Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Marion, Massachusetts

Family
Coming back to the United States of America has meant a lot of change.  Some things I am happy about:  drinking water from the tap, paper towels in bathrooms, the fourth of July, cooking for myself, guacamole, cheese.  Being able to flush toilet paper down toilets without worrying about it.  Best of all:  pointing my feet at people without being rude.  Things I have not missed:  socks.  hoodies.  coats.  long underwear.  cold. 

I’ve been traveling a lot since I returned to America, and I am alleged to be writing about travel, and yet somehow travel within these United States feels less deserving of catalog.  But that is my own stingy prejudice, I know.  I spent two weeks in Chicagoland and a week in Ann Arbor—sampling local cuisine, attending local cultural events, and visiting local farms—all of which I would be proud to advertise if it were in Vietnam or Laos.  Why not here?

So.  On we go.

Sophia examines her trophy in private
On my third day after arrival I attended my niece’s championship baseball game, during which she scored the winning run, in the bottom of the ninth inning, thus winning the entire season after losing to the opposing team the previous night.  Too good to make up.  We sat in the rain to watch her, all five of us—my entire immediate family.  Do we resemble each other?


Beautiful sister
Then there are these interesting signs, still hand-painted, at Pan’s in Oak Park.  It’s a local grocer where my friend Amy used to shop when she lived down the street, when I lived several more blocks down, for three years.  We used to walk here and to the Avenue Ale House, our local, and the Mexican restaurant across the street.  It’s now something else, maybe high-end Mexican, next to the gastropub where this time I enjoyed Chicago gin and a burger made of local ingredients.  House-made ketchup.  Farm-to-table greens.


Fresh in the husk
In Ann Arbor, I visited a farm where we fed pigs corn.  I felt less bad about eating them after I saw them, in a farm’s usual way of hardening one against life’s cold realities.  I saw where they brewed their beer, and met co-op workers, who travel and freely work for room and board, at farms around the country.  This farm, Mulberry Hill, which runs a CSA (community-supported agriculture), also just held its own Ann Arbor version of Burning Man.


Ann Arbor farm

Although I complain about eating meat, I feel better about eating pigs after spending some time with them.
Cucumber and beans being prepared for CSA delivery
Sonia and I went for lunch at a vegan restaurant with vertical gardens.  We envisioned our own life of pro-gluten tee-shirts.  “Ask me about my gluten deficiency.”  I had vegetarian and organic mac and cheese, with local butternut squash in the sauce.  It was nutty and delicious.  We wanted to ask for extra gluten in our meals, but did not.
Vertical gardens, although it's hard to tell
My sister and I made paleo Thai food.  What, you say?  You didn’t know cavemen harvested rice kernels as they hunted and gathered?  That they pounded palm kernels together for sugar?  Well, now you do.

We also started quilting.  I am addicted, now, to patchwork, in all forms.  I bought a book on it, at an Ann Arbor book sale.  With pictures of the Baltimore album quilts, of which I'd never heard.

A quilt at the American Museum, not my photograph
And then I started searching online finding things like this:
Knitted patchwork, not my photograph
Or this:
Called a scrap-buster, but my favorites are the crazy quilts that use randomness as an organizing principle
(not my photograph)
Or this:
Something called domino knitting, where each block leads into the next--again, randomness, and I love it
(not my photograph)
Now I’m back in Marion, working on another boat project.  No travel, but future posts about teak and mahogany, the joys of hand sanding with 200-grit.  I slowly slip back on my socks.  The fan goes quiet.

Spirit, under construction
Here, too, I photograph beaches made of marble.  Regatta races in the fog.  I wrap my Thai fabric around my shoulders.  I want to be in two places at once.

Beach made of marble
Regatta in fog
Here, too, I am grieving, grieving and miserable.  My ability to speak and read and write Thai has been put in suspended animation, somewhere below consciousness, somewhere I can’t access.  I fall down body-image rabbit holes, something that didn’t happen as much in Thailand.  There is was normal for me to be bigger than an average person.  Here Americans look at me with cold scorn.  I photograph the surface of the water in Marion harbor, wearing my Bangkok tie-dyed clothes.  People stare.  Men.  I look at them and smile and they don’t smile back.  I wish I’d been brave enough to dye and dread-lock my hair, too.

I’m hungry all of the time because of no more Thai food.  Meal here consist of meat.  Bread.  Cheese.  I’ve eaten my last moo daeng, pad Thai, pad see eu, curry, som tahm, gai yahng.  I’m already forgetting how great it is to hear Thai, see Thai, speak Thai—food, language, people.

Moo daeng (red pork--okay, it doesn't look like I'm protein-starved based on this bowl)

Late lamented pad Thai
I even miss the smell the Argentine kid at Bluefin complained about, saying, on his first day in Asia, wrinkling his nose:  what I didn’t expect was the smell.

Every so often I catch a whiff of it here, in this air that smells like nothing, a whiff of the dank, fetid, rich smell of something rotten and it remains me of home.  What I wrote in my journal the first morning in Bangkok was:

It smells the same.  The humid air.  That eucalyptus and incense smell in the morning.  The mildewed bathrooms.

Is it the lack of light and vitamin D that brings me depression here?  Is it the meat-heavy diet?  My brother attributes the exponential rise of depression in modern America to the toxic hormones in our factory-farmed meat, animals that live and die in trauma, and the stress hormones in their bodies that go into ours.  In Thailand I lived on vegetables and rice and oil.  I ate fragments of egg and meat in almost every meal, but barely more than fragments.  When I bought a chicken skewer at the market I wolfed it, protein-starved.

Or am I deluding myself?  I had plenty of anxiety and depression in Thailand, too—fear of locals, fear of strangers, days when I just wanted to speak English and order pizza and stay in my room.

Or is it just aimlessness now that I’m back, not knowing what or where I want next?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Oak Park, Illinois

Last Thai morning somtahm
I used to live here in Oak Park, down the street, on Cuyler.  Back then, I looked like this:

Me, in 2000
This was my apartment:

A shelfie, before they were called such
I lived there with my cat, Rumor, in a studio apartment for $545 a month.

Rumor, on my beat-up chair
I worked at a magazine office in the city, and I took the train in.  It was impossibly romantic.

Now it is fourteen years later. I moved here in April of 2000.  Two days ago I flew back into Atlanta and family picked me up and we drove through Chicago to its western edge, to Oak Park, where my sister lives with her husband and four impossibly beautiful daughters.  She keeps chicken and grows peas.  She longs for Thailand, as already do I.

So far today I have eaten leftover fast-food chicken and pizza and salad.  And fresh snap peas and a backyard chicken egg.  Since coming back to this land of cheese and wheat, I have eaten whole-grain bread and yogurt and cold hard cantaloupe.  What I have not eaten:  curry, pad pahk luahm, fresh raw Thai basil, somtahm, rice, chicken grilled over charcoal in its own fat, mango-yogurt smoothies, coconut bread.  My diet here is completely different, as is my sun intake.  It’s like my world’s upended.

I didn’t notice the absence of smell on my arrival that much this time, but when my brother and sister and I talk about the smell of Bangkok, it’s like we’re talking about home.  The smell of the khlongs, of the markets, of the city.  The humid darkness.

The sun stays up till eight o’clock here.  It mystifies me.  How can it be eight o’clock and it still be light?  As does the sun itself and its mysterious chill, its pallor.  It’s 75 degrees here this week.  At Bluefin, in the last week I was there, it rarely got below 80 degrees at night.  My feet are cold.  It’s the warmest month of the year and I need socks.

I continue traveling through my own home country.  Is this my home country?  Is the other?  Asked Pontius Pilate:  what is truth?

I just remember the first Thai I heard at Narita Airport, in Japan.  It was the final leg of the flight, on January 1.  A new moon.  Thai tourists were returning from Japan on vacation.  When they talked, it sounded like home.  This time, on flying out, in Narita I heard almost none—maybe a whispered word among Thai tourists disembarking—and I listened as the language went silent. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

Home (among the many)
So I'm in an airport hotel and I'm heading home, I suppose, from another home, of sorts.  I've spent the last three weeks in Bangkok, down this small soi, in a room with a fan and a desk--reading, writing, hanging out with friends, just living.  I forget how much what I really want out of Bangkok, out of Thailand, out of Asia--is life--simply life--spicy somtahm in a sunlit kitchen, conversation into the evenings in the humid dark, Thai chatter on the streets.

I wanted to do all sorts of things with these last few weeks, forever forgetting to decide, and then just settling in the same place, deciding that maybe that's what I wanted anyway.  What I wanted about living in Bangkok was living in Bangkok, and all I could allow myself of that in this constant mess of travel is three peaceful weeks.  I sat beneath the fan and opened manuscripts I haven't looked at in years, sweat gluing my forearms to the table.  I walked to the market twice a day.  I talked Thai.  I made friends, finally meeting a Thai student of English willing to trade lessons with me on my very last week.

Always guilt haunts me.  Guilt about the Buddhism post I've been trying to write (and have now posted), about doing "nothing" with these last three weeks--when maybe nothing is what I've needed.  Maybe I've needed to lose the pressure to always be moving, roving, sightseeing.

What you want, in living someplace, are mellow afternoons when laziness swallows you, or the internet dissolves you, or you lose yourself in conversation.  What living someplace also means is the freedom to stay still, to get to know one street corner, one neighborhood's habits, its mangy dogs.  It means freedom to spend a Saturday afternoon in your pajamas, eating coconut bread and drinking coffee, listening to podcasts.  You know.  Home.

So guilt about the three weeks I allowed myself of Bangkok as home, and now guilt at how I squandered those weeks now that I'm leaving.  Never enough, never enough, I say.  I want more:  weeks, months, years in Thailand.

All the Thai people ask:  when are you coming back?

I don't know how to answer.  I'm not sure when I'm coming back, I say.

I think, but don't say:  Last time it took me fifteen years. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya, Burma (Myanmar)

The nun in front of me -- blurred because I probably shouldn't have taken this photograph
My journey has led me to a meditation center, one of the largest in Burma, where I intended to stay six days but am being tempted to stay longer, despite the relative torture of vipassana meditation.  I thought my background in yoga would better prepare me for this excruciating practice, but it turns out they are almost diametrically opposed.  Yoga taught me to listen to my body by using my breath, to focus on my breath and that use that to attune to and move my body.  Vipassana is a different sort of meditation practice completely, a way of focusing exclusively on the breath in order to forget about the body completely.

I am studying here as a Christian, understanding the benefits of learning meditation.  As “Vipassana Meditation:  An Introduction” explains:

“Although Vipassana has been preserved in the Buddhist tradition, it contains nothing of a sectarian nature, and can be accepted and applied by people of any background.  Vipassana courses are open to anyone sincerely wishing to learn the technique, irrespective of race, caste, faith, or nationality.  Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, as well as members of other religions have all successfully practiced Vipassana.”

The Psalmist speaks about meditation a lot, but it seems something Christians have completely abandoned.  It's unfortunate that Christians must come to Buddhists to learn meditation instead of the other way around, but I find many things about the way both faiths are practiced unfortunate. 

Also I am here to learn more about Buddhism.  But the more I learn the more I understand how thoroughly a Christian I am.  Both Christians and Buddhists can accurately call themselves Dhammists.  Dhamma is the essence of what Buddha taught, the “Way” or the “Path.”  Christians were originally called “Followers of the Way,” and Buddhists were originally called Dhammists, as Buddha preferred.

He was also an atheist who forbade his disciples to make graven images of him, or any representations of the Dhamma wheel.  Of course, they immediately begin making statues of him upon his death, and now Dhamma wheels in concrete line the walls of every Buddhist temple.  In that, and in many other ways, the followers failed to listen to the teacher.

Some modern theorists believe Buddha isn't a religious figure at all, but a psychologist, an anachronistic proponent of cognitive-behavioral techniques. Desire causes suffering, because we cling to the object of desire.  Detachment brings peace by preventing us from feeling the strong dug of desire.  Detachment can be taught, using meditation techniques.

These ideas I agree with, but I do not agree with those modern theorists.  There's a tendency in the west to idealize and water down eastern religion, to think of it as somehow more sacred and pure than our western Christianity, sullied by sex scandal and televangelists, but those who expound these beliefs as some kind of wishy-washy spirituality don't understand them.

So, as a corrective--Buddha's First Noble Truth of Suffering:
There are three kinds of suffering.
1.  The suffering of physical and mental pain.  Suffering that arises with birth, aging, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.
2.  The suffering connected with change—due to clinging, even pleasant mental and physical feelings become a cause for suffering when they cease;  “separation from the pleasant is suffering.”
3.  The suffering within the aggregates of materiality and mentality—each aggregate is constantly arising and passing away, never the same from one moment to the next.  From the smallest particle and most rudimentary form of consciousness to vast universes and entire realms of existence, all mental and physical phenomena are subject to the inexorable law of impermanence.  This suffering is going on and around us all of the time.

In conclusion:  pain is suffering.  Change is suffering.  Impermanence is suffering.  Even happiness, or joy, are defilements, causes of suffering, because they are impermanent;  they change, cease, and fade, thus causing suffering. Everything is suffering.

It turns out Buddhist nuns are just as judgmental as Catholic ones.  That Buddhists are as unwilling to listen to their spiritual leader as Christians are.  They sully their temples with money and earn merit by doing good deeds, intended to prevent them from going to hell (the lowest level of reincarnated life) and provide them access to a better after-life (perhaps, if they have very good kamma, the realm of devas).  Buddhist nuns eye me askance as I walk to meditation.  Heaven forbid that I wear mid-calf-length yoga pants to meditation, which might actually allow me to better meditate.  No.  I must wear an ankle-length longyi, no bright colors, forbidding my long shanks from opening wide, causing my knees and hips to cramp in pain.

As in most practiced Christianity, appearance is far more important than truth. 

But Jesus' followers don't listen to Him much, either.  “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”  “Give to everyone who asks.”  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking... a friend of sinners.”  “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.”

Because Christ came to overturn the law.  The Ten Commandments are not the essence of Christianity.  They're the essence of Jewish law, the law that Christ overturned, in favor of grace.  “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.”

I am an ecumenalist in that I believe that Christians have a lot to learn from Buddhists and Buddhists to Christians, but I don't think anyone can learn anything if the spiritual truth at the heart of faith is converted into a list of rules.  Don't dance, drink, or chew, as the Baptists used to say, or go with girls that do.  Buddhist monks and nuns have a full list of 227 rules they have to follow, a list that seems to be expanding, from five precepts to nine, Eightfold Path and Threefold Training, each subdivided into additional stages including additional rules and imperfections.  These include prohibitions against things like alcohol, drugs, and sex, of course, but also against eating any kind of meat, dancing, singing, music, all forms of entertainment, adornment, cosmetics, and "high and large (luxurious) beds."

It’s interesting that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into wine, and for no especially important reason other than someone’s wedding.  Other than a communal celebration, which involved food and alcohol consumption as part of a celebratory ritual.  Or perhaps for no more important reason than for us to wonder why he chose this transformation as his first miracle.   It’s an anti-gnostic miracle, one that celebrates and includes the fleshly material world and its desires, rather than shunning it.

Also interesting that he build an entire sacrament around the sharing of food and wine, flesh and blood, also—the living proof of a violent sacrifice.  Thus negating three of the five Buddhist doctrines:  the consumption of meat, the consumption of alcohol, violence.

Not that I accept all of these parts of Christianity without equivocation, either.  But what I react against so strongly in both Christianity and Buddhism is judgment, especially towards things of the world.  People don’t understand gnosticism that much, but what I love about the church is how it’s established gnosticism as a heresy—saying that Christ embraces both the physical and the spiritual world.   It's as if Jesus is speaking to and rejecting the asceticism of the Jewish Sabbath--because he is coming to build not just a new heaven but a new earth.

"What Buddha teaches is dukka (suffering), and the escape from dukka."  And maybe this is where I wonder if the ways are going the same direction.  Because I believe what Jesus taught is grace, grace at the center of all things.  I believe meditation can allow us access to that grace, the light at the center of all things.

Probably Christians and Buddhists will both be angry at me at my twisting of their doctrine.  But I can't help it.  Isn't that the job of each of us:   working out our salvation, wrestling with our angel?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Mawlamyine, Burma (Myanmar)

Decaying colonial mansion
Today I'm looking out over the delta and islands along which George Orwell once walked, the river heading into the Andaman Sea.  I chose to stay in Mawlamyine for three days partly as a kind of pilgrimage (see the masthead), to breathe the same air that George Orwell breathed, walk the same streets that he did.  On the day I arrived, the Breeze Guesthouse owner informed me that the building where I slept, and the surrounding buildings, are a hundred years old.  Well within the time that Orwell-then Eric Blair—lived here.  Did he drink afternoon tea in my bedroom?  (Not likely.  It was more probably servants' quarters.)  Did he make social calls on the balcony where I eat breakfast?  Did he stroll along the oceanfront boulevard, arm-in-arm with a lady and her parasol?

I wandered among the streets on a self-made tour.  His grandmother lived in this city all her life. Her house allegedly exists still, but no one knows where.  Every grand old example of colonial architecture I passed I imagined was it.  And say what you will about colonial fascism (and Blair said a lot), its architecture is grand.  This city may be my favorite example yet, better than boutiquified Georgetown and Luang Prabang.  Mawlamyine's grand old buildings are decayed, decrepit, rotting, their elegance and glamour somehow only enhanced.  Georgetown and Luang Prabang have already been recolonized by the nouveaux riches, but this town is real, authentic, hungry.

Never mind that the riverfront, below the gracious tree-lined colonnade, is covered in heaps of garbage, a festering noxious street-side landfill.

“Shooting an Elephant,” an essay I've never managed to read all the way through (do it yourself, if you dare—it's out of copyright, free for the reading, but I quail about the eleventh paragraph—see if you can make it farther) is set here.

It begins:  “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people.” 

Critics believe his five years in Burma shaped the rest of his life, shaped his constant and unflinching opposition to totalitarianism, in all forms.  His first three years he spent farther to the north, in perhaps less polarized conditions, the setting of Burmese Days, his first novel.  There he learned Burmese, with friends saying he was able to converse fluently in “high-flown Burmese” with priests.  During his early rural posting he imprinted himself with blue circular knuckle tattoos, a common preventative against bullets and snake bites.

He continues in his essay:  “The sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”

I feel echoes of the same visibility now, in the attention paid me.  The comments hooted after me are “helloes” and “I love yous” but it still gets badly on my nerves, on occasion.  Annoying occasionally, but not really so much, not in this town isolated from tourism for so long.  Mainly what I feel is gratitude for my presence, for the coming presence of tourism.

Attraction and hatred, two sides of the same coin—the same inability to see each other merely as people.

Blair was a cop, an ambassador of the system he despised:
At that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.  The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.
For one thing this paragraph is perfectly written.  Each sentence follows the next as inevitable as a windstorm.  The entire essay is perfectly written, fierce profluence, one thought following the next inevitably.  That's why I can't finish reading it.  Especially the distance in his tone, a distance that allows the unsayable able to be said.

But he is graphic about how the unsayable affected him, and despite any internal conviction to the contrary he was hated and hated back.  Maybe the Stanford prison experiment has become a cliché, but in case you haven't heard it:  in the seventies a psychologist staged an experiment that set two groups of college students against each other—some were assigned as guards, others as prisoners.  In less than a week, the guards began inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners.  They took away their clothes, attacked them with fire extinguishers, prevented them from emptying buckets filled with human waste, confined them to dark closets, and refused to allow them to use their own names.  After only six days the psychologist discontinued the experiment intended for two weeks, as a third of the guards began exhibiting truly sadistic qualities.  The conclusion being that setting one group in power against another alone instills violence and hatred between the two groups.

I have a nascent political theory about post-traumatic stress and culture, that entire groups and subsets of oppressed and oppressors experience post-traumatic stress as collective entities.  We have a sense, in the west, that these ex-colonial countries just need to get their acts together, find democracy, the same way believers would tell people they need to find religion.  But the way most ex-colonial countries govern themselves—specifically, Burma—was modeled to them by us, by the colonial powers, with our white man's burden and noblesse oblige.

In Dawei, a Burmese friend Caroline (not her real name) showed me a pdf presentation for a business she’s enlisted in. 

“Taiwan,” she said, as if that proved its legitimacy.

I hope it’s not a pyramid scheme she’s bought into, but I have no way to know.  It involves door-to-door sales, a la Girl Scout cookies or Amway, of things like healthy herbal teas and skin creams made from odd plants.  One slide showed the arches of McDonald’s as a golden symbol of franchised success the world over, and she displayed it proudly to me on the same day I read of a riot in front of the Oak Brook corporate headquarters of McDonald’s, right down the street from where I used to work at a development organization.  I’m fairly sure I ate lunch at the same plaza where the riot happened.

I showed her images of the riot, trying to explain.  She looked bewildered.  McDonald’s is the Holy Grail here, as all American companies are, beacons of the kind of success Burma is reaching after.  I was able to explain with judicious use of my Myanmar phrasebook.

“McDonald’s president rich,” I said.  “Workers poor.”

“Same in Myanmar!” she exclaimed.  “Government rich.  People poor.”

I could have adapted Orwell’s line:  “All people are equal.  But some are more equal than others.”

Maybe we don’t torture anymore, unless it’s of accused terrorists in Guantanamo, or girls enslaved for our sexual pleasure, or Bangladeshi sweatshop workers locked in firetraps for our cheap clothing.  We have our own cowed, grey-faced prisoners—they’re just all black drug dealers.  We hold ourselves at a distance from our crimes so we can justify them.  Ignore the coming Holocaust brought about by our carbon dioxide waste.

Oppressive oligarchies are the same everywhere.

Our new capitalist colonialism, our consumer empire--the future tourist onslaught--is a welcome distraction for people here from the “younger empire” that supplanted the British.  But when every restaurant begins selling banana pancakes and every shop elephant pants—when Burmese people realize that, despite our dollars, their culture is dying, I wonder what their response will be.  I am still a colonialist, colonizing with my culture and money.  I float in the ether of my class, a class that allows me to travel for pleasure even with an income below poverty in the west.  I bring change.
The metal road was building and where it was impassable the Ford car took the bullock track;  here and there we splashed through shallow streams.  I was bumped and shaken and tossed from side to side;  still it was a road, a motor road, and I sped along vertiginously at the rate of eight miles an hour.  It was the first car in the history of man that had ever passed that way and the peasants in their fields looked at us in amaze.  I wondered whether it occurred to any of them that in it they saw the symbol of a new life.  It marked the end of an existence they had led since time immemorial.  It heralded a revolution in their habits and their customs.  It was change that came down upon them panting and puffing, with a slightly flattened tyre but blowing a defiant horn.  Change.      —Somerset Maugham, Gentleman in the Parlor
 I feel I have more to say about this--a lot more.  But no matter how much I write, I can't find a way to express just how Orwellian both modern-day Burma, and its counterpoint, the industrialized west, have become.  It's one of these things that takes time to tease apart in words.  It took Orwell ten years for his essay.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Setse Beach (Thanbyuzyat), Burma (Myanmar)

At beach with Burmese fans, next morning
On the train today no one wanted to sit beside me.  I’ve had this experience before, in Thailand—I don’t know if it’s from a misguided sense of respect, or because I am rank, or because of my prodigious size—which, even if I were supermodel skinny, would be prodigious here.  As Lonely Planet says, Burmese bums make Kate Moss look hefty.  So I sat alone, no one beside me, the two seats facing me empty, too.  While women opposite the aisle crowded against each other, one of them clearly ill.

We had assigned seats, so it wasn’t that much of a statement, but in the other areas of the train people felt free to change their seating arrangements according to convenience.  The four seats where I sat stayed empty almost the whole ride to Thanbyuzyat, until two gentlemen finally boarded with assigned seats opposite, and took them, reluctantly.

The Burmese friendliness is legendary and real, but on the train I felt much more conspicuous.  Foreigners rarely take this route.  The two girls to my left, white-skinned, wearing chic new longyis and tight shoulder-bearing tops, turned their bodies to face me and stared boldly for about half an hour.  Several train conductors were brave enough to sit down one row up, in the seat most convenient for looking, and gazed at me unabashedly until I’d stare back.  And many fewer smiles than I get when I’m on my walks through town.

I don’t know how to deal with the attention.  It makes me uncomfortable and a bit angry.  I stared back, for the most part, until I shamed them into looking away.  Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway.

After all, all travelers are ambassadors of sorts, ambassadors of culture, if nothing else.  So I shouldn’t begrudge them their full-frontal gaze of me, a real American, something they’ve only seen on television.  It’s like they were absorbing every aspect of my appearance, my body, my actions, my backpack, my clothing.

But it’s exhausting being the locus of other people’s anger, attention, curiosity, focus, envy, whatever.  And it’s constant, at least in these last few towns.  I’m ready to be in a world where other foreigners exist, maybe even the Thai tourist world of go-go bars and tee-shirt shops.

So I arrived at the train station after dark, disembarking at an unexpected stop—most farangs head to Mawlamyine—and bartering for my motorcycle taxi.  I decided to go out to Setse Beach because it was the only place I was sure licensed accommodation exists, even though I really wanted to explore Thanbyuzyat, the endpoint of the legendary death railway, constructed during World War II.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to it, at least in my imagination, arriving in Burma from Kanchanaburi, and following this course to the terminus of the same railroad.  But I had no idea how far away Setse was.

My motorcycle taxi drives me out of town as the sun sets and it darkens.  Before I realize it we’re in the middle of nowhere, driving through darkened fields full of rubber trees.  It’s exhilarating, the wind rushing through my hair, heading to an unknown destination.  Also dangerous.  Maybe that’s why it’s exhilarating.  I have the comfort of knowing that I have a size advantage on most men in Burma, but it’s still bizarre, my willingness to get behind someone on a motorcycle after a half-minute negotiation, to head into the unknown dark.

Then the motorcycle begins sputtering.  I’m not sure, since I’m not that familiar with engines, but it seems to be seizing in some ways every time he changes gears, laboring as we climb the hills.  I want to ask him about it, but I don’t know how.  Then I realize that he’s slowing to an excruciating pace whenever a vehicle passes us, even when the vehicle is going the opposite direction, and afterwards weaving all the way across the road.  Then I catch a whiff of something.  Gasoline?  No.  Alcohol.  My motorcycle chauffeur, halfway into the middle darkness, is drunk.

But what can I do?  Wait for the other shoe to drop is all.  The motorcycle does not break down.  We do not crash.  But when we arrive in Setse I see a giant billboard for a fancy-looking hotel called Paradise.  Oh no, I think.  Is this my promised accommodation? It has a pool.  A budget-breaker for sure.

We pass two other guesthouses, and we pull in, but my driver’s drunkenness is increasingly apparent.  He doesn’t know where to stop, doesn’t seem to be able to get off the motorcycle when we stop, doesn’t know where to go.  Both guesthouses reject me, and I can’t figure out why.  My driver speaks to the owners in hasty Myanmar language, and although I don’t understand, I already know what they’re saying.  They’re telling me to go to Paradise.

Finally, I give in, and decide to see how bad it is.  We drive down the road, pulling into a full-fledged resort—thirty uniformed attendants guiding us as we park, steering us past the internet and game room, the beautifully manicured gardens, employees watching HBO in a television room, the well-kept bungalows, into an air-conditioned reception area where I have to go through a metal detector.  It’s $40 for their cheapest room, a double, even though I’m just one person.  I could have just taken it and escaped.  I even have a stashed $100 bill for exactly this eventuality.  But I can’t do it.  Every fiber in me resists.  That’s an American price, I say, disgusted. 

I drive away with my drunk chauffeur.  He takes me to his friends’ house.  They’re thrilled.  They seat me in a chair and everyone gathers around, touching my skin, listening to my badly pronounced pleasantries, poring through my Myanmar phrasebook.  They want me to sleep there, on the bare teak floor of their front room, and part of me wants to, too.  But I know it’s illegal to spend the night with a local family.  And I also know I won’t get a moment’s peace—I’m the locus of everyone’s attention again, and I will be as long as I stay there.  Besides, there’s no bed.

The man of the house gets on his motorcycle and guides us back to the guesthouses we’ve already tried.  I argue.  You’re a guesthouse!  Give me a room!  But it finally clicks:  they don’t have a foreigner license.

We get back on the motorcycles and I’ve resigned myself to Paradise or the friends’ house, wherever they drive me.  But at the last possible minute they pull into another hotel, one I hadn’t noticed.  We wake up the front desk and they give me a room—gorgeous, with a patio facing the ocean—for $20 a night.  Still expensive, but I take it.

It’s a night when I’m absolutely exhausted and filled with relief.  With a traveling companion this wild-goose chase would have been an adventure and not a possibly hopeless and horrifying mission.  Maybe if I’d had someone along we would have taken the nice room and be watching HBO in air-conditioning.  With two people, $40 would have been the same price as what I’m paying here.  Maybe one of us would have convinced the other to get it—but then again, one of us would be blaming the other for the expense.

I persisted, found what I was certain existed, but what was it worth?  $40?

Monday, May 26, 2014

En route from Dawei to Ye, Burma (Myanmar)


Odd clock tower in Dawei -- colonial?
When I arrived at the bus station this afternoon something weird happened.  Before that, I checked out of my guesthouse at noon, and the owner, who had seemed money-grubbing to me, gave me a big bag of rambutan for the road and shook my hand affectionately.  I ate at my breakfast place and said goodbye—everyone marveled at the heaviness of my backpack, for which excuse I have the giant bag of mangoes my friend gave me stuffed at the top.  My motorcycle taxi graciously stopped to help me buy a ticket on the way to the bus station, and while driving there, the breeze blowing my hat back, the shacks with their Majesty Whiskey awnings and random assortment of goods and low plastic tables where men sit chewing betel and drinking tea, passing dusty bamboo houses with ornate teak shutters—I realized how much I already love this country.

Thailand may lose its moniker as Land of Smiles.  People smile at me, genuinely, curiously.  I trust these people.  Maybe I shouldn’t—trust no one, as Mulder says—but I do, even the taxi drivers.

Last night I wandered farther afield for dinner.  Generally I try to find a place where there are at least some women eating, although even that is rare.  As with many other country I’ve traveled to, the women seem to stay in after dark.  At this place I saw two women seated and felt relief.

Then I came in and ordered and the women got up to make the food, and I realized it was just me and a gaggle of dudes, few eating, most drinking and chewing and smoking and watching American movies (a classic, Lake Placid 2) and staring.  At me.  I ate, quickly and alone.  They offered me beer, and by the end of my meal three of them had joined me at my table, the ones who spoke the best English, eating their bar snacks.

One kept telling me:  it’s not dangerous here.  Honesty.  Respect.  Honest.

I believe him.  I feel much safer in this situation than I would have elsewhere, even in the States.

But then the bus station.  I’m waiting alone at the VIP stall, lined up between the packed booths for local chicken buses.  The walls are bare plywood, two by fours, and wire.  Burmese pop music blares.

A woman approaches, looks like she’s selling something from a bag.  She gestures at me, speaking to the front-desk people.  She’s going to try to sell me something, I think.  Good thing I have plenty of snacks.  I can legitimately say no.

Often people don’t try to sell me things here because it’s too much work for them, the communication, which is nice.  People are less pushy than in Thailand.  She approaches, speaking fast unintelligible Burmese, gesturing, pulling 200-kyat bills and mysterious packets from her bag.  She wants money, I know, but for what?  She holds her hands in prayer, holding them up to the sky.  Is she begging, or selling me an offering for Buddha?

Then she begins groping me.

She squeezes the fleshy part of my thigh above the knee.  My first thought is she’s demonstrating how much more money I have than her, my fat legs, my meaty body.  Then:  is she trying to sell a massage?  She keeps going, squeezing up my leg, uncomfortably high, then down my calf, along my hairy shins, harder.

Finally I uncross my legs and draw away.  She stops, keeps asking me for money.  Although Jesus says “give to anyone who asks” and I try, I’m even less likely to give her money now.  I try out my Burmese.

I don’t understand, I say.  Na ma le bu.  I pull out my Myanmar phrasebook.  No thank you, I try.  No, thank you.

She doesn’t understand my pronunciation but finally leaves me alone.  As she goes, I see her try the same thing on a man arriving on a motorcycle, beckoning at his bike, massaging his arm.

I’ve been reading feminist blogs, partly because I love them (Everyday Sexism, Feministing, Jezebel, Rookie, This Is Thin Privilege, xoJane) and partly for inspiration, as I travel, a woman alone.  I’m reading Maiden Voyages, a collection of essays by solo women travelers.  They call themselves “women of independent means and without domestic ties.”  I’m thinking of changing my masthead to that.  Or:  “that ideal Gorgon, the strong-minded woman.”  My email has been medusaj for more than a decade.  The earliest essay is a letter from a woman who traveled alone to Turkey in 1716 to join her ambassador husband.  She scandalized her elite friends by adopting native dress.  A later solo traveler, in Illinois, had to use her trunks to block the door against a man trying to break in on her bathing.  And I think I’m brave.

So my feminist friends are always talking about the prevalence of groping, how common it is, just one example of the sexism women have to fend off every day.  But here I am, fending off another woman.  If a man had touched me that way, I’d call it harassment, borderline assault.  Does it change, if a woman does it?  What was she doing anyway?  Giving me a Buddhist blessing?  Was she a shaman?  Am I now cursed?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ye, Burma (Myanmar)

Swarmed by girls at the pagoda
The gilded pagodas in Ye stretch along the river, rise on every hill, dotting the landscape like punctuation marks.  I visited one at the center of town this morning, thinking I could spend some quality time with my notebook, now that I’ve escaped companionship.  Instead, I was swamped by children.  They lounged along the corridor stretching up to the central Buddha, bored, talking with each other.  In fact, they crowded all of the spots in the shade, the numerous enclaves where Buddhas sit.  Some teachers even stretched, elongated, sleeping in doorways.

One things I’ve noticed about temples here is that they seem far less sacred than in Thailand, with a more human atmosphere I’ve already noted.  It’s not just the neon and blinking Christmas lights.  In Thailand, the temples are crowded by tourists and Thais come to have fortunes read or to earn merit by offering money or prayer.  Here, people just lounge about.  I see children playing at dusk in the stupa pavilions.  People gather in the shade of Buddha to chat and socialize.  The pagodas seem less held apart than the equivalent Thai wat, more of a common ground people use for gathering.

So I went in the sanctuary and sat and tried to feel the peace that generally gathers in the corners of these places.  Whatever your faith, you can feel the intense devotion of the people that have prayed there, their focused earnestness.  But when I turned around I was surrounded by dozens of children, wanting to take photographs of me and with me, and making fun of me, I think, my size and my hairy legs.  When I turned my back to them I’d hear evil cackling laughter and then when I faced them it’d stop.

But I was trapped there, at the entrance, so when they took photographs of me I whipped out my camera, too, thinking I’d beat them at their own game, or at least get some good pictures from it.  One girl especially, clearly a mean girl, a ringleader, her face made up pale, kept circling around for a second and third picture, and finally I had to escape.  I felt like Angelina Jolie.  How odd it is to be swarmed by paparazzi, or even friendly fans, when all I wanted was peace and serenity!

Several of the girls, the ones I liked the least, wrapped their arms all the way around my waist.  Another bizarre invasion of my personal space, something that also seems to be a much higher priority in Thailand.  I even touched a priest, for the first time ever.  They’re not supposed to touch women at all, not even their own mothers.  I thought the stigma must be less here, somehow, but have since been disabused of that notion.

He stood beside me for a picture too, with his betel nut-stained mouth, and our arms grazed each other.  I shouldn’t have been surprised—he was the monk hanging out with schoolgirls, after all.  But now one of us is probably going to hell.

Later, I went to the beach, to dip in my toes and eat fresh grilled oysters and fried shrimp, and I found out that all the people hanging out at the temple were Mon.  I thought they were a school group, because they were in uniform, but the red longyi and white shirt marks them as Mon, a tribal group unique to southern Burma.  At the beach, tuk-tuks and sohngtaeous full of them pulled up, all stuffed with Mon in the same garb, blaring Psy and American hip hop from giant speakers set up in flatbed trucks.

No wonder they were so excited to see an outsider.  It’s one of their special Buddha days, a pagoda day, arranged by the lunar calendar, and even my Burmese motorcycle driver (a quarter Mon, on his father’s side) was shocked by their quantity.

They have their own flag—a majestic golden gamlang duck on a field of red.  Their own language, closer to Thai.  They use Burmese script, but the reading of it is unintelligible to Burmese speakers.  Even their own uniform.  They’re allowed to wear whatever they want at home, my guide tells me.  But when they go out they’re meant to wear the white and red, to mark them as Mon.

On the drive back to the guesthouse, as we drive past the Mon pagoda in the Mon town, I see a banner for the First Annual Mon Gathering, a sort of Mon family reunion.  No wonder there were so many.

As I see them all gathered, my main feeling is envy.  What must it feel like to belong so thoroughly, to so completely know your place in the world?  I’m an alien here, for sure.  Even in Thailand, my heart’s home, I don’t belong and never will.  In the States, although I look like I belong, if you don’t scrutinize my clothes too closely, I don’t.  Not in Maine, not in Michigan, not in Massachusetts, not in Tennessee, not in Illinois.

According to my Myanmar phrasebook, Mon scribes were brought to Bagan after the sack of their capital by the Burmese king in 1057.  Burmese script is really Mon, adapted to the Burmese language.  These people know their place in the world.  They know exactly where they fit.  Their fathers and grandfathers and children and children’s children.

As I walked past the hordes of Mon, I caught the eye of an older monk dressed differently from his cousins, in his priestly magenta robes.  His tattoo, though, was unmistakable—the Mon bird on his upper arm.  He met my eye and didn’t smile.  He could tell, I think.  He’d spotted me.  An imposter.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Beach Retreat Day 7

Women carrying bamboo
On my second day here, a woman and her two daughters approached me on my porch for water.  I gave them most of what I had, a full liter.  Then they asked for tobacco, or the betel-nut-tobacco combination that most people chew here, giving them mouths like blood.  I didn’t have any, of course, but at that moment the delivery man showed up with my lunch:  two boxes of food, a coke, and a cooler full of coconut water.  I felt so guilty, like I had done something wrong, just with my plenty.  He gave her a banana-leaf-wrapped chunk to chew, and they walked on, unable to communicate.

As the week has progressed, my solitude has begun to feel less so.  I am not alone.  This beach is for people who work, who fish, who carry water-logged bamboo logs cushioned on their heads, who gather shellfish and hermit crabs at low tide.  One day, as I lounged, watching the sunset, I saw a man hunting something along the water:  he would spy something and then tiptoe, high-legged, towards it, like a parody of someone hunting.  He dug into the hole he found with a stick, and if he found what he was hunting, he’d pull it out and throw it against the sand, hard, with surprising violence.  Then beat it to death with his stick, then coil it—a sea slug or sea snake?—with others in a plastic bottle.

Others walk among the garbage, collecting glass.

This culture is one of hunter-gatherers, people living on the verge.  Two dogs adopted me, primarily because I give them fish scraps.  I don’t think anyone else feeds them.  They have bony ribcages, lean frames.  They spend most of their day sniffing around for snacks amid the refuse.  When I don’t have bones to give them, at night they whine quietly in the sand.  I think they’re hungry.

Beach dogs
And here I am, amid this scrounging society, a writer.  My purpose begins to obscure.  What good am I, Bob Dylan asks, if I say foolish things?  Anything I sang, he says, you can say it just as good.

Today, my last afternoon, I found a bench along the ocean and lay alone with my iPod, listening to Ray Bradbury, an audiobook I brought along.  When I sat up I was surrounded by women in longyis, one of them the old woman from that first day.  I noticed now that she is also missing an eye.  Her socket sagged empty, the skin closed around it.  She asked for tobacco, I think.  I didn’t have any.  She asked, from what I understand, if I was alone—bringing her two fingers together and then separate.  I motioned to my heart, to my bungalow, saying:  just me.

I don’t feel the envy of my alleged wealth here, not nearly as much as in Laos, or even in Thailand.  Instead I feel pity from Burmese people.  I may be rich in material goods—but I suffer from a poverty of companionship.  The woman nudged my ridgerest, feeling its cushion, grazed my bag with her fingers, then went to work, knocking barnacles off the bamboo logs she had stacked nearby.  She seemed to be the forewoman, and hacked notches into the bamboo, so other women could drag them down to the surf, could carry them on their cushioned heads.  All of them had lean, hungry, chiseled muscles, supermodel physiques.  For what reason they carry the logs I don’t know.  It seemed arcane to me, mysterious.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I pulled out my sketchbook and drew.  I thought of ripping out my drawing and giving it to her, but what good would that do?  Would she even understand?  And besides, I was selfish of the pages in my sketchbook, the book I’ve carried for four months and only used for the first time today.  I was selfish of my own drawing.

Beach drawing
She could see what I was doing, but I can’t imagine what she thought.  Did she think:  stupid fat farang thinks that’s work?  Or did she think, as I did:  she’s doing her work, and I’m doing mine?

Some days I can think of it like that.  On good days, when I can think of what I do as a kind of calling, when I can face the truth inside that cheesy cliche.

Another book I read this week, an ebook, was Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist.  A quote:  “The buddhist once asked me if writing was my religion, and I said no, writing is not my religion.  I don’t know what religion is for me. Writing is my calling.”

My kingdom for that kind of confidence.

I came here for solitude, for writing, and all week my solitude felt invaded, compromised, by well-meaning solicitous Burmese people.  My friend from Dawei showed up with three companions and took me out for coconut and crab.  Various people invited me for rides on their motorcycles, invited me to share meals with their families.  I refused them all,  attempting graciousness.  Other than garbage-pickers, I haven’t seen anyone else alone.

People here don’t seem to understand being alone—my loneliness confuses them.  Is it just that I’m American?  Have I fully absorbed rugged individualism as an ideal?  The one part of Asian culture I could never get behind is communalism.  While I applaud the idea in principle, I could never live the way Thai people do, multiple generations crowded beneath one roof, everyone up in everyone else’s business.  In Thailand, people have children just so they have a place to live when they get old.  They plan their children’s births based on astrology, so their golden years will be comfortably padded.  I don’t think I can live with my parents, or with any fictional children, long-term.  Even living with one person  I love gets to me, most days. Small-town gossip destroys me.  I love my anonymity, and my desire for travel rears its head as soon as I lose my status as a stranger.

As the lone representative of my culture here, what must they think?  That Americans are a lonely breed.

I’ve chosen this loneliness, and still my longing for companionship exists inside me like an ache.  Yet I know:  if any others were here with me I’d be turning towards them for validation, approval, comfort.  What does he think?  What does she want me to do?

I’ve written about artist dates before, the prescription given my Julia Cameron in Artist’s Way:  two hours, alone, each week, to do whatever the hell you want.  Truly alone.  No children, not even a dog.  Just yourself to please.

My favorite artist date in Chattanooga was the independent film series at the movie theater downtown.  I loved everything about it:  driving downtown along the curving highway in my Miata with the top down, parking in the garage, the adrenaline rush of walking down the concrete stairs alone, each time remembering that horrific rape scene in the Sopranos—and then sitting all by myself, in the darkened theater.  Even there I got strange looks, the occasional come-on.  Who’s that strange girl here all alone in the middle of the day?  But I adored it, the silence, the popcorn all for me, and the response to the movie utterly my own.  Even now, the movies I saw then are among my favorites.

Once I convinced my friend Ellen to come along.  I really wanted her to; I practically begged.  I thought it could only make it better.  And though I loved seeing the movie with her, sharing it with her, it changed the experience completely.  Instead of being fully enveloped in my own response, I was thinking about her.  Did she like that line?  Did she get that joke?  What did she think?

Being alone sharpens my attention to my own desire.  But it also makes me feel shame.  Spending a week alone at the beach, just like going to a movie alone, feels utterly profligate.  What good can it possibly do?

Another side of communalism:  the shame it engenders.  I hide in my room when I see Burmese people outside because I’m ashamed of my bathing costume.  I had to walk down the beach, out of view of prying eyes, to lay prone in the sun (something I was brave enough to do only twice).  My favorite part of watching the movie alone was that it was in the dark—no one could see my profligate selfishness.

I’m an alien in a strange land.  I still don’t know why I keep putting myself in these situations where I am completely alien.  I like to think it’s because I’m more comfortable inside when the alienness of my exterior matches the alienness of my interior.  I’m more comfortable when everyone else can see that I don’t belong.  In the States, when I do things wrong because I don’t belong, no one understands.  Here I have an excuse.  I am unique by definition.

Still, uniqueness breeds isolation.  Isolation breeds loneliness.  And I am lonely.  This is what I’ve wanted for so long.  Meals delivered me.  Complete freedom to make my own choices.  And yet…

The truth is that I still don’t know how to balance being alone with being around other people, how to balance others’ needs with my own.  I don’t know how to do that, and it makes me sad, because I need other people in my life, but as soon as I let them in they consume me.

Tonight, a giant cricket lands on my mosquito net.  Other crickets croon outside.  The surf rolls, unceasing, to my right.  I have leftovers in styrofoam boxes for dinner, leftovers I’m afraid to eat on my porch because I have to hide them from the dogs.  Tomorrow, back to civilization.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Maung Ma Gan, Burma (Myanmar)

Beach at Maung Ma Gan
The beach stretches out my front door, endless and empty.  I feel like I’ve arrived at a mythical destination, the Holy Grail of backpacker travel, an empty, perfect beach.  How is it possible?  How can it be?

It’s really what I had heard, the rumors of the internet and of fellow travelers, but whenever I hear stories like that I disbelieve.  Every “untouched” Thai island I visited was already defiled by masses.  This one, Maung Ma Gan, is truly deserted.

This perfection is what I aimed at, the perfection I dreamed of.  And yet…  One forgets about certain aspects.  The plastic trash washed ashore.  On Koh Jum, another allegedly untouched island wonderland, hailed as an unknown paradise by a Finnish magazine, workers from the fancy resorts swept the sand of its washed-up flotsam, plastic and otherwise, every morning.  Here the trash remains, as does the natural debris that true beaches are scattered with.

I’m all alone—but that means I’m all alone.  No reggae bars with friendly travelers.  The locals swim at palm frond lean-tos a kilometer away.  The bungalows on either side of me sit empty.  I’m alone with my thoughts, the wind, the gnats, the sound of the water sweeping ashore.  No internet, no television.  One book of essays I bought (thankfully) in Kanchanaburi.  Whatever vestiges of internet I’ve managed to save on my computer.  A couple of movies I’ve seen already.  My Thai study materials, my Myanmar phrasebook, my Lonely Planet.  My sketchbook, half-full notebooks, unfinished stories.

Not even any restaurants in walking distance.  I have to walk to reception, a good quarter mile, and they call in my order and deliver it by motorcycle to my bungalow.  All this for eighteen blessed dollars a day.  My only company is the occasional Burmese couple in skinny jeans and trucker hats, on a motorcycle, zipping by and scooting forward, to use the beachfront lounge chairs.  They, at least, have each other.  Most of the time they don’t even notice me, sprawled in my American bathing suit, half-naked by their standards.  I have silence, and my own mind.

The silence is exactly what I’ve come here for, exactly what I wanted, exactly what I’ve dreamed of.  My friend Amy, who lives in Taiwan, was the first to tell me, years ago, that Burma was the new beach destination.  I don’t even know if this part is what she meant.  The beaches on the tourist trail are above Yangon—this section of the Andaman coast only opened up to tourist travel last year.  But I’ve longed for it ever since I noticed it, a string of islands and coastline stretching up from Thailand along the Andaman Sea, the most beautiful section of Thai coast, and here, a huge section of it, stretching into Burma.  Myanmar may have more Andaman coast than Thailand, even.

Maybe I’ve dreamed of this adventure for even longer, since I was a kid, and we went to a beach in the off-season, and a German writer was there, by himself, in a bungalow, at the other end.  He ate in the restaurant and spent his days writing.  I think I’ve written about him before, because he’s been in my imagination ever since, a mythical figure.  And now here I am.  Alone in my bungalow.

I’ve given myself a full week here.  A full week of quiet.  I can sit and watch every sunset, spend every day in the sun.  Spend the nights alone with my ideas, my words, my muse, my Spirit, my mind.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dawei, Burma (Myanmar)


Dawei temple at sunset
 When I got to the border, all my Thai was immediately useless.  I had thought that the Thai I’ve learned might at least help me at the border, or until I made it to Dawei—I had thought that maybe even people here, this close to Thailand, might know some.  But no.  The minute I crossed out of Thailand and into the Burmese immigration office, I knew only two words:  hello and thank you.

Also, people do not know English, something else that surprises me.  I had thought that Burma was country where English was more widely spoken than in Thailand, thanks to the British colonizers or something, but no.  It may be my first experience like this, communicating solely by hand signals and pointing at my Burmese phrasebook and with the odd English word that someone happens to know.  Although everyone is ecstatic when I manage to say thank you correctly.  I’m working on “I don’t understand.”

So the end of the story is that I made it.  There was a minivan waiting at the “bus station” at the other side of the border—bus station meaning parked cars and dust—and I trekked across with my backpack and flip-flops, while all the other farangs in the minivan, doing their visa run, gawked at me.  I had to commission a minivan to take me onward, and my bargaining did not work.  It’s tough to bargain when one doesn’t know a word of another person’s language.

But the minivan driver on the other side was kind and drove me six hours across rutted dirt and mud roads, over single-lane bridges, past the mammoth effort an Italian-Thai construction alliance is putting into building a superhighway.  Give it two years and this route will be firmly on the tourist track.  I’ll probably be responsible.  They’ll probably read these words.

It feels great being here, though, walking the streets alone in my patong and umbrella, like an old lady from Myanmar, people staring at me and then breaking into betel-nut-stained grins.  But then I think how I am just the first wave, and after me comes piano bars and discos and boutique hotels, and I shudder.  No matter how adventurous one’s travel is, one manages to be merely the first wave of a horde here.  Am I even doing the right thing by traveling here, or is it just a selfish decision?  By writing about these untouched areas am I spoiling them?

First impressions:  heat.  I soak through my shirt walking to and from the bank, two times in two days, and only on the third day does the ATM work.  The loneliness of not knowing a language.  People are curious about me, and want to ask me questions, but how can they?  I’m not only alone, but I’m isolated by a complete lack of communication, which makes me feel a peculiar emotionally needy feeling.  The shock of having Skype-speed internet at my guesthouse.  (And the relief.)

At first I didn’t feel like people were particularly welcoming or friendly, and then last night I ate at a restaurant where I’ve eaten twice, and one of the girls who ran the place sat down with me.  She knew a handful of English words, and we pointed at phrases in the guidebook and communicated.  I learned how to say “eat.”  She gestured at her motorcycle:  do you want to go for a ride?

Of course I did.  We rode to the pagoda, where everyone wanted to talk to her about me and take pictures with me and practice as much English as they knew.  They were thrilled at my  presence.  We walked around the giant pagoda in bare feet on slick wet tile.  Here temples are called pagodas, even though they are also temples, because they’re built around giant gilded stupas.  It was like a carnival, like everyone came to pray and then hang out with their friends and eat ice cream and sticky rice and party.  A much more human atmosphere than in Thailand—then again, there’s not much else to do here.  The temple was beautiful, covered in fragmented mirrors, and also adorned with bizarre kitsch.  Every Buddha had neon enlightenment rays emanating endlessly from his head.

My friend, Mechcike (or that’s the best I can render her name), wants me to stay here and not go on to the beach.  There’s an even bigger party tomorrow night, she manages to convey.  This is what I’ve heard about the Burmese people—how their hospitality is legendary.  And yet I feel that traveler’s itch, to keep moving on, seeing new things, new chunks of country, new frontiers.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

En route from Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to Dawei, Burma (Myanmar)

Myanmar-Thai border crossing at Phu Nam Ron
People say it’s possible.  Even the sohngtaeou driver trying to convince me to go with by sohngtaeou taxi rather than by bus.  I have a single bent $100 bill and I’m convinced that’ll get me at least to Dawei, where they have ATMs.  Allegedly.  If they don’t, I’ll be stranded in Dawei, penniless and alone.

But the taxi driver keeps trying to convince me to go with him instead.  It’s more expensive, I say.  He gives me a Thai proverb I don’t know:  if you think expensive, then it’s expensive.  If you think cheap, it’s cheap.

It sounds like Thai taxi driver logic, to help me break out my pocketbook, but I bet he’d stop at the bank for me so I could exchange more baht into American money.  But then I’d lose the exchange rate twice, so I’m betting on the ATMs in Dawei.  I’ve been back and forth on this decision since Bangkok.  I have no idea what the exchange rate from the ATM will be.

This feels foolhardy to me but also Christlike, going in with nothing, never mind that I have my budget for the month safely resting in a bank account.  I always find some way to agonize, some way to be paranoid and anxiety-ridden.  Confident travel writers would constantly explain their decision in advisory bulleted points:

1.  Bring some Thai baht, but not too many!  You’ll get a horrible exchange rate of baht to kyat.
2.  Bring a percentage of your budget as untouched dollar bills from the US.
3.  Trust local ATMs, now confirmed on the VISA website and reported reliable, for the rest!

Sounds good, right?  If only I believed it.

So now I embark on the bus, driving up the mountains and over, towards the border, into the unknown.

Friday, May 09, 2014

En route from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Bridge over the River Kwai, tonight
This morning I woke up, packed, and took a motorcycle taxi to the pier with my big backpack.  Took the boat to stop eleven, the Thonburi stop, and then a sohngtaeou to the train station.  Bought a ticket to Kanchanaburi, and here I am, writing in blue pen, speeding west, towards jungle and mountains and a border.  All of the steps I have rehearsed so long in my head carried out, exactly as anticipated, made flesh.

Banana and palm trees and rice fields line the track.  White and grey egrets by the dozen fly up from swamp as we pass.  We cross rivers choked with water plants, above them houses on stilts.  It's mango season, and as we cross roads I see fruit vendors set up at roadsides, with piles of golden fruit.

Ladies walk through the car selling fried chicken and I want some, but I'm embarrassed.  All I had for breakfast was three pieces of watermelon and some half-eaten bones and sticky rice, but the vendors aren't even soliciting me.  Besides, the middle-aged lady to my left has been eying my over-consumptive purchases since I got on, the overpriced peanuts from the Bangladeshi grifter, the iced coffee in a can for 25 baht.  I don't want her to smirk as I get ripped off a third time.  But I really want chicken.

The rice fields are impossibly green, the greenest green you'll ever see.  Brightly painted houses and trucks rest by the dusty tracks.  Drainage ditches are flush with cattails and lurid algae, bony droop-necked flop-eared cattle grazing among them.  Each stop gets me closer to the border.

I think this may be the bravest thing I've ever done.  Not as brave, of course, as many:  Paul Salopek, Rory Stewart (who walked across central Asia), Sarah Marquis (an extreme walker who faced down Mongolian horsemen in her tent), or any of your average everyday foreign correspondents in Afghanistan.  But it's still something.  The Lord has not given me a spirit of fear.  Everything I see with new eyes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

I have seen them all



Today I went to the Burmese embassy and applied for a visa.  I walked down to the Chao Praya river taxi and took it seventeen stops to the BTC, then a motorcycle taxi to the embassy.  I brought with my passport photographs and that’s about it, so I had to buy a copy of my passport and a blue pen, since the one I’d remembered (my last live one from the States), is red.  So tonight my passport rests with the Republic of Myanmar, and I hope that my application for visa is successful.

If it is, then I may really make it to Burma, or Myanmar, as the United Nations calls it and the Democratic Voice of Burma does not.  Maybe that’s all I’ll say about that.  As with previous online entries, I am forever fearful of jinxing things by talking about them before they are certain.  I still have a long way to go before that border crossing.

Nevertheless, this means that today I woke up at eight AM and ate coconut bread with the sunshine.  I experienced that peculiar aloneness that accompanies the solo traveler on public transportation.  That anonymity in the middle of the crowd, what I loved about living in Chicago.  Proximity to physical bodies with none of that annoying communication stuff.

By the time I made it into the office I was dripping with sweat.  Not metaphorically.  I forgot what it was like to be drenched with fluid coming from my own body.  I forgot about how in May the moisture just hangs in the hyper-heated April hot season air, now filled with condensation from all the water below and all the monsoon clouds hanging above.