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Today's quote:

Saturday, September 12, 2020

On the Ghost Train to Mandalay


My first reaction to Rangoon, now a sad and skeletal city renamed Yangon, was disbelief. The unreality of arriving in a distant modernized city cannot compare with the unreality of seeing one that has hardly changed at all. If a place, after decades, is the same, or worse than before, it is almost shaming to behold. Like a prayer you regret has been answered, it exists as a mirror image of yourself, the traveler, who has to admit: I'm the same too, but aged - wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier. There was a human pathos in a city that had faded in the years I'd been away, something more elderly, almost senile. So, adrift in the futility of being in a foreign city, woozy in the stifling heat, I fitted right in. After a day or so I took a horrid pleasure in being here, back in time, in the place I had remembered and had once mocked with youthful satire, a ghost town that made me feel old and ghostly."

Paul Theroux had written about Rangoon thirty-three years earlier in "The Great Railway Bazaar", and now, in 2008, he was back again, "in the crumbling and neglected city [that] seemed surreal, because the place was isolated under the Myanmar military dictatorship, and helpless and tyrannized. Soldiers were everywhere, even in the sepulchral back streets. It looked pessimistic, unlucky, and badly governed. It had no bounce. It was a city without visible ambition: no challenge, no defiance. Being young here wasn't an advantage, nor was strength any use; brains just made you unhappy and a target for the secret police. Students and journalists were hated and abused. So were democrats: win an election here and the army put you in jail. But a reign of terror is seldom terror in the true sense; it is anxious boredom and suspense, and a kind of hopeless resignation bordering on despair, like a household dominated by the pathlogy of drunken or nagging parents."

I had bought this book as a sequel to "The Great Railway Bazaar"; I didn't expect it would bring back so many memories, painful at that, of a city I had loved and loved in and lived in forty-five years earlier. Chapter 17 "Ghost Train to Mandalay", goes on for another thirty pages, painting a dismal picture of what had been in my memories the "Golden Land".

Lack of space - and copyright laws - prevents me from duplicating here the full thirty pages, so if you want to get a fascinating insight into today's Burma - or Myanmar, as it is called now - , better than any travel guide, get yourself a copy of "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star." It'll take you away to another world, a world which I now wished I had never left.

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P.S. Let me share a little secret with you because you may live far away from a bookshop or, as I did back then in 1975 in Burma, in a land where few English books are available: Paul Theroux's book "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is freely available online at www.archive.org. To read the book, SIGN UP (it's free!), then LOG IN, BORROW, and go straight to page 265. Don't thank me; thank www.archive.org, perhaps even by making a donation to Brewster Kahle, its founder and digital librarian.