Travel Stories

IN AN AMAZING PLACE....

... her laughter was absolutely infectious ...

The other day in Hsipaw - cold and thick with obscuring morning fog - four of us begin walking with our local guide – Soule Oo - to the river. We got into a long thin boat with with removable plank seats, and a long propeller shaft running off some small auto motor mounted on the rear of the craft, along with with a few Burmese villagers and headed out into the fog. The river water was running fairly rapidly against us, but also very warm. We pass farming villages on the shore that look like riverine settlements that could be almost anywhere in southeast Asia, like villages along the Amazon or Orinoco, maybe even New Guinea: women bathing and washing clothes, thatched huts, some on stilts, water buffalo led down to the river to drink.

“Remember friends as you pass by
As you now are so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare yourselves to follow me.”

— Buddhist Cemetery Sign

 We passed a man going downriver on a lashed together bamboo raft, that our
guide said was actually covering illegally harvested teak being taken to some location from where it will be picked up and transported to China. China is a big focus of life here in northeast Myanmar. A huge natural  gas pipeline is being built to move Myanmar gas to China, for which
China gave Myanmar 2 billion dollars, an immense immense amount of money in Burma that no one knows where it went. (Wanna guess?) A new train line is being built to move goods and agricultural produce to China. Burmese laborers work for a fifth of their Thai and even Chinese
counterparts. There are almost no factories in the country that are yet exploiting this literate source of human services and labor. Soule Oo points out an omnipresent wildflower that he says it is known locally as a Chinese daisy, because “no matter where you look you see them.” 
He says, “We have an expression in Hsipaw (the town I was then based in) , ‘Where there’s smoke there’s Chinese.’”
        About an hour after starting up river we stop at an indistinguishable section of riverbank and climb out of the boat. The fog has fully lifted. It’s a bright sunny day. The boat continues upriver as we clamber up a steep riverbank incline. Soon we come to a tiny bamboo hut in the middle of rich fertile fields, where we are met by the hut’s sole resident, a toothless, indeterminately old women, who laughs hysterically and warmly at my height, and who hugs me and pulls me down
to her so that she can kiss my check. We take photos. When she puts her arm around me her hand is at the height of my butt and she leaves it resting there.  (I'll try to find and send the photo under separate cover.) We continue climbing a quite steep hill along a single person wide walking path past fields of pineapple, sesame, mango, sugar cane, and corn, passed small fenced and unfenced gardens filled with cabbages,beans, chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. I fancy that I’ve learned a lot about gardening on this trip, some by visual observation, some by osmosis, both from the orchid displays and from the flowerbeds at the National Garden in Pyin Oo Lwin, and from the gardening methods I see displayed in the Shan villages, especially about aerating the soil and the use of trellises and stake supports. The sense of gardening as art as well as craft inspires me when thinking of my own gardens at home and provides what may be a possible partial answer to the question of what I will do when home that may serve as spiritual practice, in addition to yoga, and what will inspire me there the way travel does here. 
        Half an hour or so up the path we come to an ancient monastery, now home to six older monks, and over two dozen young boy monks in training, all under twelve years of age. We are served freshly harvested pineapple and jasmine tea. The young monks are all watching TV (scary, I mean how are you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris). A
bell rings. The TV is turned off and the young monks pray in front of the Buddha statues. A bell is rung and the young monks go off to eat lunch. After lunch they ride their bicycles around the compound border and the soccer field.
        I kneel down and pray in front of the Buddha as well. I offer heartfelt thanks for having arrived here, for the privilege of being here. I offer my gratitude to the Buddha for his example, his inspiration, and his teaching. I think of Jesus’ message, as opposed to what arose in
his name. I do not think about Moses or the prophet Muhammad.  One lasting image I have is of a poster in an area of the large pagoda hall that serves as a spare dormitory/sleeping area for some of the young monks. There I find an almost life sized representation of the Buddha that someone has “accidentally” hung a good sized wall clock that completely obscures Buddha’s head such that it looks like his head is a clock. I can't resist thinking it is an unconscious commentary on the relationship between time and mind. 


        As we are leaving the monastery we go inside a small building that
serves as a classroom. Low tables/desks wide enough for two students
seated side by side on the floor are lined up two across the room and
about six or seven tables deep facing a chalkboard. There are small
mostly filled notebooks at every student’s place. There is a low door
into the classroom and two openings in the woven bamboo far wall that
serve as windows to let in air and light. It is very quiet. As we are
leaving the classroom I walk forcefully and unconsciously into the top
of the door frame and bang my head so hard that it knocks me backward
down onto the floor onto my butt and then laying down flat, dazed but
unhurt. I am reminded of the ethnographer Colin Turnbull writing of his
life among an African band of pygmies in “The Forest People,” that
he figured the role he fell into with them was village idiot. My
companions rush over to comfort me and help me up. For the rest of the
day Soule Oo reminds me at every doorway and low hanging branch to bow. 
He says, “Bow,” to me at least forty or fifty times: at each temple,
leaving and entering houses, at small store stands I enter, in a village
"restaurant," on the path. I am thrilled to be reminded to bow. I have
understood for years that we can never bow too often or too much, but
perhaps I wasn’t practicing as consciously as I might. While lying on
the floor of the classroom I hear the temple chimes ringing in the
breeze and offer my gratitude. When I see an iridescent blue bird I
bow. Seated on the boat moving on the river I bow. On the path I bow. 
With every breath I try to remember to bow. 
        Back on the boat we head further up river, to the confluence where another river joins this one, to some decent sized rapids and to the
bridge over the river that the Lashio to Mandalay train runs on once
each day in each direction. Headed back to Hsipaw we stop at three
different traditional Shan farming villages. One is reachable only by
boat. At one, Sun Lon, apparently a Shan name meaning "good gardens,"
in addition to boat the train stops once a day in each direction. About
300 people live there. The village has a school that goes to the eighth
grade. The school has a sign on it that says in English “Drug Free
School.” The village, like all the others we see on this side of the
river has a very deep well for drinking water dug with UNRA aid and
technology. We eat lunch in the last village we stop at, Shan noodles,
of course. There is a narrow path from there that leads to the road
back into town and we walk the rest of the way in.
As we pass the Buddhist cemetery I note a sign that reads:

Transient

"Remember friends as you pass by
As you now are so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare yourselves to follow me.”