Travel Stories

Shwebo - from the second visit

February 1. 2012 – Shwebo, Sagaing state, Myanmar

            It’s not an everyday occurrence that two formerly Jewish guys around 70 years old, born in New York City, who went to the same high school a few years apart and didn’t know each other, who went to the same college, overlapped a few years, and didn’t know one another, love the Museum of Natural History in NYC, are not afraid to wear longjyi and sandals walking around together for a day in Mandalay, have unmarried sons taller and far different than they are, each son with a half sister who shares their father’s paternity, an Asian girlfriend, biblical names, and each man a six foot two inch tall Buddhist with multiple cardiac stents who found the sex trade in Thailand appalling and have been traveling separately in Asia for around three months, ending up in Myanmar for different purposes, but manage to get together for a few days at the end of each man’s journey in Myanmar, to criticize monotheism and come to visit the Burmese town of Shwebo in Sagaing state, where crowds of Burmese people young and old gather to stare and smile as the men wander about, marveling at the pale aliens’ ability to walk and say “Minglaba” at the same time, as well as to say “thank you,” and “nice to meet you” in Burmese.  No not everyday.

            Steve and I arrive in Shwebo on Tuesday afternoon and check into the Winn Guesthouse Hotel, more green walls, no decent lights or lamps, entire generations and lineages of old garbage and dust under the beds (well who told you to look, I say blame it on doing cobra in yoga), but with reasonably priced rooms and reasonably quiet.  Afterwards we stroll the streets, I think of it as sauntering, of a decent sized town, smaller and dustier than Monywa or POL … and absolutely devoid of any foreigners, which was the major reason why I’d picked it, other than it’s 4 hour proximity to Mandalay. 

Before long, it won’t surprise you, Mr. Ko Kyaw Minn, who says he is a retired primary grade English teacher, which may explain in part why the Burmese kids here speak such poor English and can’t sing “Old MacDonald,” Ko Kyaw’s English is that poor, that unintelligible, his ability to hear English and understand it beyond primitive, that Mr. Ko Kyaw has adopted Steve and I, kind of like how leeches adopt people.  Do we mind if he wanders around town with us, and do we want to visit his home where he lives with his mother, son, and sisters, his wife apparently having decided within the passed few months that one Ko was more than enough Ko, something I understand quite soon, although Steve is a bit more forbearing, so I’ll call him Steve’s guide, not mine, an innocent enough retired soul, looking for entertainment in a small and dusty town, and a free pastry or cup of tea if that should happen, who genuinely wants to be of service, and inevitably is, recommending restaurants, getting us directions to the Internet café, translating for us, introducing us to at least a dozen people each of whom he says is his “best” friend, and telling us each repeatedly –to me annoyingly - that he will never forget us. 

Naturally, when we tell Ko we want to visit the pottery making villages along the Irrawaddy River, about twenty miles east of us, the next day, Ko is quick to offer to find us motorcycle taxis who will charge us what he says and what sounds like a reasonable fee … and he does, showing up in the doorway of our room before 9 A.m., one of the motorcycle taxis being his son’s motorcycle, which Ko so obligingly will be driving, “if that’s okay,” which of course it is, especially if Steve is his passenger rather than me, as I find his constant ingratiating narrative just a bit too much, preferring the strong silent types in my two legged featherless guides

The immigration service … Steve’s line about tragedy or farce

The women at the pagoda building fund drive

The guesthouse owner in Kyauk Myaung

And the pottery villages are nothing less than spectacular.  I mean spectacular.  Abundant with special soils of red and yellow clay, dozens of amazingly talented potters, throwing immense pots, larger and heavier than I can lift, moved about with specially fitting harnesses, carried between the shoulders of two men, brought to wood fed kilns, that burn for close to 48 hours straight, some of the massive kilns capable of holding eighty to one hundred of the big pots as they are being fired, before they are moved on beds of straw by oxen drawn carts down to the river for shipment south and beyond.  We watch a three-foot diameter pot being thrown.  The skill of the potter who works in tandem with an assistant is otherworldly.

Back in town we revisit the graphic silkscreen t-shirt producer who does shirts as business promotions and had refused to sell  some feed company shirt but said he’d make me a shirt … and when I get back 24 hrs later he has 2 shirts for me that he gifts to me … and refuses to take any american or myanm money, but does accept it when I take the shirt off my back- shiva

meKo kissing my hand- genuinely

Small - ngwe nyein

Large - Kyauk Myaung myo

Kyaw khin winn – hotel owner

Ko kyaw minn – guide – North of Police Station – Kyauk Myaung Rd, Shwebo, Myanmar

The absolute bottom line is that I am going to miss being in Myanmar immensely and that I really don’t want to leave.  I’ve had such a good time here again, and my joy is easy to understand, rooted as it absolutely is in the people of Myanmar, who are just so friendly to me, so happy to see me, so engaged and engaging at this level of simple speech and personal encounter where all I basically can say is “hello,” “nice to see you,” and “I don’t understand.”  And their joy is contagious.  And their generosity common and real, perhaps related to the gifting of food and money to monks, novices, and nuns as an expected part of daily life from birth.

And choices must be made, and I don’t know what they will be.  And I can’t know now.  And I don’t need to know now.  All I really have to do is let myself be sad, like a kid who loved summer camp, just not wanting it to end.

Of course, I’m a fellow who thinks he doesn’t know what sadness is or feels like, but maybe separation from a source of love or pleasure is as close to a definition as I’m going to get and what I “feel” now is what “sadness” feels like, only it’s not “blue,” it’s sort of pale yellow and a little jiggle-y.

And it is also not like there isn’t a long list of things that compel me and draw my interest, from ongoing/deepening yoga study, to Burma study and work/prep on being able to stay in Kyauk Myaung for a few weeks, to whatever kind of prep this Africa travel fantasy trip has for me in addition to apprehension, to returning for a visit to Bosnia, a long visit w Maia and her fam, Sam, Joy, gardens … really setting up to teach a class at 4Cs in the fall, writing … need I go on.  And yet none of it – holding aside Sam, Maia her fam, and Joy, is quite as “exciting” as my travels have been, although my beloveds are surely deeply compelling.

And it’s almost like each day here in Myanmar gets better, although that obviously can’t be so.  I mean I just loved my time in and around Monywa, and then I went off on this three-day filler w Steve to Shwebo, and twenty kms outside of Shwebo along the Irrawaddy there was Kyau Myaung, and beyond that the far smaller Ngwe Nyein Myo and about three other little villages, where absolute masters throw amazing pots, and more than any other place I have been in Myanmar I could really see myself staying there for a solid block of time, and teaching, photographing, doing yoga, writing, and just living among the people.  And in that sense I have successfully concluded my research into the feasibility of staying in one village in Myanmar, which was a major core purpose of my trip to Myanmar other than travel.  And I do just love these people, and their generosity, kindness, ease of laughter, dignity, respect, beauty, good humor, warmth, and grace. 

I saw a man backing up his turned off motorcycle on the main street of Shwebo inattentively trying to wheel it next to the sidewalk to park when he bumped into a young woman walking with a companion, whose entire visible reaction was to laugh good humoredly at what had happened and simply move on; no instantly unpleasant rage, anger, “why don’t you look where you are going,” or anything even close to that type of pissed off, shocked, hurt, judgmental, you just invaded my space, inconvenienced me, put me at risk, and are a careless moron type of reaction.  Simply warm laughter.  There is no reason to not understand why I am in love.