A couple of weeks ago I asked my dad to send me as much information as he had about a trip we took together when I was much younger. I didn’t know what he had, and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Photos? Itineraries? Correspondence with the travel companies we used? Receipts from the Visas we obtained to cross the border? In his usual way, he had an impeccable record of our trip. I reviewed what he’d sent me: the account of where we’d stayed and where we’d gone, and I wallowed in the fog of nostalgia for our time together which even then I knew I hadn’t appreciated enough. I couldn’t capture it all, but in time I will. For now, however, there’s a path in my memory that I’m going to wander down, circle back, come back around. I’m going back to meet the monkey.
I met the monkey before I met the doctor. I met the doctor because whatever fever was lurking around in my system—a fever that was well entrenched before I met the monkey—had expanded its empire from deep in my stomach all the way up to my head. I spoke only a few words of the doctor’s language, and he only spoke a few words of English. Neither of us could speak Monkey. That (not speaking English nor Monkey) wasn’t really unusual at that time (2002) and in that place (Myanmar)—indeed, it’s not that unusual anywhere in the world at any time. The fever was getting worse, and I was having trouble conveying this sensation to the doctor who didn’t speak English. Luckily, Mr. Win, another small man who my dad paid to take me and him around and tell us things about Myanmar, spoke the doctor’s language, largely due to the fact that Mr. Win was from the same country as the doctor. This is, as we know, how languages work.
A lot happened to us in Myanmar apart from meeting the doctor and the monkey. My dad, who’d spent a portion of his childhood in a country called Burma that was now called Myanmar, showed me the neighborhood, now some sort of military base, where he’d lived as a boy in Rangoon—which was now called Yangon; we ate plates of “glutinous wine” in a restaurant that had the appearance of an empty discotheque; we watched a boy wearing a Santa hat in February ride his battered BMX bike around in circles in the street, his smile wide and his laugh wild; we toasted our trip with cold beer in the dark of a power outage; we got surrounded by lepers who put their flaking, nubby hands out towards us, asking for the worn notes and pungent coins in our pockets; we watched the sun set over the thousands of thousand-year old pagodas and temples—the holiest place that I’ve ever visited and also where I realized how much traveling meant to him; I came to understand the rich life of travel that my dad had experienced before I was born and how I’d never really know it, neither his own travels nor my own life of going places; I tried in vain to comprehend how the landscapes and cityscapes of Myanmar at that time—before it became a mecca for Western tourists— both enthralled and repelled me, a push and pull that to this day that I find more difficult to write about than documenting some fragments in time from the trip, such as when I got sick, then bitten by a monkey, then went to the doctor.
I know that I’m scuttering all over the place—like the very monkeys with whom I’m so obsessed—so let me set the scene for the Myanmar monkey daze. Before we met the doctor, Mr. Win took us to the place where the monkey lived: the incredible pilgrimage site, Mt. Popa, where worshippers worship and monkeys go everywhere. Mr. Win, who was with us most of the time, told me later that the doctor told him that the monkey bite had nothing to do with my sickness. He was right: I’d been feeling ill since before our trip to Mt. Popa. In fact, the bite wasn’t deep at all, and I’d washed it out in a small bucket of greenish water that the monks and nuns ushered me towards and then wrapped my hand in a rag. The monks and the nuns had seen what happened, and they demonstrated to me how to wash a monkey-bitten hand. Although I might sound like something of an expert, I actually hadn’t been bitten by a monkey before, and I really hoped it’d be a one-time thing—I don’t think anyone in human history has desired a second monkey bite—and I was thankful for the assistance.
And yet, even at the time, combing dirty bucket water with a monkey-bitten human hand didn’t seem like a natural or sensible combination, but what did I know, really? There was of course the old adage about acting like Romans when in Rome; or, in this case, acting like someone who was comfortable with monkeys in densely-populated monkey place. We were minorities in this land of monkeys and nuns and monks, my dad and me, and the monkeys and nuns and monks knew it. The monkeys recognized that the tourists were a source of both food and entertainment, so they may have found it amusing that one of their brethren had bitten me; on the other hand, the monks and nuns recognized that the tourists were a source of financial donations, so immediate care was necessary after the bite, and who were I to decline it? They were all, after all, those who lived there, and I was a skinny teenager from a city in New Zealand wearing a short-sleeve button-up shirt who’d just got attacked by a monkey: I was happy to defer to those in the know. In truth, it’s probably a little dramatic to call my interaction with the monkey an “attack.” The monkey bit me because all the monkey treats—imagine some kind of enlarged, multicolored puff cereal— we’d once had plenty of, were now all gone. He’d gone full monkey, and we didn’t have a single puff to give.
We’d fed many other monkeys as we trudged up Mt. Popa, but not the monkey that bit me. Another monkey—maybe a friend of the monkey that bit me, perhaps a rival—actually stole the last of the treats out of the left pocket of my dad’s shorts shortly before we met TMTBM (the monkey that bit me). We were monkey treat poor and the monkey wanted some treats. He expected them because all the tourists had monkey treats to give—it was, the guidebooks told us, the thing to do there, at Mt. Popa, in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, where there were more monkeys than I’d ever seen. Some were quiet but a lot of them screeched, presumably as a request for the monkey treats that I didn’t taste myself but I figure are quite delicious. And we couldn’t do the thing to do, so the monkey was a little frustrated. When he reached out for monkey treats that weren’t there, and I reached out with nothing but an empty hand, I imagine there was both disappointment and agitation on the monkey’s part. He lashed out, and his behavior (namely, the bite to my hand) was far from unreasonable in my human mind. He simply bit the hand that didn’t feed him.
Oh, that fever! My memories of it are more vivid than the monkey bite. Unlike the monkey, the fever crept up on me unseen, and when its teeth sunk in, the barrier between sleeping and waking thoughts was increasingly permeable. In the hours after I got bitten by the monkey but before we went to the clinic, an experimental film played out for me whether my eyes were open or closed. I remember these “dreams” now as splashes of colors on a dark wall, lurid colors seeping into one another. I was in the back of the old Japanese import when it began, bumping along roads where the only other tourists we ever saw were the middle-aged Germans who filed on and off buses organized by the government.
My dad sat up front next to Mr. Win; I laid on my side on the backseat. I closed my eyes, counted slowly, and resisted the nausea like a wobbly-legged boxer leaning back from that inevitable knockout hit. I gazed at the wall behind my eyelids, followed the bleeding of the green and blue and red pyramids, the crumbing of weird hieroglyphs. The wall was behind my eyelids, but when I opened my eyes it was still there. The wall gave the landscapes that we sped past an Instagram filter many years before there was Instagram, before there was Facebook, before any social media, before the idea of putting a digital filter on any image and circulating it to “friends” on a cyberspace network. Filters are walls that we can see through, and I could see fields filled with poppies that would be processed into hard drugs that would give people around the world their own filtered worldviews. Myanmar produced a whole lot of opium—and by this, I mean the country is still the second largest producer of opium in the world—and I would’ve been tempted to give it a try to feel any different than I did then, post-monkey bite and mid-fever dream.
I went to Myanmar with my dad when I was nineteen, met a monkey and a doctor and an interesting man named Mr. Win about whom I didn’t include enough of in this piece. I regret nothing from that trip apart from the fact that I should’ve taken a photo of the monkey who bit me, but he’d scampered away quickly and I was left standing there, looking around, generally confused about what to do next—in that minute, in that hour, in the hot days and weeks ahead. If I’m honest with myself, this is a feeling that’s never really left me, not to this very day as I’m writing this paragraph, sitting in the back room of a small house on a residential street in a city in the American South—Savannah, Georgia—a city that is very old by North American city standards but is nothing compared to the monkey’s home, all those miles and years away from me now.
This has nothing to do with the monkey or this trip to Myanmar years ago. Reports about terrible events in Myanmar have been circulating worldwide over the last week, and it feels odd to write any kind of piece about the country—even though it’s a short piece comprised of a couple of moments from a three-week trip there with my father 15 years ago— for a publication like this one without mentioning the current news. Direct, structural, and cultural violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar, but rarely, if ever, has it caught the attention of the world’s most popular media outlets. We were made aware of the ongoing mistreatment of the Rohingya when we visited in the early 2000s, and it looks as if the social, economic, and political conditions in which they live in Myanmar might have hit some horrid contemporary nadir. For someone who has been for so long associated with the fight for freedom and equality in Myanmar, it is well past time for Aung San Suu Kyi to agitate for the rights of the Rohingya; if anyone understands a long history of persecution and marginalization in Myanmar, you’d expect it to be Aung San Suu Kyi. Her silence on this issue is extremely perturbing, and it should not be forgotten in the haze of the idealization that she has received as a public figure.