THE BIG READ: Waiting for the miracle
It was midnight in Burma. Our bus raced a half-moon and on the truck in front of us a tarpaulin billowed and flapped over a towering pile of pineapples.
Our driver started overtaking the truck. But get this: we were driving on the right-hand side of the road and our bus, like most vehicles in Burma, had right-hand steering. (A ruling general had a bizarre dream in 1970 that the country should switch directions.)
Because the driver couldn't see the road ahead, the front vehicle indicated left when it was clear. Then the bus, on zero visibility and 100% faith, overtook.
This mixture of pragmatism, faith and the legacy of the generals summarises Burma, official name Myanmar, today.
Do the words pariah state and miracle democratic transition ring a bell? The parallels between Burma and South Africa are striking. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in late 2010, sanctions were lifted and tourists and investors started streaming in.
Driving the reform is President U Thein Sein, surprisingly similar looking to FW de Klerk. He ditched his military uniform for a traditional silk longyi, freed political prisoners, negotiated ceasefires in some key ethnic conflicts and eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly and movement.
He and Suu Kyi are steering Burma to its first fully democratic, internationally observed elections in 2015. Bordering India, China, Laos and Thailand, Burma is the biggest landmass in mainland Southeast Asia and rich in gas, oil, timber and gems.
Descending like a guardian angel just after his re-election in November last year, was US president Barack Obama, giving Burma the stamp of Western approval.
This moment in the country's history reminds me of a lotus garden I saw one morning on Inle Lake. In the heat of the day, the furled lotus blooms sprang open into the most dazzling bright pink flowers.
In just one edition of the Myanmar Times, there were reports on major conferences for investment opportunities in tourism and mobile and electronic payment systems.
KPMG's chairman opened its new office, Land Rover entered the country, new cellphone licences would rival the government's monopoly and Burma's first ATM opened. And Teletubbies had arrived.
Yet, during the three weeks I travelled through the country, I saw people moving about in ox carts and canoes. Most women and children painted their faces with ground-up tanaka tree bark. At dawn, bells tinkled as barefoot monks and nuns went on their alms rounds to collect food. In thousands of temples, people lit incense and went on their knees.
People who pray know what they want. And in Burma it seemed to me that people want freedom and democracy more than they want possessions.
The absence of gnawing consumerism was striking. In ordinary homes, three generations lived side by side in a large room where mattresses and children's hammocks were rolled up by day and the only furniture was a shrine and a low round table.
Display of wealth is mostly communal. Communities donated to the upkeep and gold-leafing of their temples and pagodas.
At an offering festival, thousands of pilgrims from mountain villages, lakeside huts and dusty villages arrived in wooden canoes piled high with sacks of rice, sugar and candles. These were handed out, cup by cup and candle by candle, to snaking lines of monks and nuns.
The physical act of giving has resulted in an astonishing institutionalised generosity.
But there is a dark side. In a hotel bar in Yangon, a young journalist said patience was running out. The revered Aung San Suu Kyi gave in too easily to the military rulers. Self-determination was still an impossible dream for many ethnic minorities, especially in Kachin state, where she was from.
People have become "dumb" after years of repression. The regime took advantage of people's generosity and soft natures.
Many believe the former general's son-in-law is the power behind the throne and protecting the military leaders' vested interests.
Yet, Burma's long march to freedom will not stop. Come 2015, this gentle, golden land will become a democracy.
The question is, will Burma be more effective than South Africa in improving the lives of its people?
As Obama said in November: "This is a test whether a country can transition to a better place."
The answer, surely, has to be yes, for Burma and South Africa. However long it takes.
- Van der Walt is the 2013 Pica award winner for magazine feature writer of the year