Travel Stories


          Apparently not content to spend my last days before leaving Myanmar in the comfort of Pyin Oo Lwin, or Mandalay, I decide to go on exploring new venues and potential adventures, meaning in this instance, teaching my last class at SMOC, catching a shared cab to the bus station in Mandalay, trying to find the specific bus to Monywa that I’ve presumably bought a ticket for, and saying the word “Monywa” to no less than a dozen people near to and on the bus I finally board, until I am reasonably satisfied their affirmative nods probably (I’m never 100% sure) mean I’m going to land somewhere near my intended destination.  And when the bus is more than completely full, and everyone I’ve said Monywa to has nodded his or her head and smiled, this piece of my fate is for a brief while sealed.
          It’s exciting to be headed someplace new in a bus filled with people all I know how to say to is hello, goodbye, nice to meet you, no problem, and thank you, having already forgotten “I don’t understand” … and they just don’t seem to get “no capisco.” And while the roads around POL, Hsipaw, and Mandalay are interesting and clean, after passing the ever awesome Sagaing Bridge, and the 2000 pagodas dotting the Sagaing hillsides, I note this road is filthy (mostly with plastic), flat, and constantly passing dusty peasant farming villages, oxen bringing in the hay, barefooted children chasing anything that moves.  Even pulling into Monywa is highly underwhelming, although “downtown,” all three blocks of it, has a Wi-Fi internet café named Eureka that is bright, clean, playing American pop, serving truly great cappuccino, nice reasonable priced freshly baked pastries, and all kinds of gelato from a shiny glass freezer case straight out of Newton.   Otherwise it’s Myanmar, 100s of vendors lining the streets, the one annoying taxi driver who won’t leave you alone until you buy him off with 100 chats, the dozens of smiling friendly people thrilled to hear you say, “Hello” (Mengalabah) in Burmese and inviting you to join with them sitting around the dying embers of the coals in their clay cook stoves to warm your hands, drink a tea, and chat.  The group I end up sitting with has barely any English language skills, although I am somehow able to discern that the mother of the six year boy is a widow, that her female boss who does not own the shop, is 44, has no kids, and I swear showed the first interest I’ve perceived (or misperceived) from a Myanmar woman toward me, maybe more as a father than an available male (how would I know?), and a variety of her sisters, brothers, and others who laugh and play with me for a couple of hours that just flew by.  Again, not something that will be available to entertain, delight, and distract me in Orleans.  And my cavalier disregard for planning, clarity of destination, or any real sense of why I was even going where I was choosing to go - and doing so almost completely comfortably - only serves to fuel my sense that the travel bug has deeply embedded itself under my skin and that maybe I am ready for the vastness of sub Saharan Africa on an open ended, one way ticket, no return date, just immersed, and alone jaunt.  And in such a reverie, while my relationship with Joy is truly awesome, and I enjoy it immensely, I can’t let the shape and content of the life I choose to live be defined by what her image is of how and where she wants/needs to live her life, not at this time.  Such constraints and dissonance were fatal with Lynne and Trish, although there were other issues and disharmonies at play with each of them that are not present with Joy, but still, it was our inability to find a satisfactory united vision of the lives we wanted to live together that provided the ultimate coup d’grace with both Lynne and Trish.  And my feeling ready to fly on the wings and spirit wind that beckon to carry me along on the journey is strong … and real.

         Of course I trust I will give my all to seeing what it is like at home and how deeply I can get into it, but my fears of boredom, dissatisfaction, and ennui (which would be so different if I was working with discipline on the book writing project that haunts me) are intense (and solidly grounded) as I view them here in my dirty all green hotel room at the Golden Arrow, with no hot water not because it doesn’t work but because the hotel literally doesn’t have any hot water systems, and only one working light bulb in my room.

I arrive in Monywa thinking mostly I’ve made a mistake in my almost random selection of towns and destinations to visit in Myanmar, and am quickly contemplating how fast I can leave town and get back to Mandalay the next morning.  The ride has been long, dusty, and crowded, it’s dark, the bus lets me off at a junction in the middle of next to nowhere, the motorcycle taxi I hire takes me first to a hotel I don’t even want to get off the bike to look inside of, the section of town we are driving through is less than non-descript, and I’m tired.  I keep repeating things like “downtown,” “city center,” and “clock tower,” but no comprehension is lighting up my driver’s face.  But waving my hand in what I think of as the universal gesture of “go on,” at least gets us moving and in about five minutes we are indeed in the center of a large town complete with one or two hotels, a police kiosk, an active night market, noisy lottery ticket vendors, an outdoor bar, a clock tower from which hangs a large screen TV showing a soccer match in England, and the most modern, almost surreal in this setting, brightly lit coffee shop I have seen in all of southeast Asia, aptly named “Eureka” where they sell what turns out to be excellent cappuccinos for a dollar and pastries for fifty cents, prices far beyond the range of the average laborer in Myanmar who earns less than fifty cents an hour.

And as I stand there contemplating the surreality of the coffee shop it can’t have taken more than 10 seconds for the guide to appear.  His name is Saw Tha Lhat, which I keep hearing as “Saw A Lot,” but I can just call him Saw, he says, “Hellooo!”  Aren’t the guides getting a little too stereotypically obvious around here?  I mean who's in charge of this script?  No, really? 

Saw speaks pretty fair English.  He approaches me as a casual person approaching an obvious foreigner might, and although I know he is looking for business and this is his approach style, I genuinely believe he is also just being friendly, and with Saw it is so innocuous and genuinely both, that it feels to me as if we are just two guys chatting together, in the course of which the question of why I’ve come to Monywa and what I hope to see and do here is an obvious subject.  Saw says I should be able to find someone to take me around on a motorcycle for a whole day for $15.  And he appears totally not aggressive, not pushy or pressuring me in any way.  Says he’ll find a driver for me if I’d like.  Appears to just want to help a foreigner, as I might.  Tells me what sites he thinks a full day’s tour should include.  Says I could even do it all and make the last bus to Mandalay at the end of the next day if that’s what I’d want, or, if I’d like he has a recommendation for another hotel he thinks I would be more comfortable at for not much more money than I’m paying at the Golden Arrow, which I keep thinking of as the Broken Arrow, a more suitable name for the accommodations it offers at $15 per night. 

Anyway, there is just something so genuine and caring about Saw, and he is so on point in speaking to what I had hoped to see and do here, that I say I’d like to do it on the spot, and that I’d like him to be my driver if he would.  And after saying he’d have to figure out how to change some plans he has for the following day he agrees.   If this is salesmanship it is brilliant.

And Saw proves to be so much more than just a driver and occasional translator, and is in his actions and behaviors the epitome in his manifestation of a caring soul and guide.  He picks me up on time.  He shows me another hotel that is so absolutely charming and picturesque I immediately know I want to stay in Monywa at least one more day.  He drives cautiously.  He speaks little other than to point things out and respond to questions.  He inquires if I am comfortable.  His whole demeanor is of a man at peace and “in the zone.”  He drives takes me over beautiful Chit Win River bridge, a mini version of the Sagaing bridge and the Sagaing Bridge’s vistas to the Leidi Monastery and the vipassana mediation center next door, where I am toured around the incredibly pastoral and beautiful grounds by the charming abbot and shown the separate male and female residence halls, the separate male and female dining halls, the kitchen, and the meditation sitting room. 

Afterwards, Saw and I explore the famous Leidi Monastery and the pagoda it is centered on and maintains, and when I say “Saw and I,” I mean just that, because rather than just leaving me off as most drivers do, Saw joins me at all our stops, points things out to me, instructs me while at the pagoda in the art of making a wish (mine is that Sam find work that satisfies, pleases, and engages him), praying, and gong ringing (first you make a donation, then you ring the gong, so that the good you gave with your donation is vibrated out into the world, Saw says, as he makes a donation with his own money and then hands me the mallet to strike the large, reverberant, well designed brass gong.  Saw takes me/leads me into a pagoda grotto dedicated to the founding monk.  He reminds me to lower my head and to bow.  While in the cave two senior monks visiting the pagoda from Yangon and Mandalay join us.  They are totally charming.  One of the monks asks with an earnestness that is totally beguiling that I please remember him always, asks for my address, says he hopes one day to visit America.  And, frankly, I wouldn’t be that surprised if he did.  So I tell him my house is his house.  I say that to a lot of people in Myanmar.

I reluctantly join Saw as he leads me to the fenced areas and cages where a dozen monkeys, a solitary deer, a sloth, and a stunningly beautiful pair of Asian black bears live.  I vocally bemoan the bears’ containment in their small cell as I tenderly touch the soles of the male bear’s soft front feet, which he is using like hands to cling to the bars of his pen.  I say out loud to Saw that the bear is “in prison,” and a Burmese man nearby jokingly says in response to this obviously negative judgment, “At least he can have visits with his wife,” pointing to the she bear asleep in a corner of the cage, but that does nothing to lessen my heartfelt sadness and the empathy I feel for the boredom, sense of objectionable confinement and restraint, and broken spirit I feel emanating from the bear, and after sending him my heartfelt but hurried brotherly good wishes, which seems a totally empty gesture to me, I want nothing more than to get away from the enclosures as fast as I can, and I do.

Saw takes me next to a copper mining area.  To get there, we cross a long, I mean very long, all wooden plank bridge over a mostly dry riverbed that is at least a thousand yards wide and where a sprinkling of people are panning for gold.  We pass piles and piles of harvested teak, massive tree trunks each marked with white lettering and numbering, presumably an estimate of the board feet of lumber each is expected to produce.  I don’t like seeing the denuded raped landscape. 

The copper harvesting area runs on both sides of the road for about ten miles of vast, wide, desolate, and disturbed looking earth.  What were once rich croplands are now sandy, barren, craterous and moon-like, mound filled parched acres upon acres of thatched huts, hoses, small pumps, and an endless series of man made gravity filled pools used for primitive copper filtration, a processes that can earn a small land owner $250 in a good month, a quite substantial sum in Myanmar.  We stop at one earthen-floored hut where a woman and her injured son sit and walk around a bit.  There is a motorcycle inside the house and a TV antenna rising out of the thatched roof and although I am engaged and fascinated, even running some of the soft liquid copper clinging to and floating over the aluminum cans that are submerged at the bottom of the last warm pool through my fingers, I’m not loving seeing this reality much more than bears in a cage.  Not that my excitement and even pleasure in touring are reduced, but just that I don’t like what I am seeing. 

At a fork in the road leading away from the road to the Indian border and toward the Phowin Taung caves in Yinmarbin, Saw stops at a roadside “store”/stand/house for a little rest and a cigarette.  I don’t know how

Saw picks these places to stop, the specific copper miner’s hut, or this house cum store, teashop, roadside stand, and liter bottle gas sale dispensary, although it’s not like there are a lot of other stores around, but Saw buys nothing, says he’s never stopped here before, just sort of takes a seat, says hello to the proprietress and her brother, lights a cigarette, and sits around chatting.

To the side of the store at the near edge of a small field a man is cutting the hair of three beautiful children, one of whom we are told is deaf and “dumb.”  Their mother is as pretty a woman as I have seen in Myanmar.  When I ask if I can take her picture she says no, that she is so ugly that if I showed her face to my friends in America “even the rats would run out of the house.”

The deaf girl is immensely endearing to me.  I don’t know all that that is about, but I am instantly drawn to her, wanting to help her, empathic with her, pained for her, loving her.  - Emotions and thoughts evoked.  Michelle, Jon  Stand on my tongue

The tea shop at the caves -Saw refusing beer and why

Never any change of a 1000 chat note, charging only foreigners for admission

Saw’s girlfriend

The actual caves #3 archeo site after Bagan, and Mwauk U.

French tourists and guide

The ninety-one year old smoking nun

Monkey encounters

Back on the road.  Not stopping at the stand

Stopping at the barbers

The ferry

The hotel eden …

Dinner – envy of American wealth v my description of the American unhappiness, fear, etc

Buying “her” a sweater for 6$.  Being her father

Finally travelers’ diarrhea having abandoned all pretense of caution, even eating raw veggies


Day two …