Saturday, December 31, 2005

On the Precipice of a New Year

We've been here in Chiang Mai for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it makes sense that we'll usher in the new year here as well. It is our home-away-from-home as I've mentioned before... a place where orchids sit upon trees like crazy hairstyles on portly girls; where women running the cash register at 7-11 turn out to be men with 5 o'clock shadows and red bows in long hair (and the kicker is, here it's OK); where a walk through a market attacks the nostrils with the pungent and not altogether pleasing scent of fish: dried fish, fish sauce, fish paste and where the smell of sweet corn reminds me of summers in the midwest; where everyone wears flipflops and women, when not wearing flipflops, operate motorbikes in spiky, strappy sandals; where, with an artistic perspective, temple spires pierce clouds in the sky: be careful if they pop, confetti may spill out...

Tonight, lights from bridges will twinkle on the river; lit lanterns will intermingle with stars in the sky; fireworks will light up the night in colors of the rainbow; the pop and bang of hand-thrown firecrackers will damage ear drums; the smell of gunpowder from battles with wick and flame will fill the air...

We'll be celebrating with our friends John and Nyla -- we met them a few months ago in Koh Samui and we've reunited here in Chiang Mai for the drunk-fest known as New Year's Eve. And what is New Year's Eve, if not a time to get wasted or remain sober and watch Dick Clark's ball drop while eating frozen appetizers heated in an oven? It's not like time knows that it's marching on... the calendar is a human invention. If it wasn't for us and our habit of organizing time into days and weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia (and what comes after millennia?)... if it wasn't for our habit in doing this, New Year's eve and day would be like any other. But we use this event as a reason to change our ways -- shed bad habits -- make a change in our lives... This year, I haven't come up with any resolutions... A few years ago, I wrote a little essay about just this thing. Here it is:


To bring in the New Year, I did my spring cleaning... last year's. It prompted me to consider my New Years' resolutions more carefully. Obviously I need to add time management to the list. Literally. Since I didn't follow through on 2003's resolutions, all I have to do in 2004 is find last year's list (possible, thanks to the spring cleaning) and pencil in 'improve time management'. The words follow a considerable record of failed or forgotten endeavors that follow me from year to year: lose weight, dress more stylishly, remember to send birthday cards, learn how to break-dance, discover the cure for cellulite, win the lottery. Several years ago I began to add ridiculous resolutions to the roster because in reality, even the every-day items are improbable considering nothing ever comes of them. My listing of resolutions has become more of a wish list than something to take action on.

Almost everyone makes New Year's resolutions, but hardly anyone I know keeps them. Joe, the guy down at the corner store, grimaced when I asked him about his. He already knows he won't keep up his weight loss program, one that simply entails eating dinner before 8 p.m., and it's only January 2. I, myself, have already considered breaking a few of my pledges - after all, bad habits are hard to shed. And anyway, there's always tomorrow... or next year.

In addition to adding 'improve time management' to this year's list, I'm also considering 'cease making new years resolutions'. But how could I stop following a tradition that's been around 4000 years, since the ancient days of the Babylonians? Their lists of resolutions were probably short and sweet, as they'd have to painstakingly chip them out of stone tablets. I've read that their most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. Now that's a resolution even I could keep (that is, if I lived anywhere near grass).

The Babylonians were onto something. They gave themselves achievable goals. Maybe we should keep our lists simple and clutter-free. Perhaps we'd actually be able to achieve something written on them. If we have only one goal to pursue, how could we go wrong? We can throw our full weight at the problem without distractions from other pesky aspirations and the guilt that comes with ignoring them.

Committing my self-improvement objectives to a list makes them scary. They leave the happy place in the back of my mind and become real. I must feed and nurture them or they will die and mock me in the process. I've made ambitious proclamations about losing weight over the years, only to meekly admit failure when I'm asked how things are going. It's a cycle of embarrassment I can count on from year to year. I don't like to make my life more complicated than needed and would rather not make resolutions in the first place. Still, every New Year's day I bring out my tattered list once again, if for no other reason than habit. I know that ultimately, the list doesn't matter. I am not the only one to quickly stow her list away, back to its home in the subconscious, before week's end.

As for 2004, I've decided to maintain the tradition set forth by the Babylonians. I will continue to make New Year's resolutions, but this year, I won't set myself up for failure. I will add 'improve time management' to the inventory but my resolution is simply to keep my list in mind beyond the month of January - possibly, even, the entire year.


The only thing I've lined up to bring in 2006 is the eating of a cockroach. Yes, you read right. I shall eat a cockroach (maybe... maybe I won't, but I did promise to do so). They sell fried insects as snacks here in Thailand and the other night, while out with John and Nyla, we were all drunk enough to try a cricket and some of us (me and John), a fat, white grub. At the time, I was too sober to eat a cockroach, they're 3-inchers I might add, but I was drunk enough to promise John that along with him, I shall ingest a roach on New Year's Eve. Perhaps, if I'm crafty, I can convince John that I've made a New Year's resolution to not eat insects and I can worm (pun intended) out of my commitment to join him in the midnight feast.

Happy New Year, 2006

Friday, December 30, 2005

Myanmar: Yangon

December 23rd {notes from journal}

Yangon used to be called Rangoon. Before the ruling military junta took over, Myanmar used to be called Burma. Names change with political will. Perhaps renaming a place is the ultimate symbol of power -- it shows people who's who. In Vietnam, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. In India, Calcutta is Kolkata and Bombay is Mumbai.

Yangon is unlike any other city we visited in Myanmar. It's the capital city and until recently, it was the location for Myanmar's central government (and incidentally, its the home of Aung San Suu Kyi). Just this month, the government started relocating to a remote mountainous 'hideaway', a place called Pyinmana, 320 kilometers north of Yangon. No-one knows why -- including the government employees who have been relocated to what has been called a 'backwater' full of poisonous snakes and malaria -- there is no explanation given. Many are leaving their families behind in Yangon, which means added expense. And it's against the law to 'quit' a government job. Permission must be given. There is speculation that the government is moving farther inland due to fears of a US attack (noting the war with Iraq). The other theory is that the chairman, Than Shwe, is simply heeding the advice of astrologers. When we were waiting for so long to get our visas last month, people mentioned, "there must be something going on there," so apparently this was it -- the relocation was announced in November. People must have been busy.

Yangon is a busy place, especially in the evening, with people and cars and motorbikes and bicycles clogging the streets -- sidewalk cafes with tiny tables and low stools clot the sidewalks. With the black-streak-stained buildings, and colonial architecture from the British days, I was reminded a bit of India, England's neighboring colony of bygone days. Compared with the rest of Myanmar, Yangon felt 10 years ahead in terms of development and consumerism, but still decades behind the rest of the world. There are shops selling appliances, electronics and clothes. There are put-together restaurants and, even, fast food places called (creatively) MacBurger. The main attraction for tourists in Yangon is The Shwedagon Pagoda, a giant golden temple visible from many parts of the city. We could see the spire glowing in the afternoon sun from our hotel room, bigger than any building in our field of vision (there are no skyscrapers in Myanmar but Yangon has plenty of monolithic colonial-era buildings about).

Originally, we hadn't planned to visit Yangon. But to get back to Chaing Mai, we had to fly there from Mandalay. There are no return flights from Mandalay to Chiang Mai. By the time we arrived in Yangon, we were running ragged -- ready to do nothing for a few days after several weeks of jam-packed-sight-seeing. We checked ourselves into a 'mid-range' hotel -- the budget options are all concrete boxes without windows according the guidebook. And, despite my embarrassment to admit this, we spent a lot of time laying in bed with a remote control in hand. The hotel had satellite TV and having been on the road for so long, TV is something of a novelty for us -- even if the satellite only returns two watchable stations, at least one of them was HBO!

After weeks of sunshine, the skies were again the color of lead with thick clouds so low, it felt as if a blanket had been pulled over the city. Just as when we arrived in Mandalay several weeks prior. Although gray skies depress me, at least our arrival and departure had symmetry -- like a pair of bookends protecting and supporting everything that happened in between. And like bookends, in contrast to the books they contain, we felt ambivalent about the cities of Mandalay and Yangon but everything in-between? Fabulous.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Myanmar: Inle

December 18th {notes from journal}

Fisherman with cone shaped nets and baskets on long handles; a market with a flotilla of boats as parking lot; temples with trained cats and Buddhas so gilded with gold leaf they appear as blobs; floating vegetable gardens; and demonstrations of local handicrafts: silversmiths make earrings and men pound out iron swords, women make paper with designs formed by flowers, cigars are rolled by delicate female hands, silk made from the lotus plant is woven on looms... this is Inle, a lake in the Shan State, 22 km long and 11 wide, with mountains on either side and villages upon its waves.

Along with Bagan, Inle is Myanmar's top tourist destination. A day-long boat trip aboard a vessel with comfortable chairs and cushions is the best way to see the lake and its way of life -- children fly kites from canoes tied up outside homes built over the water on stilts; men row boats with their legs; women do the laundry in the water outside their front door; reflections on the glassy surface of the lake tease the mind and trick the eyes. The reflections are the most beautiful I've ever seen, casting the images of neighborhoods and people and temples and flowering plants and blue skies with billowing clouds into the water.

It's a tiring day, under the sun on a boat... and, at times, a bit frustrating. At the Phaung Daw U Paya, the holiest religious site of the Southern Shan state, the 5 Buddha images (blobs) covered in gold leaf are somewhat off limits to women. "Ladies not permitted," sings state on steps leading to the altar. It's a bit annoying to be deemed less of a person than a man -- there is no other reason to deny us entrance to the altar. In Myanmar, they believe a male birth comes with higher merit; women can never reach nibbana (nirvana). If you ask me, women should be the ones allowed to the altar, to swath the Buddhas in gold... women need the merit having been born with less than men, no?

The other frustrating thing: there were no jumping cats at the 'Jumping Cat Monastery'. We wanted to see felines jump through hoops held in the hands of laughing monks. When we got there, cats and monks... everyone but the souvenir salesmen were sleeping. And finally, it was frustrating to go from one handicraft demonstration to the next, as if we were mindless sightseers on a package tour... It's not our style.

All that said, Inle is an interesting place. It's peaceful. It's beautiful. And at the end of the day, you can feed seagulls that soar above as you skim along reflective water as the sun makes its descent behind the mountains.

Myanmar: Ghosts and Revelations

Ghost stories are usually told in the dim hours of night, when they have more power, when the darkness and shadows and things-under-the-bed come alive. But alas, my story must be told through words not spoken but typed... in a place not dark, but bright. My story is not meant to chill but to enlighten... because I have, for the first and only time in my life, seen a ghost and in its wake, I dreamt of spirit possession and learned the secrets of the afterlife.

Some of you might think I'm loony, or that I was tricked by an unusual play of shadows and an active imagination. But I am not one who easily falls for tales of magic and superstition. I am more of a skeptic than a believer in faith. And I am not an author of fiction... So with that disclaimer having been said, I shall tell my ghost story.

December 15th ~ a Tuaung-yo village in Myanmar

The space was dimly lit by a low wattage bulb hanging from the family's Buddha altar. It cast a yellow light on the six figures lying below on the floor: a couple from Belgium, a couple from Singapore (Jason and Samantha) and us: Benjamin and myself. We were overnighting in the home of a village family, tucked away behind a smattering of trees upon a hill. We were each bundled up in a heap of blankets -- the night time temperatures dipped when the sun went down and it was promising to be a very cold night. Earlier in the evening, our hosts laid out our beds -- reed mats on the floor -- all in a line against the wall. And now, having stumbled into bed after a long day of walking, our hosts came around with more blankets before retiring to the kitchen to chat with our guides. As the bustle of movement moved into the other room, I closed my eyes and waited for sleep as voices and laughter drifted in from the kitchen, reminding me of light chatter of my parents and their friends at the end of a dinner party as I went to bed in childhood. It was, somehow, a comforting sound... but not conducive to sleep.

Soon the chit-chat died down, a few rustles of blankets as the 'adults' went to bed, and all was quiet... I laid under the weight of my many blankets for what seemed like hours, unable to sleep, but peacefully so. It was not the hard wood floor that kept me awake -- or the snoring coming from the other side of the room -- or the light coming from Buddha's altar. I was simply restless. It happens to me at home -- insomnia -- the brain won't turn off, the sand man forgets my address, dreams play hard to get. To my left, Benjamin had caught his dreams; to my right, Samantha slumbered on.

After a while, I heard a whisper of movement in the room. Had our hosts come back, in the middle of the night, with more blankets? Has one of the other guests decided to take a midnight stroll? Out of insomniac boredom, with nothing better to do, I opened my eyes to find out.

There, behind Samantha -- who was restful and asleep on her side, facing me -- lay a young woman, also on her side, facing me, with head propped up on her hand, elbow propped up on the floor. At first I thought it was one of the family's two daughters. But why would one of the girls leave the warmth of her bed in the middle of a frigid night to lay down between strange foreigners? Why would she come out here and take a place on the floor without blankets, with bare feet? It didn't make sense and besides, the young lady was too womanly to be the either of the two daughters. I lay there for a few minutes (or were they seconds?) in a confused state, trying to work out who this 7th person was, this newcomer, this trespasser of our collective bedroom.

I didn't notice her clothes, aside from the fact that they seemed to have no color but a faint beige, the color of an antique photograph, faded sepia. On her head she wore a turban of the same non-color (most of the hilltribe women do) and on her face, the same color again (but a tinge more yellow): many people in Myanmar wear a yellowish paste on their faces made with the ground bark of the Thanakha tree. It's used as sunblock, to whiten skin, for decoration.

She was rubbing her thumb against her fingertips, her right hand. Other than that, she was completely motionless, probably 12 inches behind Samantha, face visible beyond Samantha's shoulder... and as I ran my eyes again from her toes to her head, trying to make out who she was, my gaze, finally, settled on her face and she was watching me with her black eyes. Yellow paste on her cheeks and forehead and nose... yellow light from the dim lightbulb overhead... she watched me as if she were studying me. It's a creepy feeling, when someone stares at you without expression. Especially creepy in the middle of the night. Even more creepy when the person is a strange and unexplained intruder. And really creepy when the person is a... is a... ghost!

I flipped over to put my back to her fierce gaze. I pretended not to have seen her -- like when you see a person you dislike on the street and look away quickly to avoid conversation, hoping they didn't notice your recognition of them, even if they saw you look. My heart was beating. My brain was whirling. In her eyes, my confusion vanished -- her eyes answered my questions about her odd presence: she was a ghost. Ghosts, I learned, are similar to the kind of things people refer to, obliquely, when they say, "you'll know it when you see it."

I must have lain there for hours like that, with my back to the ghost gazing at me from behind Samantha's shoulder. I wondered if, perhaps, a strange play of shadows from the folds of Jason's blankets (who was on the other side of Samantha) tricked me. I wondered if she was still there. Finally, I worked up the courage to take a glimpse. I sucked in my breath and clenched my fists and tensed by legs and turned my head. She was gone. There was nothing there but empty space between Samantha and Jason... and... and... there were no tricky shadows capable of forming themselves into the image of a woman, a solid woman (apparently not all ghosts are transparent), and there were no patterns or designs on blankets capable of turning themselves into eyes black as coal, recognizable as things that 'you know when you see'.

"Holy shit, I saw a ghost," I thought to myself as I finally answered the Sandman's call to sleep. I drifted off, barely able to contain the news. I wanted to wake Benjamin when I first saw her, but I couldn't: I was pretending she didn't exist and I was frozen in fear. And then I wanted to wake him once she'd gone, but why disrupt his dreams when the news could wait until morning.

{the following is an account of my dreams the rest of the night}

There's a spirit in the room, I know it. I had a Polaroid camera to prove it. Snapping photos in the pitch black room, one resulted in an image. As the image developed in my hand, to my horror, the face of a demon emerged: a skull with burning eyes that must have been only inches from my lens -- meaning, it had been only inches from me. Aaaaaggghh! I screamed and ran from the place.

I ran into the arms of someone there to comfort me. I don't know him. Never seen him before in my life. But he is there, waiting for me, to tell me about the spirits. He tells me not to worry about the demon. While it may be true that the demon wanted into my head, all I have to do is block him with my mind. He tells me that at times -- and there is no rhyme or reason for the coming of these times, when people are more 'open'... more receptive to spirit's calls... He told me that we can let them in if we choose, and we can deny them if we wish. He suggested it's best to deny the ones with scary skull faces. I agreed.

And then this man, who I have come to think of as my dreamscape guardian angel, went on to explain the afterlife. This, in answer to my question, "Who are you, anyway?" He explained that he's a spirit, not unlike the skull faced demon (except he was a good spirit of course), and was sent to explain things to me, to calm me from my fright of possession. He and the other spirits (skull face included) have one main job in the afterlife. They usher the dead to the other side. Each of us living persons, we have a spirit 'assigned' to us for this journey (he, by the way was not mine). The 'guardian angel' told me that the ease with which you transition from life to death is all based on who your guide is. If you have a 'nice' guide, the voyage could be over in a snap. It could be blissful. Perhaps this is heaven. But if you've got a 'nasty' guide (like skull face), your voyage may be tormented and hideous and gruesome and painful. Perhaps this is hell.

It's all up to the guide, you see -- the ease or hardship with which you go to the other side, the time it takes to get there, even, when death happens itself (you know people who have 5 heart attacks and keep on ticking? Their guides are lazy. You know people who die from choking on a teaspoon of water? Their guides are restless). Once we, the living, are on the other side, we become guides. All of us, our destiny... to guide spirits to the afterlife and in the event we have time on our hands? I guess we haunt people and reveal the secrets of the afterlife to others in dreams...


When I told Benjamin about all of this the next day, he asked if I'd read about Nats in the guidbook. I hadn't. I found the perfect opportunity on a bus ride. What I learned, to my astonishment: Nats (or what we call ghosts) 'come home' on nights with a full moon (and the night I saw the ghost, it was a full moon). Almost all traditional Burmese songs are designed to attract Nats (and one of the family's daughters performed a traditional dance for us after dinner that night). Nats are known to take possession of people for periods of time (and I dreamt of spirit possession and learned the secrets thereof).

With my revelation of the afterlife, Benjamin has more advice: it's time I start my own religion, he says.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Myanmar: Trekking in the Shan State

December 15th - 16th {notes from journal}

On the western edge of the Shan plateau, Kalaw is the base for trekking in Myanmar. In the area surrounding Kalaw: ethnic minority groups such as the Pa-O, Palaung, Danu, and Tuang-yo... mountains, plantations, and villages. Opium flourishes in the Shan State, but we won't see poppy fields -- travel to these areas is restricted by the government because of warlords and rebel armies -- these parts of the Shan State are 'no go' zones, but outside of Kalaw, it's possible to walk into the mountainous region -- all the way to Inle Lake if one chooses to do so, but we've decided on a 2-day trek, overnighting in a village home-stay.

Our guide is a 58-year-old man named Ronald, of Indian descent, and he tells us that we can ask him about anything, "except politics."

We set off early in the morning. As we left Kalaw: a procession of monks collecting alms (food) in black bowls and silver cannisters; children on their way to school; women frying samosas and other Bamar treats along the roadway; men making bricks by hand. Ronald, tells us about the diversity of Kalaw: there are Indians and Nepalis and Chinese and Burmese... people are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian (Baptist, Protestant, and Catholic). There are dozens of ethnic minorities.

We head into the hills where we'll see mountains, plantations and farms, hilltribes, and village life. Ronald stops to point out the numerous Pine trees as we amble out of town, explaining that there used to be Teak but the British cut a lot of it down and replaced it with Pine -- it's why they were in Burma, he explains, for their natural resources. Teak, being hard and light, was used to build ships. Further on, Ronald stops to point at deforested hills in the distance. "It used to be jungle," he laments, "now there are laws against deforestation." We saw more evidence of deforestation in the hills as we walked for two days -- the farmers use slash-and-burn farming techniques; trees are cut for fire wood; some trees are still standing, but missing large pieces of their trunks, as if a giant took a bite out of their sides -- people burn notches in the trunk and cut out wood chips for cooking fires. These trees will eventually be blown over in a strong wind because of the breach in their structure.

The views were fantastic -- from the ridges of mountains and from the bottoms of valleys, there are rolling hills and mountains visible beyond -- all a patchwork of colors and textures like fuzzy wool and satiny silk -- a labyrinth of farming plots on steep hills. Standing at the top of one mountain, gazing upon a valley below filled with terraced rice fields ready for harvest, it seemed as if I was looking upon a golden river surging through a canyon, twisting and turning at the base of green hills.

In total, we walked 36 km (18 km each day) through fields of sesame, wet and dry rice, castor bean trees, garlic, tea and coffee plants... past gardens with tomatoes, flowers, snow peas, wheat, pumpkin, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, soy beans and more... you name it and they grow it. It seems that in the hills, the villages, life is all about growing food. If not for sale, then for consumption. People grow food first for survival and secondly to sell in order to purchase their 'wants and needs', as Ronald put it. It's hard work -- everything is done by hand, without the aid of animals in many places (the hills are too steep) and machines (Myanmar is underdeveloped -- people farm the same way they did hundreds of years ago).

As we walked, Ronald talked to passing villagers: one woman, out collecting fire wood, was 10 months pregnant! And this man over here, he had a good harvest this year, 52 baskets of rice, enough to feed his family; and the old, toothless woman... she's on her way to buy cotton from the market. The people asked Ronald where we were from. "Singapore and America," he answered first pointing to Jason and Samantha (our travel buddies) and then us. "Oh, Singapore!" the children cried -- they know Singapore better than America because occasionally, they get to watch football (soccer) on TV.

More walking: villagers are out on hills weeding sesame fields; we pass women with bundles of bright flowers on their backs; we have tea in a wooden longhouse where 6 families live, the only one left in the area; we pass through villages with homes on stilts, built with wood and thatch -- we learn from Ronald that more and more homes will be built with brick -- a decade from now, these villages will look quite different and I'm happy to have seen them now (the change in building materials is due to deforestation and economics -- brick houses last longer).

We pass a tree with crutches supporting its branches -- Ronald explains that women go to astrologers and if they are forecast bad luck, they are told to come to this tree and support a branch in order to change their fate; we pass harvested fields of rice with offerings placed in the center to thank the guardian Nat (spirit). In peoples' homes, Ronald points out objects placed over the doorway, there to ward off bad spirits. Myanmar is, like much of Asia, a land of spirits and superstition. The Burmese belief in spirits, called Nats, is left over from days of animistic religious practices... or perhaps it's a belief founded on a sensible respect for the spirit world -- I, myself, saw a ghost in Myanmar as we slept in a villager's home on this trek... more on that in the next post...

Myanmar: Bus to Kalaw

December 14th {notes from journal}

Another bus story... my writing coach would be horrified...

The bus picked us up outside our hotel at 4:30 a.m. It was shitty, but better than our first bus -- the seats were as wide as my shoulders this time. There was more leg room. The odd feature of the bus included a metal bar that created a barrier between the seats and the aisle, at about knee level. We're not sure if it was part of the support structure holding the seats in place or if it's to keep feat in their 'rightful' place and apart from the low, plastic stools that line the aisle for passengers who get on the bus too late in the game to get a real seat. I would have thought the wooden floor was odd as well, but our first bus had a floor made of wooden planks as well.

We watched the sky go from pitch black to red and orange just above the horizon line. The reflections on low clouds looked like lava; sugar palms were silhouetted against the orange and then yellow backdrop of the sunrise. It was worth getting up at such an early hour to see the day arrive -- we don't have enough conviction to rise so early, for the awakening of the sun on our own...

We had to return 1/2 way to Mandalay before branching off on a new road to get to Kalaw: cactus, sunflower fields, sugar palms, and coconut trees gave way to a different kind of landscape -- low bushes, scrubland, and brown, rippled mountains dotted with dark green trees (reminding me of the dry California and Nevada mountains). We traveled along a one lane road (highway), pulling off to let oncoming traffic go by -- outside of the cities, the roads in Myanmar are only the width of one-laners back home. Drivers on these roads work together cooperatively as no two automobiles can fit on the same patch of highway.

At the border to the Shan State, we were stopped at a checkpoint -- a red and white striped barricade was lowered over the road, guards were at the ready to check our papers. Everyone got off the bus and lined up but the authorities didn't bother looking at the foreigners' passports -- they were only interested in the ID cards of the Burmese. The sign posted on the guardhouse, "All respect. All suspect," set a tone of distrust -- guilty before innocent -- that is sobering.

Up, up, up into the mountains and the scenery changed again -- it became more like the SE Asian landscapes of Laos and Northern Thailand that we're familiar with: lush, tropical, jungle. Still... up we climbed on the twisting mountain road -- still upon a one-lane road with traffic mostly of huge, barreling trucks: their descent and our ascent was like the polite dance between strangers when entering and exiting the same door. This road was not your 'everyday' road, it's the type we at home would label on a map as the sort requiring a 4WD vehicle. Narrow and steep, it makes for a testing ride. I asked Benjamin if he thought it was 'nerve wracking' as I did. He replied, "No, it's scenic," and added a few minutes later, "and distracting..." I'm sure he meant the scenery was distracting him from the fact that, at times, we were required to pull over along the edge of a cliff to let a passing truck go by -- it's why I was feeling anxious at least.

Nearly 10 hours later we arrived in Kalaw, a former hill station of the British. They always built them high in remote mountains for relief of lower elevation temperatures (like Darjeeling in India). But in December, Kalaw is pretty cold and I'm reminded for the first time in so long of chilled fingers and stiff toes. Kalaw is tiny and lucky for us that it is -- we don't have much time to see the town: tomorrow we leave on a 2-day trek through Shan villages, plantations, and mountains. We've been traveling with a couple from Singapore: Jason and Samantha. We met them in Bagan yesterday when we shared a car to visit Mt. Popa -- they are now our travel buddies for the next few days...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Myanmar: Bagan

Bagan, December 11th - 13th {notes from journal}

They say you can't point your finger in any direction without pointing at a temple. The ride to Bagan was worth the pain -- it's awesome (a word that has lost the 'pow' of its meaning thanks to teenagers, myself included... I was, longer ago than I like to admit, one of them).

We're staying in Nyaung Oo, a nice little town with narrow roads, guesthouses, and restaurants geared to tourists... the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages is the soundtrack, along with the buzz and chitter of nature, amidst neighborhoods where little boys play games in the street using the boughs of trees as royal batons, where grandmothers take toddlers for walks, and -- if you look in the right place at the right time -- pigs the size of European automobiles are fed in someone's front yard.

It's a drastic change from Mandalay, where there is little in the way of 'tourist stuff'. As I've previously written, it's hard to see the presence of tourism in Mandalay. It's nice to get away from that for sure -- and, I've found, despite my usual desire to drop into a place devoid of 'tourist stuff', it's nice to have a little familiar comfort. In Myanmar, tourism isn't the mammoth machine it is in other SE Asian countries. Perhaps Nyaung Oo is an unusual place because it has things foreigners like, such as ambiance, candle-lit tables, establishments that cater to a romantic mood and end-of-the-day-relaxation. There are souvenir shops and guides for hire -- Bagan is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar with its thousands of pahto (temples/shrines) and zedi (Buddhist stupas).

The pahto and zedis date from the 10th - 14th centuries and dot the landscape in an endless procession of spires and gold to the horizon. A history that reads like a fairy tale, the temples and stupas of Bagan started like this: In 1044, a man named Anawrahta ascended to the throne of Bagan. At this time, Myanmar was in a transition from Hindu to Buddist beliefs. A monk was sent by the Mon king of Thaton (named Manuha) to Bagan to convert King Anawrahta to Buddhism. So successful was the monk that King Anawrahta asked Manuha to give him sacred texts and relics to fill his kingdom. The request was denied but King Anawrahta was determined -- he sent an army to Thaton to take them by force: scriptures, even monks and scholars, were brought back to Bagan. It was then that he began building the monuments to house his newly acquired possessions. Successors continued to build monuments over time but the start of Bagan's decline at the end of the 13th century marked the coming end to what the Burmese had deemed 'the first Burmese empire'. There is dispute over the decline of Bagan: was it due to Kublai Khan's Mongol invasion? Was it internal struggle between the Mon, Shan, and Bamar people of Burma? Some of the temples were destroyed or looted and by 1300, the city's growth halted. From the 14th - 18th centuries, the area was considered 'spooky' with bandits and Nats about. The Burmese only moved back to Bagan after the British established themselves there to protect the area. (I will credit Lonely Planet, here, for the substance of this information).

Finally the oppressive gray cloud cover (which to me, up until this day, has been symbolic of the government's rule of the people) has broken and departed. The sun is out in azure skies and we rode out into the day on bicycles to explore Bagan. The first temple we visited, in Nyaung Oo, is a huge glittering stupa in an enormous temple complex. Perhaps Marco Polo was referring to this place, called The Shwezigon Paya, when he wrote, "... they do form one of the finest sites in the world, so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lighted up by the sun they shine most brilliantly..."

We passed through a gauntlet of souvenir vendors, women who pin handmade butterflies to your shirt, "A present," they tell you, hoping (no, expecting) you will return to their shop when you leave. Others gave us presents as well, more butterflies, asking for a 'present' in return, i.e. 'small money'. Some want shampoo or lip balm. Still others approached us with folded paper containing gem stones -- rubies, sapphires, emeralds. "A good price," they promised -- but we don't know anything about gems and politely declined. The stones come from the North and East and establish a healthy 'underground economy' along with opium, heroin, and methamphetamines (while drug trafficking is punishable by death in Myanmar, there are those who believe the government looks the other way from a healthy and wealthy drug trade).

At one temple, we saw an American man buy gems proffered in a scrap of paper (so casually, are they stored). He told the salesman, "I'll take them all for $100.00." What a sale! What a windfall! What a bargain! That's a huge amount of money for a Burmese (many people working in the tourism industry, good jobs, are paid a mere $8.00 - $10.00 per month). A huge amount of money for the salesman, but probably a fraction of the cost of the actual worth in the Western world assuming their authenticity). The American stooped down and extracted a crisp 100 dollar bill from the money belt wrapped around his ankle in the shade of a quiet temple. We saw this man and his companion several times later throughout the day with a caravan of gem-hawkers on his tail, following him in a trail of dust.

At the temples, adults and children sell laquerware (Bagan is famous for laquerware), bracelets, paintings, puppets, bells, pottery, opium pipes and scales (and opium if you want it), and all sorts of interesting things. They are as zealous as the gem-hawkers following the American and if they make a sale, they are likely to close up shop and take the rest of the day off... We bought several traditional Burmese paintings (hand painted Buddhist motifs on fabric) and with cash in hand, the man we bought them from was 'done' for the day. He probably made enough money to take the rest of the week off, judging by the 'salaries' of $8 and $10.00 a month for hotel staff.

But back to the monuments -- they are everywhere. Looking into the distance from the top of a temple reveals a landscape full of more monuments, impossible to comprehend, their domes and spires rising above the treeline in every direction. Riding a bicycle, you slowly pass them on your left, on your right... they are behind you and in front of you. It's amazing.

Bagan has been compared, by other travelers, to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in terms of being 'a wonder of the world'. While there are some similarities in some of the architectural styles, they are different places. Bagan is less 'ruined' than Angkor... it's still active, more in tact, although the monuments have been pillaged at times in history: pieces have been absconded by Europeans for sale to museums or for personal collections (this is true of Angkor Wat, too). Inside, some of the temples are plain as opposed to the opulence of their exterior ornament, but some possess enormous golden Buddhas the size of tall buildings... large enough to make men below appear as tiny as figurines in a spirit house. For wannabe archaeologists... people who, like me, fell in love with the romanticized image of the trade from, of all things, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', both Bagan and Angkor Wat are truly 'wonders of the world'. Each with their own merit, both astounding. There is really no point in comparing the two, I feel, because they are unique cultural relics from differing civilizations. See them both is what I'm saying...

Our second day in Bagan we hired a horse drawn carriage and visited out-of-the-way temples, places with less people and a light sort of whipping wind in a vast landscape with red, rocky dirt and scrubby trees that made me feel as if I'd discovered a previously unknown place. Inside dim interiors, more Buddhas (I think Myanmar must be the home to the largest number of Buddhas in the world), faded painting on crumbling walls, the coolness of concrete upon the feet. Like all Buddhist temples everywhere, these must be tread upon by bare feet only. Shoes are left outside -- in Myanmar, though, shoes must be removed to walk upon the entire grounds of the temple whereas in other places in Asia, it is only at the doorway of the temple itself where shoes must be left behind.

Clip-clopping down the streets of Bagan and Nyaung Oo, we noticed people weeding the grass in the road's median, people painting fences (always seafoam green), people repainting the black and white stripes on street curbs, people trimming bushes and generally 'beautifying' the place. Our horse cart driver told us, upon inquiry, that everyone is getting the city ready because the government visits in 3 days. I'd read about this: forced labor. It's not that the people are so full of pride for their government officials that they want to make it nice for them, it's because they are forced to do it -- free labor, inspections, and what punishment if they chose to disobey? Prison. There are many who believe people should not visit Myanmar because of this practice. Roads and other tourism infrastructure are the result of forced labor (and in bus rides throughout the country, we always saw road work, people hauling stones in baskets on their heads -- many of them children).

I don't mean to sound crass, but the effect of the painting and weeding and collection of litter makes for a clean and well maintained city. But why can't the government employ people to do this work? Especially since so many struggle for jobs, for money. But the government is the military and they rule the country without concept of fairness and dignity, but on principles of discipline and rigid order and martial law. The ruling government was never elected. They took power through a military coup decades ago and in the 90s, in an uncharacteristic allowance of an election, they refused the results and held captive the rightful victor for six years. Some say the election was staged to suss out the opposition -- the generals who run Myanmar don't stand for objection to their rule and imprison their "enemies". Even the telling of joke can get you 7 years in a forced labor camp, such is the story of Par Par Lay, a comedian with a troupe known as The Moustache Brothers (we saw them in Mandalay -- they are constantly watched by the government and are blacklisted from performing anywhere outside of their home).

When we entered Bagan, a giant red sign was posted along the road that read as such:

The People's Desire
- Oppose thse relying on external elements, acting like stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state
- Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

There are others that state:

- Only when there is discipline will there be progress
- Anyone who is riotous, destructive, and unruly is our enemy
- The Tatmadaw (armed forces) shall never betray the national cause

Before coming to Myanmar, I thought there would be a hugely visible military presence, but I was surprised not to see one. There are, of course, people under cover. There are spies who question locals about their conversations with foreigners. People don't say much against the government because they never know who might turn them in. There are checkpoints along roads where people have their ID cards checked by government officials (they didn't seem to bother with us foreigners). Posted on the shelters at the checkpoints are signs that read, "All respect. All suspect." I saw this sign posted at the airport as well.

It's much different for a foreigner in Myanmar than a Burmese. I never felt threatened or ill-at-ease, but it's there -- the oppression of a bad government... it's there in the paint on fences and curbs, in the signs with draconian messages, the checkpoints and the silence of free speech.

Myanmar: Bus to Bagan

The Bus to Bagan, December 10th {notes from journal}

A few years ago, I consulted with a writing coach and at that point in time, most of my travel writing consisted of horrible tales about bus transport. She told me that people don't like to read about bus travel... it's miserable in and of itself, why should anyone want to read about it? She told me it's also been done a million times before. Finally she said, "Cheryn, get off the bus!" (if only I could afford to do that). So here I am, on the brink of a narration that is all about a horrid bus ride. But it's a large part of travel, bus rides, and so I feel that I must subject you to the tale. That's the beauty of writing (and reading) as opposed to a real conversation, though... it's not impolite to ignore me... to skip over the story if you choose to do so. I'll never know.

The bus to Bagan was, hands down, the worst bus ride we've ever taken -- namely -- the seats were as wide as my ears are apart from each other. I have what they call 'child bearing hips'... that is to say, they are much wider than my ears are apart from each other. I think you get the drift... I could barely fit my ass into the seat. They were also hard and erect like a cement church pew (I know what you were thinking... you and your dirty similes... let the church reference be atonement for impure thoughts).

As we bounced along the road -- me squashed in by the window, trying to sit at an angle to give poor Benjamin more seat space -- he 1/2 on and 1/2 off the seat, butt cheeks against an iron bar, knees wedged under the seat in front of us, feet fighting for space with the passenger on the stool in the aisle, I looked at his glowering face and his expression said it all: "I've had about enough of these bus journies." I fear this one will drive him to be a suitcase traveler in the future, the sort who fly everywhere.

From the window (with my cheek smashed against it, I had a good view): ancient looking villages, horse drawn carriages (outside of the cities, this is common form of transport), a flat brown and green landscape dotted with sugar palms that eventually turns scrubby and desert-like with gullies and scruffy grass and cactus (it reminds me of places in the American Southwest). Fields of sunflowers, patches of corn, harvested rice fields... 8 hours later we have arrived in Bagan.

Bus journies are always the most difficult endeavors -- the most painful -- the most rigorous -- the most [fill in the blank with your most stringent idea of misery] -- of all forms of travel. And it won't be our last in Myanmar. We've arrived in Bagan and while here, I am redecorating my 'happy place' for the next bus ride. I am installing plush carpeting and fluffy pillows. There will be men clad in skimpy togas fanning me with swan feathers. There will be a fountain built of and spewing chocolate and sculptures made of ice cream (these foods always make things OK). And finally, there will be a waterproof, velveteen lounge upon which I will float around an indoor pool filled with lavender scented water (lavender is soothing). This is where I will go about 2 hours into the journey -- Benjamin will have a 4-inch gold plated key to my 'happy place' in the event he chooses to join me. I've decided to install a waterslide made of motherboards that ends in a giant bucket of beer to suit his needs.

Myanmar: Arrival

Mandalay, December 8th - 9th {notes from journal}

We arrive. The airport comes into view as we taxi down the runway... earlier in the plane, through gashes in the blanket of gray clouds, we could see the patchwork of earth, like anywhere when seen from a plane -- browns, greens. The palette reminded me of a Girl Scout cookie box (thin mints)... (I am obsessed by strange food cravings these days, after 9 months on the road). I am struck by the lack of things seen from the air -- no housing developments or networks of pavement -- the orderly shapes of farming plots and purposeful lines of trees fill the view. The airport comes into sight. It's empty -- entirely -- looking deserted. On the tarmac, a few busses await our prop plane to ferry us to the terminal. If it wasn't for these, there would be nothing to signify that the airport is more than a figment of my imagination. There's no other sign of life, so unusual for an airport, what with their flock of giant flying machines and people waving orange sticks and small trucks carting baggage to and fro. There is nothing of this.

We enter the airport and immigration checkpoint -- a dim place with half of the lights turned off -- and aside from the 2 lines of passengers from our plane and a handful of men behind desks, there are no other people here. There is no activity, none of anything associated with the bustle of airports, which are always throbbing, pulsing, chaotic in the middle of the day. A line of baggage carousels beyond remain quiet and still. It is so strange, like a building in a movie about the sudden disappearance of every living soul on Earth or a building in a zombie movie, spooky in its noiseless immensity. It's spooky in the way that empty churches and schools and hospitals are -- it's why they are commonly featured in horror movies -- places this big, this public, and with usually high amounts of activity are eerie when deserted.

It's obvious the airport doesn't see much traffic. This flight from Chiang Mai is made only once per week, on Thursdays. There are internal flights throughout Myanmar, but I'm guessing they are infrequent as well... who can fly in Myanmar? Tourists. And how many of them are here? Few.

The airport is 40 km from Mandalay and a ramshackle taxi costs $5.00 per head. You could put 2 people in the same car as 4, but there's no economy when the price is by person. So, we said farewell to the British couple we met at the baggage carousel and with whom we'd planned to share a taxi into town. We motored our way along quiet roads towards Mandalay -- a light rain threatened to fall from the clouds, fields of sunflowers hung their heads without sunshine to look towards, the occasional backfire from our shoddy transport the only sound the quiet countryside.

It's not going to be cheap in Myanmar -- one would think that travel in such a poor country would be less expensive than in, say, neighboring Thailand. A country that is, indeed, cheap but still modern and developed. Many of the attractions are pricey, with $5-$10.00 entrance fees (and this money unfortunately goes to the government). The guidebook reports that when people complain about the prices, the prices are raised as rebuttal. We are foreigners in Myanmar, therefore we are rich and can afford anything -- prices are 5-10x what locals are charged... a 'tax on the rich' if you like. It's not unique to Myanmar, this notion that foreigners should pay more for things. It happens all over Asia. I wrestle with both sides of the argument: at home I am not rich, but compared to the people in the poor countries I've traveled, I most certainly am. It's no use denying my wealth (and seems absurd to do so) when I can leave my country and visit others and these people can only dream about doing the same. So many times on this trip I have been told I am 'lucky' by people, even those with 'good jobs', because I can travel and they cannot -- they can just barely put food on the table or afford much more than basic necessities.

We are dropped off at the corner of 80th and 26th streets and found our hotel quickly. The rain has finally broken free from clouds now barely visible in the evening sky. Three times I have been greeted with, "Hello!" and I have only taken three steps from the curb. Yes, Myanmar is living up to its reputation already: the people are friendly.

Our hotel room reminds me of one where we stayed in the Nevada desert: like a grandmother's spare room... a grandmother down on her luck (a well meaning lady, though -- the plastic flower in the vase is a thoughtful touch). We found dinner around the corner at a place called 'Devi Restaurant'. The guidebook states that it's a hole in the wall. It was. We asked for a menu and were answered, "No menu. Chicken curry, vegetable curry, fish curry." We take the chicken. The woman is Indian -- black skin, petite figure, curly black hair. The rest of her family are watching TV in the back room, which opens up to the dining area: mother wrapped in shawl, sister, several sons. The seafoam green walls, concrete streaked with stains of time, remind me of sitting in a dank, but inhabitable, basement or garage. A young English man enters, looks around, and asks about the food and upon my recital of the 'menu', he remarked, "So that's what's on offer then?" and took a seat behind us. Soon his table was filled, like ours, with a number of little metal dishes filled with curry, veggies and dahl.

Myanmar is a unique blend of cultures and food, traditions... Indians and Nepali Gurkhas came with the British when Myanmar was colonized. The Brits suffered through three wars to conquer Burma, the first war happened around 1820 and with the last in 1886, Burma was finally and completely controlled by England. In fact, when the British occupied Myanmar, they deemed the nation a province of India, their neighboring colony. Because of this, Bamar cuisine (the Bamar are the largest Burmese ethnic group in Myanmar) is a blend of cultural influences from India and Nepal. You order rice with curry (vegetable, chicken, mutton, and fish -- because of the Hindu belief in the sacred cow there is little beef and because of the Burmese belief in that Nat (spirits), there is little pork eaten -- the Nats are offended by the ingestion of pork and no-one wants an angry Nat on his case). Curries are served with an array of side dishes, sometimes up to 6, that are constantly refilled as you dine. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants, too. The Chinese came to Burma at the same time as the Indians and if you really want some beef or pork, it can be found with the Chinese.

Our first day in Mandalay: we took a walk around town -- the old palace and fort are just around the corner... but the original buildings were destroyed in the war with the British. In fact, many of Mandalays 'attractions' were destroyed in the war. We find the city a tad depressing. Not only is the moody weather dampening, the place lacks atmosphere. It's utilitarian rather than attractive. Walking down a street, its difficult to discern a restaurant from other shops that don't seem to really sell anything. There may rusted springs for sale hanging from the every square inch of the ceiling and walls or boxes of TVs stacked in a gray, concrete cell or a paltry collection of odds'n'ends from another generation inside glass cases coated with dust. There are no shopping centers or retail stores like you see elsewhere: there appears to be no 'retail industry' at all. You don't see money changers (banks must have special permission to change money) -- travelers use their hotel or the black market to exchange dollars for kyat. Buildings have fallen into disrepair, the roads are pot-holed, and there are frequent power outages every day. Entire city blocks fall dark in the night when the power goes out. The notion of a post-communist Eastern European country has entered my mind, but I don't really know what they were (are) like.

In some ways, Mandalay is a lot like other SE Asian cities -- women walk the streets with giant baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads, blood-red pools of Betle nut spittle linger on sidewalks and roadsides, children in school uniform and backpacks walk hand in hand down the street, bicycle trishaws await passengers, boys play soccer on the sidewalk or a Burmese form of 'hackey sack' with woven bamboo balls, vendors roast corn along curbsides, sidewalk and street-bound restaurants fire up their grills...

Tomorrow we are off to Bagan, by bus...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

We've just returned from Myanmar -- we're back in Thailand on Xmas day... and while there is a lot to write about our travels in Myanmar, I must start, at this moment -- backwards -- with our departure from Myanmar, for no other reason than it's Christmas and if I wait too long, this correspondence will no longer be relevant. Like seeing Christmas decorations and ornaments for sale in stores after the fact, it will have lost something through the passing of time -- even if only days. So here it goes, an entry from my journal:

Yangon, December 25

Xmas day -- rain -- flight delays. Last night the rain started (unusual for this time of year, but weather is strange all over the globe this year: killer hurricanes in America and floods in Vietnam and rainstorms in the dry season of Thailand and Myanmar and India). At first there was a chilly wind, then the light fall of tiny raindrops -- the kind that look like the thinnest of needles. Looking down from our room on the 7th floor of the hotel, watching the raindrops from above as they sailed toward the ground past the illumination of a street light, I pretended it was a light snowfall -- perfect for Christmas eve when in the quiet hours of the night, show is magical and serene.

We awoke to heavier rain -- and in my imagination -- the kind of steady snowfall that causes delayed Xmas feasts as families struggle on slippery highways to get to grandma's house, where the heat of a blazing fire and the smell of fresh baked bread and roasted meat dance with evergreen scented air. But when they arrive, O what pleasures await: the wet boots and gloves and coats are put away -- stocking'd feet are warmed by the fire -- and eyes are cast (shyly - greedily) over the tinsels and lights of the tree and down below: the bows and patterns and gleam of hidden treasures wrapped up in mysterious boxes. Add a snifter of something warm and alcoholic -- & treats like nuts and candies -- and you've got a fantasy image of Christmas day.

Sometimes it's like that. Other times it's waiting, waiting, waiting, for the turkey to be done, for the gifts to be opened, for the effects of alcohol to wreak its havoc, for the buttons on straining pants to finally burst. But never mind all of that: my favorite memories of Xmas are from early childhood -- when Santa Claus was real.

"Goddammit, I tell you... he's real, Vince Blakely." This, a conversation I had in the first grade (I should say I'm sure I didn't curse... this is added for dramatic effect -- it's how I felt). Vince's denial of the great Mr. Claus caused him to lose the massive crush I had on him, even though he was in the second grade and therefore, worthy of affection that comes with higher status. The slicked black hair was no longer cool but greasy -- the wry smile no longer enchanting but mocking. Of course, Vince was correct -- it just too me a long time to accept the fact that my parents had lied to me all my life (remember this was first grade). So, I'm sorry Vince, for slapping you across the face: you were right. There is no Santa Claus.

As I was saying... Christmas was the best back when I believed in Santa and back when I was to young to understand words that started with 'dys' -- as in dysfunctional, as in divorce. But I won't go there... Oh no, I've learned in my 33 (soon to be 34) years, that it's best to avoid the "D" topic, especially during the holidays.

At that time in my life, Christmas was so great because it was so damn exciting (now that I'm getting older I can pepper my conversations with the word 'damn' and the compound word 'goddammit' with abandon). New toys, the possibility of sneaking a peak at Mr. S Claus, hearing the hooves of reindeer on the rooftop, time off school... snowmen, sledding, hot cocoa, bells and carrolls and cookies... tinsel and ornaments and angels. Anticipation. Aside from birthdays, Xmas was the ultimate time of year. But now that I'm older, it's not the same and as I gazed at the rain-cum-snow falling outside the hotel room window, I thought about the irony of how, when children, we wish to be grown up and when we are, we wish to be children -- or at least child-like. When I was a kid, I wanted to be grown up so I could, among other things, eat spaghetti sauce from the jar (with a straw if I chose to do so) without getting into trouble. Now, I would gladly give up that priveledge in order to gain the wonderment of a child's Christmas again.

So here I am in the waiting 'lounge' of the Yangon airport, counting the minutes of our second flight delay of the day -- the sound of running water behind me (a drain pipe?) and the dull ting-ting-ting of a leak somewhere ahead of me: a bucket fills with water and I am filled with the romantic, nostalgic images of December 25, circa 1972 -1987 (Xmas magic dies somewhere in adolescence). Just as when we arrived in Myanmar, the skies are a leaden gray... we are anxious to get back to Thailand, which has now become our home away from home, with our frequent 'stop overs' between here and there. Thailand has become more than the 'hub' of our wheel of travel... It's amazing what the lines on maps can do -- the power they possess -- dividing one country, one group of people, from another... dividing poverty from wealth, oppression from freedom, antiquity from modernity. Thailand: so familiar and modern it's almost Western. But I was talking about Christmas and even in Myanmar they play Christmas carrolls... perhaps the familiar tunes and lyrics have put me in my reverie. We will have spent Christmas 2005 in two countries: Myanmar and Thailand. Two countries that are neighbors but are worlds apart.

Our Christmas Eve in Myanmar will be memorable in that we dined at a Chinese restaurant with a menu of dishes prepared with canned vegetables (so strange in a country where cheap produce is so readily available). We are committed to a proper Christmas day feast, now that we're headed back to Thailand -- there's nothing like the right food to bring you closer to home than an airplane can take you. Well, that and correspondence with friends and family (I look forward to your emails).

What's this? Our plane is boarding! I must go, but before I do: Merry Christmas... and to all, a good night...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Myanmar (Burma)

When we were in Cambodia, we met an American Vet who was interested to hear that we were going to visit Myanmar. He was reading an article in a magazine about the plight of the Burmese people and in light of the Iraq war, they wanted to know, "When is the US going to invade us?" The Burmese people have been fighting for democracy for decades and could use a little help...

Tomorrow we leave for Myanmar (Burma): of all our destinations on this trip, Myanmar has been the most difficult place to get to in terms of waiting for visas (10 days), waiting for confirmation on plane tickets (more than 1 week)... and then all of our plans were readjusted when I was bitten by that dog last week. But, finally. We go!

Don't worry when you don't hear from us for the next 3 weeks: we will be cut off from the outside world once we leave Chiang Mai. Finding internet cafes in Myanmar is about as difficult as finding large underwear in Asia (read impossible). Besides that, the government controls the internet and I've read travelers cannot use their own email accounts but must sign up for an address with a company there. This is probably so the government can keep tabs on what people are saying -- Burmese citizens are not allowed to have hotmail or yahoo accounts (these sites are blocked) and people who own modems must have them registered. We are about to enter a country described by the US State Department as, "an underdeveloped, agrarian country ruled by an authoritarian military junta. The country's military government suppresses all expression of opposition to its rule."

Myanmar has a long history of conflict, but I'll leave it to the historical scholars to tell you about that -- they get paid to write this stuff, and they're probably better with the details (there is tons of info online). But just to give you an idea about the nature of the junta that runs Myanmar, following is an excerpt from the US State Department's web site on more recent events, "Burma previously experienced major political unrest in 1988 when the military regime jailed as well as killed thousands of Burmese democracy activists. In 1990, the military government refused to recognize the results of an election that the opposition won overwhelmingly. Burma experienced major demonstrations in 1996 and 1998. In May 2003, individuals affiliated with the Burmese government attacked a convoy carrying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Sagaing Division. Dozens were killed or injured."

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 'winner' of the 1990 elections, was put under house arrest for 6 years when the ruling junta refused to recognize the results of the election. But Suu Kyi continued to campaign for democracy and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her tenacious belief in a democratic Burma. She believes in this so much, she chose to stay in Burma rather than visit her dying husband in England in 1999 -- she was concerned that if she left Burma, she would never be able to return and the plight of the Burmese citizens would be entirely out of her hands for good.

There is a lot of debate in the travel world: "Should you go to Myanmar?"

Following is Lonely Planet's take on the issue:
Reasons Not to Go: Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to; the government used forced labour to ready tourist-related sights and services; international tourism can be seen as a stamp of approval to the Myanmar government; the government forbids travel to many areas, particularly in areas inhabited by minority groups; it's impossible to visit without some money going to the military junta (visa, departure fee, tax on purchases); and Activists claim that tourism dollars fuel government repression directly.

Reasons to Go: Tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary locals have access - in terms of income and communication; vast majority of locals want you there; human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present; the government stopped mandating foreigners change 200.00 into government notes upon arrival; the majority (possibly over 80%) of a careful independent traveller's expenses goes into the private sector; and Keeping the people isolated from international witnesses to internal oppression may only cement the government's ability to rule.

Obviously, Benjamin and I have decided to go. While I deeply respect her mission and the sacrifices she has made, I don't share Aung San Suu Kyi's belief that tourism is a stamp of approval on the repressive government's activities. As one pro-democracy activists put it, further isolation will not help Burma but harm it. Considering that large and powerful governments in the world allow and even aid the government of Myanmar to continue as they are, I feel there are bigger fish to fry than visiting foreigners who would like to see for themselves what's happening in Myanmar. Maybe it's a selfish point of view. Maybe it's naive of me to think that the Burmese people might benefit from contact with the outside world. In any event, the people I've met who have been to Myanmar come back with glowing reports on the warmth and kindness of the people -- they are happy to have us there.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Stranger Than Fiction

We've met a lot of interesting people on the road -- I have notes about them scribbled on random bits of paper and I've been meaning to tell you about them. Some are short, some are sweet, some are incomplete. Maybe their stories will inspire you, make you laugh, or make you cry:

We met Jim in the jungle at Angkor Wat. He was standing in the sun wearing nothing but his underwear. Before you get the wrong idea, I should add that he was drying off after taking a shower under a waterfall (and his underwear were black). He's tall, fit, and wears his dark hair in a pony tail -- something about him reminded me of Steven Segal. He's easy going and the kind of guy who uses the phrase, "that fucking shit," in every conversation.

Jim met people in the Florida Keys who live on boats and come into town to play music in a bar; they're the house band. He was inspired by their lives of finely tuned autonomy -- they do what the want, when they want, how they want. "Hey, maybe we'll pick up anchor and head to the Bahamas," they might say. Or, "You know what, I don't feel like doing fucking shit today," and they don't have to because they don't really work except when they need to. It's cheap living on a boat. But what makes them really cool is that they call themselves pirates.

Jim returned to LA, sold most of his stuff, and moved into a motor home he keeps parked in the lot of his workplace. He's living in a motor home to save money otherwise paid on rent. He doesn't drive anywhere so he doesn't pay for gas. Since he lives 'on site', he works harder and longer and earns a ton of overtime. I think he even swipes electricity from his workplace and uses their shower, telephone, and no doubt office supplies. His friends all thought he was crazy until he explained he's not doing all of this because he's a freak -- he wants to be one of those guys who lives on boats and sails from city to city... a pirate who works when he needs to in order to get to the next place. He is fulfilling a dream. His only concern is finding the right woman to join him on the voyage.

We met Michael in India. He was the first of our countrymen we'd met but he hadn't been home in a while. He was living in Japan for several years and earned a living as a 3D automobile modeler. Michael was burnt out from years of hard work and reeling from a recent divorce. He was lost. We would see him at our guesthouse in the morning and ask, "What are you doing today?" And he would always shrug his shoulders and reply that he'd probably just hang around, relaxing in his room. We would ask, "How long are you traveling?" Answer: "I don't know." We would ask, "Where else are you planning to go?" Answer: "No idea." I think, had we asked any questions about the future of his life in general, the answers would have been the same.

He wasn't morose or depressing -- he was quite engaging and friendly. It seemed that he'd somehow ended up in the desert of India with no clue of how he got there or why. He didn't get there by accident, but Benjamin and I often wondered how he'd made it that far considering his lack of any other plans. When we left, we asked Michael if he'd figured anything out yet and he said he hadn't, "but maybe I'll learn yoga," he added.

We've come to learn that Michael has since moved on -- we were afraid he might still be in India, wondering what he's doing and where he's going. He ended up in Siberia, as it turns out, so perhaps he's still wondering... (and now he's in France).

We met Mariel at the same guesthouse where we met Michael. She was thin and ghostly white and looked unwell. She was just recovering from a 15-day illness during which she was bedridden the entire time and lost something like 20 pounds. She'd previously been staying at a guesthouse run by a Jain woman who took care of her, threatening several times to send Mariel home to France if her health didn't improve.

But Mariel didn't want to go home -- she'd just started her journey -- a year-long trip around the world, and like Michael, to destinations unknown. She was on a mission, traveling on funds from her recently departed grandfather's will, looking for a connection to him through her travels. Their relationship was very close and her grandfather's death was devastating. Mariel's trip is her way of sharing one last thing with him -- in a way, she is keeping him alive. Hers is the single most moving reason for traveling that I've encountered.

It sounds crazy, but we ran into Mariel again in Laos, a full 7 months after saying goodbye in India (and hence, got the update on Michael -- they email each other). She was sitting by the bank of the Mekong to watch the sunset. With her bike. She bought it in Vietnam for 30 bucks and rode it across Cambodia to Thailand. This is not the ordinary bike one sees Western cyclists riding in SE Asia -- I'm talking about a run down, simple bike that you might find in the garage, under cobwebs, from the year 1960. It didn't have gears, but it did have a basket. I couldn't believe she rode the thing across Cambodia. With her bike, she's made a lot of friends and has experienced travel in a different way than us, often staying with local families, who don't even share a common language, for upwards of a month. Her bike has been retired and is now the property of her adopted Thai family.

He looked like a Vietnam vet and, in fact, he was. Outgrown flat top, ruddy face, faded t-shirt, cammo pants. After the war he began to explore SE Asia and never left. He was born in Germany but grew up in Tennessee and we met him in Battambang, Cambodia at a cafe while we were having breakfast. "Do you like gems?" he asked while pulling a small package out of his wallet, "this is the place to buy them." He produced a packet of rubies and regarded them as if they were a long lost love. Gems are mined in the countryside surrounding Battambang, the last outpost for former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. They likely make their living in the gem trade these days and Bill is likely a gem smuggler.

We met Hans in India: a plump man with round, rosy cheeks and penchant for smoking pipes. He told us a story about how he escaped East Germany back when it was divided and how he ended up in prison for 8 years upon his capture. His trip to India was his first foray into the traveling lifestyle. His dream, though, is to buy a sailboat and travel around the world. After losing years of his life in prison, sailing represents the ultimate form of freedom to Hans.

Steve has the pleasant drawl of a South Carolinan, always sported a safari style hat, and was traveling with his daughter through SE Asia before she starts her PhD program at MIT. He's retired, but runs an outreach program for juvenile delinquents: they make hand crafted wood furniture and through the experience, they begin the process of turning the course of their life to a better path.

Steve was staying at our guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He was a pleasant man, friendly in his strange way of noticing us when he wanted to and not noticing us when he was thinking about something else. He's a Vietnam vet -- used to fly helicopters in the war. His good friend died while piloting a helicopter. It crashed in Central Vietnam for unknown reasons. Before his friend died, he sent Steve the co-ordinates of his fateful flight. Several years ago Steve went to Vietnam with the co-ordinates in hand, got off the bus at Hue, and to the consternation of others, walked into the jungle looking for the crash site. He walked and walked and finally found a strange building in the middle of nowhere that turned out to be an engineering company of some sort. The people there sympathized with his effort, put him in a car, and took him to the crash site. It goes without saying -- it was a moving experience.

If I had to write Amanda's 'ad' for a dating site, I would say: 22-year-old Canadian thrill seeker, cute, outgoing, and daring. We met her on the rooftop restaurant of our guesthouse in Bikaner, India. After several rounds of beer and a load of cigarettes, she'd finished telling us a story about the birth and death of a relationship on the road. She'd discovered that her road-boyfriend was a huge womanizer and even kept lists of his conquests and his 'charm the pants off of them' techniques. She'd just left him a couple days before we met her; it was a dramatic scene involving her storming to the bus station and him following her, begging like a dog that she stay.

After more conversation, we learned that we'd crossed paths several times in India and what's more, I shared a few joking comments with a lone female traveler whom she had befriended in the south. It might sound unlikely to establish that sort of link, but as we were discussing her own experiences of traveling alone, I mentioned this girl in the internet cafe who'd been staring at the words, "I'm not as strong as I thought I was," on her screen for a long time. The physical description fit and as we were all in the same city at the same time, it was a definite match. Small world.

After Bikaner, Amanda was on her way to Delhi where she planned to petition her embassy for a letter required to obtain a visa for Pakistan. She'd been to Bangladesh and India and was looking to push the boundaries of her strength further (it's a man's world in these countries). Once in Pakistan, Amanda decided to push on into Afghanistan. While there, she was held up by gunpoint in a crowded market and was ushered to a new village in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, when the village where she was staying was bombed. The villagers believed the bombs were set off because of her presence there. She was also an unbelievable sight for sore soldiers' eyes. They marveled, "What the hell are you doing here alone?" before getting their photos snapped with her.

I've wondered: when does courage become foolishness? Never mind that, though, I wish I had just an ounce of her intrepid spirit.

CHINESE DUDE (actual name unknown)
I had a short, but interesting, conversation with a man staying at our guesthouse in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was Chinese but lives in Australia. He wanted to know how long I'd been in Phnom Penh. "One week," I told him and out of politeness, enquired about his stay. "Seven weeks," he replied. "I came here looking for a wife."

I asked him how things were going. He was more than happy to tell me his story about how he'd made arrangements to marry a Cambodian woman when he was in Australia (I'm assuming mail order). When he arrived in Cambodia, everything was fine -- he stayed at his bride-to-be's family home and, "was treated like a king." But somehow, he'd fallen out of his future bride's grace and was asked to leave. He went from king to outcast in a matter of days and was perplexed by the events. His last words on the subject struck me as a little sad, in more ways than one. He said, in a dispirited voice, "Now I have to find a wife all over again..." I hurled my thoughts at him through psychic transmission, just in case he had any ideas, "Well, don't look at me! I'm taken."

Americans Abroad, PT. VII

Perhaps some of you have noticed that this blog has turned in a new direction... there is a shortage of descriptive destination entries. There is an onslaught of 'Americans Abroad' posts. Perhaps there is more talk about me than about places... But think of this blog as my diary, as I do -- it's a record of events and personal experiences -- and there is so much more to extended travel than the places we go; that's what 'Americans Abroad' is all about.

I actually stole the idea for the name from Mark Twain. In 1867, he wrote a book called 'Innocents Abroad' about a voyage from the US to Europe and Africa on a sea-going steam ship. Literary scholars like to talk about whether the name for the book referred to the traveling Americans as 'innocents' or whether it refers to the natives of the countries they visited as 'innocents', especially because they were subjected to Twain's cynicism and sarcastic style. The beauty of the title is that it works both ways.

The 'Americans Abroad' posts on this blog are titled as such to convey the duality of travel: it's about being an American abroad and it's about perceptions regarding Americans from those abroad. I read somewhere, I think some of those literary scholars said it about Twain's book, that when one travels, they learn about themselves and in a way, define their role as a citizen of their country and a citizen of the world through encounters with others. When I came on this trip, I knew I would learn a lot about myself -- you are put to the test on a daily basis on the road in foreign places. But what I didn't expect was to discover or define myself -- or America, for that matter, through the eyes of others. For me, this has been the biggest surprise of travel.

As we've traveled, it is the one thing that defines us -- first and foremost -- we are Americans to the people we meet be they locals or other travelers. At home, I am a designer, a daughter, a sister, a friend... there are all kinds of definers for this girl named Cheryn. But here, I am an American. I don't know if I can manage to accurately convey the strangeness of that huge shift from being 'Cheryn' to being 'American'. My new identity has obviously worked its way into my blog.

Maybe it's boring stuff to people who dream of getting away from the workaday world and would rather read about foreign places and dream about exotic discoveries. Maybe it seems self-centered and soap-box-esque. But hey, what else is a diary for? Good stuff and bad, boring or not, it's what's going on...

Lately, I have turned my attention more fully to 'Americans Abroad' because, in part, we have been in Chiang Mai for more than three weeks, primarily killing time until we go to Myanmar. Slow-to-respond plane reservation systems and a dog bite have delayed our trip by more than 2 weeks. I like it here, but It's like being in a giant waiting room, hoping your number gets called soon. Considering that in this waiting room there are no People magazines or other fine literary rags (btw, English language magazines are 10 bucks in Asia), I have spent my time writing up a lot of stuff that I usually don't have the time for... when I am scribbling out notes, hoping to capture the essence of a place.

There is another factor at play, though, and perhaps this is fodder for an entirely different entry. After such a long time on the road, my brain has become overloaded. Benjamin and I had a conversation with a Brit who's traveled about the same amount of time as us and we all agreed: you stop absorbing. Like a sponge that is full of water, it stops taking in any more. That's not to say that we don't enjoy our travels any longer and that we don't appreciate and stand in awe of the things we encounter... but it does become 'commonplace'. It's one of those things you'd like to deny but it would only be a lie to say anything different. In terms of my topics of writing, there are only so many ways to describe a landscape or a temple or a culture that is no longer 'foreign' to me. Perhaps I have been assimilated by Asia and it's so 'normal' to me now, I find it hard to find things to write about other than the 'deeper' experience of being a traveler in the first place.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Americans Abroad, Pt. VI

...a continuing series on people, perceptions, and stereotypes discovered on the road

When I was in Laos, an English girl asked me why all Americans call Europeans European. Apparently it annoyed her. I told her that when we say 'European', we are referring to Europe in the general sense. For example, we might say, "When it comes to travel, European countries are more expensive than Asian countries." It's much more economical than saying, "When it comes to travel, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland , France , Germany , Greece , Hungary, Ireland, Italy , Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg , Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal , Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain , Sweden, and the United Kingdom are more expensive than Asian countries." I'm sorry to have put you through that, but I'm making a point. Don't you agree -- it's more just more economical to say European? For the purposes of this blog, I will henceforth type European in italics to point out the economy of not listing out the entire EU.

I went on to tell the English girl that when we are speaking of a specific country, we do not refer to it as 'Europe' or the people as European -- take things like food or drink, for example. Rather than saying European, someone might say, "I like to eat German food for brunch because it's a good excuse to drink beer in the morning," or, "I had English food for dinner last night; boy do they sure know how to work a pot of boiling water." I should have asked her, "Why are a lot of Europeans so nitpicky?"

I don't like to make sweeping generalizations, but I have met a number of nitpicky Europeans. Take, for example, a Dutch guy I met here in Thailand. He's been coming to Thailand for 10 years and speaks the language well. Actually, I don't really know if he speaks Thai well because I don't speak Thai -- let's just say he can hold a lengthy conversation in Thai. I shared with him a few words of my limited vocabulary. He laughed and said (in a snooty tone of voice I might add), "Why do all Americans speak Thai like Americans?"

After a few moments of quiet deliberation, I replied, "Well, for one thing, we are... how shall I say... AMERICANS -- duh! And for another, until we know how something is pronounced correctly, how else would we say it -- we have only the sounds made by combinations of verbs and nouns known to us, in our language. So excuse me if I say something that sounds like 'may' instead of 'my' when it's spelled 'mai'."

He went on to thank the barkeep for the arrival of his drink by saying something that sounded, in English, like "Thank Yo-ow." He bulldozed his way through English like Frankenstein in a field of Daisies: monotone, droning, and coarse. I wanted to be a smartass and ask him why all Dutch people speak English like Dutch people. Actually Dutch people speak English very well, but there's still an accent.

That's the thing about English -- it's a forgiving language. People, Europeans for example, can massacre words when speaking them in their accented way and English speakers still understand what they're trying to say. We accept words pronounced 'the wrong way', like 'dis and dat' instead of 'this and that'... Hell, many native English speakers in America say 'dis and dat' themselves (they mostly live in the south). 'Yo-ow' instead of 'you' is acceptable, too, in the case of this Dutch guy.

Here in Thailand, the language is tonal, so the flexibility for speaking with the wrong inflection on certain syllables or for saying it the wrong way doesn't exist. You could try saying 'banana' and end up saying 'penis' very easily. That's why I never ask for bananas.

Americans, Canadians, English, and Australians are actually pretty lucky when it comes to travel because, at least in Asia, English is the 'bridge' language. If a person speaks a second language, be they Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and even Chinese (granted, there are fewer of them), it's going to be English in most cases. I've met Europeans (and in this case, I use the word because I don't remember which country they were from) who say they have friends back home who won't travel because they don't speak English well enough to get by. They would be stuck, language-less and unable to communicate.

I've seen Europeans teetering on the fine line of those who travel and those who stay home. They are locked in time consuming conversations -- actually they are not so much conversations as they are a simple string of words -- but getting to the point... they are locked in a stressful linguistic battle with a Vietnamese speaker, for example, trying to find out where the bus station is. When it comes to speaking English, the Vietnamese person does not understand their garbled accent and the European does not understand the Vietnamese accent. Their speech is equivalent to the result of making a xerox copy of a xerox copy of a xerox copy.

A bit of an aside from the topic of language -- or perhaps not, as "money talks" -- traveling Americans are lucky because the dollar is the global standard for currency. In many places in SE Asia, prices are quoted in American dollars and people prefer to receive dollars as opposed to their local currency. In fact, in some places, one might think the US dollar is their primary currency, such as Cambodia. I found this especially ironic in Vietnam.

When I say Americans are 'lucky' for this, it is not because I prefer to use my own currency when traveling -- I would actually prefer not to because using foreign currency is all part of travel's fun. The reason we're lucky is because we don't have to do the tree-part conversion like the Europeans. If we are quoted a price in say, Cambodian riel, we only have to convert it to dollars. Europeans have to convert to dollars and then euros. I hate to do a lot of math in my head, so it's lucky for me I'm not European.

At a market in Laos, I heard one woman say to a merchant who'd quoted her a price in dollars, "I don't know dollars -- I'm not American." For what it's worth, she actually sounded Canadian to me and in light of having forgotten to wear her lapel pin, she was probably making sure everyone around knew she wasn't American. It's not that the merchant assumed she was American, it's just that they like the dollar in Laos.

So, what's the whole point of this entry? Before I got onto the bit about currency, it was supposed to call out the nuances of language and the perception of Europeans that Americans are dumb when they a) use the word European and b) are bad at speaking foreign languages. It is, in a way one of those 'us against them' things. Europeans think Americans are self-centered, judging by the aformentioned conversations with the English girl and Dutch guy. Perhaps we are... but then again, we share the whole continent of North America with only 2 other countries as opposed to the Europeans who share their continent with -- how else can I say it -- a buttload of others. Perhaps because of our sheer size as a country, Americans use 'short cuts' when speaking of Europe at large and in regards to language, we have to go thousands of miles to encounter a foreign tongue. It's not that we are totally lazy, although I will admit we are a little lazy in regards to such things, it's just that we are who we are. Like it or not, we are Americans.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

More Bad Luck

"Do you think you can have good sleeping?" she asked from the walkway outside of our room.

"Yes, it's OK..." I answered, pulling the covers over my head and reddening cheeks. Earlier, I broke several of the glass slats of our window trying to close them when the handle didn't work. It made a horrendous noise. CRASH, you know what the sound of broken glass hitting cement sounds like: awful and incriminating. I came back to the bar, where Benjamin was sitting.

"Was that you? Are you bleeding?" he asked casually. I think he's getting used to my little accidents.

"Yes, no," I answered -- yes it was me and no I wasn't bleeding. But that wasn't entirely true. I didn't know it at the time because my adrenaline was pumping from the embarrassing noise of the breaking glass. I was bleeding -- somehow I cut my toe on a piece of glass and when my flipflops felt as if I'd walked through a puddle, I looked down to discover the gash.

"Clean it up," Benjamin suggested.

"Yes, clean it up, that's what I'll do," I replied with the faintest glimmer of hope that if I cleaned up the mess, the accident would theoretically never have happened. I learned in childhood to clean up the mess and then admit the accident. It seems less of a 'thing' that way. I cleaned up the broken glass before worrying about my toe in case I further lacerated myself in the 'hide the evidence' process. Not that I was hiding the evidence -- it just made me feel better to have less of it. The open, gaping hole in the window was evidence enough, anyway. There's no hiding that.

I was relieved that no-one was angry or upset about the broken window. I was worried they would think it happened because I was drunk, but it was only 8 p.m. and I'd only had water and 1 glass of wine so far in the evening. Anyway, they know better around here: I am currently suffering from a case of bad luck. My recent dog bite was supposed to be the end of it, but I think it's only the start. I plan to be very careful in the coming days.

Am, the woman who runs this guesthouse and who now probably sees me as a liability (I've noticed people are avoiding me today), suggested I should, perhaps, visit the temple. I have decided that while I don't necessarily share the Asian belief in 'luck', I probably should visit the temple to shed my dark cloud. There are, after all, plane rides and hair cuts in my future...

Americans Abroad, Pt. V

...a continuing series on people, perceptions, and stereotypes discovered on the road

Before coming on this trip, I saw a kit advertised in a popular magazine -- it was designed to transform traveling Americans into Canadian citizens. For something like 25 bucks, you can purchase a Canadian flag t-shirt, lapel pin, luggage patch, key chain, and baseball cap (which is ironically a dead give away for being American, at least in Europe).

While traveling, I have certainly seen a fair share of so-called Canadians decked out in the 'Go Canadian' kit. The predominant color of their wardrobes is red and white, their backpacks are red and white with a Canadian flag patch stitched on (we saw one flag patch that was literally the size of a pillow case). They wear t-shirts emblazoned, simply, with the word 'Canada', and sport the lapel pins and key chains in prominent places. I've seen entire families dressed this way, as if it were a uniform and the family some sort of promotional team required to dress like dorks.

The Canadians I have met wore none of this stuff. The only give-away that they were Canadian was the consistent use of the question, "Eh?" in conversation. I'm not saying the people I've seen who resemble gullible victims of a crafty Canadian souvenir salesman are not, in fact, Canadian. They may very well be people whose idea of a fashion statement revolves around wearing maple leaves and a simple color palette. Or they may just be proud to be Canadian. Or, more likely, they do not want to be confused with Americans -- we're all so similar in terms of appearance and speech in comparison with the rest of the world's countries. In a way, Canada is like pork, 'the other white meat'.

I was thinking about this the other day and have come up with a solution to all of this silliness. We, the U.S., should just invade Canada and put the issue to rest. If we take over their country, we can finally have all of North America to ourselves. Of course to achieve that, we'd also have to capture Mexico, but since we're at it, why the hell not?

Think about it. There are lots of good reasons to take Canada. For one, we could finally unite Alaska with the rest of the States -- why should I have to travel over an entirely different country just to reach one of our own states, anyway? Also, we could have all of Niagara Falls to ourselves -- I always thought the old, 'this is your half and this is ours' business was a bit childish.... treating this great attraction of nature the same way brothers and sisters treat the back seat of a car, with imaginary lines divvying up space into 'yours' and 'mine'. Those of us who took French in high school would finally have a reason to use the language. And, for just a short bit of time while lawyers sorted things out, we would have access to cheap pharmaceuticals.

We would have to make a lot of changes. We would ditch the maple leaf emblem for sure. Nothing says 'wimp' like a leaf, especially one that dries up and lays in heaps on the ground for periods of the year. We would eliminate the use of the question, "Eh?" as it is not a complete sentence. We would abandon the Canadian rule that its flag should not be used as a table or seat cover because once they are part of America, what other good use would there be for the Canadian flag but for collecting stains and dropped food at the dinner table and for keeping the sofa clean? Knowing us, we would probably 'officially' require the French speaking citizens to use English, although that would be too bad for those of us who took French in high school and would like someone to practice with. Of course, we would be flexible on that point -- we would add French to the signage in our hospitals that already includes Spanish and, in some cities, Tagalog. We would require the Canadian Mounties to move along into the 21st century and adopt the use of high speed automobiles instead of old fashioned horsies.

As you can see, there is a lot of work ahead of us, my fellow Americans (and Americans-to-be). Just the thought of it makes me tired, but in order to sort out the identity crises that have come to plague both Americans and Canadians, I am up for the challenge.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bad Luck

"It's bad luck to be bitten by a dog." That's what they say in Thailand. But at least once it's over, the bad luck has been cleared. Perhaps I won't have a motorbike accident or I won't lose money in a ruthless game of Connect Four. I have used all my bad luck up, having been bitten by a dog this afternoon.

It's not a terribly bad bite... what I mean to say is that flesh was not torn from my leg or anything like that -- the dog gave me a few puncture wounds and bruising, it did hurt -- enough for sympathy but not enough for flowers. Even so, I had to go to the emergency room for a rabies booster. While I was rather irked to have spent $500.00 on my rabies vaccination before I left on this trip, I forked out the dough 'just in case'. Now I'm glad I did because all that's required are 2 booster shots instead of the entire rabies series which takes more than 4 consecutive weeks. As it is, we've had to postpone our trip to Myanmar one week so I can be here for my second booster in three days. I'm just glad Benjamin wasn't the one bitten or we'd be stuck in Thailand for 1 month.

It's actually kind of funny that Benjamin wasn't bitten because we made plenty of jokes before coming on this trip -- I was to be his 'human shield' in the event of dog or monkey bites because of my vaccination. I was to throw myself in front of fangs and spittle and save him from strange and fearsome animals. But those were just jokes; not real life. Real life has me sitting behind him on the back of a motorbike and my meaty calf just happened to be more convenient. So much for my moment of valor.

We were driving through a strange neighborhood -- one that looked, in places, to be abandoned for years, with overgrown plots of land and neglected homes. The out-of-place Roman aesthetic probably added to the general feeling of age and decline. In reality, the development has only been around for a few years but according to Lucas, who runs our guesthouse, "The Thais let things fall apart and then sell them to foreigners to fix up."

The thing we found compelling was that in between the unkempt areas were huge, fine homes with Mercedes in the driveways. Obviously this was a neighborhood for rich Thais, but it was so... peculiar. We drove down one street with a few homes and having passed one with 2 dogs, we turned around at the dead end. That's where one of the dogs bit me. It came running out into the street barking and then came right up and planted its jaws on my leg. We took off... Benjamin honking the horn to scare the beasts away -- me with my leg high in the air like I was doing a newfangled style of yoga: motoryoga. I was trying to keep my leg away from the dog, which was attempting to take a second go.

We did nothing to provoke the dog... we were simply riding on a motorbike down the street and had the bad fortune of passing by its driveway. Goes to show that any thing can happen at any time -- I rather suspected that if I were bit on this trip, it would be in the wilds of some jungle or in the dark hours of pre-dawn while walking on a lonesome alley in a bad part of town.

I waffled about whether or not I should go to the ER for the rabies booster at first. The bite didn't look serious enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room -- that is it didn't call up memories of horror movies about dogs named Cujo. I always think of the emergency room as a place for victims of heart attack, serious car crashes, and accidents involving lawn mowers or coke bottles. It's not the case, though -- I've seen people in there with black eyes from fights or torn ear lobes from catching impractical earrings on car doors (that was me). Perhaps they should rename the ER -- give it a more catch-all name, like the ' Room for unfortunate incidents, disasters, tragedies, catastrophes, calamities, and goof-ups'.

I was worried about 'overreacting'. Do I really need to get a rabies injection or is it just more Western hype and over caution. What I mean by that is in America, and I'm sure much of the rest of the West, we have become a bit hysterical about things like germs (we have hand lotion and fragrant air sanitizers for that) and the temperature of raw eggs (you will die if they're not refrigerated at 40º F from the moment in comes out of the hen's...what does it come out of, anyway? I don't know the name and am OK with that). We've been on the road for 9 months and no-one refrigerates eggs in Asia and I haven't gotten sick once.

All things considered, though, I decided it was stupid to take a chance with my life (rabies is deadly) rather than make a trip to the hospital and delay our visit to Myanmar. As Benjamin pointed out, Myanmar will always be there. While that's true, what it really came down to is the fact that I don't want to leave this world in that manner: a rather unheroic dog bite. If I was saving someone's life and was bitten in the process, that would be different.

The emergency room took some finding and appeared more like a cafeteria in terms of interior design, if one could be so bold as to assume that someone designed it. There were people on gurneys all about and while there were curtains, none were drawn for privacy. When we entered the room, I kept telling Benjamin, "Don't look, don't look..." I didn't want to see anything yucky. I was given a gurney of my own -- a bit fussy, if you ask me. I only wanted a shot, after all. But people were friendly and competent -- I did have my doubts about their abilities at first when I noticed the doctors looking things up on a computer and in the thick texts of a medical book. I got the feeling not too many people show up for rabies injections. Perhaps that's why so many of them die -- they're not cautious enough.

After about an hour, I left the hospital with a bag of pills (antibiotics and something for pain). I'd been given my shot, a rather painless injection thanks to the careful nurse. Even though I'd gone through three rounds of vaccinations before I left on this trip and became quite familiar with the jab of many needles, I still felt anxious about the shot. Benjamin held my hand just like my mommy used to.

In all, I spent about $30.00 -- my visit to the ER amounted to a mere 75¢... the rest was for the medicine. Can you believe it? 75¢ for a visit to the ER -- that's exactly $45.25 less than what I would pay at home IF I have health insurance. Without insurance, I can only guess at the cost: a shitload. And rabies vaccinations at home cost $165.00 each -- I would have paid $330.00 instead of $29.25 (and this figure includes the antibiotics and pain killers). Unbelievable. While it might be bad luck to be bitten by a dog in Thailand, at least it's affordable.

Everything is fine and in the end, it's not really a big deal. Our plane tickets to Myanmar have been changed, I will not get rabies, and the dog that bit me will continue to live another day. Normally in Thailand, dogs that bite are killed and then tested for rabies, but there's no way we were going to hang around outside the house to notify the dog's owner. We'd have been eaten alive.