in the suburbs where we found a little lady in a single-family home. It was dimly lit with a single naked low-watt light bulb. The lady went into another room and came back with several cheap plastic purses full of rubies, sapphires, diamonds, jade, cats-eyes, etc. Pat was in a state of disbelief! Pat spent about an hour fingering the goods, occasionally going outside to the light to get a better look at the gems of interest. She quickly spent all except about 33 kyats. Pat asked what she could buy with this leftover money. The lady brought out two small pieces of faceted jade. In addition to the jade, to the best of her memory, she came out with 4 sapphires, various other pieces of jade, and two star-rubies – all unset.
On our last evening in Rangoon we had dinner at the home of Daw Khin Myo Chit. She was an author and we spent an evening in conversation with a brilliant woman. Of particular interest was the stultifying effect that government censorship had on the press and on writers in particular. Pat remembers nothing about this evening except for the durian ice cream which tasted particularly mild – much different from the foul-smelling Malaysian durians. Perhaps she was too tired from the hard work of spending the kyats. She vaguely remembers sitting by an important man who was from the Shan tribe – a minority. The next morning before we left for the airport, we received this note from her (as well as one of her books):