Saturday, 22 March 2008

Sittwe Rocks by Robert Reid.

I have a new favorite city
A scrappy port town near Bangladesh, where the wide muddy Kaladan River mixes with the Bay of Bengal, Sittwe is not loved by most visitors. Getting here means a full-day boat ride from an already-isolated port town Taunggok – or an hour flight from Yangon or Thandwe, which I opted for. A couple hotels, powered round-the-clock by generators... don't expect a fan to be blowing after 11pm. It's a diverse place – something like 25% of the locals are referred to as kala (outsider, or foreigner), in this case meaning Muslims. Some are descendants from the nearby Arakan Kingdom of 'Monkey-Egg' (Mrauk-U), who came from today's Bangladesh as archers for a religion-tolerant king. Others are more recent arrivals – people without a nation, called outside Myanmar as the Rohingya. Nearly everyone who passes through, takes a quick taxi to the jetty for a (sometimes leaky) boat ride six or seven hours to Mrauk-U. But I had a hard time leaving. Despite its remoteness, Sittwe is not exactly unknown. During September's protests, something like 20,000 locals – most of whom are Rakhine (or Arakan), a ethnic group similar to, but distinct (very), from the Burmese – followed monks down the main road (Main Rd) and past the new government-built clock tower to the City Hall, where they shouted for democracy. No deaths occurred. One local told me, "Half of the soldiers were Arakan. We heard them warn to Burmese solidiers, 'if you shoot, you'll get my peanut" (meaning bullet). No shots were fired. My timing coincided with Arakan State Day, "a government-made holiday," one Rakhine local said dismissively. Still I went to Lakandaya, a shimmering gold zedi visible from the plane on landing (it's just after the octagonal prison if you're on the right side of the plane), where thousands of monks holding brown umbrellas, kids in t-shirts, and men and women in longyis stood on tip-toe, or climbed trees, to look over a mass of spectators at a couple traditional Rakhine events. The first was a team of bare-chested men, with their longyis wrapped into something like a padded Speedo. They climbed a greased-up bamboo pole standing at least 30 feet, to retrieve a white flag at the top. One by one, the teams would climb on each others' backs on hold on desperately to the pole, then eventually slide after making it 15 or 20 feet up.
A local I met said, "Come, wrestling's about to start. I got VIP seats." We breezed past the uniformed police and into padded armchairs in a shaded makeshift 'bandstand' looking over a round sand pit where two men kicked and grabbed and slapped at each other. There is no three-second pin in Rakhine wrestling, or fancy costumes. They took turns as an 'attacker' or 'defender,' with the simple goal of knocking the other down, however briefly. A local translated the hilarious trash-talk dialogue of the middle-aged MC with a mic and a serious look. "He's saying, 'The Sittwe guy is no good. He has cold blood. He better get it hot or he's going to lose!'" Soon he was slammed to the ground, the other picking him up and helping him brush off dirt. Some would walk off the ring arm-in-arm. Before crouching in the shade to watch other matches, wrestlers would circulate through the bandstand to collect 'prize coupons,' simple white pieces of paper you could purchase for 50 or 100 kyat (about $0.04 or $0.08 each) and give to the wrestlers, win or lose. The MC said: "Please give coupons to the wrestlers to promote our traditional sport! These guys are very poor. If you can't give there won't be anyone to play in the future." I gave. A local told me, "The best wrestlers are from very small villages – the guys here from Sittwe always get beat badly." Soon cleared-out seats were emptied. Across the ring, where locals held up hands to block the sun from their faces, were being made to sit by police in army helmets. Then the green-uniformed man in glasses and a frown rushed in to sit up front, alongside a plump-bottomed woman in a floral dress. "He's the regional commander of the military – not a good guy," one local whispered. How does it make you feel seeing him so close? "I feel like arresting him and executing him," he laughed, only half-joking I think. The military officers here are nearly all Burmese.
Later I rode with one guy I met along the Strand Rd at low tide as dusk approached. Groups of locals played soccer in the black sand offshore. Strand Rd ends at a stunning point – labeled View Point – where they charge you $1 or so to take pictures. The Sittwe local drove to the nearby navy base, locked up and restricted, and asked if we can go in to access the black-sand beach that faces the sea, and where a tricky undertow takes a few lives annually. And we rode along it for a sunset ride.

The next morning I woke early for the stunning fish market on the water in the center. it swarmed with shoppers. Trishaw wheels bumped tenderly into my shoes, and locals carrying huge baskets filled with rice or dried fish or vegetables bounced past me. At the end of the market is a wild fish market, with decapitations-in-progress. One group circled a giant eel, which was being unceremoniously de-gutted. 'You! Here!' They beckoned me closer to take a photo of the suspended guts – something very valuable around here. Nearby dried sharks and barracuda hang under a high-ceiling market, and dozens of just-caught sting ray lay on bare concrete.
I walk into a crummy looking export company, where tiger prawns were being packed "for export only – people here are too poor to buy." A thin gray-haired man with a funny beret and deeply sun-darkened skin walks up and hands me a pink piece of paper with Arakan writing. "It's an invitation to play golf," one worker explains. "I like golf," the bereted man manages, not one to let lack of language to stop a conversation. "But I don't like playing on the military course." I risk a recommendation, suggesting he could defecate into the hole so the officers behind him would get a surprise. He laughs loudly, nodding. "Yes! Very good idea!"
Author:Robert Reid.

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