May 10, 2004 Li Jiang, China
Our quest for solitude continues.
For several days we had been equally teased and appeased by the spectacular view of the glorious Jade Dragon Snow Mountain outside of our bedroom window in Li Jiang. For several days we had been making inquiries on how we might at least touch the hem of its skirt, perhaps hike at its base to breathe the air off of its cool blue glaciers. For several days we had been stonewalled (great looks of concern would shadow the face of our guide any time we would bring it up and he would mutter about the great dangers of walking in the forest). Abandoning these fruitless inquiries we tried a different tack. Perhaps we could go for a bicycle ride in the country, in the direction of the great mountain. I made my first attempt:
Me: “Can we rent bikes. We’d like to go for a bicycle ride.”
Guide: “You would like to rent bicycles?”
Me: “Yes, in the country, about 15 km.”
“You want to ride around town?”
“No, out of town, in the country.”
“You want to see village?”
“No, we don’t want to see anything, we just want to ride. Exercise. In the country.”
“Okay, okay. Mechanic come with you.”
“I don’t want a mechanic, I don’t want anyone, just show us where to go.”
The mechanic came with us. The idea that we would go off by ourselves, was, apparently, unthinkable. I do not know what happens to a CITS guide (government guide) if a tourist gets hurt or disappears. But our guide was not going to risk his job on some dumb Americans.
My suspicion was not allayed when I was introduced to the mechanic who was to follow us on our ride. Leather slip-on shoes, brown blazer and a bike built well before the Cultural Revolution, the mechanic who was to accompany us (Emily, Alex and me) seemed to be going on a trip different than what we were planning.
Nonetheless, he lead us quickly through the bustling streets of Li Jiang. The riders consisted of me, Alex and Emily. Lisa thought me riding with Jono on my back, helmetless, was not the best idea and Liz, the kids teacher, didn’t quite have the eye of the tiger that we did. She wanted to pedal around town, so she was left on her own.
Oh it felt good, zipping along the streets of Li Jiang, heading out towards the mountains. Soon we were on dirt roads, free from the cars, our only concern now the occasional ox. We came to a cross road and our besuited mechanic took the lead once again and led us into a village of cobblestone streets. We recognized this village. Or rather, “village”.
We had visited this place a couple of days before. It was one of those things on our itinerary that we had no idea why we were going, and having been there, had idea why we went.
As I’ve mentioned before, when traveling as a tourist, it is very rare to find anything that is truly authentic. Tourism is great money and the poorer the country, the more it will turn something of even the slightest interest to tourists into a small theatrical production with gift shop. China is no different except that it has the particular circumstance of being poor and at the same time able to do things on a grand scale. This village, I have already forgotten it’s name, was the ultimate monstrous child of this marriage of tourism and a centralized government with means.
A few years ago, UNESCO name Li Jiang, where we are staying, a World Heritage site. This is a designation that confers some amount of protection on a location that holds unique cultural value to the world community. This, in a single stroke will protect the site from destruction and development, and suffocate it with tourists at the same time. Anyways, the Chinese government, recognizing that Li Jiang’s new found respect and popularity had overwhelmed the town and driven out any semblance of daily life in this World Heritage site, leaving only T-shirt and knick-knack shops decided to do something.
Their answer was to select another town, 7 kilometers to the south, where real actual people lived (the traditional Naxi people), completely remodel every building in the village and put in T-shirt and knick-knack shops so that Li Jiang might be relieved a bit. This is the town we had visited a couple of days earlier and it was one of the more bizarre places we had ever visited. What had once been a living breathing village was being completely made-over. The cobblestone streets were being relaid (but smoother), the building were being rebuilt (but stronger) and the roofs were being retiled (but straighter). It was just that we had seen it half way done. And, I am not making this up, the rents for the newer, straighter, stronger buildings that had already been there and occupied were to go for US$100/sq. ft for a ground floor store front space. (Apparently the families that occupied the buildings before were going to be allowed to still live in them, above and behind the store front).
In the main square, a group of girls practiced a traditional dance to perform for tourists. The old men and old women (Naxi women have adopted the blue Mao cap as part of their traditional dress) sat around main square looking like they didn’t know what to do.
Back to our bike ride. Well this is where our bike guide/mechanic brought us. “Hey, I recognize this place” I say to Alex and Em, my heart sinking.
He was now walking his bike down the pho-cobblestone streets, and we in turn did the same. Finally we came to the same square, where the locals milled about. The mechanic parked his bike and waved his arms.
We remounted our bikes and stood there, looking confused. The mechanic waved his arms again. We stood there. I told Emily and Alex to not get off their bike. This could not be it, we had just started.
The mechanic went into a small building and then cames back out, and upon seeing us still standing there, straddling our bikes, he sensed our confusion. He came over, showed me his cell phone and pointed to the clock on it.
“Ah”, I think, “he wants to know how long we want to ride”. I show him my watch and move the time ahead another hour and half, to indicate we want to ride another hour and a half. He nods and walks away.
He thinks we want to tour the village for an hour and a half. To do what? I don’t need that many T-shirts. I motion him back, point at his phone, and make the international sign for “call our English speaking guide”. He understands and dials. Amazingly, he reaches the guide. They chatter a bit and the mechanic hands me the phone. I carefully control my boiling disgust and frustration, “Wu, I don’t think the mechanic understands what we want. We are in a village. We don’t want to be in a village, we want to ride for an hour and a half more without stopping for the exercise”
“Let me talk to him” Wu says.
The mechanic puts the phone up to his ear and listens, nodding. Finally, he hangs up, and to our delight, gets on his bike. We head out of town. On the edge of town, in front of a little store, he stops and dismounts. The mechanic takes off his blazer, rolls it up and puts it in his basket. Then he goes into the store, buys a bottle of water, comes back out and gets back on his bike.
“All right! This guy means business!” Finally, after several days of cajoling and pleading, suggesting and begging, we are successful. We follow the mechanic out of town, onto the empty country roads, to places that were not expecting to see visitors and weren’t prepared to sell us things.
An hour later we stop for a water break, and while the mechanic takes a long slow drag on his cigarette, we take unobstructed pictures of ourselves with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as a backdrop, with nothing but empty countryside between us and it. We relish our good fortune and wonder why we hadn’t done this sooner.
May 8, 2004 Li Jaing, China
“Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride thru the wide-open country that i love
Don't fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever, but i ask you please
Don't fence me in
Don't fence me in”
So here’s the problem with China. Host to some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth, China set our hearts soaring. Yangshou sits along the Li River among dramatic 1000 foot limestone karsts that rise individually, right out of the valley floor like a giant, vast pegboard. Kunming has the stone forest, a magical maze of rock formations where one can wander for many miles and never find one’s way out. And then there is Li Jiang, resting on a 7000 foot plateau at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, an 18,000 foot sentinel (a foothill really) just east of the remote vastness of Tibet. The problem? You’ll be lucky if you find the room to bend down and tie your shoelaces.
Traveling in large, jovial, umbrella-wielding, photo-taking, chain-smoking groups, the Chinese, recent arrivals to the world of the affluent and bent on discovering their own country during this first week in May (Labor Day week), jostle along choking streets and paths with their awesome numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a very good thing in many ways. People should see their own country. We have always been amazed at how few tourists we see visiting their own countries and sites. The pyramids? Not an Egyptian tourist. Angkor Wat? Forget about seeing a Cambodian visitor. Machu Pichu? The French outnumber the Peruvians 10 to 1. But in China, the Chinese dominate. And that is good. Unless you are an Anderson.
Both Lisa and I share a distinct anti-social strain than runs pretty close to the surface. We’re actually kind of proud of it. In the end, it is wide open spaces we love. Tall glacier-clad mountains. Unspoiled meadows. Cool damp woods. The sound of birds, moving water, wind. These are the things that put us most at rest. People, God love em, are fine, but in measured doses. Too many of them, bumping into us (a rather unfortunate mix of physiology and culture has rendered the shorter umbrella wielding Asian a significant optical hazard to Lisa, Emily and myself), altering our path, blocking our way, joking and yelling and taking pictures (often of us), make us want to run.
It’s not the locals who bother us. Well, actually there is the occasional local-turned-vendor like the group of ladies selling water and postcards who insisted on accompanying us up the entire 800 step Moon Hill outside of Yangshou. Even after I warned them, in perfect English, that they were going to be disappointed, they made the trek nonetheless. They walked up with and among us the entire way, occasionally fanning us, offering to take pictures of us, trying out their few English phrases they knew on us, offering cool drinks to us. They respectfully waited at a distance on the summit as we gazed at the serene rice-paddied valley below and the spectacular natural arch that spans the summit upon which we stood. Upon descent, these ladies began their remonstrations about our tight-fistedness. We were bringing bad luck upon them by not buying anything. Finally we bought one bottle of water, eliciting howls and pleadings from the four who were passed over. A pox on all of them. But aside from them, most locals are just trying to earn a living and we, like Neo and Trinity dodging bullets in The Matrix, move expressionless through them.
No, it’s not the locals but rather the tourists who cause us to despair. It was, for example, at the stone forest, a magical place of unique maze-like rock formations that we were completely overwhelmed with the mass of people squeezing their way through the narrow openings, voices ringing through the rocks. Our local guide, completely oblivious to our distress and not picking up on our signals of flight, did not understand when we did not follow her into the well marked path.
“Come this way, please.”
Lisa: “We’re not going that way”
Guide: “But this is where the best places are. This is where the famous people go when they come here.”
Me: “We’re not going that way.”
Lisa: “We need to find a different way, away from all the people.”
Guide: “I do not know the other ways so well.”
Lisa: “That’s okay, you do not need to lead us.”
And we were out of there, like a shot, pushing through the crowds, ignoring the arrows, and the suggestions by our guide that we listen to something interesting about a particular rock formation (the one from which a Chinese woman was hanging, having been hoisted up by three Chinese men, all of whom were now taking her picture).
We slipped around group after group, turning right when others turned left, running for daylight – until all was quiet around us. We reached a slight rise in the landscape, above the rock maze, and saw, off in the distance, a pagoda atop a stone pinnacle, bursting with people, all taking pictures, undoubtedly enjoying the mass group experience.
We continued on, away from the pagoda, away from the places where the famous people go, and into a landscape our guide did not know. We had, in the end, a very nice hike, through beautiful scenery, and saw, for the next half hour at least, very few people.
A few days later we visited Leaping Tiger Gorge (you got to love the names), a magnificent gorge through which flows the mighty Yangtze. At one point the gorge measures 12,000 ft. deep. We had come to traverse along the base of this gorge, to hear this dragon of a river pound its way through the narrow canyon walls, to marvel at the snow capped peaks that tower above and feed it. Unfortunately, others came to do the same.
The Chinese government, in all of its nuanced wisdom, figured out that many people enjoy visiting this location and, with the delicacy that only a government the size of China’s can display, blasted a completely level ten foot wide paved, fenced path along the cliff of the gorge complete with a ski resort sized bus park at one terminus. This allows the maximum number of high-heeled, umbrella-ed (to ward off the sun) tourists to pack the path. Our 3-4 mile out-and-back walk along this wonder of nature, was therefore spent zig-zigging among other walkers, dodging umbrellas, trying to stay out of other peoples pictures and ignoring pleas to pose in yet other people’s pictures. The end of the path, where the mighty river focuses it’s awesome speed and power and pummels large building-sized boulders was spent desperately searching for a place to stand, and ultimately to turn around in order to exit. Meanwhile people chatted on their cell phones, and, in a custom particular to the Chinese, tested out the echo by yelling in booming voices at irregular intervals. Not sure if it was the river or the din of the crowd ringing in our ears, we made our way back to our bus, making our way through a sea of revellers, having the time of their lives.
The gorge, while beautiful and worthy of the praise showered on it, did not end our quest for peace and solitude. We know it is here, somewhere in this country of 1.3 billion people. Perhaps among the vast emptiness of the Tibetan plateau or out in the savage desolation of the Taklamakan Desert or deep in the endless tributaries of the great Yangtze. Places we may not get to on this trip. But they are there, we know it, and just knowing that, makes us want to see more.
April 22, 2004 Hong Kong
You would never know it by looking at our web site but we were in Thailand for almost a month. Basically we just checked out. The kids were on break from school for two weeks, we were fortunate enough to have friends visit us there, and after the rigors of Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, Thailand awaited us like a safe harbor in a turgid sea.
Thailand does have its delights, and sharing them with friends from home was especially nice for our family. Some day I’ll get caught up on the details but suffice it to say that Thailand delivers Southeast Asia in a friendly, attractive, easy to open package. It is softer, more accessible, and more amenable to American families than any of the other aforementioned SE Asian countries we visited. But it does not lead to putting time into journal entries or uploading pictures. So sorry.
But now that we are in Hong Kong, let me say this. We are so done with thatched-roofed huts with chickens, naked children and a water buffalo in back yard. From now on, it is skyscrapers, cell phones and Mercedes, baby.
They say that Hong Kong has more millionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world. I would not be a good judge of that. I can say, though, that it has more millionaires and billionaires than all of the other cities that we have visited this year, combined. Not a chicken or water buffalo in sight. What I can see, from the 21st floor of this hotel room (when I am not gazing, like a cat staring at a fan, at my broadband internet connection) are walls of steel and glass, and down below, construction crews busy constructing more walls of steel and glass.
Our hotel sits atop a three storied shopping mall. Tommy, Ralph, Giorgio are our neighbors. And let’s just say that we paid them a little visit last night. A bit like a patient with no immune system walking into a TB ward, we had no chance. But we had to. When we, with shorts, T-shirts, henna tattoos and hair matted with salt and sand, stepped off the airport shuttle and into the lobby of this gleaming hotel, we knew it was time to spruce up a bit. Like unwashed vagrants we tried not to bump into any nice clean blue-suited businessmen (so that’s where all the ties in the world went) or touch too many of the fixtures. Our sense of being out of place was not alleviated when we found out that the hotel did not have any reservation under our name (first time that has happened this year). Anyway, we worked it out, and soon, we were shooting skyward to our room. Looks like we are going to stay a week, so no point in frightening the other guests in the hotel, hence the minor shopping spree.
We are enjoying the new vibe – and the coffee. The SDI (Starbucks Density Index – number of Starbucks within a five minute walk minus a half point for every street you have to cross to get there) at our hotel is 4! I swear I recognized people from my Starbucks at home in the Starbucks we patronize here (or is it the starched shirts, cell phone ear plugs, and business plans tucked under their arm that make them look the same?). I watch proudly as Emily and Alex (they grow up so fast) clutch their double talls (hot chocolate). Like the long-neck women of Burma who gradually lengthen their necks by placing ring upon ring around their neck over time, their little hands are slowly adapting to the circumference a Starbucks Double Tall cup. My goodness, they’ll be grasping Ventis before we know it! I was flush with pride this morning as I watched Emily balance two double talls in one hand so she could press the elevator button to go up to our room. My little girl is growing up.
So anyways, we’re spiffed up, sipping our lattes and riding the subway. One other observation I have made now that we are urban dwellers is that our two older boys (11 and 8) are walking nightmares. Literally. Give them a wide Australian beach, an open African plain, or even a muddy Andean slope they are fine. But put them on a sidewalk in a city and watch the bodies fly. It is, I think, the linear aspect of walking on sidewalks that eludes them. The desire to talk to each other or one of us, coupled with the magnetic pull of certain store windows mixed with an occasionally instinctive twitch away from the curb creates sort of a weaving, twirling motion that defies and befuddles most oncoming pedestrian traffic. I, in turn, vacillate between being the family coxswain, barking out left/right/stop/go orders and assuming the posture of an amused observer watching the eyes of oncoming walkers trying to detect a pattern in our movement towards them.
Subways and escalators (the longest escalator in the world is here and it goes on for a good seven or eight blocks) present other issues. Forget about standing to the right on the escalator, how about ‘don’t come to a complete stop right when you get the end and thereby cause a massive body pile-up’. And no need to demonstrate how you can go up faster than the escalator goes down. Finally, while I agree that hanging from the hand-holds in the subway does create a cool whipping motion when the subway barrels into its turns, the other passengers just are not accustomed to timing their movements and posture to avoid the boys’ scissoring legs.
So, as with everything, living in the big city is a new and exciting adventure for us. Well, people here are getting restless so I think we’ll get dressed up, grab a double tall skinny and go take out a few unsuspecting pedestrians.
April 18, 2004 Somewhere over the Gulf of Tonkin
It is part of the human condition to look for happiness in all the wrong places. We all do this, myself included, and spend our lives chasing happiness in places that ultimately leave us feeling empty. Part of the purpose of this trip has been to remove ourselves from the clutter of our lives so they we can gain clarity, to better see those things that are more meaningful and lasting.
I had had an initial taste of true happiness in the Amazon, much earlier in our trip through the good graces of my friend Jay, who to be quite frank, is way ahead of me in the happiness department. But it was not until now, 30,00 feet above the Gulf of Tonkin, with a snoring XL Pakistani businessman behind me, a distracted Hong Kong businessman in front of me and my family vaguely on the periphery of my consciousness (somewhere on the plane to my left I think) that I discovered true, lasting happiness. A smile spread over my face that I could not put away and a warm sense of well-being flooded to the very ends of my fingertips as I finally touched the source of true, lasting happiness.
As if holding a delicate butterfly, I looked lovingly down at my daughter’s iPod which she had so generously lent to me for this life-changing flight. It was so beautiful. Perfect snowy white, backed by a gleaming, clean silver casing. Elegance incarnate. Perfection in simplicity. This joy, I am sure, will last a lifetime.
I stroked the clean white surface of the iPod, scrolled through the artists, and leaned back into my seat:
"I see trees of green........ red roses too
I see 'em bloom..... for me and for you
And i think to myself.... what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue..... clouds of white
Bright blessed days....dark sacred nights
And i think to myself .....what a wonderful world.
Aaaahhhh, man, Louis Armstrong has never sounded so good. I can even hear him take breaths.
The colors of a rainbow.....so pretty ..in the sky
Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin'.. how do you do
They're really sayin'......i love you.
I hear babies cry...... i watch them grow
They'll learn much more.....than i'll never know
And i think to myself .....what a wonderful world
“Care for a beverage, sir?”
Big smile, “Huh?”
“Would you care for a beverage? Pepsi? Sprite?”
Me, big smile, unable to contain myself, “Oh, no, but… Thank you. Thank you that is very kind.” To myself: “What a nice person. In fact, all the people on this plane are nice people. Even that snoring Pakistani businessman behind me is a nice person. I feel so happy”.
"The colors of a rainbow.....so pretty ..in the sky
Are there on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin'.. how do you do
They're really sayin'...i ....love....you.
They say that the iPod has scored the highest readings ever for a consumer product on MRIs taken on the human brain. I believe it. My euphoria leads me to consider that perhaps my fellow airplane mates might like to sing along with me...
I hear babies cry...... i watch them grow
you know their gonna learn
A whole lot more than i'll never know
And i think to myself .....what a wonderful world
Yes i think to myself .......what a wonderful world.
What we need. What we all need – you, me, the flight attendant, the throng in Delhi, the Muslims in Istanbul, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the 8 million inhabitants of Lima, the people attending their rice paddies in Vietnam, all of us – what we all need is 4.1 by 2.4 by .62 inches of pure white happiness (carrying case not included). For only then will today’s broken spirits be mended. Only then will smiles permanently grace the human face. Only then will we see the end of Man’s folly, and witness the end of history. Only then we will be happy. Only then will we have a wonderful world.
We hope of course that in traveling the world our family will get a sense of everything it has. Maybe a sense of gratitude, so crucial in life, will take root. Perhaps this will happen, but I know that some of us are also developing lists of things we want when we get back. Some of our children (I will not mention names) have very detailed lists of stuff they want, lists of accessories for that stuff, cars they want their parents to buy, movies they need to see, clothes that must be updated. Our arrival date in the U.S. is anticipated like a mid-summer Christmas.
Me? I am a simple man. I do not need to complicate life, filling my days up with the endless pursuit of more and more and more. No. Everything I need is right here, with me right now. So perfect. So beautiful. So white and shiny. Everything I need, I hold right now in the palm of my hand, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Joy, luck, happiness and, of course, 40 gigabyte iPods to you all, from a most happy man in Hong Kong.
23 March 2004 Bagan, Myanmar
The heat here, like the government, oppresses. A gray haze hangs over us constantly, blocking out the sun. There is, in spite of the hot breeze that occasionally blows, no air.
It is not that I have hit the wall. It’s just that I’ve hit a lull. We are burnt out on ancient pagodas, dutifully tromping through what to us looks like cookie cutter Buddhist temples. Here is the meditating Buddha, here is the teaching Buddha, here is the pre-enlightenment Buddha. Once you get the hand signals down, the buddhas all start to look the same. We now clock through these pagodas at a fairly rapid clip. Sandals off, avoid eye contact with the vendors lining the entrance, march in, circle clockwise, careful not to trip over people prostrate before one of the buddhas, march out.
Here in Bagan, the historical and archeological heart of Myanmar there are 2,230 pagodas. We saw six, leaving 2,224 yet to be discovered, but probably 5 more than we needed to see.
Anyways, did I mention it was hot here? No air, no blue sky, stifling.
I have a long, incredibly insightful, moving, heartwarming and instructive missive on religion that I am busy writing in my head for the benefit of all of you at home. Your lives will never be the same. But until that time when it is finally complete, let me say a few inappropriate and uninformed things about the form of Buddhism that we see here in Myanmar.
I’m a bit disappointed in what I see. Here in Myanmar, as in much of southern Southeast Asia, the branch of Buddhism that is practiced is Theravada Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism (oh how my head is swollen with all the knowledge I have acquired) is sort of the ultimate self-help, do-it-yourself religion. It’s kind of all-American actually. Basically, enlightenment and nirvana are achieved on your own. There is none of this by-grace welfare-state helping-out-from-above stuff. It is spiritual boot-strapping at its best. Well at least that’s what our books say. But not so, here in Myanmar.
As we have seen over and over, religions are always influenced by local cultures. Always. No religion, no matter how ardent its followers, escapes the great shaping hand of culture. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – we have seen amazing morphing of these religions to local cultures on our trip.
So not really taking this into account, I was interested in seeing Theravada Buddhism in practice. I expected it to be serene and stripped of all artifice. As clean as a monk’s head. In a word, meditative. Wrong.
Here in Myanmar we find Coney Island Buddhism. Pagodas, (not the cookie cutter archeological pagodas, but the ones still in use) are garishly decorated with colorful statutes, lots of gold leaf, neon halos. One style of interior decorating uses mirror mosaic, giving a fun-house sort of look. Colorful paper-mache images twirl around, like at a carnival booth so that you can throw money in to get your wish. The colors are bright and the images cartoonish. It is cluttered, tacky (hey Martha, here’s a country that needs you) and over-the-top.
People bow and prostrate themselves in front of statues, requesting wishes to be granted. Others light candles in front of statues representing one of seven animals. (Depending on the day of the week you were born. I am a Tiger, Jono is a Guinea Pig, which he has been a good sport about). Others pour water over the head of stone Buddhas. One pagoda even had this sort of free agent god that had it’s own statue. This was not a left over Hindu god, or a disciple of Buddha. It was a god just for this temple, its protector. He looked a bit like Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai” crossing the Delaware.
We also visited a monastery where the monks have trained their cats to jump through hoops. The Monastery is called “Jumping Cat Monastery”, and indeed the cats do jump through hoops. Between acts groups of local pilgrims would shuffle up and kneel in front of the head monk who, lying on his back fingering what I would call a rosary, would dispense semi-audible teachings. And now, time for more cats!
This of course is all fabulously interesting and disorienting. But I also have to say, I was unmoved. And it certainly does not match up with the textbooks. But this busy, cluttered, sensory laden, mix of Buddhism, animism and astrology is a part of Myanmar as much as it is a part of Buddhism.
This is why we bother to travel, to suffer the heat, to trod under gray stifling skies, and come to this forgotten and ignored land. Not to find what we can read in textbooks but to find what we didn’t know existed.
19 March, 2004 Inle Lake, Myanmar
I’d like to say something about feet. I notice feet. Not that I have a fetish or anything like that, but I notice them. Which is odd, or maybe it is because, I have two of the ugliest feet ever granted to Man. Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather have them than not. I appreciate very much what they do for me and my life would be immeasurably different without them. But they are ugly.
A nice foot is a thing of beauty. Sprung like a trigger with a graceful, curving arch, a foot at rest is like an Olympic diver frozen in mid-air. Toes slender and unbunched, arching slightly up, then down, each commanding its own space and respect. The skin of a beautiful foot reflects the soil beneath it - part earth and part flesh, mixing like fresh and salt water at the mouth of a river.
My feet are nothing like that. My feet are pink and sweaty, they emerge from my shoe like some hairless albino bear emerging from hibernation. The toes bunch together like commuters going through a turnstile. Flat and boxy, my feet have all the grace of an airplane hangar.
But not Burmese feet. Burmese feet are perfect. All Burmese have beautiful, elegant perfect feet.
You might wonder how I know this.
I know this because this is the nation that wears flip-flops. Not just some of the people, or certain types of people, or certain age people. All people. Businessmen wear flip-flops, road crews wear flip-flops (I saw guys breaking rocks with sledge hammers wearing flip-flops as well as workers spreading asphalt in them), hotel employees wear flip-flops, street vendors, Buddhist monks, boat drivers, kids, yuppies, mothers. THE IMMIGRATION CONTROL GUY WEARS FLIP-FLOPS! Everyone wears flip-flops. Which lends one ample opportunity to check out people’s feet. Verdict: They’re all very attractive feet.
How does this happen? Somewhere, long ago, all the Burmese with ugly feet were slaughtered in a mass extinction that while horrific in its day, and undoubtedly leading to untold heartache and pain, has led us today to witness a podiatric master race. Or maybe, maybe it happened differently than that. Maybe some heretofore undiscovered element leaks out of the ground, like some sort of beneficial radon, slowly, but assuredly molding and mending the Burmese foot so that with time, 50 million inhabitants (though I admit to not seeing all of them) walk around on Rembrandts.
I don’t know how this happened, but I know it did. My job is just to tell you what I see. If what I see retains a bit of mystery and art, then so be it.
How I hope Nike never discovers this nation.
Other fashion notes:
We were immediately struck and charmed by the use of the Longyi (Lone-gee) here. Most men, whether rural or urban, still use this full length skirt tied in a knot in the front as their primary means of dress. The lobby of our hotel was full of businessmen in their Longyis, flip-flops and crisp white Oxford button-down shirts.
Women also wear Longyis, though tied on the side. In addition, many spread a thin yellow mud on their high cheek bones to enhance their beauty and protect their skin from the sun.
These customs, found throughout the country are one of the reasons the people (and their feet!) of Myanmar are the main attraction here (as opposed to the bazillion pagoda/temples you will be shown). As opposed to say Vietnam or Cambodia, the high number of distinct ethnic groups in Myanmar add color and life to the country. Apparently there are eight official different groups but ethnologists estimate that these eight groups branch out into upwards of over 100. This mix of different groups with different languages, clothing styles and traditions reminds us much of Guatemala. I had a mild flashback the other day as we were hiking in the hills, Jono on my back and a group of older women, heavy loads on their backs, traditional dress and head pieces cooing and poking at Jono and the backpack. Emily’s first year of life was spent much like this in Guatemala, a blue-eyed sensation on my back, attracting a crowd and stares wherever we went.
March 10, 2004 Yangon, Myanmar
Lets be clear about this. Myanmar was not our first choice. Originally we wanted to go to Laos. But as time wore on, Laos began to look more and more unpredictable. Random bombs going off in random markets. Not really what we were looking for. Which is too bad because we had heard wonderful things about the country. It’s hard to judge sometimes but you have to trust your gut, rely on your sources and be willing to stay flexible.
Which we did. Myanmar, or The Country Formally Known As Burma, was right next door and could be plugged in fairly easily without a huge change in itinerary or clothing. (Those of you that know us will not be surprised to learn that Lisa and I had very expansive brainstorming sessions regarding places we could go instead of Laos. Bhutan, the mountain kingdom next to Nepal, was my personal favorite but the climatic difference and the schizophrenic flight connections brought us back to favoring the practical). Plus, Myanmar has a nice repressive regime that, while not so great for the inhabitants, does eliminate, for the traveler at least, the concern regarding random violence.
So we booked Myanmar with little idea of what to expect. Is there a country of 50 million that is less known to the world, or at least America, than Myanmar? Sandwiched between India on the west and China and Thailand on the east, Myanmar seems to be perpetually overlooked, sitting in the shadows of its more colorful neighbors. The only visibility that the country has had in recent memory was in 1991 when the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Nobel Peace prize to Myanmar’s most notable pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi (or as I filed it in my memory, the good-looking lady with the long name I can never remember who is under house arrest. Filed under: women - good-looking - names I can’t remember - Nobel Prize - house arrest).
So we arrived, and I was instantly irritated. I mean get real. Contrary to absolutely everywhere else in the world, cell phones are not widely in use. Essentially they are illegal. The only cell phones allowed must be purchased from the government and prices (in spite of the $500 list price) range from $3500 to $4000 to buy one (average salary for a government employee, by comparison, is $25-$30 per month). The satellite phone I carry at the bottom of my backpack? Illegal, but fortunately undetected.
But that’s okay because e-mail has been our main form of communication and has been available almost everywhere we go. And in fact internet access was provided, free of charge by our hotel. Great, just log onto good old Hotmail and we are in business. Access denied. That’s okay, I’ll go through the back door, through MSN. Access Denied. Interesting challenge. I know, I’ll plug in my laptop and download through Outlook. Access Denied. Yahoo. Denied. All the major email servers had access denied. All internet traffic in fact, runs through the Myanmar government server before leaving the country. Emily tried to do some research for a school report on the Seattle Times web site. Access Denied. (Interestingly enough, the PI, the competing Seattle daily, was not denied access leading me to ponder the two papers’ political leanings that could have provoked this difference in treatment from the Myanmar government.) New York Times okay, Wall Street Journal, bad. Luckily at work we use an obscure email server so I was able to forward all our messages to that server and use that for a while. After a couple of days – access denied.
I met a guy in the Business Center in the hotel who sets up orphanages in Myanmar and the Ukraine. He had some convoluted way to get his email but told me that I might have trouble uploading this journal entry to our web site (for those geeks in the audience, all FTP uploads are restricted. Scary stuff). When we started talking more broadly and I mentioned I had a satellite phone he just smiled and suggested I keep that to myself.
One other irritation. No credit card transactions. Anywhere. In the country. What sort of parallel universe had we stepped into? What century is this government living in? I sought answers. And then I came across The New Light of Myanmar, a newspaper prominently displayed and provided at our hotel and on the street. The newspaper is published in English so I am not sure who the intended audience is, but the following are various excerpts taken from bolded insets sprinkled throughout the paper:
• Oppose those relying on external elements acting as stooges, holding negative views
• Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
• Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
• Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy (My note: Like Yahoo?)
The unipolar world dominated by a super power nation is leading the world to economic chaos, political anarchy, uncertainty and fear. The people of the world are not going to recover, and have peace for as long as threats are used for political and economic reforms that most of the world is not ready for and not willing to accept.
Tatmadaw (national military) hand in hand with the people waged the anti-colonialist struggle, the anti-fascist struggle and the national freedom struggle and established itself as a strong national Tatmadaw, Union Tatmadaw and Myanma Tatmadaw to become a national force. The Tatmadaw is not an organization which is subject to and is used by a certain organization influenced by a certain person. Nor is it a mercenary army. As the unity between the Tatmadaw and the people always flourishes, it is firmly believed that the Tatmadaw will shoulder the national responsibilities at the cost of their lives, blood and sweat always standing by the people.
Well I suppose that explains it then.
In interest of fair play, I must say that one explanation of the no credit card situation may be because of our nation’s economic embargo on Myanmar. This is also the reason why we cannot ship anything home from here via DHL or any postal service.
I get the sense that the Myanmar people are a little tired of hearing about it though. They lived from 1962 to 1988 under a government that almost completely isolated them from the world. While they are a bit less isolated now, the economic embargos don’t help any. There is nothing the average person here can do about it particularly. They know there is a world out there that they cannot fully participate in. They don’t need to hear from us tourists about how incensed and violated we feel that our emails or credit cards not going through.
With time this regime, like all control-obsessed governments (people, families, companies, religions?), will lose its grip. Whether it fades away quietly or implodes in dramatic fashion, I have no idea. I just wish I knew what we could do to help it along its way.
POSTSCRITP: I’ve gotten over my initial irritation. In fact, maybe the government is doing me a favor. I am now deep into a book. The family is talking about playing Uno tonight. No credit card, no phone service, no email – keeps a guy out of trouble. Maybe they have crushed all my internal and external destructive elements.
March 8, 2004 Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cambodia is a country that truly breaks the heart. We have seen so much on this trip, heard so much history, and repeatedly learned of mankind’s unique ability to lurch between terror and beauty, inspired creation and depraved destruction. You think you are inured to it. And then you come upon a place like this country where the beauty that man creates is so grand, and the terror he is capable of so fresh.
In my travels I try to keep myself exactly between naivete and cynicism. Both are delusional and not helpful in seeing anything particularly clearly. But where else, I ask, in the case of Cambodia, is there to hide. Naivete or cynicism. What other option is there in this country?
Thirty years ago Cambodia endured one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. By the time the killing fields of Cambodia became known to the wider world, it was already too late. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, had orchestrated the execution and murder of upwards of 3 million of his own countrymen. You will not find a Cambodian alive today who has not lost some family member, endured unbearable hardship or had his family torn apart by this blackest of revolutions.
We have had two guides here in Cambodia. One had his entire family moved to the country, forcibly separated and then had his father murdered. The other, at the age of five was separated from his family, and put to work in a fertilizer factory with other 5 year olds. His only comment was, “It was much worse than what was shown in the movie ‘The Killing Fields’.”
In an effort to at least acknowledge this incomprehensible human tragedy, we, and again we left the under-10 crowd at home, visited S-21, the converted school where the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed people in its campaign of purification. At this prison alone, 16,000 people were tortured and then executed. S-21 is now a museum, and from the outside, a fairly plain, utilitarian four story complex of four rectangular buildings. Inside, the classrooms converted into cell blocks were equally non-descript. Then you come to a rather simple, straightforward exhibit of photographs. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in its record keeping. Subsequently, they photographed every single person who entered the prison. Every photograph was taken from exactly the same position, and every person photographed had on the same plain clothing and cap. As a result, what leaps from the exhibit are the faces.
But these were not faces that you might expect, drawn and tired and resigned. These were faces of children, no older than the two who stood next to me transfixed. These were children who had been grabbed out of villages, conscripted in the Khmer Rouge army, and were now deemed traitors. Some of these faces, not understanding the fate that awaited them, smiled back at the camera.
The message was simple, direct and powerful, the questions from Emily and Alex difficult to answer. At times, I could tell that it was truly difficult for them to comprehend what was really being said. At one point we learned that the interrogators themselves were executed because they had heard too much. “But that’s not fair” was the response of one of the kids. The reasons for someone being singled out, tortured and killed made no sense to them. Of course it makes no sense to any of us, and yet it happened. Was I to explain this adult world to them right here at S-21?
Somehow, Cambodia survived this catastrophe of catastrophes. It then survived 10 years of Vietnamese rule punctuated by politically-induced famine. And now, it survives crushing corruption and large scale indifference from the world. Nothing in particular seems to be happening here. Little development and little progress. The only activity of betterment that we have witnessed is the work of the Halo Trust, whose task it is to find and dismantle the remaining 6-7 million land mines scattered throughout the countryside. How does one not lose hope? How does one not become cynical, or, not feeling comfortable with that, naively say everything is going to work out.
If you come here and you meet this kind and shy people and see their beautiful ancient temples and maybe do the-line dance by the river, I tell you, it will break your heart.
March 5, 2004 Phnom Penh, Cambodia
We came to Cambodia almost exclusively to see Angkor Wat – perhaps the greatest ancient monument in the world. This vast (70 square miles) collection of temples and cities built over the course of 500 years, beginning more than 1000 years ago, was built by the great Khmer civilization, whose heyday was between 900 AD and 1400 AD but whose people still occupy present day Cambodia.
But first we wanted to pass through Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to see at least some aspect of the country other than Angkor Wat. From the bright lights, big city of Saigon we decompressed to the relaxed scaled down city of Phnom Penh. Think Savannah, Georgia goes Buddhist. Touch of French Quarter, wide tree lined avenues, bicycle taxis, purple-blossomed jacaranda, and outrageous curly-cued gilt-roofed palaces and pagodas.
Our first morning in Phnom Penh we were told to get up early to see the city in its morning rituals before work. Unfortunately work here starts at 7:00 am, so this meant hitting the streets by 6:00, which we did by bicycle taxi. The cyclos, as they are called, took us past the awakening marketplace, and then past the Royal Palace (my favorite monarchial abode to date – more colorful and soul-inspiring than the Maharaja palaces, more tasteful and airy than Buckingham Palace, I put this Royal Palace up against any in the world) and then along the long promenade that runs along the Tonle Sap River. Here on the promenade we began to see one of the more unusual civic customs that I have ever witnessed.
Apparently some time ago a fitness craze gripped the people of Phnom Penh at about the same time, in typical fashion, the government sold the National Stadium to a private investor who closed it to the public. The public therefore essentially spilled out onto the streets, and particularly this promenade, to perform its morning exercise rituals. Pick-up soccer games abound, sinewy old men jog, middle-aged housewives do sit-ups, others do twisting, jerking knee lifts and, most bizarre and entertaining of all, groups of 20-30 people, young and old, step and turn and sway in what looks like aerobic line dancing meets Tai Chi. With small boom boxes blaring and no discernible leader, these groups, spaced along the promenade, sandwiched between the river and the morning traffic, go about their routine – Step Two Three Four and Turn Two Three Four, and Back Two Three Four, arms up now Two Three Four and Down Two Three Four. It was like some sick love-child of Julie from the Love Boat and Richard Simmons had possessed a city.
Mixed among the sit-ups and knee jerks and line dancing was, just to add flavor, a Buddhist pagoda thronged with people lighting incense, pouring water over their head, buying swallows from vendors and setting them free (good deed for the day) and shaving their hair off as a sign of thanks to Buddha for a prayer answered. You know, the usual stuff.
By 6:30 the burst of activity was starting to taper off as people wandered off to get ready for work. The boom boxes were quiet, the visored middle aged women were in their cool down mode, the soccer games had devolved into horse play among the jobless and a few lone joggers, black socks and all, scurried in the direction of home.
Starbucks will never look the same.
March 1, 2004 Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We entered Ho Chi Minh City like starry-eyed country bumpkins, noses pressed against the windows of the bus, oohing and ahhing at all the bright lights, the fancy stores and the shiny cars. If Hanoi has a spring in its step, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) uses a pogo stick. Where Hanoi was provincial and French-colonial, HCM City is cosmopolitan and American neon. Dazzled by the lights and Vegas-like energy, we stumbled into the lobby of the brand-spanking new Sheraton feeling a bit out of place.
My previous entry regarding the Vietnam War aside, the main attractions for us here were the memories of a war Lisa and I are too young to really remember. Nonetheless, Saigon and the Mekong Delta are words that still resonate with us.
Of course the entire experience of visiting Vietnam War sites is a bit odd since the enemy referred to is always us (indeed, they call it the American War here). In fact, the only item of note at the now totally rebuilt American Embassy where that final, famous helicopter lifted off with people clamouring to get on, is a memorial to two Viet Cong who were killed trying to attack the Embassy.
Great relish is also taken in recounting how the American forces, heavily armed (constant reference is made to American B-52 bombers) and with superior firepower were no match for the brave and cunning Viet Cong fighter.
We visited Cu Chi, a vast system of underground tunnels about 1 ½ hours north of Saigon where the Viet Cong holed up for many years, suffering near constant attack from the US until the time was ripe to sweep into Saigon. The first part of our tour was narrated by a man who grew up in a village near this system of tunnels and who ultimately ended up fighting against the Americans in them. He delighted in describing how the tunnels were too small for “tall and fat American soldiers”. We climbed on a bombed out US tank, still in its finally resting place in the woods above the tunnels. We saw the clever (and horrific) Viet Cong-devised booby traps. Oddly enough there was even a firing range where you could fire many of the weapons the Americans used. We declined but the sounds of automatic gunfire (fired by tall and fat American tourists) as we walked through the forest, inspecting booby traps and tunnel entrances was chilling.
Back in Saigon, the War Remembrance Museum features many of the American war correspondent photographs taken over the years of the war. This actually was a very powerful experience and one that communicated to Emily and Alex (we left the under-10 years olds at home for this one) much of the true horrors of war that are lost in the dry descriptions. Our conversations were rapid fire as the images before us prompted questions on things like: the Cold War, communism, Agent Orange, anti-war protests, the domino effect, and on and on. And to be honest, from an educational point of view, for the kids, it was quite interesting to view all of this from the others side’s perspective.
So as I said, Vietnam has moved on from the war but this does not keep it from proudly touting its victory over a large foreign imperialist invader and charging you for the experience. And by all appearances Americans come in droves and lap it up.
One final note. Vietnam is still, as I mentioned, a communist country. It, like China, has greatly liberalized its economy and is, as a result, prospering. But we were under no pretense that what we were seeing and hearing wasn’t carefully scripted. The tour company that we use in various countries has to contract out its tours in Vietnam to the government run tour company. Our guide was a wonderfully gentle, attentive, and knowledgeable companion on the trip. But try as we might, we could get no dirt from him. Every guide, we have found, is proud of his or her country and always wants to show things in the best light. In fact tourism is a little bit like the Truman Show, that movie with Jim Carrey where he lives his life in a show but doesn’t know it. The idea is to control everything, and orchestrate what you see and don’t see. But in Vietnam, it just seemed to go one step beyond that. The streets were a little too clean. There was something a little too closed-ended about the positive descriptions of how things are going in the country. A little too pat about how the Vietnamese supposedly feel about Ho Chi Minh, the war against the Americans, the unification of the North and South. We got the Party Line and we know it.
But, we kept our noses pressed against the glass and watch. What we saw at times delighted us, at other times sobered us, sometimes made us proud, at other times humbled us. In the end though, we were hopeful and ever grateful for our place and time in history and for the ability to visit this country in peace and leave as friends.
February 26, 2004 Hanoi, Vietnam
Life is strange. Not my life of course. My life is not that strange. I mean Life. The World. Events in general. I took off today on a Russian-made MI-8 helicopter, an American tourist and his family in Hanoi on a sightseeing visit. We flew over the familiar rice paddies and flooded fields of this country on our way to Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin. Having taken in the sights and lunched, we returned to the same MI-8 with the crew courteously waiting for us at the helipad next to the military compound. Setting down back in Hanoi, we rested, checked e-mails, and then headed out to dinner. We walked the streets, pushing past people busy shopping, eating out, talking on their cell phones, coming home from work.
At dinner I had the best steak burrito (alas, there is not a chicken to be found here) that I have had in 20 years (oh how I miss El Super Burrito). Tonight’s burrito was, for me, a gift from heaven, a sign, and a near perfect rendition of the three pound brick that has been missing from my life ever since I moved to Seattle. (I will look the other way with respect to the mushrooms placed in my burrito tonight and chalk it up to a cultural misunderstanding.) The size and shape, the way the burrito sort of sagged, unable to support its own weight, the guac, the sour cream, and the salsa, the refried beans, the cut of the carne asado. I ate in reverence and awe.
In the background, Jim Morrison, ironically, sang.
Just two blocks away, past the electronic stores selling digital cameras, cell phones and flat screen TVs sat Hoa Lo prison, or, the “Hanoi Hilton” as it has come to be known. This is the place where John McCain spent 6 years as a POW and where many of his fellow servicemen either 1) spent a lot of time playing volleyball and cooking big chicken dinners (version according to the museum that is located in the now shuttered prison) or 2) being tortured (version according to American servicemen).
The day before we had toured Hanoi and filed quietly by the embalmed body of Ho Chi Mihn, heard of the reverence in which he is supposedly held by the people here, seen the lake where McCain was shot down (you can rent a flamingo paddle boat there), even driven by what has got to be one of the last remaining statues of Lenin anywhere in the world.
Anyways, my point is actually, despite these tourist stops, Vietnam has moved on from the war. They have to. The place vibrates with energy, pulses with hope, is on the upswing (though frankly this may have more to do with our itinerary than Vietnam itself). Meanwhile, the Vietnam War remains stuck in our American craw. It lives on in our national psyche, emerges in our elections, gnaws at us with blame and uncertainty and guilt. It still divides us. It is an animal that Vietnam, on the other hand, has not the luxury of feeding.
Please, I mean no disrespect by this. For goodness sake in 1974 I was more concerned with making gross noises with my armpit than I was with the Vietnam War, so what do I know. 50,000 Americans lost their lives. The Vietnamese lost many times that as well. Tens of thousands more on both sides had their lives irreversibly altered. Many Americans fought very hard, gave all they had, for something they really believed in. And we were shown the door.
And yet, some how, in spite of the outcome, isn’t this what we where fighting for? Hasn’t something slowly taken root? Not on our timetable maybe, but taken root nonetheless. Look, I’ve been in one city for three days – I am patently unqualified to make any great pronouncements on the state of this country. Yes, Vietnam is still One Party rule. Yes, a hammer and cycle still fly above HCM’s tomb. But trust me, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d been to plenty of communist countries. None of them had the life we see in the streets here. None had the spring in the step of the people here. And most definitely, not a one could make a decent burrito. You can’t fake that.
Times change. Life is strange. Vietnam is going to be okay.
February 27, 2004 Varanasi, India
Our last day in India was one our family will never forget. We visited Varanasi, the holiest city in all of India. It is the India we have in our minds when we think of the country - crowded narrow alleys, beggars, hawkers, holy men sitting crossed legged, ancient exotic religion, animals, people and gods comingling in a rich saffron-scented air - life as we rarely see it in the West. Varanasi is the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. To the millions of footsteps planted down its narrow alleys and ghats along the river, we added a few of our own.
What better way to convey this powerful experience than to leave it in the hands of the direct, clear-eyed mind of a child. I leave it to Emily to pick it up from here:
"We awoke early that morning even before the sun. We fumbled sleepily into our bus. Some shops along the road opened for an early start. Our bus swayed as it swerved around stray dogs and cows sleeping in the road. A camel pulling a cart of wood passed us. Horns from every car honked as if honking would make the crowded streets of Varanasi empty. People flowed into the streets shouting out products they were hoping to sell. We drove until our big tourist bus would go no further. Dim light make it possible to walk through narrow alleys. Walking in alleys in India is an experience of it's own. People bump and crowd you while others beg and try to sell you cheap products. Cows with lame expressions on their faces eat away at garbage. Motorcycles honk, people shout, dogs whimper, and I am hopping over cow dung.
Finally we come to the famous steps that lead to the Ganges River. The Ganges River and the city of Varanasi is a sacred place for Hindus. They believe that if you bathe in the river your sins wash away. Hindus also believe that after you die, your ashes or body should be put into the river so that you can float away and be with god. We climbed into a row boat and started down the river. We watched as the sacred city of Varanasi came to life. Some people jumped in the river to bathe while others prayed and gave offerings to Lord Shiva. Some were doing their laundry. Then we came to a family cremating a body. We really could see feet (covered by a sheet) and a head. I was shocked at the sight of seeing a body burn! It is a vision that will never leave.
When we reached land we again headed through the alleys, and back to the safety of our bus. This was the last day we spent in India.
We flew to Vietnam where I am now. One of the first things I said was "Where's all the people?" Spaces of spare land could be seen! Vietnam is so different from India. I haven't seen a cow in the middle of the street since!"
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