Byline: Stephen Morisoncq Jr.
YANGON, Myanmar - Cyclone Nargis came roaring into this city at 11 p.m. May 2 and set about decimating the Mother Land Inn 2, where I was staying, and everything else in the former capital of Myanmar.
The gentle skies that preceded this devastating storm gave way to a battering wind, sleet and rain, and I climbed into bed and listened to the corrugated tin panels of the neighboring rooftop wagging and slapping like the pistons of a failing steam engine. At 2 a.m., an explosion and a shudder from the core of the hotel jerked me upright. A 100-year-old banyan tree had punched its way through the windows of Room 22 (I was in number 7 on the leeward side of the hotel) as it collapsed onto the rooftop. The wind increased and windows on the upper floors began shattering. Broken glass rained down throughout the night, creating a chorus of tinkling and leaving a jagged shard stuck in one of my wooden window sashes.
At 5 a.m., a blue dawn broke even as the flapping corrugated roofing next door began wrenching free, turning the metal sheets into flying guillotines that spiraled away on the 90 ph gusts. Worried about my vulnerable windows, I arranged my things by the door and went downstairs.
A dozen guests from Australia, Israel, France and Argentina were hunched on the bamboo sofa and chairs in the little lobby, driven from their rooms by shattered windows, dripping ceilings and flooded floors. A cascade of water ran down the back stairs and flooded the ground floor. In the dining room annex, the Burmese staff had recovered one of the pieces of corrugated roofing, curled it into a half-pipe, and used it as the final stage in a Rube Goldberg-type device that sluiced water from the stairs across the narrow dining room and out a window. For the rest of the morning, I moved between benumbed guests and the soaked and sleep-deprived hotel staff, who fought with brooms, mops and rags to push the water back outside.
At 11 a.m., 12 hours after the storm began, the wind died, the rain tapered off, and people began to venture outside to stare at what remained of the city.
Working in Beijing, China, I'd taken advantage of a weeklong holiday to fly down to Myanmar and try to learn more about the writing scene there. I've got an interest in Asian literature, and I was intrigued by the descriptions of Myanmar - formerly Burma- in the works of canonized English writers such as George Orwell and Somerset Maugham.
I landed at Yangon Airport on April 29 and wandered around the city for three days, visiting nervous writers and snapping pictures of the landmark gilt pagodas and crumbling British-era buildings.
The affable Burmese I met on the streets, in restaurants, in taxis and in their homes derided their corrupt and oppressive military government, but even in private they leaned in closer and lowered their voices as they spoke. The writers I met showed me bowdlerized copies of their work and complained, on condition of anonymity, of apolitical stories that were cut or killed by censors who simply disagreed with their opinions. Publishing a political article could merit jail time or worse.
It wasn't just print communications that were restricted. My early attempt to buy a SIM chip from a Burmese cell phone retailer was met with amusement. She sold phones as fashion accessories, she said, but SIM chips were restricted to those with government permission and a $2,000 down payment.
Similarly, access to satellite television was limited and getting worse. On Jan.1, without warning, the government had raised the tax on satellite dishes from $6 a year to $780 - three times the average annual income. There were computers available, but access to the Internet was slow and users had to ply proxy servers to subvert the government's firewall and reach e-mail providers. Even the telephones were finicky and said to be bugged.
Those with televisions, computers and telephones were never guaranteed electrical power. Shortly after I landed, the lights in the hotel died and the manager explained to me that "this neighborhood gets power for two hours, then it is turned off and the next neighborhood gets power." To compensate, the hotel had a smoke-belching generator housed in a Saint Bernard's doghouse on the sidewalk. Whenever the lights failed, one of the hotel workers went outside and fired up the generator. Similar machines dotted curbsides throughout the city.
It was little wonder, then, that Cyclone Nargis came with little
warning on the morning of May 2. It arrived as an unofficial rumor. Even after the huge storm had lumbered ashore a hundred miles to the south and begun to wreak havoc on the rice-farming delta, there was little if any information forthcoming from the government. When the rain that had pelted Yangon for three days abated, the city's citizens, unaware of the devastation and horror elsewhere in their country, went out for dinner and an evening stroll.
I took a taxi to the Traders Hotel, a haven for expatriates, NGO officials, visiting businesspeople and tourists, and sipped margaritas with a crowd of teachers from the Yangon international schools until the calm gave way to a strong wind at 11 p.m. Even then, I had no trouble flagging a cabbie on the street, who charged me 1,500 Burmese kyat ($1.50 U.S.) for the drive across town. It would be the last leisurely and inexpensive taxi ride of my trip.
The day after the storm, the streets were a maze of fallen trees; the scarred roads were flooded; branches and foliage were accumulated in drifts, and tangled power lines laced everything like the ornate webs of a troop of metal spiders. Buildings of all sizes and vintages were missing roofs; the Asia Plaza Hotel's glass lobby was smashed and gutted; the gilt-eaved buildings of the Melamu Pagoda were tipped on their sides.
One day passed and then another, and the trees blocking the roads were pared back by men wearing shorts or traditional longyis (sarongs) and wielding handsaws and machetes. I didn't spot a chain saw or a military detachment for 48 hours. Instead, the locals simply whittled away, widening paths through the carnage to permit pedestrians, then cars, as they slowly uncovered the roads.
The taxis returned on May 5, but with gas selling for $11 a gallon, fares tripled, then quadrupled. When I left on May 6, the $5 half-hour ride to the airport had become a $30, hourlong pilgrimage that circumvented the plugged downtown and wove through a denuded suburb that resembled a ransacked village rising from the downed trunks of a clear-cut forest.
The prices of bottled water and eggs had doubled, and the government was still estimating the dead at 350 people. It wasn't until my Air China flight took off from the runway and I stared down at the flooded rice paddies that surrounded the city that I wondered what Nargis, which had torn the roofs off city hotels, had done to the thatched huts of the delta. When I landed in Beijing, I learned that the devastating storm may have claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Stephen Morison Jr. is an English teacher from Pomfret, Conn., and is teaching and writing in Beijing, China. His stories about Dubai and Beijing have appeared in Worcester Living magazine.
CUTLINE: Residents of Yangon, Myanmar, view some of the damage caused by Cyclone Nargis earlier this month.
PHOTOG: STEPHEN MORISON JR.