I order another beer and wonder – what is it that makes and defines a city?
Is it the buildings? History? Politics? Culture? Language?
No. It is the people that make and define a city.
“Fucking people, James…”
Yes, U Sywar.
Governments and armies do kill, maim, steal, cheat and lie, but so do many other people.
“Sit down James, sit down.”
“Yes, my friend, I know,” U Sywar smiles, “I know everything. I have been all around the world – Africa, America, Asia, South America, Europe – everywhere. And everywhere is the same my friend. In every country, in every village, in every town and in every city there are good people and there are bad people. Where you are from has nothing to do with it. It's what's in your heart that counts.”
I nod and think of my landlord, I don't know why, then light his Red Ruby cigarette and my own.
“I know it's corny,” smiles Zaw Dan, sitting with us, “but I always think of 'Imagine' by John Lennon – 'Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace…'
“Yes,” Zaw Dan nods, “You see, none of us at this table care about politics or politicians. Their so-called big ideas to change this and that are nothing more than a change of clothes. Underneath they are all the same. Nor do any of us care about which religion you are born into or choose, despite what the stupid bloody media tries to tell everyone.”
Zaw Dan shakes his head and pushes his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose.
“Who cares if you are 'this' and I am 'that'? Right? I mean, sure, Narz there and me, we are both Muslims, and, yes, U Sywar there is Buddhist. But at the end of the day James we are alljust people. We are all human beings. That's all we are, and all we ever will be. So why can't we all just get along and get on with it? I mean, we all have to go through and deal with the same things, right?”
Yes, we do. As they say here: 'Life cannot vanish without reaching fate's destiny'. We are all born to suffer. Like my sick father – the reason I must return home the day after tomorrow. Like my 28 year-old Burmese friend who died five months ago from heart failure in a public ward filled to the brim with pitiful and forgotten *one-dollar figures.
Yes, the fire waits for all of us…
“Hey, come on James,” says Narz, leaning over and giving me a pat me on the back, “Don't look so sad. You are doing the right thing. As we say here: 'Heaven is found underneath your father's foot.'”
“That should be, 'mother',” Zaw Dan whispers to me, “But you get the meaning…”
I do and look up at the moon – full, clear and bright – sprinkling her bright silver rays not only over our aluminium chairs and table but over my own home; so near in my heart, yet so far away.
'“Yes,” interrupts U Sywar, sticking to his own narrative like my sweat soaked shirt sticks to my back, “If you are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, or if you are local or foreign – it doesn't matter to me. I treat everyone the same. I am true, James. Yes, true, my friend, you understand me?”
I do and I nod.
“Yes,” U Sywar smiles, “I know you do. That is why I am sitting here with Zaw Dan, Narz and you, because you are all true. I know you are real friends with good hearts who I can trust because you don't waste your time with too much talk, like so many other people do. Always talking, talking, spreading rumours and swapping tasty bits of gossip, running others down to either make themselves feel better, or to improve their lot in life. I don't like that my friend, I really do not.”
Again I nod, but I don't say anything.
Yes, it is true that people talk. They always have and they always will.
What matters though, is how you respond.
People here have called me a drunkard, a liar, a womaniser, and best of all, a male prostitute. But none of these claims, bar one, have ever made me angry or drawn a response. As someone once said, to dwell on such things brings only pain.
I rub my right eye and I smile. Yes, it is far better, and safer, to pay it no mind at all.
“Mya Yeik Nyo hotel compound.”
That is not always the case…
“OK, OK,” the taxi driver laughs, “Get in my friend, get in…”
I do and leave U Sywar, Narz and Zaw Dan to their unrepeatable tale of a sailors' night out in Singapore, and all of the other tables outside the beer station to their whisky, their loud shouts and their animated hand gestures.
The taxi turning and then heading out into the night, I put in my earphones and close my tired eyes on the mosques, the churches, the Hindu temples and the pagodas that pass by my dust lined window.
'…Do you know why you got feelings in your heart?…'
After this year in Yangon, the truth is that I won't miss any of them when I'm gone. Like the friends I am meeting for yet more farewell drinks, believe me, they are always here and will be when I return.
'…The trigger of time it tricks you…'
Yes, my people, you have been and you will always be here.
'…Tonight, the streets are ours…'
*One dollar is the annual amount spent per capita by the Burmese government on their healthcare system, which is ranked by the World Health Organisation as the second worst in the world.
J.H. Martin is from London, England but has no fixed abode. His writing has appeared in a number of places in Asia, Europe and the Americas.