Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Neighborhood Guitar-Playing with the RIff-Raff

A week ago, I was coming home from a late dinner to my fabulous penthouse apartment here in Hladen Market when I was greeted by a random guy on the street. We were about a block away from my home.

Hello!” he said.
Hello!” I said back.

That seemed to be about the extent of his English until we got to just in front of my building. There were a bunch of Burmese guys sitting in a rough circle on the then closed street vendor kiosks and on the pavement of the street itself. They were passing around a guitar and singing songs, a scene repeated hundreds of millions of times every night in every country on this Earth. No language needed; the common language is music.

Please, please!” my new friend remembered another word of English and gestured for me to join the group. Heck yeah! A bunch of guys sitting around playing guitar and singing? This was exactly the kind of connection I was looking for with my neighborhood. I sat down on the edge of the pavement and of course, the guitar was immediately passed to me, the foreigner. After a year in Thailand, I learned that there are a few standards I know by heart that Southeast Asians seem to love. I played Knocking on Heaven's Door, Let it Be and of course, Country Roads. They knew the words (or at least the sounds), sang along and we all connected, smiled and had a good old time. A water bottle with some unknown brownish liquid was being passed around and was offered to me. Refusing food or beverage in Asia is, as a friend once told me, like kicking Jesus in the nut sack, so of course, I had to accept. It was what I expected, some kind of whiskey and water.

Mind you, with Country Roads, when you get a bunch of guys singing it, particularly if some of them have had a few, the chorus is belted loudly. Very loudly. That's just how it is. ...to the place, where I BeLOOOONNG!!!! WEST VIRGINIA!!...

I'm sure everyone in a two block radius heard us. I didn't think about it for a second. See, here in Myanmar, there is absolutely no sense of being too loud or noise pollution, particularly not at the relatively early hour of about 10:30 PM. People here are free to make as much noise as they can when and wherever they want. It's kinda hard to explain, and kind of annoying when it happens at 6 AM, except to say that I wasn't in the least bit worried about being too loud.

I kinda like that. All in all, I'm at heart a loud person, so I like the freedom to make my noise as I wish. No one complains or minds too much because they know that's how it is. When it comes to things like civil and political rights, the people in this country have less freedom than most of the rest world. When it comes to freedom in how you chose to live and act in your daily life, it's a free for all. Lotsa freedom, far more than even the USA.

There are, of course, exceptions. People still gossip, worry, complain about their neighbors and judge. Apparently, some of the guys in this song circle last week were amongst the riff-raff of the neighborhood. We broke up about 10:30 that night, and at 11 PM, I got this text from Nwe Zin, my real estate agent:

Oh come on. Now, I knew immediately that this concern was well intentioned. I do have a bit more than a modicum of street smarts, even in a foreign country like Myanmar, but my landlords don't know that. They want me to stay away from the riff-raff.  Ultimately, they should know, I'm one of the riff-raff myself.  The riff-raff are my people.

Today, the landlords agreed to hire people to come in and deal with pigeon situation above my head.

Again, this all with the best intentions in mind.

Toinght, a week later, once again it was getting late into the evening and I had forgotten to eat dinner. For the first time in a week (and I had been listening for it), I heard the neighborhood guys playing guitar and singing on the street in front of my building. I went and ate, this time with ukulele in tow. Came back to the spot where the guys were playing and singing, it was after 10 PM by that point, and the energy of the first night wasn't there. I followed along as best I could to the guitar they were playing, and when I played they were clueless as the chords on a uke are totally different than a guitar.

I don't care what my landlords say. I want to connect, safely and sanely with the guys in my neighborhood. Music is one way to do that. We don't speak each others' language even musically when I call out chords like “G”... “C”... “D'... They know the chords, but don't know the letters.

First paycheck, I'm buying a guitar.


  1. I just wrote a long comment and then lost internet connection!
    slow sped and loss of service is par for the desert. We are glad to have a connection at all.

    Basically what I said, in a mothers voice, is quit smoking for the sake of your lungs, and be sure to lock up your stuff. It is only stuff, but you can't afford to lose it. Hide any cash you have, and if you can, get a cable lock for your laptop and camera. Keep them locked up, and out of sight whenever you leave, or have people in.

    You think you are street smart, but you are a rich foreigner to many. Love them. Hang out with them, feed them, but never trust them. This come from someone who has been ripped off many ways by strangers and friends. vvFunny I had so much more money in my purse when your friends no longer came and went thru our house.

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  3. Ditto what your mother said! Stay safe. we are never too old to listen to sound advice!
    Glad there are going to address the pigeon, just make sure u r not one. That landlord of yours might know a thing or two about those guys that you don't.

  4. LOL! OH...what Mothers have to scold you about! I am sure i would say the same if you were my kid, but you are not, and i so enjoy your sense of adventure! and yea! sometimes we are the local riff raff!...I say.."Strum along, drink that questionable liqueur and Enjoy!"...Life is short! Enjoy. Believe for one minute that you can play a guitar with unknowns and you will not die! after all...Some people just end up getting hit by a bus crossing the street to the same old market they went to for 50 years! Right?!


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