Travel Stories




Myanmar is the most authentically non western country/culture i have ever seen or been in.  fields with over 1000 buddha statues 4 or 5 times life size.  reclining buddha statues the size of ocean liners that you can walk in like the statue of liberty, only MUCH BIGGER.  monks everywhere.  children everywhere.  pagodas in caves, stupas on seemingly unreachable pinnacles, mountaintop villages that can be accessed only by foot and that must be what Shangri La was intended to depict.  85% of the people are engaged in agriculture, ox carts, 1940 chevy trucks, women with yellow caked faces, men wearing longyis.  even in the cities people cook with wood and charcoal.  refrigeration is rare, mostly styrofoam and ice.  even on the moving train they cook with wood.  the sense of government oppression is nowhere visible or apparent to me other than in whispered fears and resentments, and some crazy checkpoints between states.  non-burmese minorities do not have equal access to government positions.  the people are immensely fascinating and somewhat alien; their “innocence,” grace, kindness, effusiveness, generosity, ease of laughter, delight, warmth, and wish to be of help are a stunning contrast to american impatience, reserve, distrust, and paranoia.  there is also wretched and immense poverty, and direly unsanitary conditions, but no homelessness or starvation.  a family of four can live “adequately” on 5$/day.  i got my head shaved for 50 cents.  i bought a dozen kids ice cream cones that were individually sculpted by the vendor artist - baboons, flowers, turtles - for a dime each.  i keep giving things away, bracelets, necklaces, trinkets, and the next thing i know they are being returned in some other form from some other source.  loren was openly revered as if a movie star. women touching his blond arm hairs, men squeezing his biceps.  one cute waitress told him openly, “i love your body.”  it was not a come on, just a statement of positive feeling.  you cannot believe the number of people who seem to think it is okay to pat my belly.  and forget opening my laptop in public because it draws a crowd of avid onlookers and commentators: monks, kids, cabbies, women with babies.  i’m really enjoying this place … and i absolutely love the city of mandalay with its immense palace grounds, markets, lovely people, and quiet lanes. 

Myanmar 2

the internet here is so problematic that i’ve had to send these myanmar entries to sam in the states so he can post them.  and forget sending photos from myanmar, or accessing additional funds beyond what you came in with, since the government refuses to permit the use of credit cards or travelers cheques anywhere and there are no atms allowed either.  but notwithstanding these mostly petty inconveniences, and the fact i may end up in india flat broke and praying for a money changer who will honor my credit card for a fee, myanmar continues to amaze me in ways i can barely describe.  so would the fact that i helped wash a 16 foot long python today and then had it slither on its wet belly slowly across my shoulders behind my neck and down onto the floor qualify?  or that joy and i visited olden pagodas on the other side or the irawaddy river while being driven around on an ox cart and at the end the ox cart driver asked for an extra dollar as a tip for the oxen? or the time i was eating a freshly fried burmese pancake from a street seller of an early evening in the poorest section of mandalay, served to me on very absorbent pages filled with penned lessons pulled from the vendor’s daughter’s lined school homework book, when a sparrow fell as if out of nowhere dead at my feet and lay there motionless in the street on its back while the vendor’s daughter pulled gently on the sparrow’s tail feathers to get it out from under me as i was eating (or trying to) and after about two full minutes the sparrow righted itself in one swift motion and flew fully functionally away?  or the people who come up to joy and me and want to have their pictures taken, or their kid’s pictures taken, waving to us from passing motorcycles, smiling with betel juice stained teeth, such as there are teeth left in their mouths, monks who want to talk with us, students in their last year of medical school eager for conversation, random taxi drivers who give us directions and unsolicited suggestions of places to visit not necessarily seeking a fare.  myanmar is a frustrated anthropologist’s paradise.  and as the burmese man who lives in the one room bamboo hut without electricity or running water told me in broken english today, “life is here so free.”  or perhaps even more to the point, the t-shirt being worn by the kid walking hand and hand with the monk that read on the front, “this order is the important secret which must never be omitted …” and on the back read, “time passes indifferently.”  


On a sunny hot afternoon in Bagan, Myanmar I decide to do yoga out of doors.  Although I am self-conscious about doing yoga where I can be seen, next to our guesthouse is a lovely 1,000 year-old brick and mortar temple that I wander over to and where I lay down my mat on the level back terrace, out of view of people at the guesthouse and in the midday shade.  From my mat I can see the bamboo hut village that abuts the temple, the dusty ox cart and walking paths that connect the village, and the garbage heap where the plastic bags and bottles that blight the countryside are dumped.  Focusing on yoga takes a bit of effort, but soon I am moving from posture to posture, eyes closed, breathing mindfully and rhythmically, somehow having forgotten about my setting. 

Perhaps forty or so minutes into my routine, on instinct, I turn around and look to my rear where I see four boys, about 8 to 10 years old, each carrying handmade slingshots, and each staring at me in a mystified, fascinated, respectful way.  I have no idea how long they’ve been there, but my guess is about three to five minutes.  And although I laugh out loud on seeing the boys, which markedly breaks the silence, I also continue my practices and postures.  Only now the boys have put down their slingshots and are imitating my movements and giggling.  And while I am doing the postures, I am also laughing out loud at the boys and at myself.  And the more I laugh the move unbounded the boys’ movements and laughter become, and soon we are all laughing loudly together and doing yoga postures together in the shade of the temple.  After about five minutes of moving through a series of standing postures I simply cannot go on with the yoga in a focused way, so I sit down on my mat, cross-legged, facing them.  And they sit down on the terrace floor cross-legged facing me.  I say “yoga” and they laugh.  I do a side stretch and they do a side stretch.  I move very slowly and explicitly into a full lotus.  They move into full lotus.  I briefly lift my butt off the ground about half an inch pressing into my palms.  They all lift their butts up four or five inches above the terrace and swing back and forth supported on their palms as I can only imagine doing.  They are so wiry, and funny, and, of course, laughing hysterically.  And when we move into downward dog, the rocks they are carrying around for their slingshots fall out of their shirt pockets and clatter to the brick and mortar floor, and they are laughing even harder.  And I am laughing.  And there is no way to keep up even this level of the practice while laughing so hard, and it is nearly time for me to be ending anyhow.  So I sit down cross legged again facing them.  And they sit down cross legged facing me.  And I say “hello” in Burmese.  And they say hello.  And I put my hands in prayer position in front of my heart.  And they put their hands together in prayer position in front of their hearts.  And I say, “Namaste.”  And they giggle.  And I bow toward them.  And the boys bow toward me.  And I get up and roll up my mat.  And they get up and grab their slingshots and start firing at leaves and tree trunks and the temple bells.  And I say goodbye.  And they say goodbye.  And I wave.  And they wave.  And I ring a huge temple bell very loudly with the large wooden striker left there for that purpose.  And the bell reverberates.  And I reverberate.  And I walk back toward the guesthouse.  And when I am almost there I turn around, and the boys are still standing on the temple terrace waving, and I wave again, and say “Namaste” again, and walk to my room, my asana practice over for the day.

Jumping Cat Monastery

Inle Lake is surrounded by steep mountains, and dozens of traditional Burmese, Shan, and Intha villages that cannot be reached by means other than boat. And pagodas that cannot be reached other than my foot. The lake rises and falls depending upon the season and the grace of the gods, goddesses, and “nats” of water and rain. Some of the village houses stand on stilts in the water whatever the height of the lake.  Others are seasonal or on land.  All trading and travel needs are met with the use of boats.  The scenery includes young boys riding water buffalo, men and women washing clothes, field workers and children waving, fishermen with nets, dugout canoes being paddled while standing -using one leg to move the long thin paddle through the water. Harvesting watercress, tomatoes, squashes, and corn being grown on floating islands made of river silt and river muck created over the centuries by people with nothing more than their backs and their shovels who do not greet you by asking, “How are you?” but rather, “Are you happy?”  An aquatic culture practicing aquatic farming with ecological awareness on small footpaths and busy boat lanes with bamboo dams, wonderful woven bamboo retaining walls, bamboo stakes and ties, bamboo houses and fences, And bamboo’s consciousness of strength, flexibility, versatility and utility in a land of earthly industry, of farming, weaving, carving, and craft.  Of diligent labor.

A floating restaurant named “Nice.”

A floating home for monks whose name translates to “Jumping Cat Monastery” and actually has jumping cats.    You should come here to see and contemplate people who do not walk or run except inside their houses, whose entire terra firma is often but twelve square feet of bamboo flooring filled with mats, bedding, a wood cooking stove, some pots and pans, family photographs, potted plants, posters of soccer teams from England, clothes drying on hooks, and bells ringing.  

I had wanted to leave some of you with the jumping cats, relatives of whom once lived in your home, but wasn’t sure what the monks would want, so I just eased you into the laketo become one with the fishes, and the silt, and the floating islands which support the plants that feed the people who grow and live and thrive and die here, and who asked when you entered their waters if you were happy.

in transit

    much as i love(d) myanmar, i am now at the airport in kuala lumpur, where i will spend my 3 hours in malaysia in transit drinking their famous “white coffee,” having a bowl of ipoh hor fun, using my credit card again! (i was almost totally out of cash in myanmar w no way to get more there), enjoying the sight of my first rain in 2 months, exploiting the free high speed wireless internet available at the airport (utilizing my well traveled international male power adaptor, of course) in this nation of 28m people i know nothing!! about, and will then be on my way to chennai, india, where i haven’t even booked a room and have no idea where the path will lead me until i rendezvous w sam in delhi three weeks from now.    

   i’ve enjoyed thinking of myself at times these days as a mendicant and poet, someone who is feeling more than thinking, quieting his mind, being more than doing, a monk wandering the streets seeking alms.  of course i know i’m just an american tourist, but there is also a way in which my “thinking” and active cognition have been substantially reduced in terms of their activity and dominance in my brain and have been not so much “replaced” as overwhelmed by “just” being in time and space and feeling   what I am conscious of, aside from the sights and sounds that abound and surround me, is an internal sense of comfort, awe, gratitude, appreciation, wonder, happiness.  these are states of being I am aware of, sensations, feelings.  they are far different than doing, thinking, solving, figuring out, planning, rushing, cramming, socializing, catching a quick cup of coffee and a bite, squeezing “it” all in.   of course, I am also aware there is are real differences between vacation and work, between retirement and employment, between being forty years old, raising a family, paying off a mortgage, and pulling hard in the harness traces, and being seventy years old contemplating the life you have lived and the choices that appeal to you in the life remaining, but beyond these obvious situational determinants, there is also no denying the energetic reception and emanations that characterize my state of being here and now, which is in some way the only time that is real as I “know” that word - real - to mean.