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The van moves in dense traffic through roundabouts and curving lefts and rights, past Inya Lake, where, three days earlier, an American named John Yettaw had been arrested on its southern shore after swimming to Suu Kyi's compound. A few kilometers later, the Schwedagon Pagoda, constructed a few millennia ago to house eight strands of the Buddha's hair, appears like a hallucination. Shimmering in the morning sun with a new coat of gold leaf, the bell-shaped pagoda looks like it was on loan from another — better — planet.
The first stop of an early-May, three-country, U.S.-sponsored tour that ultimately takes Ozomatli to Vietnam and Thailand, Burma will jar even the most jaded travelers. One of our guides warns us that the country is at least twenty years behind the rest of civilization; soon thereafter we drive past a billboard excitedly advertising the arrival of a new Yellow Pages. The name of the country's most beloved leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is forbidden from being spoken aloud; rather, she is known simply as "the Lady." The exchange rate of American currency is based as much on the cleanliness of the bill as on what numbers are on it. Hand the hotel receptionist a crinkled or torn $100, and you may as well have just handed her a leaf.
In addition to the moment-to-moment oddities, it has been a strange few days for the band — and the country. On the same day that Yettaw is pulled from the lake and Ozomatli arrives in Burma, two American journalists traveling in Mandalay, to the north, are detained by Burmese immigration authorities. The week of Ozomatli's tour of Burma is also the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis. The storm, thought to be the most deadly natural disaster in the country's recorded history, killed an estimated 100,000 people.
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And if that weren't enough weight, the house-arrest sentence of Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been confined to her compound on Inya Lake for thirteen of the past nineteen years, is up for renewal in a few weeks. The Lady won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She's a living symbol of the prodemocracy movement in Burma but is imprisoned under the orders of the military junta that controls the country. She is allowed no visitors, save for her doctor, and her home is guarded 24 hours a day. This is one reason that many nations refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the junta, or the new name it has chosen for the country — Myanmar.
Richard Mei, chief public-affairs officer in Burma for the U.S. Department of State, doesn't know whether any of these factors — the swimmer, the journalists' detention, the anniversary — are connected, or whether Ozomatli's visit has anything to do with any of it. But news and rumors of the curious happenings have wormed their way into the heads of the American visitors, their state department guides and the two Burmese translators assigned to serve as Ozomatli's attachés.
Mei, a tall Asian American born in Queens, has a simple catchall explanation for anything that occurs in his oft-baffling station: "This is Burma. Strange things can happen."