Alice, the innkeeper of Peacock Lodge, in Mandalay offers me the option of staying an additional day and I accept … one of the advantages of having flexible time and believing in guides. I also alter my travel plans on Alice’s suggestion to break up the long slow train ride to Lashio, so I am only doing the viaduct leg by train. I’m eager to go to these places, but for today just cruising around this city I almost feel familiar with seems the perfect thing to do. And doing yoga, reading, relaxing, writing, and getting onto the Internet, are all so much more acceptable on the road than at home. Mark that revealing fact, Mr. B.
Anyhow, from the time I step out the door of the Peacock my day is just enchanted, beautiful, wondrous, and, yes, even divine. I snag a ride in a pick up on a side road outside the guesthouse where I’m staying and somehow actually find myself where I wanted to go, the pagoda at the top of Mandalay Hills. Interestingly, I remember nothing about the pagoda or the hilltop although I was here w Joy less than a year ago, but each encounter I have with the physical environment evokes a pleasant memory and a warm feeling in me.
I’m sincerely invited to join a luncheon picnic with a half dozen young men and women seated on a sheet on the tile floor outside the pagoda that looks delicious but which I decline. Then, on a wooden bench working a poem, a robed monk in his late thirties sits down next to me, asks in broken English where I am from, and wants to know about my travels in and impressions of Myanmar. So there we are just chatting away fabulously, his English is actually not that bad, he’s simultaneously helping me with my Burmese, and I’m being as frank and probing as I normally am, given the restrictions imposed by the language impediments. Turns out learning English is one of his ambitions, he’s a serious student of the language, has read some Shakespeare and Dickens and a number of monks at his monastery in central Mandalay are studying English together. When I ask if I can visit his monastery with him, he asks what day I had in mind, I say today, and just like that we’re in a little blue pickup truck taxi on our way to the ShweYaye Sung Monastery compound behind the big Maha Mani Buddha statue in the middle of town.
When we get to the monastery U Ke Tu, for that is his name, insists on paying my 4$ taxi fare, but relents when I remind him he is a poor monk living on alms he collects begging in the morning and the grace of his parents. He takes me to his room inside the monastery. He introduces me to monks we encounter saying, “This is my friend.” He lives in a room with three other monks on a straw pallet on the floor. The room is cluttered with mostly books. We sit on his mat and practice English and Burmese. A half a dozen other monks join us. We laugh a lot. One of the monks asks what my “ambition” is, but it turns out he meant what was my work. I say that at twenty I was a soldier, at twenty-five an anthropologist, at thirty a farmer, at thirty-five a hospital administrator, and at forty-five a lawyer, which I still am today although mostly retired. We try to define retired, and “mostly retired.” I correct their pronunciation. We spent a lot of time on the “sm” sound of smart, and on differentiating between p and b, between d and t. Ke Tu, to test out his language skills, sings a beautiful pop love song in English that I am vaguely familiar with and that I understand about half of what he is saying. (“I am sailing, I am sailing, cross the ocean, passed high seas. I am flying …”). I play them Joy singing her song about her mother, and then play Jimmy Durante from music I’ve downloaded on my laptop singing “Make Someone Happy.” The words seem particularly apt, even profound in a Buddhist monastery. We try to talk about Buddhism but it is impossible. I say something about my spiritual “ambitions.” We try to talk about the difference between religion and “spirituality,” but the word “spirituality” doesn’t even appear in the English to Burmese dictionary we refer to, and its definition of “spirit” is more confusing than helpful. I am invited to dinner and decline. I’m also a bit unsure about this, but I think I was also invited to bathe, which I also declined.
We’ve been sitting on the mat at least two hours. I say I have to go. Ke Tu tells me it was his “lucky” day that we met. I say it was “magical,” and “exceptional,” and that it has made me very happy. As we are leaving the monastery we run into the head abbot who I am introduced to and to whom I say in pretty poor Burmese, “It is a pleasure to meet you (tweiya da wan thaba de), which evokes a huge laugh. The abbot just laughs and laughs. It is contagious. I have a few photos of him. He is the most Buddha look a like person you have ever seen. Ever. (I’ll try to send the pics under separate cover … I just didn’t want to risk attaching them and screwing up this tenuous email connection).
Ke Tu and I continue toward the street. Young monks are bathing with buckets of cold water pulled up from a well. Naturally, they are laughing. Ke Tu takes may hand and we walk hand and hand together. He intertwines the fingers of his right hand with those of my left. We are both aware something out of the ordinary has been shared between us and while our separation and my departure are the most ordinary and familiar of human experiences, there is a poignancy that makes it very hard for me to separate, knowing as I do, that like many of my experiences on these travels and towards the end of my life, they are not likely to be repeated or reencountered, that they exist only in the present and in memory.
Ke Tu insists I ride back into town on the back of a motorcycle “taxi,” which I do without helmet and aware of the risks, but when in Mandalay … The taxi deposits me after dusk at a downtown market. Men are playing some kind of board game I have never seen before. I am asked if I play. I say, “No, I play checkers,” as I pull out my traveling checker set to show them what I mean. An older man in the crowd says with a big smile and good humor, “Ha! I am checker champion. You play? Winner get one thousand chat?” And there we are playing Burmese checkers (far more interesting than the American checkers I grew up with) right on the sidewalk under a streetlight as a decent sized crowd of men gathers. When I am forced to jump a piece of his he says, “You eat!”
In the first game I make a rookie move and it is all over. In the second game we agree to a draw. And in the third game, in a moment of checker brilliance I’d like to repeat some day soon, I see a number of moves down the board and force him into a fatal position that neither he nor the kibitzing crowd of more than twenty onlookers sees until it is too late, and when I make my penultimate move which forces him into an obviously fatal position I pump my fist once up in the air and the crowd literally cheers and claps, good naturedly teasing the “champion” on his defeat at the hands of this foreigner.
At times I feel as though I can only take so much more pleasure, have rarely been this ecstatic, am really enjoying my travels, all in part a tribute to my truly favorite guide, Sacajawea Joy, the prophetess of the notion that it can and will just keep getting better, that we can attain and tolerate more and more pleasure and a feeling of excitement and delight as a dominant state of mind and being. The word Joy uses is euphoria, by which she means a utopian ideal of emotional bliss. I’m in favor of that. It’s just a little exhausting without practice. But you just had to see this monk laughing.
In the meantime I’ve moved on for a few days to Pyin Oo Lwin, a market town north and east of Mandalay, which is the general direction I’m headed in for a while. The increased visibility of military forces is very obvious headed north in the direction of Kachin.