Thursday, February 26, 2015

Burmese Days 14: On the Waterfront, the Road to Mandalay

"Come you back, you British Soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles clunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!" 
Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem, "Mandalay," in 1890. Mandalay is up the Irrawaddy River, so there are no flying fishes (if he was thinking of South Pacific flying fishes). And there is no bay across which China is located. Possibly Rudyard had been tossing back a few too many at the Pegu Club, but we make allowance for poetic license.
Today, Mandalay is a modern city with crowded streets, motor scooters, low-rise office buildings, and wi-fi. But the Irrawaddy river banks really surprised me. I did not see a real dock area, just sheds build on the muddy banks and tens or hundreds of boats moored against the mud.
It was bustling. Workers were loading and unloading heavy sacks of rice. They hand-carried scooters, machine tools, and drums onto the decks.
These heavy boats are made of teak planks and are powered by heavy-duty diesel engines from China. The engines are mounted in the stern above waterline and connect to the screw by a long solid shaft, so there is no bearing through the hull below water. Simple, effective, and really noisy.

As I wrote above, I was surprised at the lack of docks or infrastructure. There were no concrete ramps leading down to the water. These people must put up with the mud in the wet season.
Women were washing their clothes in the river, and children were scampering about. It must be hard to prevent disease while being immersed in the river water for hours.

The Mandalay waterfront is a fascinating setting, like a picture from another age. Highly recommended.

I took these photographs on Kodak Tri-X black and white film in a Leica M2 rangefinder camera with 35mm or 50mm Summicron lenses. For most, I used a yellow filter to enhance contrast. The filter was uncoated, therefore causing some flare. I exposed the Tri-X at ISO 250 and developed in Kodak HC110 developer at dilution B, 4½ minutes at 67 deg. F, with 5 sec agitation every 30 sec. I scanned the negatives on a Plustek OpticFilm 7600i film scanner. If you have not used real film in awhile, buy some and take pictures. It is like meeting up with an old friend again and should revive the creative juices.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Burmese Days 13: Selfie at the Shwedagon

The great Shwedagon Pagoda (or the Shwedagon Zedi Daw ([ʃwèdəɡòʊɴ zèdìdɔ̀]) or Great Dagon Pagoda) dominates the skyline of Rangoon. It glows gold in the sunlight and can be seen from miles around. According to legend, it may be 2,600 years old, but archaeologists believe it was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. It is one of the most profound Buddhist sites in Burma because it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama. As such, it attracts the devout from throughout Myanmar and other Buddhist countries. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and the organization that runs it has modernized and runs a web page.

The Shewadon is built on a broad platform on Singuttara Hill. The hill is north of downtown Rangoon but easy to reach. There are four main approach entrances, with long stairs leading up to the temples. In the old days, you removed your shoes at the base of the stairs and climbed up barefoot.

This is a photograph from 13 May 1945 showing British soldiers at one of the entrances (public domain photograph SE 4108 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, taken by No. 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wackett, Frederick (Sergeant)). Note back then they left their boots but they took their rifles. Times have changed! Today, the south entrance has a modern lift, and you have to go through an X-ray machine and have your bags scanned, similar to an airport. No rifles this time.

The Great Dagon is immense. It is hard to appreciate the scale until you walk around. My father took these Kodachromes in 1957 with his Leica IIIC rangefinder camera with a 5cm ƒ/2 Summitar lens. Most of the palm trees blew over when Cyclone Nargis crossed the Irrawaddy delta on May 2, 2008. This was one the most devastating weather disaster to ever strike the country, and at least 146,000 people are believed to have been killed. Today there is only one palm tree left on the summit plateau.

As of November 2014, the Shewadagon was being re-gilded. Craftsmen, who come from Mandalay, set up bamboo scaffolding. Then they coat the stone and brick with natural lacquer from the Thit-si tree. The lacquer may be mixed with ashes. It waterproofs the stone, resists insects, and forms a base for the gold leaf. The bamboo is better then steel because it is light, flexible, grown locally, and quick to erect and take down. They use nylon rope or ties at the bamboo junctions. The pagoda needs to be re-gilded about every 5 years.

One of the tasks that the devout perform is washing Buddha every evening, as well as washing the slippery marble paving.

The expanse of marble is slippery and hard on the feet for us soft Westerners.

Now for the topic of this essay: everyone, but everyone, takes selfies or portraits today. "Hi folks, look, here I am in front of Buddha, in front of the Shwedagon, next to a dragon."

Despite the crowds, you can find a quiet spot and take a nap. Well, maybe you need to be a monk. Regardless, this is one of the most profoundly sacred sites for Buddhists in Burma and is a premier tourist site as well. Go at dusk and watch the changing of the light.

The 1957 photographs are from Kodachrome film with a Leica IIIC camera. The 2014 photographs are digital from Panasonic G3 or Fuji X-E1 cameras, with RAW files processed in PhotoNinja software. I drew the map with ESRI™ ArcMap software.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Burmese Days 12: Sensory Overload at Thiri Mingalar Market

If you like wholesale produce markets, they do not get much bigger than the Thiri Mingalar market in west Rangon, near the Hlaing River and west of Inya Lake and Yangon University. This is another place off the normal tourist route, but more and more foreigners are gradually showing up, and the local merchants seem delighted to have curious visitors. The market is huge and consists of three rows of parallel steel sheds (the aerial photograph is from ESRI® maps and data).
I never quite figured out the geography, but the first area my friends and I explored was the fruit area. Wow, nice produce, fresh from the farms.
Watermelons go flying. Strong guys to do this all day.
Bananas and plantains - more than I have ever seen in one place before.
Now for the good smelly stuff: the dried fish and shrimp. The shrimp are used as a flavoring agent in Burmese cuisine.
These tubs contain fermenting fish mash in the process of becoming fish sauce. Yum. Think of this when you buy a bottle of fish sauce in one of our sterile US supermarkets.
These carrots might be pretty good, as well.
If you are hungry, there is a big cafeteria on site. We were a bit dubious about the dish-washing facilities.
Betel nut chewing is a big business in Burma. The young ladies wrap betel leaf, areca nut, and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) into a little package, which may also contain tobacco, cardamon, or other spice. Rural people and workers in certain industries, especially truck and bus drivers, chew the betel as a stimulant. It stains their teeth and lips red. When we lived in Rangoon in the 1950s, walls were stained red with spit-out betel juice up to a height of about 6 ft. Chewing betel has serious health effects, especially malignant tumors in the mouth area.
These are the delivery boys, who pedal amazingly heavy loads in bicycle sidecars. Selfie photos are the big thing now.
Some families tend small stores.
I cannot recall what these shredded white roots are, but they sell tons of it every day. And the guys check their phones whenever possible. 
The Thiri Mingalar market is an amazing tableau of colors, shapes, smells, and people for a photographer. It seems safe, and there are other foreign visitors present. Highly recommended! Next time, I will take a film camera and try black and white. Wear boots or high shoes because there is a lot of squishy stuff underfoot.

These are digital images from a Panasonic G3 camera with Olympus 9-18mm lens or a Fujifilm X-E1 camera, with most RAW files processed with PhotoNinja software.