January 23, 2009

Open Letter to Tavis Smiley

Dear Mr. Smiley,

I just watched your program with David Johnson and his book Free Lunch. Needless to say that I was rather surprised to hear that Walmart Family gets go to keep my sales tax, instead of it going into govt coffers. I do believe that campaign finance reform is at the basis of this, and I take Mr Johnson's advice to write letters to editors, congress men, etc.

To you then, Sir, is the first letter I decided to write. Why are you doing a program like that, only to turn around, and have an advertising from Walmart at the end of your show, touting their "good citizen spirit" for donating money to some charitable org? When in reality the richest family in the USA gets tax subsidies in this form, and tries to PR its way out of this fact via donations, which in the end area also tax deductible.

I wish I could keep my income tax, donate a couple of thousand bucks a year to goodwill orgs, write that off, and get 40% back on my tax return. Alas, I do not have the lobbying power that the Walmarts have. But I gladly take your advice and write letters in order to rectify the situation.

I find this rather disingenuous of you. Please put your money where your mouth is.

Kind Regards,

January 21, 2009

Travel Report 21: On the River to Mandalay

“When traveling downriver from Bamo to Mandalay, on the Irrawaddy, one must make sure to reserve a cabin in advance”, is what the, I thought, friendly travel agent in Yangon told me and Volker on the 14th of November, two days before our departure to fly to Myitkyina. Friendly, as usual, being a relative term. My Uncle seemed to agree with this assessment. Although there were no papers handled or tickets given it was understood that we would be secured a safe and covered birth on the ship from Bamo to Mandalay. I imagined the below in case we would not reserve our spot. Rustic, romantic even, but 500 km of it? I don't think so. Plus, have you ever actually tried balancing on one of those?

You can imagine our consternation a few days later when, after visiting my Uncle’s projects in Bamo and environs, on return to the Friendship Hotel and its friendly Chinese staff, we were informed by same staff that, alas, we would not have such luxury, as it were. In fact, there was no room left on that boat at all, which seemed rather unfortunate, because how the hell were we going to go back south, if not via ship? At this point you should JFGI Bamo, if you have not done so yet, in order to know where it is located, and also a couple of pictures of road to Mandalay. An overnight bus ride seemed out of the question, especially since floating down the Irrawaddy on a pre 1940 Made in China lemon of a passenger ship had always been a fantasy of mine. I just didn’t know that until I arrived in Burma.

The Bangkok airport snafu was only starting at that time, so we did not have the proper blasé, quasi-fatalistic attitude “Well, we ain’t getting a flight, so we might as well stay”. Being the well-seasoned traveler that my Uncle is, he took it in stride and asked, “Well, what the fuck are we supposed to do now? SWIM down the bloody thing?!?’ No, just kidding, of course he didn’t say that. In South East Asia (SEA) one does not get far with angry outbursts. It becomes a sort of quicksand situation. The more you yell and holler the deeper you sink into a hole of no help at all and only mute empty eyes staring back at you. Like a Gila Monster would look at you, should you, unfortunately, fall into a La Brea tar pit. So instead we shook our heads sadly, wrung our hands forcefully, and beseeched the friendly Chinese staff at the Friendship Hotel how on earth we were going to make our next appointment in Mandalay.

“There is another ship tomorrow morning instead of the day after”. We smell the second oldest rip-off in the book, the one after the shell game. And casinos. And taxes. OK, it’s the fourth oldest. So we shake our heads, and wring our hands, and beseech some more. And it turns out that the ship tomorrow is not 3 times as expensive as the original ticket, but instead cheaper then the passenger ship a day later. Now we consider how much we appreciate the continued presence of kidneys in our own bodies, instead of in the midsection of some mid level Chinese Gov official on dialysis in Yunan Province.No more shaking of heads, wringing of hands and beseeching. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more kowtowing to inscrutable eyes and blank faces. No more trying to fit into the local culture, being anthropologically and/or politically correct. Now these lazy, good-for-nothing, unorganized, ungerman, vegetable-eating inheritors of the Golden Land (yep, JFGI this too) shall feel the wrath that is Austria.

We go ahead and buy the tickets. What can I say; the only time Austria does anything wrathy, is when our skiers do not win 95 % of all downhill races in any given year. Or if our Kaiserschmarrn isn’t good enough for the Kaiser.

And truly blessed we were to go with the flow. To bend in the wind as the willow will. To forge on ahead in the thought that surely, on a pre 1940 Made in China freight ship, instead of the passenger version there will be no silly tourists asking for their warm water when it is clear that north of Yangon nobody has any.

We were correct in our estimate. No foreigners, no intrepid co-travelers, no organized travel group from France. Only Betel-chewing, Cheroot-smoking, gum-rotting, Longi-wearing, hugely smiling, tripping-over-the-foreigners-on-their-boat crew, and a couple of Kachin and Burmese passengers. Only crazies, who don't know any better would get on this baby. Except that the ship has been plowing the river's waters for 60 years, and is apparently still going strong, if rather slow. The morning mists rise over the river. The sun breaks over the paddies.

And Volker and I once again counted our blessings for sending us such an adventure. Admittedly, we also briefly wondered who would tell my mother and my Uncle’s sister that we are not coming home should the boat, as expected, not make it around the first bend. But as all you seasoned travelers know, the most important requisite, when traveling is: ignorance in the face of danger. We Schmidts/Illetschkos seem to be blessed with that particular attribute.

Again we need to get signed into various lists of dubious importance and less durability, and finally settled into our rather spartan cabin. You all know that my appreciation of a bed rises inversely to the thickness of its mattress, but I have to tell you, that bunk was bloody rock hard. As usual, if my geriatric (love you man, sorry, it’s really a compliment) Uncle can do this, I will certainly, or at least follow his lead. The only people that I know who go further and harder are Reinhold Messner. And my parents.

In we are and down we go; down this wonder of a river; this blesser of myriads of beings; this giver of life and eternal fertilizer of a land that has only ever known the richness of Loess-rich waters brought down from the Chinese borderlands; this romance-inducing mirage. Let it roll of your tongue “I floated down the Irrawaddy”. Nearly as good, if not as stony as “I swam amongst the candles of the sea”. I don’t know what it is about this thing that always runs, but never walks, but for some reason it grabs you and holds you in its thrall for as long as you are near it. Or at least until you pass out; lulled to sleep by the constant drone of a couple of overworked and underserviced diesel engines, which pretend to speed the ship along faster than the current of the river; which is pretty slow. We settle. There is a young Pongi - Buddhist monk - on board. He and I spend time teaching each other the other's language. Burmese is a lot harder than English, or I am a lot dumber than the Pongi.

Once we come to the second defile (a narrows), a few hours down river from Bamo, one of the ever friendly Burmese passengers on the ship interrupts my hand and feet sign language conversation with the young Pongi to tell us with hands and feet that we should make our way up on the bridge because that is were the best view is. And there we enjoy a view, a vibe of the jungle, with its screaming monkeys and chattering parrots, and moments of quiet, green depths that I shall remember to the end of my days.

This Pongi tells me that he is a great fan of a bunch of Footballers in Europe. He does tell me names but I must concede ignorance in the face of his knowledge. I have no idea who he is talking about. Appropriately languid is what I would call the time spent on the ship. The lull only interrupted by stops in various small villages along the river. One of them being Kathar.

As I mentioned before, Orwell's longest post in Burma, where I catch this young gent deep in thought. Another is a nameless village. We stop, the two wood planks come down, and all the girls and women of this village proceed to sprint up it with bales of charcoal balanced on their heads. We think its charcoal because it can’t be too heavy. There are only two men out of 30 people who are doing this work. The rest of the men chill, watching the race, and a couple of toddlers. It’s a constant coming and going and lasts for 20 minutes, and we wonder where the bloody hell they put this stuff, because there certainly wasn’t any more room on the ship when we embarked two days ago. The grace with which these ladies carried their bales down a sandy bank and up a wobbly plank is only matched by their constant laughter laced banter.

Finally the captain puts his foot down and convinces the apparent boss woman on shore that enough is enough. I assume he threatened her with feeding her coal into his diesel engine. I am sure they can do it somehow. They build their own CNG engines, so this should be easy. We push off, and float on.

It gets dark. These boats do not travel on the river at night. This is because of the sand banks that constantly shift, which to this day I do not know we avoided – there are no discernable signposts. Or because of the ghosts that do their ungodly thing at night. We randomly stop in one spot along the river just after darkness. The crew ties the ship to a couple of trees. The stars are appropriate, I lie on the roof and smoke a last cheroot with my red label and realize that I do not have to imagine anything to make this a perfect moment. Writing this two month later I am afraid that there were so many perfect moments that I shall forget the most of them. How must it have been when the King had his Buddha shipped up the Irrawaddy? Was it any different than today? Farmers with their bulloks, little villages on stilts, a completely rural life that seems to be entirely unchanged for eons. It remains a constant struggle to balance my desire to experience this ancient life as it has been for generations, with my wish to give every Irrawaddy dweller a water filter and a fridge.

January 20, 2009

Burma: Suggested Reading

One would not want to be accused of not having your literary welfare at heart. So even though the title of this post might scare you. Take heart, over the course of these silly little drivel travel blog posts (say it five times fast) of mine you have worked yourself at least through a supermarket checkout magazine. At least in size, if hopefully not in style or content. At which point I find it appropriate to once again do a kowtow as I feel quite flattered that you all would bother to come back to reading about my travels again and again.

... kowtowing...

In this spirit I would like to draw your attention to two rather well known greats of English Literature, who both started their careers in Burma. I figure if you are going to be reading about this place might as well be some of the truly great stuff ever written, anywhere.

On the Road to Mandalay
Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
Bloomin' idol made o'mud --
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd --

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "~Kulla-lo-lo!~"

With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin' my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the ~hathis~ pilin' teak.
Elephints a-pilin' teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;

An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an' grubby 'and --
Law! wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Now, I ain't saying that my emotional state in regards to, or understanding of Burma is anywhere close to Kipling's. After all he spent a couple years more there than I did (Rereading this I realize it implies that the difference between me and old Rudyard is a couple of years in Burma - oops). But, that second to last verse sort of hits my current state of mind on the head. Except that I am going to Seattle instead of England, which will probably be worse in terms of precipitation.

Guess who started his literary career in Burma. George Orwell lived in quite a few places in Burma but Kathar provides the setting for his first novel
Burmese Days.

My Uncle at Kathar

This one is required reading before you go to the Golden Land. As obvious as that is, it is way more surprising to actually be offered that book everywhere in Burma, because the Burmese, as much as the British overlords, could probably complain that Orwell must have been in a bad mood when he wrote that thing. Seldom have I come across a more sarcastic, cutting description of British Empire, or native populations for that matter.

Soccer playing monks in Kathar, I played with these cats,
thinking "How cool, playing random soccer with Monks in Burmese Days Location".
Until I read later in Lonely Planet that this is quite normal in that Monastery.
Trust LP to screw it up. Yup, they wiped the floor with me.

In SEA one is constantly offered books to read about the Killing Fields, and What they did with one girl's Father, and whatever else you like to depress yourself with. Of course it has nothing to do with generating pity for those poor downtrodden peoples; that they sell you only books of rape and pillage about their countries. Burmese Days is one that is offered everywhere, and particularly in Burma. These books are all copies, as in pirated. I am not sure if I am more amused that they think white people actually like to read, or that I can buy pirated books for a dollar the same way I steal movies and TV shows online.
Yeah, I said it!

I read Burmese days on my father's shelf in Vienna, and did not realize that it was a pirated copy until I saw it in Burma on the road to Mandalay. I just thought that it was a bad print job back home, and wondered at the Quality Assurance process of that particular publisher. But as it turns out one can get it on most street corners where there is the slightest chance of a tourist walking by, which is where Pa got it from.

None-soccer-playing monks in Kathar

Of course, closer examination of reading materials that I see in Burmese hands on Buses, ships, and planes reveals that their tastes run more to the mundane Zwei Groschen Roman - we would call it in German - romance novels and crap like that. I was waiting for one of them to say to me "I cant believe it's not butter". So really the Generals do not have to worry about the Word, as it were, to be the cause of their downfall. But was there ever a revolution without it before?

January 19, 2009

Travel Report 20: Bamo

Imagine any third world market, this one raised up on stilts over the same area since time out of mind, with any number of vendors selling every possible variety of goods. Longis of course, but also avocados the size of pigskins (the USA ones), and of course the all time favorite: rotten fishpaste. I know I ate that all the time without knowing it, and that doesn’t help one bit.

I manage to slow enough to purchase my first, and so far, favorite Longi. Of Kachin make, you can tell by the colors, and oh, so proud I am, to wear it in the confines of my hotel room. Below I am wearing a Burmese Longi. The colors make all the difference and should you be in Burma you can tell the Kachins, Karens, Shans, Burmese etc apart by what kind of Longi they wear. You certainly won't be able to tell them apart by their accents. I have always been partial to men-skirts such as Sarongs (it is my Pa's fault, you should see what that guy wears at home!), but these are a lot more comfortable because they are tied in such a manner that it affords one a proper step. You can see the fold at the front of it. Before you ask, no I do not wear anything under it. Young Burmese do, old Burmese don't. I won't explain to you why. But personally, I figure, if I am wearing a skirt, I might as well enjoy the good airy parts of it. Did you cringe?

I had heard about the raucous lady vendors (Marktweiber are the same wherever you may go) in these country town markets. They all seem to delight at cackling something raunchy at the backs of the foreigners, at which they crack up like mad. But the best laughs are the ones that burst forth when I pretend I understood every word. Which isn’t hard, I just react as if someone said something supremely naughty to a tall white boy. Of course my reaction is confined to meaningful looks and other nonverbal cues.

Early morning sees us on rooftop terrace of Friendship Hotel. Breakfast a strange welcome mix of Chinese, Kachin, and Fried Eggs cuisine. Mohinga remains our dish of choice. By horsedrawn buggy we go to Sister’s Order’s Location, by traveler memory (asking passersby) we manage to seek it out.On the way I encounter a strange Maria figure, with holy blinking light thingy mounted behind her holiness’s head. No, they would never copy this from the way Buddhas are sometimes adorned only to make Christianity more palatable to the locals.The grounds of the Sister’s compound is neatly tucked into a side street. Volker’s Nursery is the last thing that fit in here, and it is lovingly simple. Blockhouse style, beams crossed, in between bricks. Kiddies in it are a lot cuter than the building, and are, distressingly, encouraged to sing lovely Christmas Songs for us. We urge, after polite if happy listening to cutest Jingle Bells rendition ever, to sing some Burmese or rather Kachin songs, as it were. Since we are in Kachin state and one of the goals of Volker’s work is to retain local customs. This wish also is gladly fulfilled by sweet Maria, who nearly makes me break my vow, and whose little English is at least as adorable as the kids she kindergardens.

They already learn about their amazing brains at such a young age. This makes me feel ok about the Jinglebells.

We are then thrown into a little car to drive out to Mansi, where another Nursery/Kindergarden has just been completed. It is a romantic ride on brutal dirt road. I think in this climate any construction will always be temporary, so why waste more money on more expensive if better materials. At least that’s what I tell myself as an excuse. We fill up on gas, where I meet a Kachin fellow who lived in Tokyo when I was there. Except he was in Shinjuku instead of Roppongi. My Mauiwaui friends would say its manifest (btw it is not, it is rather selective recognition). On the way we stop at a small convent for refreshments, we have the feeling of being led on a specific tour as there is no reason for this visit. Even later I would not understand. The kind Sister here presents me with 4 neatly in a plastic bag packed eggs – Thank you. We head on to the Nursery, not without first stopping to see the priest of the parish, who is not in because he is at a Retreat Thingy. At this, Volker's latest project we are as enthusiastically greeted as in the last one. Happy little kiddies falling over themselves to get a glimpse of the strange roundeyes, or maybe even to say a shy “hello?” to which a reply of “Hello” is enough to set of gales of laughter. If you ever go to one of these countries, take lots of pictures of kids on your digital camera, and then show them the pictures. They love seeing themselves, adore this game, and can not wait to take pictures of all of their friends.

These two youg ladies are the Kindergarden Teachers. And if you dont think the kiddies are cute, you should go lie down on Siggi's couch. The one on my left wants to go to Australia to study there. All the Kindergarden Teachers study something or other, but I do not know what they will be able to do with a Chemistry Degree 30 Km from the Chinese Border, where I certainly do not see a chemistry lab in operation.

Many proof-of-work pictures and blown up airballons later Volker and I are allowed to leave, which occasion I use to crack open one of them juicy hardboiled eggs I was presented with before. CRACK … hmm… Now why would she give me raw eggs? Did she think I was going to pull out my traveling pan? Or fry it up on the side walk? Suck it raw? I told you not to ask me. On the return journey we are driven, again, through picturesque South East Asian post card landscapes. Military Compounds abound and “take all the best land”. Water Buffalo do their muddy thing, pleasurably it would seem.

Back at the main mission we are served delicious chicken and the usual variety of Burmese dishes. We are apparently to be fattened up before we go to see another area, which strangely has nothing to do with Volker’s projects. We are not sure why we are going, but find ou soon enough. Entering a large compound that seems to be preparing for some sort of festivity. Not made to wait long we found out that this is where the retreat is to take place, and priests from the surrounding area are already present. I know you want to see a picture of me hanging out with a bunch of catholic priests, so I will do you the favor.

Seriously the man in the middle, who does not look like Michael Jackson, studied at the Vatican for two years. These are all serious about their business. And they are all drinking Bud, of all things. Could they not have picked Myanmar or Lao Beer? I am of course the only one who does not stoop to low beerlevels (right, I am such the beer connoisseur). I drink the fabled Kachin Sapee, home made and served up enthusiastically by our host, not to be mistaken with Shan Sapee, which will incapacitate you within minutes or sips, whichever one comes first. Kachin Sapee is made of fermented rice, then sqeezed out liquid and mixed with water. I tell honestly, it is delicious. Has this sort of pinkish color, and if not made right, will lead to major headaches later on. The man next to my uncle urges the host (the priest we missed in Mansi because this retreat is his show. He is not on this picture) in Burmese not to give me too much to drink. At which point I am tipsy enough to understand his Burmese and to vehemently insist that this cute little concoction can not harm a large Austrian man.

The lubricated conversation quickly turns on to the subject of Barbarians, which my Uncle and I find out are the Bavarians. Much hilarity ensues (largely my fault, sorry Uncle:) as Volker painstakingly explains that his chosen place of residence is not Barbarian at all, as in fact it is the oldest united dominion in Germany. I think he is not drunk enough to understand that the priests don't care about his historically correct explanations and would rather continue to call his people Barbarians, especially since Bavarian is just too hard to pronounce correctly if you are anything Asian. By the way; Kachins are great snackers. That indefinable (I am letting sleeping dogs lie here) dish on the table was delicious.

As it is sometimes the case in international relation this sort of lubrciated hilarity actually leads to useful insights. Here we learn that the man next to my uncle, signed the 1994 KIO - SLORC peace treaty as representative of the church. God's Witness to an uneasy truce if you will. We also meet a man who is a current member of the KIO who explains quite a few interesting details to us. This border region with China is incredibly porous, Kachin live on both sides, constantly travel back and forth, and the Chinese are only too interested in a somewhat pacified region in order to do their trades along the famed Burma Road. Later we are released to meet some of the retired sisters who spend their time in this compound.

They are about four feet tall, no kidding, and display the same warmth and vivacity as all the other sisters. Must be something in the water. We are actually sitting in the corridor next to their quarters here, which are only seperated by a curtain. None of their rooms contain anything else but a bed. What do they do all day?

Volker and I are still not sure why we were shown this place except that the man-catholics (priests) would like to get a piece of Volker's pie. I assume that the sisters were forced to make at least a good faith effort to share the wealth. Man-catholics do no understand my families aversion to organized religion. Not because of any philosophical/dogmatic reasons in this case. Simply because the moneys would be a lot harder to track and my Uncle would not know what they are being used for. Be that as it may, this unplanned excursion has offered a rather deep insight into Burmese life, which I am, as I will not get tired of saying, incredibly privileged to enjoy, attached as I am to my Uncle's coat tails.

We head back towards Bamo, happy in the knowledge to have met fascinating people, and glad that my Uncle's collected money does what it is supposed to do. These thoughts are of course easier when travelling through landscapes such as above. We look forward to our evenings tropics medicines and wonder what we should do all day tomorrow as the boat down river does not go until the day after.

Travel Report 19: Leaving Yangon

The flight is comfortably at 10.10AM. The domestic terminal reminiscent of airports in Greece in the 70s. It used to be the international terminal. We are on a flight to Myitkina, via Mandalay, the old capital of Burma. A propeller machine, 48 seats, we stay on plane in Mandalay to go on to Myitkina. There is never a time at which one does not see a pagoda while landing or taking off from Mandalay. Of course they are not all as amazingly huge and impressive as Shwedagon, but nevertheless the commitment to build stupas in every spot available is amazing.

It’s the country on which the Buddha never sets, like Austria the empire the sun never sets on. Oh, they said that about England as well. And some others. And we all think we are the only ones.

Myitkina is far up country. Close to the Border with China, 1500 km north of Yangon. Our driver awaits. Our bags are stashed. We need to get signed into various lists of dubious importance and less durability. Take off; stop to make five copies of passport for various control posts and more lists of dubious importance and less durability.

Green, seasonal rainforest outside of town. Yes, Birds. Yes, exotic costumes on locals. Yes, trees of teak, of massive proportions. And plantations thereof of same dimension. We learn later that it takes seven years before a teak tree becomes monetizable. We learn now that all plantations here are owned by Chinese businesses that operate cross border. Trucks bearing Chinese tags bear down on us with monstrous thunder from smoking stacks of diesel. Well, they are big, and low, and mean looking. Like the drivers, who seem to have been up three days straight. We hope in our driver’s survival instinct. The road is well maintained until the last checkpoint. To the left we see an incongruously large gate contraption thingy. Guards, guns at the ready, you know, do their thing. They guard. Burmese hieroglyphs (might as well be) on big wavy sign above. “No photo” driver points out helpfully. Goes to sign us into lists of dubious importance and less durability. At return, on inquiry, we learn that behind incongruously large gate contraption thingy is the area under control of the KIO, not to be mistaken for the KIA. Ok, I’ll tell you those acronyms, even though you all at Intel love this sort of CLF. Kachin Liberation Organisation and Kachin Liberation Army. The former growing out of the latter after peace accord with govt. was signed in 1994. How the area from this road to the about 30 km distant Chinese border mountains fits into this peace accord I do not understand. Effectively it means a separate entity within Burma. Tacitly, if not officially acknowledged, and probably China brokered. There are Kachins across the border in the Yunan province as well, and to locals it seems to be rather porous. This is in China’s interest, and thereby tolerated by the Burmese. I am speculating here. At none of these places I risk taking any photos, as driver faithfully intones "No take Photo" each time he stops at a checkpoint to drop our passport copies down a govt. black hole.

After this checkpoint the road turns bad. It consists of two-fist size rocks stuck in some concrete derivate. The rocks stick out halfway. The car acts like an unwilling mustang. Volker passes out. Reminds me of my Mother who passed out holding on to a handhold, standing in a packed, sweaty Mexican bus out of Meridan. These Schmidts sleep anywherealways. Why do I need earplugs then?

Sun sets mysteriously over these undulating overgrown hills. Kisses the horizon in the misty distance. Am I in an African safari movie? Treeshapes of figurine qualities, suddenly replaced by the orderly terraced artifice of another rubber plantation.

If you think this is anything else but a Chinese Satellite state, you should travel back in time to Warsaw Pact days. We drive into the gathering dusk of a quick night. A dark night of different quality than a dark night in the wastelands of Southern California, or in the paddies of Cambodia. Couldn’t tell you how different though. Maybe its all in the traveler's mind. This mysterious pull that Burma seems to have on me.

After interminable turns of the clock a sound barely above sound barrier turns into ugly squealing from back of vehicle. Seems to be connected to braking. Stop, ineffectively throw water with small cup on break disk and wheel. Drive on. Squeal uglier. Stop in village. Volker casually inquires as to my willingness to find scorpion infested quarters in this Asian manifestation of a medieval European village on stilts. What the old man can do, I feel obliged to at least be up to. Driver and locals proceed to take apart back wheel, I try to track their doings. Which is easier than you think. These cars are so old and so basic that even my limited technical understanding gets the important parts. The important parts are currently being pulled out. “What, no not that line. That fluid that is pumping out of there is the brake fluid! How will you break now?" Gestures and hand and feet talk let me come to an awful conclusion. "Oh, one brake only.”

Local kindly offers me Beetel nuts, obviously to calm the white boy’s fraid (seriously MS, you must know this word and its proper spelling) nerves, to chew on. I accept. He hands me a very green leaf, rolled up like Greek Dolmades. I stick it in mouth, as I am being pantomimed to do by kind local. Little does he know that he is dealing with an experienced Gaijin/White Ghost/Long Nose who has on occasion of stressful busrides been known to casually chew the occasional Beetel before. The Beetel nut is broken apart a little bit, white flesh with red stripes, or red flesh with white stripes, lathered in some white alkaline paste, and rolled up in some sort of leaf. Highly saliva inducing. Slightly numbing of the tongue. Not calming of the nerves at all. I smile, keep spitting, and digging into the recently created recesses of my jaw for nuts unchewed.

The wheel comes back on. Driver seems to agree with my analysis of the situation. “Man, you can’t be serious to keep driving on this road, with this car, with one break”! We drive anyway. I have to work on my noneverbals. Driver seems awfully mad at the road. It is of course Chinese built, like everything here. Everything that is either necessary or big. Volker takes it in stride Driver, its ok if we get there a little later! What? No, drive slowly, OK! …. ?" No Reply.
"#$%&*" (is German, I can’t translate, sorry).
"…. Ach, whatever!”

One hour later we arrive in Bamo, and the bunkersize Friendship Hotel has grown even larger, according to Volker. We enjoy being out in the country enormously. As wonderful as the hospitality of Natalie in Yangon was, we are travelers and this remoteness had been calling our civilized selves for some time. We walk around town, get some Chinese dinner, watch some Premier League Football (Valley Girl: No Way!?), buy some Cheroots and head back to Friendship to enjoy some Red Label and Deutsche Welle, which we seem to prefer over BBC. Some racial memory thing, I am sure, involving the orderliness of things TV German. I again am in anticipation of the morrow and its surprises and miracles.

January 4, 2009

Travel Report 18: Sister L of FM

On the 13th of October my uncle Volker arrived in Yangon. This is three days after I arrived, which was accidental  (if you can call a rotten upper left jaw that) bad timing, which as usual turned into good rhythm.

The next day we went to see Sister L. She is the brains behind a Catholic Order's Social Projects and seems to run their finances like Al Capone's accountant. Yes, my rather to the heathen heavens sprinting, not to say paganistic tendencies displaying, family does business with the devil - from our perspective of course, you understand. My dear uncle collects humblest amounts of monies (please ask here if you desire to throw down - as in I WANT YOUR MONEY) to support various good causes in Myanmar. Most of which fall into the category of training young minority generations to become self sufficient, employeable or just educated. Schools are hard to come by in these remote mountain locations right next to China (San Fernando Valley Girl: How cool is THAT?!). Especially the very young and female of our species suffer disadvantages from this situation.

I could tell you where excactly these projects are and how the money gets there, but then I'd have to kill you. No, really. No, I won't tell you...

Ok, there is this Portoguese sailor, he knows this whore in Laohre, she can reliably transfer, I think she calls it, your moneys via Punani in Trinidad to a Burmese Pirate of the coast of Somalia... You get the picture.

What is however amazing, is the Sisters' vivacity, energy and management skill. No, I will not make up any more balderash just so that you may satisfy your cloak and dagger desires. Of course this was new to me, and makes me revise (paradigm shift) my previous estimate of women's available, more or less desirable, roles in early and  late christian societies: To Mother and Whore we must add Nun. Is this where all the pre-enlightenment female management consultants, accountants and government pukes went? Talents such as the ones suited to the modern mundane business world dealings were, for women, rather limited in those days. And it seems only here in this order they could apply those talents in the name of a good name. May I add that this Order has as its Motto - I guess one can't say this about a church - to surf (that is such a Freudian Slip) those that are the remotest. Those so far from all and sunder, from any benefit of society and thereby in direst need of social work. Yes, you need horses and mules to get to these jungle valleys next to the Chinese Border (Valley Girl: NO WAY!). Yes way. The sisters appear not only to be talented, smart and hard working women but also tough and hardnosed to boot. And for some reason they all seem frozen at age 35 or younger, I know its a miracle! and they laugh all the time at whatever us big lumbering white ghosts did most recently to insult all and sundry local sensibilities. They feed us lovely lunches and present us with raw eggs (if you ask why, I will not answer). They are nothing if not welcoming, and completely obstinate in their desire to achieve their goals.

Our route up country is subsequently cleared up. Most of the sisters are currently in Yangon, attending a conference of some sort. As a layman I reject demands of clearer definition of above, and we have the pleasure to visit with most of the ones responsible for one or another of Volker's projects. I am constantly reminded  how amazingly lucky I am to be able to witness and I look forward to seeing these projects and sisters in action.

January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

This dutiful post reaches you from the center of Lahaina. I am sitting in Stamatis Van, taking advantage of the largess of this Internet connection here under the largest Banyan Tree in the whole world, I am sure!

Here is a little something from the beach where we camp out with a pot of gold at the end of it - I don't know which end it would be though. I guess there are two pots.

Oh, I nearly forgot the duty part: Happy new year to you all my scrumptious pot of gold seeking leprechauns. Might as well be the best year you ever had. Why the heck not? That's what I wish for you.