The drive from the airport to hotel in a new country always leaves a lasting impression. I think it’s a combo of relief that the flight and usually tedious immigration and customs formalities are over, and being met by a smiling stranger who immediately becomes my newest best friend.
In this case it was early morning. Saturday. There were people everywhere, walking along the street edges, piled into small buses, children’s faces peering through the spaces where windows would normally be. Clouds were broiling, bringing the last of the wet season rains. It was hot and steamy.
I was in Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma) to help facilitate a workshop for an NGO. My departure from Australia coincided with a renewed campaign by the Burma Campaign for Australians to cut tourist and trade links with Burma in line with Government sanctions because of human rights abuses. It appears to be a straightforward decision – to go or not. I think it’s more complex. I tend to be more in favour of engaging than isolation – and I think the locals can benefit enormously from exposure to tourists, and sorely needed direct income.
The Shwe Dagon Pagoda (the Golden Pagoda) dominates the skyline. Here’s some numbers: it occupies over 5 hectares, is 2500 years old according to legend, and entered history via the date of an inscription near the top of the eastern stairway in 1485. The main stupa is completely covered in gold, and at the very top of the spire is the diamond orb – a hollow gold sphere studded with 4351 diamonds totalling 1800 carats. On the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond.
My arrival in Myanmar coincided with a Buddhist Holy Day, hence the vast numbers of people making their way to the temple. When I visited the following day there were still many reminders of the previous day’s festivities. The number of smaller stupas, pavilions and shrines is mind boggling – certainly too much to take in in a single visit. I found myself unable to stop staring at the main stupa. As the sun set it took on different hues and was truly spectacular against the night sky. On a practical note, I was glad to visit later in the day when it was more comfortable to walk on the marble surfaces in bare feet. A mat encircles the main stupa for visitors whose feet need protecting from the hot white marble surfaces during the heat of the day.
I also visited the Bogyoke Market – surprisingly high quality art, lots and lots of gemstones at ridiculously reasonable prices and exquisite lacquer ware. I loved the way the store holders would accept payment in US dollars and then whack their other goods with the notes – to bring good luck and further sales!
But most of my time in Yangon was spent inside a barely adequate meeting room with about 30+ people, dealing with vastly different expectations of strategic planning, and using processes as diverse as World Cafe and sociometry (which revealed two birthdays to celebrate during the workshop) to using the Story Spine and Visual Explorer – all new tools and processes for the participants, who it’s probably fair to say probably expected a more familiar, ‘chalk and talk’ approach with powerpoint presentations.
An additional day, focused just on change and conflict was a surprise, but enabled me to practice what I preach, namely, to improvise! I’ll be forever grateful to the woman at the hotel who, on being unable to find any tennis balls for me to use in a juggling exercise, presented me with a jug full of ping-pong balls. Perfect!
It was exhausting (not helped by a dose of food poisoning on the last day that left me feverish, wrung out and nauseous) and rewarding all at once. As always, the good will of the participants and their willingness to try just about anything was a highlight – even if one participant observed that my activities meant it was hard to keep his longyi on and next time he’d wear trousers!