Wednesday, February 29, 2012

PHNOM PENH, a Whitewash of History

The first impression was correct, Phnom Penh has become a playground for international bon-vivants, well-dressed first-class hotel dwellers, globetrotters and backpackers and everything in between. There are accommodations, eateries, watering holes aplenty, for each kind.
I am loving it even though it rides roughshod over the waistline I'd hoped to reduce in this "forlorn backwater" of my memories.
Although near the end of the dry season, Phnom Penh days are sweltering hot and dripping humid. It looks like I am not alone in seeking a midday refuge in an air conditioned or fanned room. Around that time the streets become deserted. As if popping out of hibernation, masses of humanity re-emerge from their hidden daytime shelters as soon as the sun drops behind the haze in the west.

Just as it was when I thought catching up a bit with world new was a possibility in Rangoon, when CNN, and other news channels, blabbed about nothing besides the important life achievements of Witney Houston, I got duped again. My cheap Phnom Penh digs, besides air-conditioning, also had a little TV. When checking in, they assured me CNN was available - and it was - but with a bummer discovery. This time Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Republican primaries, record cold spell in Europe and what Berlusconi's girlfriend had for breakfast, all of it was replaced by the Red Carpet parade of "glitterati" making their way to the Academy Award ceremonies. I watched for a while and came to a conclusion: Most of the Cambodian women who try to entice you into their restaurant for a two-dollar dinner look infinitely better with their winning smiles than the dolled up, fake, modified, transformed, "Babes" and "Dudes" who strut the red carpet on the way in to the Academy Awards ceremony.
Day before yesterday I picked up a (pirated, photocopied) book from a street seller, FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. By Loung Ung.
That story would definitively qualify better for having the title of my blog HITTING THE HEAD WITH A HAMMER than my actual blog. While reading it, in my air-conditioned room (the Academy Awards still dominated the TV news!), it felt like exposure to constant head hammering. It tells the story of one family under the unspeakable brutality of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
I chose the blog title to facetiously illustrate how good it feels when one stops hammering, but under Pol Pot's reign, for the countless people who had their heads bashed in with hammers, there was no such relief, they were dead, about two million of them, out of a population of a little over ten million.
On my last visit to Phnom Penh, about eighteen-years(?) ago, I visited the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison torture headquarters where daily about a hundred people got bludgeoned to death. It was a shocker then but since the town in those days had already put you into a mood of doom, with it's dark, forlorn alleys, and general depressing allure, the impact was not as great a contrast as reading the book now, in comfort during the midday heat, knowing full-well in the evening you can go out to hoot it up and be merry - options joyfully offered by the people who had endured the Khmer Rouge horrors.

I got an invitation to spend time in a village yet two reasons kept me from accepting.
Life out in the country, as described in the book, was so depressing, I didn't want to be reminded, but ... in reality there was another, more important reason why I declined.
Teth, a very beautiful, twenty-nine-year old woman I got to know rather well during my six-day stay in Phnom Penh, was married in her village when she was twenty. Her husband, ten month after the wedding, died in an accident, almost the same day as her daughter was born. When I asked how, she started to cry. Of course, with that I didn't pursue the question. I'd read in the Cambodia Journal, an English newspaper I got from a pint-sized newspaper boy, that this year already eleven people, mostly farmers, had died from stepping on land mines. After her husband's death Teth tried to make a go as a widow with a young child, but that was difficult in her farming village.
She left her daughter with her mother and came to the city, "to make enough money to assure a good education for my child," she said. Right away she started taking English lesson. To finance her living and school expenses she became a masseuse, doing regular Khmer massage that has not much similarity with the - probably more lucrative - sex massage available all over southeast Asia. While we strolled in the market early one morning, it turned out she knows the English names of all the vegetables, fruits and meats, a good indication that her English comes from a school where one learns these kinds of words as opposed to the chit-chat some girls get from working in bars. For her lodging, she pays thirty-dollars a month and the school costs a grand total of three-hundred a year.
After the total feel-good experience in Mandalay, where a lousy thousand dollars helped in creating a doctor, a dentist, a computer programmer and an electrical engineer! I paid her tuition for the year. She had been paying month by month.
As in Mandalay, the show of gratitude (the Mandalay version is described in a former posting) was totally embarrassing. She cried, prayed and bowed to me, and prayed and bowed again, and again. Whether in a restaurant or in a Tuck-Tuck, my arm that happens to be next to her gets totally over-massaged. When we eat in restaurants together, she requests hot water to clean my eating utensils. She prepares and improves the meals with condiments and supplied extras. She keeps crying and laughing.
Yesterday her younger sister, a real farm girl with rough, calloused hands, came to visit her. Even at universally known words, like "thank you", she looks to her sister to find out what I said.
Teth invited me to come with them to the village for a few days. With what looked more and more like infatuation, even though born from gratitude, I was reluctant to encourage that - a beautiful young woman with a potentially fulfilling future and me, an old man - just didn't seem right. I gave her my e-mail address and said I had to leave Phnom Penh. She cried a little. Were I to stay longer, and things progressed, she would probably cry more about my eventual, inevitable departure.
That is why I booked a bus ride to Siem Reap. A Canadian backpacker couple from Calgary, said Siem Reap looked now like a hippy heaven blended with a free-for-all wild west town and Disney World. Gotta see that. Twelve years ago, Siem Reap, like Phnom Penh, was a rather quiet backwater.
The bus journey, even though mostly through a beautiful, emerald green rice paddy landscape, interspersed by Lotus ponds, fish farms, mango groves, lush vegetable plots, and cow pastures, was depressing. Everything, everywhere is decorated by plastic bags, styrofoam containers, and, and, and ... whatever else should, in the best case, grace only a garbage dump.

I was in Siem Reap with Emilie. From there we took a boat across Tonlé Sap lake and, past floating villages and countless fishermen, went down Tonlé Sap River to Phnom Penh. The lake and river are reputed to be the world's most productive fresh water fisheries.
The reason lays in a rare configuration. Tonlé Sap River, along with the Casiciares in Venezuela, are two planetary abnormalities. Both rivers flow both ways, depending on which end the water level is higher. During dry season, Tonlé Sap river leads out of Tonlé Sap lake into the Mekong. During rainy season the Mekong water level rises tremendously and thus reverses the flow of Tonlé Sap which fills up the lake, like a huge reservoir. That water is very rich in nutrients.
The Casiciares is a river way out in the Amazon jungle between the upper reaches of the Rio Negro (Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela) and the Orinoco (Venezuela). The Casiciares flows east to west when the Orinoco is higher and west to east when the Rio Negro carries more water.
Now I have done both of them, both West to East.

Observations / vignettes.

In Phnom Penh, kids with heavy baskets, full of books, DVD (probably pirated stuff), newspapers and trinkets, ply the streets, the river promenade, cafés, bars and restaurants, trying to sell their wares. Some, to judge by the looks barely out of kindergarten, have incredible language skills. With people who look like yours truly, they first try their sales pitch in English, when they get no response they go to French, then German. If I looked a bit different they would surely try Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
That reminds me of my first English words: "Chewing gum, please."
After the war American GIs came to Switzerland for R&R. I would hang out where they could be found; in the streets, the river promenade, cafés and restaurants (no bars that I knew of in those days). I hunted and pestered them just as the Phnom Penh kids did with me but all I needed to achieve my goal was tugging at their pants and pleading: "Chewing gum please".
Chewing gum, the American invention, was the coolest thing to possess. A big wad in your mouth, even if it was days old and had absolutely no more flavor, could be traded for a day in exchange for a hokey stick, a bike or whatever one wanted from some chewing gum-less kid. A strict rule was that no food or drink could be in the mouth while the borrowed wad was being masticated.

Today, for the first time, I realized how, when I open or close my eye, or when I blink, it feels like I do it with both, even though the eyelid of the missing eye doesn't move at all.

In the US a large portion of heavy construction machinery have names like KOMATSU, VOLVO, names of foreign brands. Here in south-east Asia, much closer to Japan than the US, I see almost exclusively Caterpillar machines. What gives?

On the bus I had to (silently) commiserate with an Austrian woman. The man she was with, talked uninterrupted - with a heavy Austrian accent - the whole six hours of the bus ride. Sometimes he even forgot to breathe 'til, like a victim of Hypoxia, he had to desperately gulp for air. The subject of his talk was everything, absolutely everything. He was one of these people who know absolutely everything about everything and lets the world around him know about it.
I was tempted to strangle him but the woman with him pretended to listen.

Siem Reap.

Last night I ran into a couple from Oregon who I knew from the Saigon to Phnom Penh Mekong Delta journey.
First time in Siem Reap, they didn't suffer the same shock as I at the sight of that town. Acres upon acres of souvenir stalls are crowded into, what it is advertised in giant blinking neon signs: DAY MARKET and NIGHT MARKET. They both look the same and both were open at night. One is on the left side of the river and the other on the right side. Quaint bridges connect the two as if there might be a chance that a potential customer couldn't find what he/she was looking for in either one of them. Future dust collectors (read souvenirs) in Europe, Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, North, Central and South America, are offered in multiples of thousands.
There are streets with wall-to-wall bars and restaurants, one is called pub and bar street? There is even a traffic barrier on both entrances to the street so that tuck-tucks and motorcycle taxi drivers won't interfere with the drinking, eating and general merry-making. To beat that kind of food and drink competition, not all can offer local Cambodian fare, so you get to choose specialities from across the globe, from pizza, over sushi, hot dogs, fish and chips and röschti to borscht. Beautiful local girls smile and coo at you and try to pull you in wherever you pass - for drink, "happy hour, we serve Margarita, Sunrise, Piña Colada, Mojito, half price", for food, "Khmer, Italian, Chinese, French, Barbecue", for massage, "very happy", for fish pedicure, for souvenir purchase.
Even though in many ways similar to the Khao San area in Banglamphu, Bangkok's backpacker and budget traveler ghetto, a place I really like (as described in earlier posts), this tourist Mecca here in Siem Reap is over the top. It seems like a parody to "cater to tourist excess". Also, since Siem Reap is like a small village compared to Bangkok, the "fancy" people from the multi-star hotels, that also abound in this town, mingle with the backpacker riffraff. Next to the table with pink Safari outfits, white tennis garb, tasseled loafers and coiffed hairdos, you might see a - mostly younger - group with tattoos, headbands, beards and beads in rumpled, loose fitting, easy-to-wash outfits, and next to them a group of bright blue eyed and so-blond-it-almost-looks-white-haired Scandinavian students. All out to live adventurously, Asian restaurants have mostly Caucasian guests while Asians munch on Pizzas, Spaghetti and Wurst.
Jayavarman II, the Devaraja (god-king), when he started building Angkor Watt in 802 AD, could never have guessed what a gold mine he created for a future Cambodia. Even though I don't plan to visit Angkor Watt again - that surely hasn't changed in the last fifteen years - I came to Siem Reap because it is the staging town for visits to the famous structures - and thus it has become a sight to see on its own.

Food and drink is good, people are friendly - if you manage to see any locals that are not tuck-tuck or motorcycle taxi drivers or shopkeepers, or restaurant and bar employees, or masseuses, or hotel receptionists. Since I won't again go to visit the temple ruins of Angkor Watt, I had enough of the carnival here.
Last time we came on the back of a pickup truck from Thailand to Siem Reap. For a long stretch the truck drove far off the road. "There are still mines on and near the road," was the explanation for shaking the bones out of our bodies while we rumpled over the uneven terrain. I sat on one of the truck's spare tires. I remember thinking how nice it would be if it was less inflated.
Now the town is full of pictures advertising super fancy buses that bring you to Bangkok - and everywhere else you might want to go - in comfort. I think I'll try one. From Bangkok everything is possible. Maybe I'll end up laying on a tropical beach before getting to cold Europe, New York and Vermont.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Real Secret to Longevity

When I hit the bird's nest elixir in Bangkok, I thought that sealed it, I'd live forever.
Here in the Mekong Delta I found a better prophesy. ROYAL JELLY seems to be the real deal.
Judge for yourself by reading the (verbatim) bill of faith that comes with the purchase of Jelly (It probably works also if you ingest it by mistake):

Royal jelly is a top precious nutritive substance collecting from nectar. Protein and lots of vitamins being got by mason beer(!) with their throat lines create Royal Jelly. This mixture is called royal jelly it is the only food of Queen bees. And it is the food to help Queen Bees to live 40 times longer than Worker Bees.
This is product considered as a high-ranking and top precious one because it contains nutritive substance with excellent value including 22 Amino acids necessary for our bodies and containing lots of contents of important vitamins such as B1, B2, (riboflavin), niacin, B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, biotin, frolic acid, B12, inositol, choline and collagen (is a wonderful remedy against old and maintaining youth). Besides Royal Jelly also contains a quantity of vitamin of A, C, D, and E as well as calcium, copper, iron, phosphr(!), kalium, silicum, sulphur which are almost necessary nutritive substance.

You will realize its effect right in first week of use:
> It is made skin fresh.
> It is helped skin with softness, abolished wrinkles, taken care of beauty.
> It is protected health, slowed down getting old, improved longevity.
> It is helped to get old, ant-burnt due to environmental impact and especially change of woman's hormone (during menopause).
> It is decreases high blood pressure, diabetes, hepatitis of A,B,C,D types.
> it is reinforced vision and had good eyesight.
> it is restored all-around ability of sexual desire of both genders, stabilized disorder of physiological hormone overcame having few children and sterile ability.
> Anaphrodisia.
> It is acted as a tranquillizer, good sleep, anti-insomniac.
> It is opposed infection of urination.

Like Obelix, in Asterix and Obelix comics, who fell as a baby into magic potion, thus got super powers, I filed my cup with Royal Jelly, thinking it was tea. Woe to women who cross my path now!

That three-day trip through the Mekong Delta, I figured, is the most interesting way to get from Saigon to Cambodia, and - it turns out to be true, but comes with a price.
With a fast boat we left Saigon early in the morning and zipped through a mess of canals, wide and narrow waterways into the delta. There is even more traffic, it seems, on the water than on land. Boats, huge to tiny, all hopelessly overloaded, 'til the water line reaches the top rail, so many go upstream, downstream and across, it almost makes you dizzy just to watch. Navigating must be a nightmare since boats don't have breaks.
After about four hours in that fast boat we switched over to small launches that navigated on a narrow, totally overgrown waterway, like a tunnel through the vegetation, to a bee farm - home of the creators of the Royal Jelly. We were served tea with Royal Jelly infused with Cumquat juice, candy made from Royal Jelly, cookies made from Royal Jelly, and pure Royal Jelly to taste, all in addition to carved coconut shells, alligator skin belts, plastic imitation alligator skin belts, dolls, salad serving utensils made from coconut fiber, salad bowls made from coconut wood, fruit jellies, toffies, straw hats, fabric, dolls, beads, custom jewelry and old coins, that were also for sale.
After the Royal Jelly episode came the coconut candy adventure. On small row boats, even smaller than the previous launches - "keep your hands inside the boat so they don't get crushed by the sides of other boats that bang into yours!" - we paddled through an even narrower passage under dense vegetation to a place in the middle of jungle where they make coconut candy. We were invited to watch the production then invited to buy, of course, coconut candy, but also candied ginger, carved coconuts, alligator skin belts, plastic imitation alligator skin belts, dolls, salad serving utensils made from coconut fiber, salad bowls made from coconut wood, fruit jellies, toffies, straw hats, fabric, dolls, beads, custom jewelry and old coins. You can also have your picture taken with a life, twelve-foot python snake draped around your neck.
Then we did a nature walk where the guide pointed out native plants, explained what they were used for, if they were wild or cultivated, what fruits they bear. This part I liked.
Then we went for pre-paid lunch. "You get chicken, vegetables and rice, if you order extra, you have to pay. They also have elephant fish, snake, turtle, frogs, all kinds of good things," the guide announced on yet another boat we were on to get to the "Jungle Restaurant" eating place. I planned on snake, Vietnam version. A Swiss-born Vietnamese girl on a visit to relatives in Saigon, ordered fish. I was about to order snake, but then, just on a suspicion, asked for a menu to see if any surprises come with it. There were. The prices for the extras, were the real surprises, filthy dollars and up per extra (for that kind of money you can feed a local family for weeks!). The Swiss-Vietnamese was in shock because she had already ordered the fish and that was tearing a serious hole in her holiday budget. I passed on the snake and offered to take part in her elephant fish meal. We ended up sharing, I got some of the (disgusting) chicken, vegetables and rice and we shared fish with our other lunch companions, a single traveler girl from the UK and a young couple from Toronto. With the price for one can of beer, that I ordered, you could get gloriously drunk on the same brand in Saigon.
The place turned out to be another elaborate tourist-rip-off-trap, like the Royal Jelly place, and like the coconut candy place.
Tomorrow we visit a floating market. I wonder how they try to snare us there.
After checking into the pre-paid hotel dump, the Swiss Vietnamese girl, the UK girl and I went in search of Phò. Because Phò is primarily a breakfast dish, we only found a place with chicken, rice and vegetables. That meal, same in name as lunch, but unlike the one in the jungle, together with a can beer, was delicious and cost less than a dollar.
So far, the Mekong Delta trip, despite the pretty tacky commercial aspect, is cool. It would be nearly impossible to visit on your own the many nooks in the vast water world we'd seen so far. It definitively beats a bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
Now it is next day and we've done the floating market, where you could, but didn't have to, buy fruits or vegetables, visited a rice noodle maker's shop, where you could, but didn't have to buy rice noodles, a rice husking outfit, where you could buy brown rice, cracked rice, rice husks and white rice, but didn't have to.
On that delta journey we were on average about twenty people. Some signed up for all the way to Cambodia, like I, others returned after one day or two back to Saigon. They were from all over the planet; the young Vietnamese Swiss, UK, Canada, US, Dutch, Australia, Germany, Israel, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Japan, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, all backpackers, all with plenty of stories about where they have been and where they plan to go.
An amazing many of them are traveling on extremely long journeys, one-year-long trips with minimal budgets are not big exceptions. Some quit jobs and travel as long as unemployment checks from their respective country come in. It sounds like the average daily budget is about twenty dollars. The British girl I've been hanging out with, claims to be able to do it on fifteen. She's already been under way for eight months and plans on another four, 'til end of June, when it gets a bit warmer in UK, she says.
If I lived totally like most of them, I'd definitively save money while traveling, compared to living in the Big Apple, or even Vermont - but I don't. I allow myself the occasional luxury of such things as a Cognac, and other such frivolities, even if the price of those exotic things could easily cover the cost of ten good meals.
Now I get to write because we came out of the midday heat and sit under a ceiling fan in the - otherwise crummy - hotel lobby. The place is surrounded by the local version of hardware shops. You reach the door by winding your way in between stacks of rubber pads, ball bearings, rusty chains, gaskets and paint cans.
In about two hours, some of us who signed up for going all the way to Cambodia, will be picked up by a bus to go to the last Vietnamese town before the border, Chau Dòc, to get to a hotel there. I might get a chance to search for my last Vietnamese noodle shop (Phò). Tomorrow a fast boat will get us to Phnom Penh by evening. No wonder the package price for the three-day trip was only 80 dollars (it turned out to be two bus rides, two overnight accommodations, one breakfast, one lunch, eight different boats, large and small, slow and fast, one nature hike, one border crossing, and at all times a prattling guide with canned jokes).

Now I am in Phnom Penh, 1PM, during midday heat. Outside it is sweltering while I am luxuriating in my thirty-dollar per night room, third floor walk up, air-conditioned, with two windows, a little balcony, a sliver of river view, a toilet cum shower (the toilet and sink are in the shower stall) and a super comfortable bed.

Yesterday, still on the Vietnamese side of the Mekong Delta, after a night on a house boat were I had a Japanese room mate, we stopped at a fish farm, one of hundreds we passed on the river. They are floating houses with fish pens underneath. In the one we visited, they told us, the family produces 14 tons of fish in seven months by feeding them pellets made of mostly rice husks but also fish byproducts. After the fish they brought us to the crocodiles - on a farm, and, after a long hot walk, to an isolated Muslim community - probably to demonstrate the country's religious freedom.

The real cool part came with the border crossing formalities. On the last boat towards the border, the seventh boat of the journey, a guy collected out passports, the twenty-dollars Cambodian visa fee, made us fill out the application forms, supply a passport photo, charged three dollars for his service and then the boat stopped on the Vietnam side at a restaurant. While we ate, drank, chatted, and relaxed, the checking out of Vietnam happened, getting the Cambodia visa formalities done happened, and all that for three dollars per person.
One girl from Seattle didn't have anymore the required two consecutive blank pages in her passport. They were not going to give her a visa. Our three-dollar-per-person man told her a fifty-dollar bill between the passport pages would solve the problem. It did. They glued the visa over some other country's entry and exit stamps.
You'd have to know what the usual tedious bureaucratic hassle such border crossings entail to appreciate our appreciation. All we had to do on the Cambodian side when we got there by another boat, a Cambodian one, was getting the entry stamp. No customs, no lines, no waiting, no bribing necessary, just quickly stepping off the boat, get the stamp and getting back on again was all it took.

Phnom Penh is another, total surprise. When I was here, about a dozen years ago, it was a sleepy, laid back, backwater town. The only excitement we found then, as I remember, was at the Foreign Correspondents Club where you could get a drink besides local beer. Emilie and I went to a Karaoke bar, hoping for some entertainment. A bunch of girls in there looked her over, fearing competition. Nobody sang, it was a place were you went to pick up hookers.
Already as we approached on the river, the Phnom Penh skyline looked very different. Where, as I remembered, the downtown Buddhist temple was the tallest structure, now stood modern, huge buildings. At the dock a mass of tuck-tuck drivers, taxi drivers, motorcycle drivers, hotel touts, money changers, hustlers, pimps, were more reminiscent of former times. I found my way out of that mêlée and walked along the riverside in search for lodging. The assault by hotel and travel touts was persistent, my warding them off was more persistent. Unlike in Rangoon, the first one I went in to inquire, Riverside Guesthouse, had a vacancy.
After a shower, an exchange of sweat-smelly clothes for fresh ones, handing in the dirty stuff for washing and paying the first night, I went in search for food and drink. The river promenade, formerly a dark forlorn place, is now a hopping, happening, swinging, lit up, strip of fancy restaurants and bars. Black marble, brass and leather abounds. Stunningly beautiful, elegant hostesses try to drag you in. Happy hour and massage is advertised everywhere, music is pounding. Many of the tourists look Asian, probably Chinese, Malay, Singaporeans, Taiwanese, but also pimply Americans with baseball caps, visors facing back, super blond Scandinavians and drab Russians and citizens from the Stans, their former Soviet comrades. Phnom Penh seems to have become an international playground and I am about to find out all about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Saigon is Dangerous

Wasn't Homer requesting to be tied to the mast when his ship passed the island of the Sirens so he won't succumb to temptation? This place, Saigon, might be even more enticing to get sidetracked. Of course, now, the second day here, this is only my first impression, but ...
On a warm, very warm, humid day ...
I went with my hopelessly scratched glasses to an optician for some new ones - so I can actually really see the many beautiful women on motorbikes, on foot and in sidewalk cafés, without squinting through an opaque haze with one eye.
One-day eye-glass service, for a hundred-dollars per pair, including examination, instead of six-hundred dollars with a one-week service in New York, prompted me to buy two pairs. Anyone know an easier way to make a thousand dollars that quick? The optician's wife and children slept on the floor behind the display counter.
Eye-glass mission accomplished, I meandered over to the Phò noodle palace. If ever there was an international best noodle soup contest, Vietnam would win, hands down - if I was the judge. On the way back to my wonderful twenty-dollars a night digs at Madam Cùc's hotel - okay, no stars, no window, but AC, ceiling fan, wifi, bathroom, TV, included breakfast and dinner (if you wish), and a super friendly staff, young giggly girls that pat my belly and coo "smiling Buddha", I bought a bagful of logan, passed a good looking sushi restaurant, made plans for dinner there, bought a TIME magazine, sat down and read it over an Italian double expresso, turned down a couple of massage offers - very good, all over, very happy, not much money! - and tried to decide how long I could stay here and still do the other thingsI have planned before my flight to Switzerland out of Bangkok on March 22.
Now, during the midday heat, I sit under the fan, peeling and snacking logans and write on my iPad.
The streets look like rivers with a bank-to-bank totally silent current of motorcycles, only interrupted by an occasional honk. The newer models run practically soundless. The old, noisy, two-cycle engine ones with visible exhaust clouds are a thing of the past. Crossing those rivers of traffic takes some getting used to. With total disregard to what's coming towards you, one steps out and, without changing walking pace, marches across. The river judges your progress and flows accordingly, in front and behind, past you. If you don't want to risk a heart attack, don't look left or right and just keep going steady. Things will be just fine - at least that is what local wisdom suggests. There is no alternative. Trying to cross streets by dodging that river of traffic is impossible.
That reminds me of a fellow scuba diver's remark in the Cayman Islands. Sometimes, while diving in certain areas, you float by groups of Barracudas, the ferocious-looking torpedo-like fish with a mouthful of sharp teeth. They keep you in sight, always facing you as you pass, like a group of suspicious, armed soldiers, but you don't really worry because it is a well known fact; Barracudas don't bite people.
"I wonder," my dive buddy said, "I wonder if those Barracuda also know that Barracudas don't bite people.


In the really nice place where I had my expresso, an American sat in the far corner from me. In a loud voice, he told a Vietnamese man at the next table how stupid Vietnamese are. "I worked here for nine years and they are all waisted," he said. "My job is to select people for scholarships but almost none of you qualify." He didn't say who he did that selection for but pounded the table to make his coffee cup jump: "You all don't like my face because it looks western," he stared at his table neighbor, "you yourself must know that, I can tell from your expression you don't like my face." He framed his face with two hands. It looked like the man at the other table wanted to deny. The American didn't let him. "You know it is true, don't try to deny," he said.
If someone in that coffee shop had asked me where I am from, I would have pretended I didn't understand English.

Discussions over breakfast:
Breakfast is served in the lobby/reception/entrance at Madam Cùc's, our zero-star hotel. We sat on a bunch of really fancy, carved, mahogany chairs with mother o' pearl and eggshell inlay (I can't imagine how those clearly expensive chairs got into that cheap place).
An Israeli, he made sure we all knew he is a professor at Israel's MIT, and got his PHD in London, went on about how one needs to be crazy to stay at a place (where we all were) like that. With the horrible, noisy racket, he said, he didn't sleep all night, not even an instant. He is changing to a hundred-dollar-a-night hotel, he said.
I didn't know what noise he talked about, because I slept.
An Englishman from the idyllic, quiet, northern England Lake District said he liked the noise, it made him feel like he was in a lively, vibrant place.
A black girl, German born and raised, totally fluent in German, said she didn't know what the fuss was about. "For God's sake, it was music," she said.
A French schoolteacher from Lyon complained about the baguettes. "Never mind the coffee," he said, "this used to be like France before the Americans came. They used to know how to make bread. This now is even worse than McDonald hamburger rolls," he said as he stuffed his omelet into the supplied roll.
Our coffee perked, we ate our omelets and our bananas and, noise or no noise, we all agreed we liked Saigon.
I said I am grateful Nestcafé exists.
The Israeli protested, Nescafé is not coffee, he said. He likes Vietnam coffee,
The Brit drinks only tea,
The German girl doesn't care.
The Englishman told the German girl about the Vietcong tunnels he' visited, the Israeli described how loud the birds sing outside his window back home - he doesn't mind that noise - the German girl decided to also visit the Vietcong tunnels, and I decided not to visit the Vietcong tunnels.
One man's nectar is another man's poison.
I signed up for a three-day boat trip through the Mekong Delta, that ends up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The visa I can get at the border, I am told.

Today I was in another Saigon, simply by walking in the opposite direction from my digs. Hyper modern buildings between wide, mosaic sidewalks alongside wide boulevards with landscaped center dividers have replaced the old houses in crooked alleys in my neighborhood.
I am happy to live in the crooked alley part of town.
The arm of the Mekong that flows through the city carries that floating vegetation one sees on just about all rivers in the tropics. That greenery must have been real pretty in the days before we started to decorate it with colorful plastic bags, styrofoam containers, bottles, floating whitefish (as discarded condoms in the HudsonRiver are called) assortments of wrappers, old, unwanted toys and broken utensils. Also, the water smells - not nice - bearing testimony that the vast masses of humanity along the river's course channel into the river whatever they don't want in their cities, villages or near their dwellings - and that stuff smells.
Two well-dressed ladies also strolled along the riverbank when an empty water bottle from them rolled towards the water's edge. I ran, caught it and returned it to them. That got me a look as if I was a lunatic. One of the ladies took the bottle and this time, instead of letting it roll by itself into the water, tossed it in, over my head. Having touched that thing that had rolled on the ground, she took a tissue from her pocketbook, wiped her hands and - guess where the tissue went.

Musings about traveling alone - or not.
If I was with one of those two ladies with the empty water bottle, no matter what wonderful other things she might be, I would probably not be happy.
In the Indian restaurant last night, where I had yummy Tandoori chicken and cold beer, I idly observed others.
One couple talked over dinner that had just been served, as couples used to do before such old fashioned things, like dinner talk, got replaced by SMS on Blackberry, iPhones and Droids. The woman smiled at the man, got up, gave him the finger and left, food untouched. He looked embarrassed, ate his food alone, paid and left also.
Next table.
A couple, she looks Asian, he Caucasian, order dinner and get drinks. He talks to her while she stirs, and stirs, and stirs the crushed ice with the drinking straw 'til, totally bent out of shape, it becomes useless for the purpose. Her body language says no to everything he says. They eat in total silence.
Another table.
Two elderly Frenchmen, quite obviously gay, get a bottle of wine. One touches it then says to the Indian waiter, "it is too warm."
"I will bring you ice," said the waiter.
"Ice in red wine!" the Frenchman said, like in shock.
Another table.
Two women, I think Brits, during the whole dinner scan the Vietnam Lonely Planet. One reads a section (probably about what sights to visit in and around Saigon), hands the book across the table, the other reads, sometimes agrees sometimes disagrees. One would read out loud a part, like to convince the other about the desirability of doing this or that, the book changes hands again, gets examined, discussion continues.
My table.
I am happy that, when I am done with my meal and drink, I can get up slowly, or fast, change my mind, sit down again and order another beer, when I get outside, on a whim turn left instead of right, no matter what time it is, I can go to my room to watch TV news or decide to start a night on the town, buy a new pair of flip flops from a street peddler because the ones on my feet look like they have had it, have an double expresso and a Hennessy, buy a bar of soap because the other one is almost gone and I want to wash my shirt because it smells sweaty. I run into the woman from Arizona I'd met earlier. We go for drinks. Okay, I won't wash my shirt tonight and I won't watch TV news.
I don't know how I ever again would be able to routinely discuss my moves before moving - or have someone else direct my moves - and still be as happy as I am now.
Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, I decided to join a group from Madam Cùc's breakfast club. They were signed up for a full-day city tour of Saigon, the kind of thing I normally stay away from. The unusual decision came after I looked up on a city map where I had been in my wanderings on foot and it became clear I'd seen but a minuscule part.
A man picked us up at Madame Cùc's. Like a troop of sheep we followed him to our bus. Other troops like ours arrived from other directions, from other hotels or guesthouses. A very funny man, our guide for the day - he gets to practice and fine tune his jokes daily - gives us the rundown.
"First I bring you to the war museum, then, because you will feel horrible after you have seen what our enemies did to us with Agent Orange, with torture, with many other war crimes, I bring you to a coffee shop where they will serve you a special coffee, for free." He went on to describe how, to produce that particular coffee, they fed coffee beans to a certain kind of Wiesel. After they had gone through their digestive tract the poop gets collected, the undigested beans sorted out to thus become the most delicious coffee. After that I bring you to the Chinatown market, then to a temple, then we have lunch. After lunch we go to a rehabilitation center where Agent-Orange-genetically damaged people produce lacquerware. You can watch them work. After that we visit the former South Vietnam's presidential palace, then the Saigon cathedral and the post office.
I could barely contain my excitement about the things to come.
The war museum was a shocker. Fully aware that always the victor writes the history (in this case the North Vietnam communist Vietcong), it made you sick. Photographs of torture that made pictures of Irak's Abu Graig(?) prison look like Sunday pick-nicks, with pictures of Napalm burn victims, torture pictures with laughing, cigarette smoking US troops watching amusedly, piles of dead children, the incredible assortment of antipersonnel ammunition, the war material, different tanks, artillery pieces, bulldozers, vehicles, airplanes, helicopters, etc. etc. (with numbers supplied about how many were left behind after we got out on helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy).
The Wiesel poop coffee tasted good after that. That special elixir was served in a souvenir wonderland. Apart from the special coffee beans you could also buy little clay figures that peed on you if you threw hot water on them - as a helpful sales person demonstrated - and ten-thousand other, totally useless things that some people buy to bring home as souvenirs.
I managed to get out unscathed.
In the Chinatown market stacks and stacks of dried shark fins were on offer. I thought that was illegal, but obviously not there. Besides shark fins they also had bird's nests, many sizes, shapes of sea cucumbers, pickled and dried. Anything, if it exists somewhere on the planet as food, it is probably also for sale at that market.
At lunch I had the worst spring rolls - ever. The wrapping seemed to be made of latex and the inside of clay.
The temple? Why, after a sojourn in Burma, would I want to visit one more temple, anywhere. The Saigon version was so puny, anywhere in Burma they would hide it out of embarrassment.
The Agent Orange rehabilitation center was sort of an assembly line for lacquerware production with most of the employees in wheelchairs. The showroom beyond had so much off the stuff for sale there must be huge, mechanized production facilities, somewhere.
The former president's palace? I wouldn't know what to report about it. Neither particularly fancy, nor particularly big, the only thing that stood out was its blandness.
Same thing with the cathedral, same thing with the post office. Beats me why the post office was included in the tour. Built by the French in the mid 1800, it is simply what post offices in bigger owns looked like then.
Now I know why I don't usually go on such tours.
Back in the streets, my eyes wander.
In the stream of motorcycles one stopped somewhere in the middle. The woman driver dug from her very tight pants a cellphone, put it to her ear and started happily talking, right where she was. The traffic stream continued undiminished around her.
A very old woman, in a typical Vietnamese conical straw hat, drove past me on a screamingly purple bike with racing stripes.
Motorcycles as population control?
Not because of lethal accidents. It is simply that the three million motorbikes in Saigon can't accommodate more people. It is totally clear they cannot load more people on them. Typically, in front of the driver stands the master of the house, the son. Behind the driver, squeezed between Daddy and Mommy, is the little one, well protected and kept warm by the bodies in front and behind. From Mommy's back hangs the shopping basket. From some of those bags the family's Fido peeks out.
Tania asked in an e-mail if, now that the Burma thing went sour, I stopped doing the "tourism thing" since I find so much time writing.
The reason for the writing lies in certain regional advances. Now, in modern times, even super cheap digs, hotels and guesthouses, like Madam Cùc's, tend to have fans and sometimes even AC. During the tropical, searing, steaming midday heat those things are irresistible, but one cannot simply sit by a fan and do nothing. A perfect excuse for luxuriating by one is writing - so, I write.
Nobody forces you to read it.
I enjoy the clear view through my new glasses.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Over the top Buddhas

Chances to see Burma as the mysterious backwater of international tourism are vanishing.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace Price recipient and winner, with 85% of the vote, in 1989 elections, was subsequently put under house arrest for about fourteen of the following twenty years. She has persistently discouraged visits to Myanmar (Burma) because, she maintained it would only enrich the repressive military junta with the Orwellian name of SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council).
Lonely Planet, the backpacker traveller's bible (Guide book), recounts a telling joke about the country: George Orwell wrote not one novel about Burma, but three: BURMESE DAYS, ANIMAL FARM and 1984.
A 2007 outpouring of popular protest against the dictatorial regime, mostly led by monks and students, was brutally squashed.

Over the years, a trickle of tourist, prodded by curiosity about what lay behind that bamboo curtain, came just the same. I was one of them, albeit with a goal to defy government edicts by busting borders they kept off limits, mainly because of their repressive actions against remote tribes along those borders. Every time I had to abandon my quest, even on this last attempt. this time, despite fake documents, doctored by me alone - and the help of a scanner, a photo copier and a pen - thus the only one who could be blamed, the perception was, I still might endanger locals for the sake of my thrills.
In 2010 elections were announced. Daw Aung San Suu Yi was sidelined by accusing her of complicity with that American who swam across a lake to her house where she was detained. The winner of the questionable election, president U Thein Sein, a general of the ruling clique, has apparently convinced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with several progressive moves, and unheard of face-to-face contact, that he is serious about supporting reforms. Even Hillary Clinton, after an official visit with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed cautious optimism.
Now, according to Aung San Suu Kyi, there are no more moral barriers about visiting the country - and thus the floodgates were opened.
Hotel accommodations were never adequate, even when there was but a trickle of tourists. Now, since it is considered okay to visit, this season, roughly December to March, over 1,200,000 tourist visas were issued. There is no way they can build hotels and other tourist facilities fast enough to deal with the onslaught.
In an earlier report of this journey, I described how I hunted for accommodations in Yangon, personally checking a dozen places 'til I found one with a vacancy. You have to do it in person and lay down the cash the moment they say you can stay. During my four weeks in the country, virtually every foreigner I met, had similar stories of lodging woes.

Talking about resulting hassles - or unintended consequences! - Not only with hotels!
Today I went to Vietnam Airways to book a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon. All flights were booked for the next three weeks. I tried Thai Airlines for a non direct flight via Bangkok. At more than double the previously listed price, 480 dollars for a one way ticket, I managed to get a paid in full reservation, six days hence.
Back at the hotel, again a windowless room but this time only third floor walk up, the kind receptionist with pointy teeth said, since I'made only a two-night reservation from Mandalay, my room would not be available after that.. Kind as she is, she called around to find a place for me to put down my head. After many calls with no results - she even tried first class hotels - she found a vacancy at Nagani Hotel, a dump in Chinatown, at the other end of Yangon, far from city center.
"Okay, I take that one 'till the 16th, the day of my flight."
"Available only night of 10th to 11th," they said.
"But two nights from 11th 13th I can give you room here," my friendly pointy tooth helper said.
"And night 13th to 14th?" I said.
"Go back Nagani hotel one night only possible."
"And then?"
"Come back here for night 15th to 16th."
And those will be the kinds of pleasures awaiting travelers in Burma without reservations made way in advance! If economic law applies - price is a function of supply and demand - the twenty dollar a night hotel rooms, if you can find any at any price, will soon be things that only exist in memory.
Not only hotel capacity is overtaxed, as I found out with my attempts to fly to Vietnam. With yesterday's flight from Mandalay to Yangon, that should have lasted about an hour, departure was delayed by 4 1/2 hours.


At Nang Shan Noodle Shop, a sidewalk restaurant in Rangoon, a distinguished lady sat down on one of the plastic stools at a table near mine. She wore an elegant, color coordinated outfit; purple ankle length longhi, light purple blouse, and a still lighter shade hair band. In her earlobes shone small diamond pins, from her light gold necklace hung a discrete carved jade pendant, on her arms a dainty lady's watch and two thin gold bracelets completed the stylish image. Her posture was regal and impeccable.
A bowl of Shan noodles was brought to her. She unwrapped a pair of chopsticks, added spicy condiments from the assortment on the table, refilled her tea cup and started eating.
She chewed her noodles with an open mouth, yaw going up and down, sideways, up and down. Suddenly she looked like a ruminating cow.

During the 4 1/2 hour wait for the delayed flight from Mandalay to Yangon, a Dutch bureaucrat, with almost three months annual paid vacation time, and I, passed the waiting hours chatting about our travels, our travel related goals, aspirations and hopes. He calls his hobby; witnessing situations on the planet that are bound to disappear. That was the reason for his coming to Myanmar - shortly after Hillary Clinton came, he said - to see it as it is - pre-Hillary - before the sure to come travel boom. His next journey will be to North Korea, "because that vacant-look pre-pubescent tubby who is now supposed to run the show, is not going to last long." He has already done research about that trip. "At all times," he said, "a traveler is accompanied by two handlers."
"Why two?"
"To watch you and each other."

Just because Buddha, 2500-years ago in India, gave two traveling dudes from Burma eight of his hairs, the Burmese got so carried away with that gift they ended up, over more than two millennia to properly enshrine them and, to boot, build a 55-ton gold Buddha statue attended by 3,154 gold bells and encrusted with 79,569 diamonds. Having just that one edifice to their idol was not enough. Now the number of statues in, on and around Swedagon Pagoda in Yangon, if one includes in the count the plethora of wood, bronze, stone, gold and silver ones that are offered for sale, there have to be gazillions of them. They are so plentiful, there must have been a Burmese Henry Ford who dedicated his life to manufacturing them efficiently.
On a visit in the gray, distant past I had been to Swedagon Pagoda but in my recollection there was not such a Buddha over-abundance. It might be that, so short after my visits to Bagan and Mount Popa, I simply got Buddha-over-saturated.
Once more, quoting a quote from Rudyard Kipling in the Lonely Planet, it says about Swedagon Pagoda: A beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire .... The Golden dome said, This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land that one knows about.
True, the pure gold, gold leaved, gold plated, gold painted, mosaiced, stuccoed, white painted, jade and other natural stone carved, superlative huge, medium and small structures are impressive. They also must be doing some good to some. The place was mobbed by local people who bowed, prostates themselves, prayed, donated cash and flowers, apparently believing all along something good will come from their actions.
My scepticism about such excesses of religious fervor was reinforced at one of the stands soliciting donations. On a board were listed benefits and favors one could gain in afterlife for certain amounts of gifts.
Isn't that what the reformation was all about, when Martin Luther railed against the church's selling of indulgences? What is the difference, I wonder, between a bunch of over fed, fat, old cardinals and bishops in their grotesque finery amidst opulent splendor in Rome and a bunch of overfed fat, old monks, imams, orthodox patriarchs, TV preacher-hucksters that threaten hellfire if the lost souls out there don't send them their money, in short, all those peddlers of afterlife goodies in exchange for loot in this life? Think of the accumulated riches of fringe sects like Scientology and Mormons. They sure didn't make their loot by manufacturing toasters - or, God forbid, produce something useful, like food.
Snake oil sellers anyone?
I got something good and healthy out of it - in this life. It took about three hours of brisk walking to and from there from my hotel - in the tropical mid-day sun. I found, and visited, a restaurant that sold a yummy watercress dish with, ginger, garlic and cold beer, bought a bunch of fruits to take to my room and now, after a leisurely shower where I also washed my clothes, I relax and write this report. Heavenly bliss?


I sat in an Indian tearoom out on the sidewalk (since the tea is prepared, served and consumed on the sidewalk, should I call the place instead of tearoom a teasidewalk?) A majority of patrons was clearly Muslim, with haji skull caps and below the chin-bone beards. One, his thin beard colored an orange red, sitting on his folded legs on a stool, spit his burgundy red beetle effluent into a plastic lined plastic basket under the table. I was fascinated by his skill. Even though the distance from his mouth to the basket top was at least five feet, he never missed. With not every patron being such keen spit projectors, the ground between and under the tables, and especially the gutter where the least skillful spitters do their thing, was the usual red tint. A little dog with short legs and long hair was attached by a leach to the master spitter's chair. In some places of the dog's pelt one could detect a hint of white but, cruddy dingleberries an'all, the matted, filthy hair had that reddish tint of beetle nut spittle.
Being totally fascinated with the spitting performance, my stool must have approached the curb and I didn't notice. All of a sudden a stool leg went down into the gutter and I fell backward into the red slime. I managed to get up fast, before rescuing spitters reached me to help. My pink plastic stool was in splinters, my backside was colored red. I quickly paid for my tea - there was no charge for the destroyed stool - and hurried to my room where I stepped into the shower fully clothed (after removing wallet, passport, agenda, cash, pen, flashlight, Swiss Army knife, camera, toothpick and half a roll of Tums).
Tonight, as a special favor by the friendly lady with pointed teeth, I had the rare opportunity to watch CNN to know what piccadillos are brewing between the got-you-by-the-balls-gladiators at republican primaries. I was really looking forward to observe the, who has more money to spend, spectacle but, Witney Houston spoiled it all by dropping dead. Suddenly there was nothing going on anymore in the world, in US politics, in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Greece, with the Euro, the price of oil and Vladimir Putin. It now is wall-to-wall about Witney Houston's incredible qualities and struggles while she was alive.
I like Malaysia-style flat rice noodles with vegetables, ginger, garlic and chicken so, never mind CNN, republican primaries, and waist line, I am going out to stuff myself. In my city wanderings I'd also noticed a store that sells bottles of South African wine. Maybe I'll also take a walk to there.
Now, a day later, passing Yangon time 'till my flight to Saigon, I went again exploring the city and got impressive impressions.
I wonder if anything, apart from making babies, is done inside houses. Streets and sidewalks are workshop, office, laboratory, factory, repair shop, kitchen, warehouse, siesta nook, dining room, hairdresser, toilet, shower, meeting/conference room, notary public and letter writer shop, car park, car wash, library, shoe maker and repairer, tailor atelier - and in some places there is even space to walk. No question, wheelchair bounds have to stay home.
Some of the workshops are super specialized. One, a luggage-handle-repair-place, had a large assortment of brand new suitcase handles on display - but he also installed custom made ones. Another meticulously custom cut gaskets for engines. People brought motors, pumps, fans, the gasket maker traced openings that needed a gasket then produced them of, what looked to me like paper. One fashioned out of old styrofoam packing material new styrofoam packing material. Another flattened tin cans into roofing tiles. You also get an opportunity to observe the quintessential green operation. Next to the man who plucks chickens, sits a man who makes feather dusters. No need to transport feathers to feather duster manufacturers, it is all done in one place, in a vertically oriented industry.
The fifteen-dollar drug store reading glasses, that can be had at a bargain price of five dollars on New York's Canal street, in the streets of Yangon, cost a grand total of sixty cents.
An excavation site for a new building resembled an ant hill. Hordes of people dug with hoes into the muck, others sorted the muck by hand, clay to one side, rocks to another, old brick to a group that separated mortar from brick then, both, old mortar and brick went into separate bags. All items got transported on shoulders to trucks, one for clay, one for rocks, one for bricks and one for old mortar.

... and yet another vignette:

From boxes, baskets and crates, cute little puppy dogs are for sale all over the place. To judge from the way, sellers and potential buyers, pet and cuddle them, it is not likely they will end up in somebody's dinner plate. The only question I have, since most of these puppies are too young to live apart from their mother, is there a Myanmar puppy-bottle-feeding-technique? ... Or, is it like a loving mother saying to her baby: "Oh! You are soooo cute, I could eat you!"

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I'll do easy ones, like land border crossings from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, to Cambodia, and then maybe Cambodia to Thailand. Both are perfectly legal. Real problems are things of the past. Remaining land mines there are as frequent as WW II American or British undetonated bombs in today's Germany. I'd previously done such border crossings in the Southeast Asian neck of the woods and they were pretty cool, (China to Laos, China to Vietnam, Vietnam to Laos, Laos to Thailand, Cambodia to Thailand - that one in two locations, one of which was still supposed to be mined at the time, so the pickup we traveled in left the road and drove through the bush.)

The present Burma thing I didn't want to describe in this blog in order not to jeopardize it. But now, since that stint went belly up .... here comes the story (for obvious reasons I'll need to fudge a few things.)

I heard of foreigners getting a permit to do the road, but mostly from north to south. I don't know why I was turned down when I applied, but there might be all kinds of reasons.

The road from Mandalay to Mu-se at the Chinese border is the main highway through the Golden Triangle. According to my contact, Ne Win, a now clean (he claims) heroin addict since age twelve, that makes Mandalay the world's opium and heroin capital. The supposedly perfectly good road is the link for Burmese jade to the north and opium to the south. Ne Win filled me in on the nitty-gritty of the locale - over a bottle of Slivowitz (where he got that Serbian booze in Burma remained unexplained).
In short, in the region everybody is at everybody's throat, be it over territory, market share, influence, weapons, or national preference; Lao, Chinese, Burmese and Thai all have their fingers in the pie. As of late, he says, even Indians have gotten into the act and become new players in that game for keeps. That is the reason India refuses to do their part in restoring the WW II Ledo road that was built under US general Joe Stillwell from Assam to China - not to have a direct link to the Golden Triangle.

That is the stage for the game I tried to play.

It is Wednesday, the 8th of February, the day when all is supposed to happen as arranged.
I had the forged documents, prepared by me during the last few days. They gave me permission to   go up to China. The idea was, should I be caught by the authorities, the people transporting me would be blameless since I'd showed them my permission.

At five AM I was waiting for my pickup. A quarter past I called my man.
"Can't make it today," he said.
"Its got to be today," I said.
"I'll send somebody."
A kid on a motorbike picked me up.
In a Mandalay outskirts a little truck was ready to leave for the north, the direction I wanted to go. After a long discussion (in Burmese) between the kid and the truck crew, we drove back on the bike to an Internet café where the kid, who spoke no English, skyped Ne Win (who was in China at the time) and talked. Then I got on the phone.
"They are all afraid of the consequences if they are caught with you," he said.
"I got to go!"
"I'll try contacting a Chinese outfit for you," he said, "stay by a phone."
"I don't care where they're from."
"Wait for my call!"
I stayed by the phone all day (reading an anthology, Stories of the Orient, a book I'd downloaded back home in Manhattan onto my iPad) waiting for a phone call from China.
Every time I previously tried getting out of Burma by land, the problem turned out to be my fear of consequences for locals who helped me. Every time I willingly gave up on my adventure when authorities got wise to me, so locals helping me would not get hurt. This time I tried to do it without that risk, but ....
Waiting, drinking tea and reading stories of the Orient.
As I write this February 8 has passed and now it is the 9th. Got an email from
China. They can do it north to south but not the other way around, it said.

I'll book a flight to Yangon and from there to HO CHI MINH CITY. Stay tuned even though now I am but a PAPER TIGER.

Maybe you'd like to read a fictional account of an exit from Burma I wrote after previous unsuccessful attempts to bust its borders. A SHORT STINT IN BURMA. I wrote it as fiction to avoid problems for people who attempted to help. It is available as an e-book or a paper version from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
Another one, A SHORT STINT IN TIBET, a non-fiction, real true story account about illegally crossing into Tibet by walking over the Himalayas and entering an uninhabited area, can also be downloaded or bought as a paper version. That one, with many flashbacks, is as close to an autobiography as there ever will be.
SEASONS OF SAND, the non-fiction book about my three years in the Sahara, (Simon & Schuster, 1993), came out as a reprint by Authors Guild's Backinprint editions. So far this one is only available as a real paper and cardboard thing.
The German hardcover version is called EIN MACCERONIBAUM IN DER WUESTE, the paperback's title is EIN GARTEN IN DER WUESTE.
The French hardcover, Séléctions du Readers, is called SAISONS DE SABLE.

Go forth and buy them!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Buddha's Contest with other Gods

Five AM in my comfortable, charming new Pagan guesthouse I was torn from slumber by the muezzin from the local mosque who belted out his amplified morning call to prayer. Just when he really got into the swing of things the competition started up also. At first I thought it was Buddhist chants, also animating for prayer, but after a while when it sounded clearly like Burmese rap and a Myanmar ding-a-ling versions of western Schmaltz, it became pretty obvious that was just a means of drowning out the Islamic competition in Bagan, the bastion of Burmese Buddhism.
The above described "Buddha's contest with other gods" was pure conjecture on my part. It seemed like the one and only explanation for the early morning cacophony, yet, for that to be true it would have to be repeated every morning. Muezzins don't do their thing only from time to time. When the next morning all was quiet, except for the bird's twittering, I had to search for new answers.
The lady at reception said it was a wedding.
"At five AM?"
"Yes," she said.
No matter how much I tried to understand, her English just wasn't good enough for an explanation. It sounded like she said that everybody starts cooking and every group has their own music. Amplified music??? Since that doesn't make much sense I'll have to plead ignorance. All I know now is; weddings, at least in the Bagan region of Myanmar, begin at five AM with a holly racket.

The Lonely Planet writes about four-thousand-four-hundred pagodas, stupas, shrines and Buddha figures in Bagan. It illustrates its enormity perfectly with the illustration: Gather all of Europe's medieval cathedrals onto Manhattan island and throw in a whole lot more for good measure, and you'll start to get a sense of the ambition of the temple-filled plains of Bagan.
The driver of the horse and buggy I'd hired to drive me around the major ones, claims there are over five-thousand. To explain the discrepancy, it probably matters how you count; there are humongous ones, medium ones and rather small ones, so the numbers might be a function of what size Buddha statue is included in the count. To a proper Buddhist, it seems, size matters a big deal. The driver would point out the tallest, the second tallest, the most voluminous, the oldest, the most destroyed and rebuilt, the richest. Nothing but superlative is good enough for glorifying Buddha. Trinket and souvenir sellers, almost exclusively cute young girls with faces painted in sandalwood swirls, self-appoint themselves as guides at individual sites so that after the viewing you would be compelled to buy stuff at their stand. According to them, whatever godly structure they had chosen as their place of business, is in some way the most, the biggest, the tallest, the shiniest, the most glorious, the most important or oldest.
With my sceptic approach to most things religious, I soon had enough of that farce but the driver cum cicerone wouldn't have any of it. "Next Buddha has different hand position, very important for .... ", because of my lack of interest, I have absolutely no recollection what the supposed importance of those hand positions are, even though it was amply explained, not only by my driver, but also the sandalwood-faced souvenir seller girls.
There came a short break in my Buddha, pagoda, stupa, temple and shrine visiting marathon. We stopped at a lacquerware production shop. It was really cool to see how they make those delicate vessels. The basic form of the most elaborate ones is first intricately woven from horse hair then, layer upon layer of lacquer is applied till that lustrous lacquer ware-look is achieved. They get cured in a large subterranean space because the process requires a precise amount of humidity. Artists engrave some of the finished ones with intricate traditional designs.

At dinner, together with a curious, previous, acquaintance we met a municipal works manager from Montreal. "There is no snow to remove so I can travel," he said. The other, the previous acquaintance, is a curious relationship because of incredible coincidences in our getting to know each other. In the hotel I eventually found after my long quest for lodging in Yangon, he was at the reception same time as I, for the same reason. We laughed about the difficult searches. When informed there were two rooms available without windows, he had the nerve to insist on one where he could tell if it was day or night. In the end, with no other options, he also settled for a windowless one. In Mandalay, a week later, he also showed up at the place where I stayed. A laugh and, "nice to see you again, the rooms here have windows," was as far as our conversation went. Days later, after changing from "Bates Motel" in Bagan, while checking in to the one I am in now, he showed up at the reception, also looking for a room. That was enough of an introduction, so now we have dinner together. He is from British Guiana, of Chinese descent, British nationality, and works as an English proficiency test examiner in south China.
The Montreal municipal works manager, the English proficiency test examiner in China and yours truly decided to share a taxi to go next day to Mount Popa, about an hour's drive from Bagan.
Mount Popa is an old volcanic outcropping, sort of like a giant, 700-feet tall, tree stump amidst gentle rolling hills. Droves of, mostly Burmese, pilgrims scramble, shuffle, wheeze, and groan up the endless, sometimes very steep steps to the top where, you guessed right, there is a huge temple/shrine/pagoda. Even though there are many Buddha figures, this shrine is dedicated mostly to nat worship, the animist spirits of the netherworld, forests and caves. Very old people, if they are too frail to do it under their own steam, get wrapped in a bag that hangs from a pole that rests on two young men's shoulders. They get carried to the top, presumably to sidle on the good side of those spirits whom they expect to meet soon in the next world - by bribing them with generous donations
Back in Bagan, the three of us had a traditional dinner in a local Burmese restaurant. By the time they'd finished laying it out, thirty-one food-filled bowls, large and small, covered the table. The variety of food was so large that, even if some of the dishes didn't exactly make every palate rejoice, and every heart sing, we all got our fill and when we were done there was so much left over, the display looked like we'd just been freshly served. It cost four dollars per person.
Today, while my two Mount Popa companions went for yet more pagoda inspections, I rented a bicycle, went to the market, then out into Bagan's rural surroundings - and got hopelessly lost. I didn't have a map of the region, but, even if I did, that would probably been of no use. The narrow, winding, sandy paths I followed were surely not marked on any map. The farmers I encountered didn't know a word in English - and my Burmese is way below limited, that is, totally non-existent. Besides, even if I could ask someone, I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the hotel. Its English spelling is Aunsminsalar, opposite Swezigon Pagoda. Eventually I found the river and tried to follow it in the direction of town which I knew is, if not exactly on the downriver shore, at least nearby. The riverbank above the high-water line is a total disgusting dump which meant it couldn't be far from town. It was impossible to navigate by bike in that mess (and I had absolutely no desire to walk through it in my flip-flops). So, keeping the river to my right, the bicycle and I bushwhacked inland towards where I thought was town.
With my previous day's extensive Buddha, temple and shrine visits I must have gained some heavenly Browny points because I stumbled on a large parking lot full of tourist busses and private cars. It belonged to a fancy restaurant overlooking the river. Of course I became one of the guests. It was the most expensive meal since my arrival in Myanmar, north of five dollars. The clientele in that restaurant topped all the previous observations about elderly travelers. A long table was occupied by a bus load of people that looked like they were on their last fling before having to return to the hospice. I noticed how most wore sneakers way too large for their feet (to get in and out without bending and lacing?)
Tomorrow I'll take a bus to Mandalay to meet up with Thar to go to his native village for that monk initiation ceremony celebration. I am very much looking forward to that - and it helps biding time 'til February 8.

Tomorrow has come. It is February 2 and I am already back in Mandalay.

If Buddha only knew! ....
Had the all-knowing, compassionate Buddha foreseen the coming of plastic bags, plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, plasticized and parafin-coated cartons, he would surely have preached against littering, especially of non-decomposing, non-biodegradable rubbish. Since he didn't, the country of his most devoted disciples, Myanmar, would be a champion contender if there ever was a world-wide competition for the most littered place on earth. It is rare to see rubbish in front of houses, it is simply swept to the side. With obviously no municipal refuse pick up, it just accumulates there in ever growing piles. With the coming of more "civilization" (more plastic wrapped goods), unless there will be serious changes, the country is eventually going to drown in its modern day filth.
The 180 km (about 120 mi) Bagan - Mandalay road is a rutted, dusty dirt track. On parts when it went relatively smoothly it was like driving on corrugated surface, when it went rough the surface was egg cartons shaped. The journey took almost seven hours, which means we averaged barely 20 miles per hour (30 Stundenkilometer).
Benevolent Buddha was very kind in directing me to a bus that, even though seats and legroom were barely large enough to accommodate small Burmese, never carried more passenger than there were seats. The stack of little stools for sitting in isles and the straps for straphangers were never used.
The ride was so bumpy, the driver's helper, apparently trained to see the early signs, dashed up and down the isle dispensing plastic barf bags from a bundle strapped to his waist. When full, they were chucked out to add to the country's pervasive plastic blossom landscaping.
Along they way we saw armies of ladies in straw hats, some hand-sorting different sized gravel from huge rock piles and others hauling straw baskets full of tarred gravel to fill in potholes by hand (Patty cake, patty cake .... Mandalay version).
On the whole journey, 'til shortly before Mandalay I saw not one gas station. Instead there were numerous stands with shelves full of old plastic water bottles filled with gasoline, the rural version of gas dispensing.
One of the reasons for the bumpy ride must have been the fact that we were not over full like some of the other busses we passed. Those, apart from layers of people inside, also had stacks of them on the roof - together with piles of luggage. Had we been heavier, the ride would surely have been smoother because the weight might have depressed the rock-hard springs a bit more. At the bus station, before leaving, I photographed the spring package under a passenger pick up. Fifteen blades!
My same size, same brand, Toyota, pickup in Vermont has either three or four. It rides relatively smoothly, but those springs would never support transporting twenty people, all together with huge loads of luggage. No need for the Burmese spring arrangement in Vermont though, because real, red-blooded Americans would never agree to be thus packed like sardines in a can even if it was for something like the only available transport to get to their own wedding.
The only western travelers on the bus were yours truly and another Swiss, a middle aged man from Lausanne. He travels with his friend, a stunningly beautiful Thai girl. That brings me to my:
Ode to Nescafé.
At a mud and straw rest stop we ordered coffee. The darkish, grayish, brownish, warmish liquid in a cup neither looked, nor tasted, nor smelled like any coffee I'd ever been exposed to. I am not particular but there was no way for me to drink that without a shudder. The Swiss, a former researcher with Nestlé, asked out of the blue if they had Nescafé. Lo and behold, a kid brought packages of that life saving three-in-one stuff (three-in-one means the package contains instant coffee, sugar and milk powder). I am at a loss for words to describe how good that elixir felt on my tongue.
During the rough ride I was afraid the spine would turn to mush, but the contrary was true. As in an intensive massage, or with a chiropractor session, everything inside the body got re-arranged - apparently for the better. On arrival in Mandalay, the only slight discomfort was in my kneecaps. The whole trip they had been pounding on the iron backing of the seat in front of me. Avoiding that contact would have raised hell with my tailbone because across the back of my seat passed an iron bar. If I moved my butt back far into the seat, the knees would have been free, but with my tail I'd then sit on an iron bar during that rough ride. If choosing that option, I might not have been able to walk anymore by the time we reached Mandalay.
Now I am back in the hotel where the staff had witnessed the adulations I received from Thar and his wife before I left for Bagan. They must think I really someone special because now they even bow when they hand me the room key.

A little note about spelling.
You might have noticed that sometimes I spelled a place's name differently from entry to entry. I am not alone. Since all are phonetic transcriptions of Burmese words that are written in a different script, variations are aplenty. In books, on signs, everywhere one can find different spellings because different transcribers interpret it differently. With Thar's doctor son in Bagan, under his guidance over dinner, I tried to properly pronounce his name. From the way it sounds, I would now write it as: Pfehjunio.
Tomorrow I'll ask Thar how they write it.
Now I know!
The real spelling is: BHYONYUNT.