January 9, 2012 – Peacock Guesthouse, Mandalay, Myanmar
It is raining cats and dogs on my last morning in Kolkata, and perhaps my last morning ever in all of India. I have spent more than three months of the last twelve here. It’s the longest I’ve been in another country other than Bosnia in 1964. Myanmar comes in third. Italy fourth.
The cab that takes me to the airport is so old, so rickety, and yet so apparently durable and dependable, so Indian. It is hard to see what is in the street and the roadway because of the intensity of the storm. The airport is spare. The flight is on time. And in less than two hours I am standing on the ground in Myanmar, smiling ear to ear, greeted by Steve Wangh, zipped through customs, my new visa issued, a new sim card installed in my iPhone, and soon in a restaurant drinking beer and eating barbequed pork and hot cooked green vegetables. It is a distinct and real physical and emotional relief to be out of India.
Mandalay Hills - January 10, 2012
I had such a nice day, most of which I spent in a tiny blue pickup truck riding around Mandalay with Steve and seven of his fellow meditators doing last minute shopping before entering the monastery in Sagaing where they will be meditating for the next 20 days from 4A.M. each day until after dark, and where their last meal at of the day is at 11:30 A.M. It was so nice to be back in Myanmar. The people are so lovely, so openly happy and it’s just a really sweet place. We had lunch at a great restaurant - tealeaf and rice salad with roasted peanuts - that I think cost me one dollar. The drive to Sagaing was familiar and filled with nice memories of Joy’s and my one or two days there earlier this year. And then best of all, I got to depart the monastery while Steve was in orientation and wont be sitting on a meditation cushion twelve hours a day for the next three weeks. As I told the people who looked at me askance because they’d all naturally assumed I was one of the recently arrived meditators, and as such why was I leaving the monastery so quickly after arrival, “It took me only very short visit here to become enlightened.”
After which I toddled around Mandalay, which felt very familiar, bought a small shoulder bag, visited Alice’s stroke impaired son at his teahouse, a really sweet guy, who when I tried to buy a bottle of water as I was leaving refused my money saying, “My small gift to you.” Then went to the RR station, where again people were so kind to me, got a lot of info about the train to Lashio, went to an internet café where they had a wireless router and again the employees were so helpful and so charming, and then had dinner - a small plate of BBQ pork, BBQ garlic cloves, rice, beer, and a main dish of mustard greens in a nice sauce for four dollars, and then walked home, well I mean walked to my guesthouse that feels like home, where Alice was just immensely helpful and we spent an hour together thinking about and planning what I’m actually going to be doing in Myanmar over the next three weeks and how I might go about it considering the transportation challenges and the fact that Kachin state is really too dangerous a place to go these days, thus ruling out being any further north than Bhamo. Still, I’m so looking forward to it, and although I do wish Joy was here, I’m good … really good … enjoying myself and my being alone … and about to push out the edges of my personal (and spiritual) experiential and comfort envelope a bit further beyond the known.
January 11, 2012 – Peacock Lodge, Mandalay
Alice offers me the option of staying at Peacock 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 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 to the Peacock my day is just enchanted, magical, beautiful, and, yes, even divine. I first 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 that looks delicious but which I decline. Then, seated on a 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 truck on our way to the Shwe Yaye Sung Monastery compound behind the big Maha Mani Buddha in the middle of town.
When we get to the monastery U Ke Tu, for that is his name, insists on paying my 4$ 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 spend a lot of time on the “sm” sound of smart, and on differentiating between p and b, and between d and t. Ke Tu sings me a very beautiful 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 “Lucky Child” and then Jimmy Durante 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 (twei ya da wan tha ba de), which evokes a huge laugh. The abbot just laughs and laughs. It is contagious. I have a photo of him. He is the most Buddha look a like person you have ever seen. Ever.
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 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 and a man in the crowd says, “Ha! I am checker champion. You wish play. One thousand chat?” And there we are playing Burmese checkers (much harder than the American variation I learned) 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 brilliance I’d like to repeat some day soon, I see a number of moves down the board and force the champ 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.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there is the dream … of the house at the end of the lake that I have dreamed of so many times … the father of the boy a violent sociopath who can manipulate the system and keep getting out onto the street to inflict more violence, cruelty and pain. The mother, the daughter and the young son all enamored of me. The sociopath wants to inflict pain on me. Sam interacts with the young boy in ways that are thrilling, repeatedly catching him just as he goes over the edge of a dangerous hill on his bicycle so that he is not injured. The boy begs to be allowed the experience of injury. Sam lets him fall. The boy is shocked by the reality of pain. He has a bloody nose. He is crying and laughing. I am badly injured by the sociopath. In a very romantic scene the younger mother takes cold water into her mouth and then dribbles it into mine. There are courtroom scenes, singing judges. The monk’s singing of the love song yesterday was so beautiful, so touching. I feel as though I cannot take any more pleasure, have never been this ecstatic, not on acid, nor high on marijuana. Speaking of guides, there has never been one so powerful for me as Sacajawea Joy, the prophetess of the notion 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. You just had to see this monk laughing. 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. (And, of course, excitement feels a bit uncomfortably adrenal in a way akin to how anxiety, ever to be avoided, also feels.)
January 12, 2012 -TH
Have moved on to Pyin Oo Lwin, a market town north and east of Mandalay, which is my general direction for a while. The presence of Burmese military forces is somewhat more obvious as there are a few major military facility here and the Internet connection, when it’s working, is generally better than elsewhere I’ve experienced in Myanmar. Pyin Oo Lwin isn’t that much of a town, and it’s very spread out, with no building I’ve seen higher than four stories, but the markets are amazing and clearly support and are supported by a population far beyond the boundaries of Pyin Oo Lwin itself. It’s also amazing to me how I consumed the day and the day consumed me.
I wandered around the markets seeming endlessly. I found a tea seller and had tea. I found a food stand where you select the fresh veggies and noodles you want, they throw them into a hot pot of boiling water, like in Chang Mai, and add then add the spices. I have both lunch and dinner at the same stand. I “accidently” find the totally completest watch repairman of my fullest imaginings, both in waking dreams and wishes, the ideal to my mind of what a world class watch repairman’s shop would look like, the very man I quite literally imagined when my watch broke come to life, a vision of someone with small tools, 1000s of old watch parts, in little tins and boxes spilling out onto his worktable, someone who spends his life doing just what I need done, who finds a stem he can modify to match my missing stem, who takes my watch apart and puts it together with the greatest of care using small tweezers, a series of eyeglass screwdrivers, and an eye piece. It is such a pleasure to see him at work, to witness the flow of folks to his stand whose watches he services. He charges me a dollar for a project that takes him more than half an hour to finish to his satisfaction. If I were a better poet I’d be able to write about him. I am in such awe of his focus, his mastery, and his skill. Almost more than that, of course, is the fact that I was actually put together with him, that I somehow manifested him, that I took a series of arbitrary turns in a strange city, in a vast marketplace, with hundreds of stalls and my eyes open and was connected. It amazes me. And I do not think it mere coincidence, but rather think it says something profound about manifestation, belief, openness, and even faith, about the ways believing is seeing. And in a far lesser sense, so too the tailor who stiches my yoga bag on a pedal sewing machine and refuses to accept any money from me, the people in the Internet café who give me their wireless password, the pleasure the ordinary citizens of Myanmar take in my just saying hello in Burmese, “Mingala ba.” I consider myself to truly be walking on a sacred path. And I am a little concerned, and still don’t have a solid vision, about how I will be able to sustain this frame of reference and mental state of being and awareness when at home. It is to be a substantial piece of my work, not here and now, but clearly there and then. Yoga, writing, Joy, my kids and grandkids, and the garden play a big role. But attitude is what is most critical to my satisfaction and realization.
January 13, 2012 - Pyin Oo Lwin
I hire a motorcycle taxi for the day. The driver even has a spare helmet. Our first destination is the sacred caves and waterfalls at Pywepauk, a good fifty kilometers from Pyin Oo Lwin. Had I known the distance I might not have gotten on the bike. But the falls and the cave are truly spectacular and I start to feel I am running out of superlatives adequate to describe the wonders I am seeing. The caves themselves go back into the mountain at least 1000 feet, complete with stalagmites, stalactites, and more than 500 statues of Buddha. The deeper in the cave I go the warmer it gets, the walls are sweating, they’re dripping warm water. There is a running warm water stream. It’s really quite spectacular. I find a fossilized seashell in the middle of Myanmar, rocks that look like eggs, small orchids needing love, a few of which I am trying to bring to America. I see black swans with gray baby swans. I eat a steamed corn on the cob still in the husk. I buy an avocado the size of Rhode Island that costs twenty-five cents. The woman who sells me the avocado cuts it in half, gives me a small metal spoon, offers me a table, and serves me warm tea free. I go to the National Gardens, every bit as lovely as the Arnold Arboretum and lovingly cared for. I survive 100 kms on the bike.
I eat dinner at the same open-air stand I did last night. I point to veggies that I recognize and veggies I don’t recognize, noodles, spices, chilies. The waitress/cook grabs bunches of these ingredients in her hands, tears them up, dumps them in a big pot of boiling water, fans the little clay charcoal stove, adds more spices, watercress, mint, serves it piping hot. Fills a thermos with hot water to supplement the pale tea already in it. Takes a used cup from the table I’m at, pours a little tea water in it, runs her index finger around the inside of the cup, pours out the water, pours in more tea, sloshes it around, throws it out, fills the cup with tea. Serves it to me. I drink it. This is the standard teacup cleaning method I encounter throughout my travels in Myanmar. The people I encounter are almost uniformly friendly and gracious to me, charmed perhaps by my very modest use of Burmese, my mala, my age, and my smile.
I leave by train for Hsipaw early in the morning.
January 14, 2012 – twenty-eighth anniversary of marriage to Lynne, not that I noticed …
Up at four thirty to do yoga before the rooster crows, the monks chant, the muezzin calls, the sun rises. I witness these events from my yoga mat facing east in my room at the Bravo Hotel ($15/night double, clean sheets, hot running water, TV) in Pyin Oo Lwin (POL to the locals). By 7:15 I’m at the train station, but the ticket office isn’t open yet so I wander over to the local market, buy two oranges for a quarter, and test out/challenge my stomach and intestines yet again with another food stand special, this time noodles, sauces, spices, and veggies mixed together by hand, but instead of being thrown into the pot of boiling hot water, some broth not hot enough to kill any bugs or bacteria is poured over it. Nonetheless I eat it. And continue to eat so many different things from so many different street vendors and sticky rice makers that were I to get sick I would have no idea of know the source of the offending substance/food.
When I get back to the train station, the ticket seller recognizes me as having been there the day before making inquiry. He sends out a coworker who literally takes me by the hand and leads me around to the back of the station, hand in hand, directly into the ticket office, offers me a chair, insists I use it, hands my passport to the ticket seller who hand writes out in carbon copy duplicate a three by four inch receipt that serves as my ticket. Big smiles and laughter surround and infuse our transactions.
I board the “upper” class car, which is distinguished from the “ordinary” class car only by the fact that ordinary class seats are wooden bench affairs with wooden backs and upper class has cloth airplane seats with reclining backs. An ordinary class ticket to Hsipaw costs two dollars. Upper class costs five. The ordinary class is not packed like in India, but it is definitely full and there are no non-Burmese people seated in ordinary class, although there are lots of tomatoes and other veggies on for the ride. The upper class car is only half full, half of the people in it are foreigners, and half of them are familiar faces to me as people who have stayed at Peacock Lodge.
On the train are a very attractive Austrian man and woman in their early forties and their equally attractive young Burmese guide. We had made brief introductions when we crossed paths at the Kandawgyi National Gardens the day before and they now invite me to sit with them. It is just delightful to be with them and their guide, who they have known before (it is their fourth trip to Myanmar) and who has become a personal friend, even visiting with them, at their expense, in Austria and going on a European road trip with them. The guide speaks German, English, and, of course Burmese. The man, named Axel, is also totally fluent in English and has a master’s degree from Texas A&M. The guides have hardly ever been so obvious, and before long Axel and I are deep in conversation about energy, matter, time, origins, god, dimensions - he says he is somehow aware of at least a dozen but can no more “explain” them than a person living in a two dimensional world could explain a ball – the heart, transformation, the nature of “knowing,” language, evolution. Sound familiar? He is a fan of Wilhelm Reich, and an “etheric warrior.” He occasionally drops or throws half orange shaped and sized purple polymer plastic “energy devices” from the train. He was in jail in Zimbabwe for two weeks for doing so. He gifts me one of the devices. He says they help balance things.
We approach the world famous Goktiek viaduct, a huge erector set steel structure that rises high over the river and chasm walls. All of the guidebooks advise that photographs are forbidden by the over sensitive military, but at the best viewpoint the train literally stops for five minutes while people actually get off the train and take photos. It is to my mind another example of how much things have changed and eased up in Myanmar in the mere eleven months since my last visit, this extends of course, to the ease of obtaining a visa on arrival, money exchange at a bank at the airport, the improved Internet service, and cell phone sim cards.
After crossing the bridge the train comes to stop in a small village, which is pretty much what all the stops on this route look like, not “stations” as such, and certainly no platforms, just a place in some field in a village where the train stops and people get on and off. The village we stop at after the viaduct is still about two hours from Hsipaw, but the Burmese guide, whose nickname is Tutu, announces that this is their exit because they are meeting their driver here and had only been on the train to see the viaduct. They all have apparently discussed this and invite me to join them unless I have other plans (me, plans?). I gather my scattered belongings, assure myself I have my essentials - passport, wallet, glasses, computer, cellphone, pills, pens, various piles of money, yoga mat, shoulder bag, back pack, hand luggage, water bottle, orchids, and am off the train in thirty seconds.
We stop in some small town on the way to Hsipaw and they treat me to lunch. We stop at another pagoda. Men and monks are chanting. I bong all the big pagoda bells I can find. We arrive in Hsipaw. Their guide negotiates a room for me at the guesthouse they are staying in. They invite me to join them for a drive and short hike to sunset peak. I accept. We see a fantastic sunset. The monk who lives on the peak comes over to chat. Having a translator is a gift. The cat who lives with the monk comes to visit. He invites me to spend the night with him (the monk, not the cat) although he advises I will have to meditate. I am sorely tempted. Axel, Birgit, and Tutu also invite me to join them on an upriver boat trip and trek in the morning. I accept. I buy them dinner - huge plates of veggies, chicken, a barbequed fresh fish from the river, grilled okra, cilantro, and pork - beers all around – less than twenty dollars. The least I can do.
Back in my room exhausted I try to write but fall asleep midsentence.
January 15, 2012 – Sunday (trying to keep my dates straight)
And thus it comes to pass in the morning that the time set aside for yoga is compromised by my even greater “need” to write, mostly as a choice and as devotion, more than need, but it does feel almost compelled.
I meet Birgit, Axel and Tutu for breakfast. The day is dark, cold, and thick with obscuring morning fog. By eight thirty we are walking with our local guide – Soule Oo - to the river. We get in a long boat with a long propeller shaft running off some small auto motor mounted on the rear of the craft, with a few Burmese villagers, and head out into the fog. The river water is running fairly rapidly, but also very warm. We pass farming villages on the shore that look like riverine settlements elsewhere in southeast Asia, like villages along the Amazon or Orinoco, maybe even New Guinea: women bathing and washing clothes, water buffalo led down to the river to drink.
We pass a man going downriver on a lashed together bamboo raft, that our guide says is actually covering illegally harvested teak being taken to some location from which it will be picked up and transported to China. China is a big focus of life here in the northeast. A huge natural gas pipeline is being built to move Myanmar gas to China. A new train line is being built to move goods and agricultural produce to China. Soule Oo points out an omnipresent wildflower, which 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, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s Chinese.’”
About an hour after starting 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.
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 and from the gardening methods I see displayed in the villages, especially about aerating the soil and the use of trellises and stake supports. The sense of gardening 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. I imagine I’ll buy a small tiller and like the image.
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 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. 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.
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 “accidently” hung a good sized wall clock that completely obscures Buddha’s head such that it looks like his head is a clock. I call Axel over to see it. I say, “Observe 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 far woven bamboo 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 doorframe and bang my head so hard that it knocks me backward down onto the floor on my butt and then laying flat, dazed but unhurt. I am again reminded of the ethnographer Colin Turnbull, who I met and spent a brief period of time with 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 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 well. 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 of 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, a Shan name, besides by 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.
January 16, 2012
“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.”
… Sign at the entrance to the Buddhist cemetery, Hsipaw, Myanmar
I walk alone to a rather remote waterfall that cascades down a shear cliff. It takes me nearly three hours to get there. Much of the way I walk barefooted. I’m quite proud of myself and quite sore a day later. The trip to the falls takes me past cemeteries, monasteries, a burning garbage dump, with young boys picking thru the trash and the smell of smoke and rotting oranges, and dozens of lovely, lovely farms with men and women working in the fields. Passed the big, hard to cross scar that is the natural gas pipeline to China, which brought in two billion dollars, that’s billion, to Myanmar and people wonder where the money all went. (Want to guess?) Passed a discarded candy wrapper that reads, “Mama,” passed piles of manure covered with flies and butterflies, passed still functioning wooden wheeled ox carts that belong in Brueghel paintings. On the way to the falls I see an ox calf born less than an hour or two before I pass by, the mother still licking it clean. The calf is beautiful. The Burmese oxen are beautiful. Hairy. Longhaired. Huge eyed. The calf lays on the ground in absolute wonder and incomprehension, exhausted. At the falls I cast one of Axel’s plastic and acrylic “Energy Balancing Devices” into the waters. I will have to write about Axel in some detail at some time, about his beliefs as I understand them, about the content of our conversation, and about what I think is a friendship formed, rather than just one of the many traveler to traveler time limited connections. But in the strange manner of these travels, between my activities, including lovely early morning yoga, eating, and my time at Internet cafes getting to my email, there is really not a great deal of time to write, unless I take a day or part of a day off from touring.
January 17, 2012 – Lashio –
This is as far out as I have been, a fairly big trading and market center nearing the Myanmar border with China. I spend hours and hours wandering the streets and see not one other tourist or Anglo. The reaction of the people on the street confirms my unique peculiarity. Almost no one speaks English, even a smattering. I continue to eat in ways that seem almost cavalier to me and have so far escaped time and time again: fresh squeezed juice, tea, veggies and noodles from common street vendors, even in in Kolkata, meat on a stick, okra on a skewer, brown sticky rice patties, tea with milk, fried dough.
The streets of Lashio are mobbed and alive by day (and amazingly deserted by dark). I buy a nice tasting pizza at the Sweetheart Bakery. At another bakery where I buy some kind of sweet custard a guy in the store buys and gives me a jar of Burmese tealeaves as a gift. I get my face and scalp shaved by a man who touches me with amazing care and gentleness, perhaps as gently as I have ever been touched. Seated at an outside noodle vendor’s stand having soup the man next to me, who sells hats and gloves at the next stand over, and can’t exactly be raking in wealth, buys me a beer and pays for my meal, a full days pay for the average Burmese worker. When I protest he says in very broken English, “You me make happy.” When I speak the few Burmese phrases I know people are immensely joyful and amazed, laughing happily, repeating to the people they are with, “Did you hear how he just said ‘hello’ in Burmese?” One of the main TV stations broadcasts Al Jazeera 24/7, including a long story about the US appointing an ambassador to Myanmar. We should invest here in Myanmar; buy land, or a building in a city. And while I have absolutely no idea what I’m actually doing here in Lashio, it feels just fine, comfortable, even right for now.
January 18, 2012
I awaken early although I hadn’t set a specific wake up time, and had intended to be completely unstructured, with no time limit on my yoga practice, which most days I seem to end quicker than I wish to because of competing commitments and desires. I turn on my computer as day breaks and listen to Joy singing “Between the Silence and the Light.” As I lie abed in Lashio picking at my keyboard, I feel and perceive for the first time that my four month journey is headed towards its conclusion, even though I have more than two more weeks planned in Myanmar, three weeks planned in Australia, and perhaps as much as a week in SF before arriving back on the Cape by the March 2 poetry event.
I think about the fact that when traveling I seem freed from some of the “unhappiness,” dissatisfaction, self appraising criticality, and disquiet I often feel at home, the judgments I make of myself there, the impact on me of the peculiar American energy I am thus far in my life inescapably attuned to there, much as a tuning fork has no choice other than to vibrate with the energy waves it is attuned to. I think about what it would be like to travel for an entire year, or even travel with a completely open calendar as a way of life, or, as I’ve previously fanaticized, live in one place overseas for a solid block of time, doing yoga, studying the language, writing, teaching English.
I am reminded in these reflections that I really don’t want to be in the United States for the 2012 election season and that nothing really holds me to the states other than familiarity, my garden, the pleasure I take in sharing life together with Joy who I love uniquely (and who I would have as a traveling partner in a heartbeat, the absolutely highest praise), and my deep, deep soulful, heartfelt desire to see, to be with and spend time with, and to absorb the energy of Maia, Sam, Karl, Mikaela, and Theo. (I’d add to that list having the time to deepen my yoga practices and studies, which seems a bit more challenging on the road.) Anyhow, having said all that, the fact is it does not seem likely at this time that I will actually get away before the elections, nor escape the competitive, repetitive, attacking, critical, power seeking, deceitful, distorting falsity elections require and engender. Plus there are my law practice obligations, which I also find oppressive and tedious. And beyond that the tension created for me in the campaigns of candidates I do believe in, and do believe can make a difference, like Norman Solomon and Elizabeth Warren, and it will be hard to resist the desire and sense of obligation to contribute in some active manner to their election efforts, which by definition requires my doing things I do not really want to do if my “support” of their candidacies is to have any real impact on election outcomes and not just be an exercise in wishing for but not working for or doing anything practical in the service of what I believe presumably in.
There is also the sense of almost always feeling “overwhelmed” and over busy in America, which frightens and concerns me as a potential source of disruption of my more generally relaxed and contemplative, happy mood when on the road … or perhaps more honestly and accurately, when on vacation … but whatever the source(s) something I am immensely appreciative of. It’s just almost completely incredible to me that I have done whatever I needed to do, to be able to lie in a bed in Lashio, Burma completely comfortable and relaxed. And so I write for hours, do yoga for hours, read, and still get to half a dozen pagodas, the Chinese temple, downtown Lashio, an outlying village, and sunset from some local hilltop. Lashio is the epitome of a town built in a valley, a bowl, inasmuch as its perimeter is completely surrounded, 360 degrees, by mountains.
It is “funny” being a tourist in Burma, laying abed contemplating life in the United States rather than being out and about in this wondrous land, akin to how I feel when seated in an Internet café in Burma or India for an hour instead of wandering the streets. Yet I must remember that appropriate amounts of “rest” and even occasional distraction are also beneficial to one’s mental and physical well being (which may have applicability to my sense of how my time is spent in the States) and that there is absolutely no good served by my internally critical, distrusting voice.
So I look forward to writing, deepening my yoga and pranayama practices and understandings, and tending my gardens and my one third acre of earthly environmental management responsibilities as activities to put my energies in and to focus on, to experiencing the laying of individual stones and the setting of garden stakes as acts of love, art, and meditation rather than “work,” to using my finite time at the home I love as the canvas I paint upon, as a beautification project that evokes my passion. And in this regard there is an infinite amount to do and my days shall be full to overflowing.
Oh, and did I mention the lovely small gongs rung by the vendors going by on rolling carts outside my window? What about the fact that cigarettes are sold individually and often the lighter available for the consumer to use is hung from chimes so that when pulled over to light the cigarette the chimes ring? What about that most Burmese laborers work for a fifth to a tenth of what laborers are paid in Thailand? That okra is called ladyfingers, and is routinely available on skewers freshly barbequed? That I am treated to food regularly? That all I have to do is wave and broad smiles emerge? That people take much pleasure in me … and I them ... simply by being. That I am clearly not a sexual object, which I like, nor a threat, which I like, although sometimes I believe I am perceived enviously? And while I still have absolutely no idea why I came here to Lashio, and have seen no other tourists of any stripe for forty-eight hours, which no doubt increases the attention I receive, it just feels wonderful to be here and me make very happy.
There was a beggar I saw in Lashio, one of the few I’ve seen in Myanmar. He was grossly deformed in his extremities, with stubs for legs and arms, and wearing flip-flop sandals on what would be his hands to pull himself along in the street. Besides that, although the rest of him was proportional, I think he was a dwarf. But the smile on his face and the way he greeted and acknowledged people was beatific. On the day I gave him some money I emptied my pocket of the small bills I had, which totaled under a dollar. I walked about a block away, turned around, went back and gave him another dollar. These proportions are also ridiculous and deformed. As is arguing with a taxi driver whose services you buy for the day over a dollar or two, but at some point a principle is invoked and the negotiations seem to matter to the integrity of both parties, although the dollar matters far more to one than the other. One the second day I passed what I the other thought was the same beggar who acknowledged me with a smile and didn’t seem to expect anything. A block later I saw what absolutely looked like his twin, with the same open smiling face and the same deformities, and I turn away.
One other story from Lashio: Late at night after eating at a street vendor’s and spending time at the Internet café as is my pattern in my limited time here, I wander back to my hotel through mostly deserted streets past a vendor still selling some sort of fried pastry that I buy and consume to the usual joy and delight I seem to evoke just by showing up, being a big smiling foreigner, and mispronouncing a few Burmese phrases. Anyhow, the last night I’m in Lashio the assistant to the assistant to the laborer for the absentee owner, a woman in her mid thirties who speaks a very limited smattering of English, tells me in word and gesture that she has two children who she’s not living with, and a husband who hit her and she’s “abrogated” from. She makes two dollars a day and dreams of getting to America. She used to have land but she sold it. She cries about that. Her sister is a lawyer. She seems to want nothing and asks for nothing from me. I do not feel the slightest sexual vibration emitted from her. She calls me “grandfather.” But I do sense her deep desire for contact. She asks for my address and says she wants to write me. Am I drawn to borderlines even in Myanmar? Because the thing is I want so much to give her money, say 50$, a month’s pay that she could save or spend as she chose, and what difference would that make to me. And I have to resist my desire to save women, even here in Myanmar.
The next morning before my ride back to Pyin Oo Lwin I go back to where the stand she works at, only there are completely different stands there in the daytime, something I hadn’t realized was a fact of life in Myanmar, this leasing of stand space for parts of a day. But I do see one of the men who hung around my conversation with Mherlet the night before, a betel tooth stained young man now busy pushing as many passengers as he can into the backs of motorcycle rickshaws with pickup-like two wheel wagons attached and collecting fares for the rickshaw driver, and I show him a photo I took of Mherlet on my cell phone last night, and I give him one of Alex’s energy balancing devices, and ask the young man to give it to Mherlet, to tell her it is “good luck,” and even manage to get back to the hotel in time for my ride, which is a whole other story.
January 19, 2012 TH
Well that was interesting.
The escape from Lashio – the cab ride
Seeing things a second time - Hsipaw
Arriving in POL. Plans and contemplations
The fact that I’ve had some challenging encounters, and as I think about this with the editor turned off, it is definitely noteworthy that sitting at the bus station while the taxi waited for a third person to jam into the back seat of his small Toyota station wagon, with the big American in the front seat, and the cargo area and the roof rack filled to overflowing with boxes and deliveries en route to Mandalay, that one of the many ticket agents who buzzed the cab to see what was going on and on occasion to engage me said quite cleanly, “Be careful.” And it registered … guide-like. Still there was little I could do squeezed into the front seat of the seatbelt-less taxi, the heater broken and the heat on, the roads deserving due care themselves, coming upon a bloody motorcycle accident, eating who knows what at roadside stops, being told to hide my computer as we approached a toll check point, being told I cannot find a house or a bungalow to rent, being told I should not go to the villages because it will raise suspicions and fears about what I am doing there, still struggling with whether it is safe to go to Bhamo in southern Kachin, endlessly hectored by the crazy Nepali motorcycle taxi guy, a little agitated by email and phone glitches that make contact with Joy a strain, and then, worst of all, and none of this is really all that bad at all, being blatantly exploited and lied to for the first time that I am aware of in all my time in Myanmar, and as fate would have it, by a Muslim man who somehow felt within his rights though his behavior was so un-Burmese.
In yet another dream I have emceed and event and when I come off stage Eddie D says to Steve Krugman in his wonderfully sardonic voice, “Could someone just please tell me how a guy who was known as “Crow” turn into – well - a schlumpy old guy with pants that are tattered and too short, ear hair, and gray sox?” Dream fragments … the part about the groom, the pot, being a policeman, them wanting him to join to jam, draft board notice … being over 70, ella, riffing together w the bride, having dope, the road … the review of the play that takes place in JP and how it had to be directed by a Black man, tim carpenter missing the big crowd, Joy about to give birth, Lynne and I “uniting/reuniting” in spirit and awareness, Lyn R and I reestablishing a dialog … losing bowel control as an adult on a nice carpet in the presence of my father, who is helpful in cleaning it up promptly as well as gracious and accepting without in any way fueling my shame and embarrassment. Having a really good joint w a roach in my pocket … the conference on Jewish or Israel, how well the left and right got along … the obvious righteousness and passion of each side. The Burmese/Tibetan woman seller hand crafted hand stitched mostly clothing to the crowd. 800$ ties. My answer to the question of whether I am pro Pal, and whether I am Jewish is that I am ethnically “Jewish,” which is totally fine with me, and besides which I have no choice about, and besides which from the perspective of historical and tribal identity and continuity I’m fine with, even feel good about, but that I am not “religiously” Jewish, do not accept the tenets of the faith, and do not identify with the notion of Israel as a “Jewish” state, although I’m fine with it being a homeland for the Jewish people and a refuge for Jewish people to be shared with others who wish to be there. And, yes, of course I am pro-Palestinian if you mean identified with and a supporter of a struggle of Pal people to be free of oppression and a country they can be fully equals in, that is not Jordan or Syria where they did not and do not have meaningful ties, history, or property, other than all of those folks being Arabs, which is a bit like telling the Dutch they can live in Germany because they’re all Europeans.
Anyhow, in the dream I am finally headed to a gathering I was supposed to be at at 8, now already closer to 10, and not likely to be there for at least another hour. Lynne, who didn’t want to be there alone, more than that she wanted my company as me, feels something she can’t give voice to other than to know it is a vague discomfort. I have the sense Lynne carried almost all the responsibilities of maintaining our home, getting us places on time, earning a living. It is interesting on reflection to recall that the thing Lynne offered the most explicit gratitude to me was for being a good breadwinner and providing for us (not exactly things that matter much to me, or perhaps that I take them for granted and I suppose that I was a good father second. I mean not that that’s bad at all, but couldn’t I have been praised on occasion for being a good lover, or a caring compassionate soul, or a decent poet, or immensely curious and brave. And while on this narcissistic subject, the nice things she would say about me were that I was smart, and that I was handsome. Ms. Manning is in a completely different class of character, whose adoration was not that valued by me, and as immensely brilliant and special a soul as I think she is, her appreciation of my poetic intelligence was diminished in my eyes by her youth and an un-self-reflective naiveté. And continuing in this somewhat naked psychoanalytic babble, Ms. Harmon, tied for the most intelligent and sophisticated woman I’ve ever known in an academic/psychological sense (except when it came to knowing herself), also praised my modest accomplishments in the material world, and my successes as a father/provider, and thought me intelligent, sexy, and poetic, which I valued … although as a person there were things about her I literally couldn’t bear, that I disliked and dislike about her immensely, which we won’t bother to recount. And of these major players, I guess I’d have to add Mary Pat who was chimerical and, in ways that chill me, perhaps most taken by my size, my Jewish New York-ness and my impulsivity. And Louise, who just adored everything about me, but was not seen as a full equal in my eyes, which rightfully maddened her, but was regrettably true. And besides, I’m really not interested in adoration, don’t like it, don’t trust it, and find it devaluing of the adorer.
Now Ms. Cuming, by contrast, Ms. “Even-if-I-don’t-say-it-doesn’t-mean-I-don’t-mean-it,” does somehow convey that she finds me very sexy, smart, brave, curious, poetic, romantic, even somehow exceptional, although she sees the world in such a positive light that many are “exceptional” to her. And because I value, appreciate, and admire who she is so highly – think she is so intelligent (if not always self-insightful), so smart, loving, committed, real, autonomous, genuine, incapable of cruelty, creative, brave, loving, trustworthy, kind, reverent, awake, seeking, even at times brilliant – and I assign that word to no one I can think of – her appraisal of me and what she values in me and how we fit together is clearly a gift from the gods.
What she does not say explicitly is, “Thank you for providing for me as you do,” which I wouldn’t mind hearing every once in a while, although I think it is a bit of defensiveness on her part (maybe even shame) that precludes the articulation, and also that she doesn’t seem to come from an explicitly articulating of praise culture. It’s that bowing thing, and anyhow, enough of this particular reverie.
In the dream I am finally leaving the conference site, a big university like Harvard but located more toward Providence. (I just love that name for a city or place.) It has snowed. The Tibetan lady, her Amerindian husband and their gorgeous young child need a lift somewhere. Lyle is with us. It has snowed and in my impatience I do not clean the windows adequately and in the dusky dark, my vision reduced, I drive the car off the road into deep water, Chappaquiddick like. Everyone is going to die. The water is cold and dark. The doors and windows of the car cannot be opened. I will also live, but will be found with that roach in my pocket and charged with vehicular homicide, which includes a mandatory jail sentence.
January 20, 2012 – Pyin Oo Lwin
I sleep late and well and awaken wanting nothing more than to be abed, to have time off from vacation (LOL), and my daily encounters with the alien and the delightful. I dream deeply, diversely, even disturbingly. I write and edit for hours with no greater purpose than to record, disclose, distract, and reveal. The electricity is off and I will run out of battery, which will help define my activities for the day. It is well past noon. I have not done yoga. I have no idea what I am doing in the next few days, or even what I am doing tomorrow. I need plans! (That was a joke.) What I want most actually is to be reading Iyengar’s book on pranayama, which I do, all of about three paragraphs, and I’m then fast again asleep.
I finally make it to the street around 3P.M. where I think I recognize what my plans may be for the next ten days or so. It is, in fact, too hard, potentially dangerous, and anxiety producing to try to get to Bhamo in the now limited time I have available, given that I want and must be back to meet up with Steve Wangh and that under the present circumstances as I understand them relative to Kachin, all the flights are either full, sporadic, or being cancelled, the roads out are closed so that bus travel and shared taxis are precluded, thus explaining the overfull and booked flights, and foreigners are being discouraged from going into Kachin at all and being told absolutely not to go to Myitkina, which was the other city in Kachin I’d thought about visiting. So if I don’t get to Maine (by analogy) I will instead go to Vermont, or maybe spend more time in Boston, and maybe next time I’ll visit Kachin, Inshallah, when I also want to go to the Napoli coast, Sittwe and Mwark U with Joy. (I also want to go to (a) Scotland, Paris, Southern France w Joy, (b) Venice and Yugoslavia with Joy, (c) Bali, Myanmar, Sikkim and/or Nepal with Joy, and (d) Africa.)
As usual, when I feel any anxiety about travel, it takes me a while to realize that my ambivalence or discomfort about going to Bhamo is not simply an irrational phobic anxiety that I could have no possible respect for and felt I must overcome, but rather a rational anxiety and a reasonable choice I was making and a limitation I was accepting. I also, in this instance, felt I was given an exceptionally explicit admonition from the guide at the bus station in Lashio who urged me to “be careful.” And while the guide didn’t know explicitly what he had in mind, and while yes, I can apply such a general admonition to anything that subsequently comes my way and have the facts fit the theory, and, no, there is and can be no “proof” that this in any way is what the admonition referenced, that is just not the way of the guides, who offer messages more in the realm of intuitive and spiritual links and intuitive spiritual, non-analytic intelligence based “knowing,” and thus the “scientific” among us are absolutely correct when they state there is no “proof,” because in a scientific methodological and empirical sense there is no proof and this entire subject of guides and spiritual/intuitive guidance quickly gets into the question of “ways of knowing,” and like dimensions, it is very hard to learn and to visualize beyond what we know and can know as a result of the current limitations of mind, and, as the Latin teacher in my freshman year at Hunter College wrote upon giving me an F for the course, “You cannot intuit Latin, Mr. Taub.” And paradoxical as this all sounds, you cannot just intuit intuition and must “practice” to get increasingly familiar with what is available to access information or what is knowable and what is “knowing” beyond one’s current perceptual limitations. It’s like learning anything else, to speak, to drive, to write, to get to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice. And what there is no doubt about, at least to my way of “knowing” these days, is that like a dream, the guide’s admonition was “sent” to me, “intended” for me, and certainly used by me as a factor to consider in reaching a conclusion about action and choice.
And besides, there are many other good options of places to go and be, even as relates to my fantasy of finding a house in a village and staying there a week. Because the truth as to that fantasy, the reality, is that a foreigner cannot find a house to stay in for a week or two in a village in Burma. One, they just don’t exist. Two, everyone I speak to says it is forbidden by the government to rent to foreigners, and whether that is literally true or not (how would I know), the perception is certainly sufficient to be a powerful and total bar. And, three, the anthropological fact is that the presence of a foreigner in a small Burmese village would raise so many questions, and such paranoia, that it would be quite uncomfortable for all and the government would be soon involved.
Add to all this the fact that I am immensely comfortable and engaged being here in POL, and, other than that I am staying in a somewhat antiseptic hotel room (for $15/night), POL completely satisfies almost all I had hoped for from an extended village stay except the intimacy and pastoral quiet. And in very short order I have become somewhat of a familiar presence in my part of town, passing by the same shops and shopkeepers many times in the course of the day. Seeing familiar faces and nodding. Establishing a routine presence at the night food market where I can get little flower and sugar things freshly steamed and the size of a tangerine for a nickel. Picking up checker games in the street and in the coffee house I now frequent, where I can get a decent cup of coffee and a baked sweet bean bun for twenty-five cents. So at the moment I think I’ll stay in POL at least a few more days, and then head on to Monywa in Sagaing state instead of Bhamo, where we’ll see what attending to messages from cautionary guides brings when I do finally move on from here, with these understandings, these experiences, and these teachings, remembering too that on my first trip to India I got from place to place strictly through guide messages, including Auroville, Pune, and Varanasi. And I bow.
January 21, 2012
I’ve been dreaming about Lynne almost every night for what seems like the last four or five nights at least, and she has certainly been the most frequent visitor in my dreams during this whole trip. In last night’s dream there is a snowstorm forecast and I tell Joy that I am going to go to Lynne and Sam’s to be with them to ride out the storm. In advance of the storm I sit in at a dispositional hearing for an eighteen year-old kid who is charged with a variety of minor offenses, like auto theft, burglarious tools, disorderly. Both of his parents are dead and he’s doing a decent job of trying to be responsible caring for himself, but it’s a lot to ask of him. I’ll skip the rest of the details of the hearing and the disposition … interesting though they might be … except to say he is given the predictable encouraging rap, supervised probation, a recommendation for counseling, and advised to give consideration to possibly joining the military. That Jack McDougall from Met State is in the hearing just blows my mind, as he is someone I’ve not consciously thought about for at least twenty years – although, of course, I can make associations galore, and the first persons who come to mind are all truly magnificent stereotypes of something or persona or other, particularly the other “Unit Directors,” Shirley Bertrand, Mel Tapper, Charlie X, and the lovely Chris Burke, who died young, the victim of a drunk driver. It is always interesting to me how much I enjoyed Met State, how good it was for me, and what an incredible cast of characters I’d never ever otherwise have had a chance to met, including the patients, of course, Judith and George, Wendy, Nicky, names of persons I’ve forgotten, the doctors, Annis, Costello, others, the head of security, Paul McDaniel, Mike Catapano, my aide, my secretary Gladys Kavey, as loyal and lovely a soul as I’ll ever meet … and on and on. I actually roamed the deserted grounds there, I now remember, on a fall day when I had time between Diana Vano’s wedding ceremony on Trapelo Rd, not far from Met State, and her over the top wedding celebration in some fancy hotel in downtown Boston, the crumbling bricks, the graveyard lost in tall dry weeds, unattended fruit trees, shuttered windows, at one time the epitome of America’s vision of progressive care for the mentally ill,
But back to the dream - Lynne, Sam, and Micah, are going to a Red Sox game in advance of the storm. I call to say I’m running late (surprise) and that I’ll meet them at the seats, which turn out to be in the very last row of a remodeled Fenway Park. I say to Lynne on the phone, “I know it’s unfair of me to say this, but I love and miss you.” As I arrive near our seats the Star Spangled Banner is playing, the sun is shining, a light sprinkling of snow is falling, and Sam and Micah are wandering off before I get to the seats to even say hello. Immensely pervasive in the dream is a sense of guilt that I feel, mostly toward Sam and Maia in terms of my not adequately caring for them, the time I did not spend with them, my abandoning them, the hurt I inflicted on them, followed by a sense of guilt toward Joy, in this instance a representational woman, and lastly guilt toward Lynne. What seems central in the dream to me is my saying “I love and miss you,” to Lynne. At least that’s what I think is most useful/interesting to focus on, because although I did love her, and in some ways do love her, I do not actually any longer “love” her, nor do I have any desire to be with her, nor do I miss her. What I miss is the unit that we created, the dream image we were trying to live. And when I fall asleep again after writing this I again dream of Lynne, who I am separated from in the dream, with Sam around 10 years old. She is burdened by the time constrains being a single parent involves. I offer to help her pay for a competent sitter. She says something to me in reference to Joy, calling Joy my “lover,” and I say, “Well, no, she’s my partner. In fact, she’s actually my wife,” though truth be told I don’t really want a wife these days.
January 22, 2012 - Sunday
What is most relevant at this moment in my travels is that all of a sudden, out of the clear blue, I feel a little bored and critically self-judgmental, which is a very familiar, frightening, and uncomfortable state to be in. Just hanging out in POL, doing yoga, writing in my journal, reading a little, going to the internet café, wandering streets I’ve already wandered, eating, playing checkers (and even that is not so compelling after a while), occasionally watching a movie being shown on TV, although they are really boring too, and feeling as if there should be a more uptick vibrations in my mood. And it’s not as if I don’t know how to fill the day, it is more a gnawing sense I am not doing enough, not accomplishing enough, that I find my endeavors wanting and unsatisfactory, as if I was playing computer solitaire for hours to while away the time, or endlessly doing crossword puzzles. And this is precisely what my mood and struggle at home felt like, which just makes me want to sleep … and perhaps, if it weren’t for my commitment to Steve Wangh, I really would and could take off for Bali, because in ways I suddenly feel done with Myanmar.
By the time I finish writing, napping, reading, and wishing once again that there were another more outward focus to my writing, a book perhaps, it is after 1:30 PM - hey, it’s Sunday - and I have not done yoga, eaten, or really been out of the bed except to allegorically take in the Sunday NY Times from outside the door, and “waste” hours reading it, the sports section, the news of the week in review, travel, society, arts, the book review section, as opposed to whittling away the morning struggling with the issue of the inner directed versus the outer directed, the spiritual versus the worldly, the silent meditator passing day after day on the cushion “doing” “nothing” versus the psychotherapist seated in his or her chair listening with an active mind to others, the internal spirit seeker versus the active in the world “doer.” Trying to understand what is real, what is possible, what is worthy, what desired. The answer is in balance and harmony, not seen from the perspective of a moment or a day, but over a lifetime. And although it remains true that I am still desirous at some level of engagement, accomplishment, recognition, success, popularity even, the fact is that I don’t want to do what that requires – except when it comes to the solo exercise of writing a book – and that I chose some time ago to walk a spiritual path as a spiritual seeker, which remains the most important quest for me today, and that I could not do so and simultaneously be fully engaged in the world of work and society, although I could spend more time with those I love.
So here I am, it’s now 2 PM on a Sunday in Pyin Oo Lwin, the windows of my room are open, the breeze and the sounds of the town - motors, voices, horns, birds, pigeons, roosters, children, hammers, horses, tin, wood, glass, wash, pails, water, dogs, chanting, song, smoke, and sun all pouring in through my east by southeast facing windows, my traveling orchids watered, aired, trimmed, succored, and lovingly placed in indirect light on the window sill, plowing my way through Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” having almost instantly regained some equanimity and equilibrium, although I still wish these hours of writing had another more publishable sharable focus, as I finally head to the yoga mat and then out into town, not long before sunset, having again forgone revisiting the National Gardens, the trip I want to make to some nearby farming villages, and any sense as to what I am doing or when I might move on from POL, but excited by my journey, aware for me, that on my path, yoga and pranayama are my gateways to enlightenment of mind, body, intellect, and spirit.
And in this mood, with this awareness, I bow and step out into the Burmese world of POL, where it’s Sunday, which means the Internet is closed and everyone is washing and/or disassembling and repairing their motorcycles. Of course, everyone in POL is repairing or washing their motorcycles every other day of the week, but today it seems just a bit more obvious. And it is this very “exposing of the obvious” that turns out to be the key element or theme of the day, the seeing and unfolding of what was meant to be seen according to its own notion of appropriateness, time, and order.
You will recall my notion that for some of my time in Myanmar I would find a village I could stay in, and while I’ve been disabused of that notion as unreal and impracticable, my time staying in POL has come close to the feeling I’ve been seeking in a place as a possible base. So here I am, walking in what I think of as a totally aimless fashion through the back streets of POL, headed vaguely toward a cross on the top of a building I can see from the window of my room, when I notice a totally faded and obscure lopsided sign on the side of the road that says “Saint Matthew’s Orphanage Center” and I think without thinking, okay, turn that way, as I head down an alley between buildings toward what seems like an opened but deserted courtyard, which when I get there finds me approached by a woman asks in very broken English if she can help me, and I say I had just noticed the sign that said there was an orphanage here, and she asks me to sit on a tree stump indicating she’ll be right back, and I do, and she returns with Tsan Mai and T Hwag two charming characters with clear skins and bright faces who are respectively the director of education and the coordinator of volunteers at the orphanage. And you can guess the rest of what unfolds from that conversation.
“You’d like to help?” they say more than ask, “Perhaps teach an English proficiency class?”
“Oh I guess I could try it out one morning.”
“Well, yes, we’d be honored to have you do so, although of course one week would be so much more helpful than one day …
January 24, 2012 -
I “teach” my second class of English. I learn more and more about Myanmar and particularly Kachin, where I have been precluded from visiting, but am more desirous of seeing than ever.
Then, after writing “postcards” seated at a coffee shop like a tourist anywhere in Europe I make the mistake of noticing a curio shop I had not seen before and spend a few hours and a few dollars there … Of course the owner doesn’t have change of 100$, but since he also owns the hotel I’m staying at, he’ll just take what he owes me off his bill. And although I trust I overpaid ridiculously for the items I bought at less than half of what he asked for initially, I also trust he is completely good for the money.
Okay one more story. I go for dinner at my second favorite street vendor’s stand in the night market because the first one isn’t opened. Meaning in this instance that it isn’t there. These are street vendor stands, after all, and they have to set up and break down every day like army field kitchens. Tables, table cloths, chairs, tea cups, thermoses, clay stoves, wood, charcoal, aluminum tent frames, canvas or plastic tent tops and sides, florescent lights, a battery to run the lights off of, pots, pans, gallons and gallons of water, food, noodles, veggies, spices, napkins, well, okay toilet paper, chopsticks, spoons, toothpicks, strainers, scissors, the preferred tool for cutting veggies and meat, trays, baskets to cart it all around in because it all has to be brought in and set up every afternoon around 4 PM and carted away, every last toothpick and noodle, at nine every evening.
I’m clearly their last customer of the day and they’re starting to pack up, so after I eat my standard dinner of noodles and veggies I get up to leave and pay when the proprietress, who I didn’t know spoke any English, and she barely does, but she’s clearly got this one as she says to me, “You sit!” Now this is a very diminutive thin woman in her mid thirties, wearing a skinny ankle length purple skirt, a matching top, a dirty apron, flip flop sandals, and bad teeth (although I think her quite pretty in her way), but when she commands me to sit I am nothing less than well trained and obedient, even if I have no idea why I’m sitting, as we of the well trained breed often do not.
Her husband is a very quiet chain smoking gofer of a guy, who responds as I did to her every command and is clearly the aide to her general leadership, running, I mean literally running, to support her efforts to move meals from the display table, where people select what they want in their dishes, to the clay stove cooking fires, into plastic bags for take away or onto serving plates and then tables, into wash basins, stoking the fires, mixing sauces, getting tea on the tables, wiping the tables down while the boss basically cooks, interacts with the customers, and collects the money into her apron pocket. I like seeing them together. A lot. They are a nice collaborative team who work smoothly, efficiently, kindly, and well together.
So, as they continue to clean and clear and pack, I continue to sit drinking tea. Yet at the same time as they are breaking down the kitchen she is also cooking one last dish: remains of the chicken that lay at the bottom of the broth, noodles, spices, “no vegetables,” she says to me, laughing at my emphasis on getting the most vegetables I can into my dishes. And then she and her husband sit down and have their meal, and I discover the reason I was commanded to sit is that I have been invited to join them. And I do, of course, as do a couple of young men who work at a neighboring street vendor’s stand, the Christians bowing in prayer before eating, everyone talking animatedly, directing questions to me in Burmese, apparently oblivious to my language limitations, because since I’ve added “I don’t understand,” as well as “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” and “no problem,” to my limited vocabulary, they seem to think I get it all.
January 25, 2012 –
Last night in POL: I’m really going to miss this town. And I just can’t see how being in Orleans, which requires me to be so much more self contained and resourceful, can be anything near as exciting or engaging as this is, where all I have to do is step out the door to be entertained and stimulated. I’m even playing with the idea of more travel, and if it weren’t for my desire to be with and share a life with Joy, I really don’t know what I’d do. See the kids some of the time, see Joy some of the time, travel. I feel the tear of my goodbyes here, feel my affiliation with the people who comprise my day, many of whom I feel an affection if not a love for, another thing I don’t have when I step out the door in Orleans, (a) because I don’t see so many folks, and (b) because I find the folks I see neither this fascinating and warm, nor this accessible.
January 26, 2012 –Thursday
Apparently not content to spend my last days before leaving Myanmar, before rendezvousing with Wangh, in the comfort of Pyin Oo Lwin, or Mandalay, I decide to go out in an ongoing exploration of new venues and potential adventure. That means, 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 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, who seem to nod affirmatively. Mostly I trust, but also am not 100% sure, I’m going to land somewhere near what is my intended destination. Still, the bus is nearly completely full and everyone I’ve said Monywa to has nodded his or her head and smiled, so this piece of my fate is for a while sealed. It’s exciting to be headed someplace new in a bus filled with people all I can 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, this road is filthy (mostly with plastic), and flat, passing endless dusty one horse peasant farming villages, oxen bringing in the hay and barefoot kids 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, and 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, that one annoying taxi driver who won’t leave you alone until you buy him off with 100 chats, and all the 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. The group I end up sitting with is so nice, with barely any English language skills, although I am still able to discern that the mother of the six year boy is a widow, that her 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 laughed with and played 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 and that maybe I am ready for the vastness of sub Saharan Africa open ended, one way ticket, no return date, just immersed, and alone. And in this, 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 was 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 and carry me to 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, only one working light bulb in my room, alone with my computer, and where I want to be, or at least am happy being, other than my wish to be with Joy, and my kids, and grandkids, all of whom I eagerly anticipate seeing, the kiddies late in Feb on my way home, as well as to going out to Cali for a block of time in the spring, to receive them on the Cape in the summer, to see them again in the fall, and then, who knows? Can you say, “October is a lovely month in East Africa?” Not to mention that Joy and I do truthfully want to go to Scotland, France, Venice, Bali, Turkey, back to Myanmar, to Nepal and/or Sikkim, Australia, which I predict I’ll fall in love with, and there is also my very real desire to revisit Bosnia. Money? Did someone say money?
And does anyone here remember my image of being a trapper working seasonal trap lines who would come by to visit with Joy, the good witch living in the woods, whenever I was in the neighborhood and being lovingly welcomed? Not Joy’s most favored image, she says, but both the players here are making choices and setting their priorities. And even more than that, frankly, I’ve discovered there are ways it feels much easier, safer, and less anxiety filled to travel alone.
At the start of my yoga practice each morning I have been making a “resolve” or “dedicating” the session to some wish, body part, person, or ideal. Today it was to give gratitude for the gratitude I feel so deeply, still amazed as I am by my travel experiences, my ability to be alone, the pleasure I’m taking in being alone, the spiritual dimension of this existence that I have come ever so slightly to know, to feel, and to dwell in, and how much deeper I hope to go, as well as gratitude for the love I feel, the love I trust I receive, especially from Joy and Sam and Maia (although that last one comes with some disquiet), the lack of my need for affirmation, the depths of the pleasure I receive from the human transactions I do have, how particularly special that is in Myanmar, and always my totally awesome, still almost unbelievable transformation from phobic to satisfactorily not phobic person, and my willingness to set forth, enter into, and engage with the world, or as the tattoo on my left foot reads in Mandarin, “roo shee,” speaking of affirmations and manifestation. Really, it still just totally amazes me to find myself capable of these feats, as well as to find myself being capable of being this particular manifestation of the soul of Bruce Taub. And I bow.
January 27, 2012 – Monywa – Joy’s 56th birthday
This is all amazing, absolutely amazing. (Have I said that recently?)
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 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 and 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 there r I arrive on the bus from Mandalay, which is about how long it takes 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 whose 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 was looking for business and this is his approach style, I genuinely believe he was also just being friendly, and with Saw it is so innocuously 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 epitomic manifestation 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 to the monastery where I am toured around the incredibly pastoral and beautiful grounds and shown the separate male and female residence halls, the separate male and female dining halls, the kitchen, and the meditation sitting room by the charming abbot.
Then Saw and I explore the famous Leidi Monastery and the pagoda it is center 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 much like seeing that either.
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 even 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 the 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 proximate 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 be of help her, empathic with her, pained for her, loving her. Deaf people, people who sign, and who live in a silent world fascinate me … have always it seems fascinated me. My first real girlfriend, Michelle Friedman’s parents were both deaf, when the phones rang or the bell rang in their apartment the lights in their apartment on Sedgwick Avenue would flicker so they would know to respond. Michelle and her brother both signed fluently. Jon Ross growing up the signing only child of a deaf single mother fascinates me. It is said by Sam that Jon always says whatever he feels like, perhaps because he grew up in a home where he could say whatever he pleased and no one would hear him. And, of course, the misspelled Taube, which means dove or pigeon, when spelled Taub means deaf. But notwithstanding my loving, help filled desires toward the speechless girl I meet on my way to the caves of monastic silence outside of Monywa, my fantasy of bringing the girl to America, of offering the family money, of coming back the next day with someone from social services, I resist my every helpful impulse, even controlling my desire to ask the mother about services available for the deaf in Myanmar, and what she is availing herself of, and stand there, taking photographs of the girl, offering her cookies from my pack, listening to her squeals of delight, and holding my tongue, mute.
Driving on further we come to the small town built around the commerce generated by the caves with a half dozen teashops and souvenir stores. I’ve been on the back of a dusty motorcycle for hours and order a cold beer, offering half to Saw who refuses, telling me that he used to abuse alcohol and so hasn’t had a single drink in eighteen years. I so appreciate his candor, like the student in my English class in POL talking about her alcoholic father. Saw, who lives with his mother and malaria debilitated sister also discloses to me that he has a widowed girlfriend, with a seventeen-year old daughter, who has just opened a food stand in a village half an hour outside of Monywa. He is so gentle Saw. I really like him. He even drives his motorcycle slowly and gently. ng beer and why
Never any change of a 1000 chat note, charging only foreigners for admission
The actual caves #3 archeo site after Bagan, and Mwauk U.
French tourists and guide
The ninety-one year old smoking nun
Back on the road. Not stopping at the stand
Stopping at the barbers
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 …
We are back on the bike early as Saw wants to get me to the furthest out village he can think of that might be “real” and of interest to me, and still have me back for the last bus of the day to Mandalay. Brick makers …
January 29, 2012 – Mandalay
I continue to be amazed, shocked actually, by the joyful and pleasing nature of my travels in Myanmar, particularly the human encounters I have, particularly when visiting places where people are not that accustomed to seeing foreigners. I am also amazed, again even shocked, by my encounters with myself, as I guess I’ve said here, oftentimes someone I can hardly believe is having the internal experiences I am having, particularly the experiences of pleasure, joy, delight, dare I say giddy happiness, and of being comfortably (read un- phobic) present with myself. The two days in Monywa were actually spectacular days, not merely nice days, or good days, all the sights I saw, all the encounters and even adventures I had, not to mention falling in love, or intense like, with the deaf girl, the brick laborers, the food vendor, and even Saw. And while I continue to struggle in my mind with a question about the relationship of egotism and the taking of pleasure in one’s self as a manifestation of ego, I do not think that my thinking is particularly clear in this realm, unfamiliar as I am with it. And so, in the tradition of these journals and the commonest problem solving techniques I know, I try to apply my mind, my intellect, and my words to understanding whether there is a contraction I would be well served by resolving.
We are taught in Buddhism that the ego is a distraction from reaching higher states of consciousness, and that to dwell in the ego is to dwell in certain illusion, and I more or less get what that means, although I also live in a world where psychology is one of the dominant schools of thought and almost religious and philosophical underpinnings of our age. And in psychological religious thought and belief attention to the ego and to conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires that are all aspects and manifestations of the ego is advocated as one of the primary methods/techniques for finding resolution, satisfaction, relief from suffering, and even inner peace.
Are these contrary beliefs? Is there a conflict between their contradictory and complimentary assertions? I don’t know, so let us turn to my more specific concerns and questions.
I am taking great pleasure in the life I am living, or the life that is living me, or using me to be lived. I am also taking great pleasure in myself and in the experiences I am having. And I would have to say that the pleasure I take in myself is Egoic pleasure. So is it “bad,” or retarding of my “spiritual” development, to do so.
I arrive at the Mandalay bus station well past dark. A dozen taxi drivers offer to take my bags and bring me somewhere, but truth be told I have no idea where I want to go, other than to some hotel I haven’t yet identified, somewhere in town, that I haven’t yet identified yet, and besides fellas, I’m really not ready to go anywhere yet, and don’t need to, so if you please I’m just gonna walk over to this outside bar here, where all these men are smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and watching a soccer game on TV, sit myself down, have a beer and some peanuts myself, and enjoy the night airs, which I do. And in no time I’ll be invited to join a group of men, and one of them will speak fractured English, and we’ll laugh just because, and the barmaid will recommend a hotel in response to my inquiry, and a cabbie on a motorcycle will take me there for a fair price, and it will be in the very heart of the backpacker hotel district as I’d hoped for, and they’ll have one reasonably clean and reasonably price room still available, and wifi, and down the street one restaurant will still be opened, and I will have the sense I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and want to be, and that the only “effort” it really took on my part was to ride gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
… reference how much I love Joy, who she is, how she loves me, how much she is enjoying her life and reaping the rewards of a plan and vision that rightly feels at the moment to her that she wants to and must complete … note compatibility/in compatibility w how much I am enjoying travelling, and how challenging that makes it to find our “context” …
January 30, 2012 – Monday/Mandalay
Strange appearances in dreams, of Nina, Moreson, and Rose, for example, each highly concerned about something or other, frightened, preoccupied with what may happen … or perhaps will inevitably happen … but is not actually present except as foreshadowing.
Amazing dream featuring Robert Kramer, who has to be dead twenty years or so, as himself: aged, fluent in French, egoistic, self-promoting. Involved in a project where a small sail boat and crew sail to exotic places and record their journey using interactive video technology that is three dimensional and tactilely responsive and able to be manipulated by the viewer. He is trying to raise money, find sponsors, and participants. I hoping to be making the presentation to a large audience at a big university forum, but is playing to a very small house, and, in fact, the video footage he is showing, while artistically fascinating as genre and art, is not particularly compelling from a viewer perspective. Side bars include the breaching of the apartheid wall by a bulldozer, and the beheading of an Israeli officer, filmed by Israeli security such that the identities of the participants is well documented, the remarkable appearance at the forum of delicious food, particularly dream pizza, that my sister tells me is “one half calories” but that I eat with gusto, and Robert’s shameless/unconscious use of others to help him out in any way he needs at that moment.
Also a dream about trying to drive to a deposition without clarity as to whether the town it is in is in the southern or western part of the state.
And I have to record somewhere this experience of traveler’s diarrhea and how much pleasure I have taken in my bodily response to it, and I to it have been.
And also the evolution of my attitudes and practices about taking things that do not belong to me, which was and is distinct from stealing. Certain things appear before me, new shirts in plastic bags clearly forgotten by the purchaser/owner, segments of original plaster trim design from antique pagodas, pretty rocks living on the ground at sacred sites. And in the past I would have taken them, and distinguished the taking from stealing, but now I consider them not to “belong” to me and will not remove them from where I found them. If I saw an old hat lying in the roadway it might be different, as might a feather, and I might take it, and bringing stones to my home from the bay or the beach feels like a loan that will be returned to the original owner in the fullness of global time, not a taking, and even harvesting a piece of a plant for replanting purposes feels like a generate, act, but as best as I can tell, not only am I not stealing these days, but I am not taking what does not belong to me. And by the way, that shirt was from Bagan, with Burmese written characters, and would have been real nice for Theo or Mikaela, but as I said …
This ongoing evolution of mine fascinates me, even bringing me to the edge of my comfort zone regarding my sanity in the realms of manifestation, guides, coincidence, spiritual reality, energetic presence, channeling, and manifestation.
February 3, 2012 – Yangon
I have two dreams that I recall, both related and on a common theme. In the first I am some sort of project manager or supervisor whose responsibilities inherently include the overseeing and production of ongoing descriptive and evaluative reports, and I have simply disregarded all project reporting responsibility and am in a panic over an upcoming site visit where reports will be inevitably be inquired about and expected, and I have none.
In the second dream I am the assistant coach of a high school basketball team in total disarray and in the midst of a grossly failing season, and when I try to impose some discipline on the team in the coach’s absence, the players completely disregard my wishes and instructions, viewing me as a powerless flunky. But when the coach arrives he supports my efforts, says that the team is in fact in disarray, could be a better team, and is already a better team by virtue of the truth telling we are in the midst of and the potentially positive transformation such a confrontation augers.
I do not want to leave Myanmar, do not want to end my time here, am aware of the relatively little time I have left in life to undertake and complete any of the many dizzying fascinations that appear and appeal to me, all the things I want to know, and do, and experience.
And as I write these words, this photographic image of the marsh at Namskaket “magically” appears on the page I am working on. And although I am sure it manifests in this way as a consequence of a series of accidently pressed keys, I know it also arises as unintended and magical as a dream, a guide and reminder of what is awaiting me and available to me at home.
So I step out the door to encounter Myanmar one last time this voyage. I walk with Steve Wangh down to the bustling ferry building on the Yangon River. A group of young vendors in the street outside the ferry building offer to sell us freshly steamed corn on the cob, which we purchase and happily eat one of, freshly cut pineapple, which we buy and eat one of, and postcards, which we decline. One of the young vendors asks where we are from in very good English, which leads to a discussion of how she knows English so well (she learned from a friend she made from Germany who was teaching English at the International School in Yangon) and to her offering to serve as our guide if we want to take the ferry and explore the villages on the other side of the river, going as far as Dahla, which is the village where she was born and where she still lives with her auntie, her auntie’s husband, her two young cousins, and her younger sister and brother. When I ask about her parents she says they are both dead.
We discuss what her fee is. She says she’d like 10$ for what is about a three hour tour. She also says she sometimes serves as a tour guide to other places in Myanmar, such as Bagan and Inle. When I ask she says she gets 10$/day for such services as well. In a good week she snags 2 tourists to bring across the river to Dahla. During the past year she was hired twice as a guide to go with tourists to other parts of the country. She is 22 years old. Her name is Kae. She is darker skinned than most Myanmarese with deep deep brown eyes. The yellow face paste women and children wear in Myanmar is pale and washed out looking on her skin. She wears a narrow ankle length wrap around skirt and no jewelry. She has a very obvious and large fresh scar on her forearm arising from a drunken man knocking her over on the ferry and her breaking bones in her left forearm and wrist about three months ago, maybe four now. She has had four operations and can open and close her fist but cannot open and close certain fingers independently.
Steve and I are obviously smitten. I show her the small painted teak statues of monks with begging bowls that I just bought at a gift shop in the Strand, the fanciest old hotel in the riverfront section of Yangon for ten dollars each and suggest she can sell statues like this at the table she has set up to sell pineapple and post cards. Steve gives her the name of the travel guide service he used and suggests she apply there as a guide. I tell her she should make a small sign to place on her table, but she says …
February 4, 2012 – before the sun rises
I awaken early on the morning of my exit fr Myanmar unable to sleep and am quickly engaged in my writing, finding that I cannot keep my journal writing current given the richness of the experiences I am having in Myanmar and that from an authorship perspective must break out for writing purposes certain of my complex experiences – such as those in Monywa and with Kae Khine – from the journal itself. Plus I’ve been writing for hours, haven’t done yoga, and have a flight to make. I also got the sweetest most loving email from Joy upon her arrival in Sydney while waiting the cross continental flight to Perth and have to say I am quite interested/excited (even while bereft at leaving Myanmar) to see what this next venue on the voyage shall bring.
The people of this country continue to amaze and touch me deeply with their generosity, grace, and good humor. I am routinely told that I don't have to pay for tea, a bowl of soup, a tee shirt that the silk screen maker in Shwebo will accept no money for, and only when i literally take the shirt i am wearing with one of my favorite images of shiva off my back and give it to him does he accept it as an exchange.
people laugh when someone bumps into them rather than saying, "hey, watch where you are going, a--hole."
a man touches my check as if i were a tender child, another kisses my hand, a toothless woman in the marketplace offers to marry me.
the oxen are gracious and dignified. the people in the ox drawn carts loaded with cane or grain are each magnificent to see.
the potters in the villages downriver from shwebo are absolutely incredible masters of their clay and craft. i saw a kiln that can accommodate and was being used to fire 80 to 90 55 gallon drum sized pots that will be used for water storage and floated down the river for sale lashed together like a big raft.
people offer me food routinely. they smile openly. they take immense pleasure from and seem totally amazed at my ability to say the
simplest burmese phrase. "it is a pleasure to meet you," is my best one, although i particularly favor, "see you again."
there is no way myanmar can resist the multiple assaults it is subject to from china, the USA, and demon television. some girls dye their hair and wear tight jeans and heels. i saw more than one boy with lettering etched into his haircut, one read "punk." and myanmar is a country rich in thus far unexploited riches - minerals, gas, agricultural lands, forests, and a literate populace currently working for one fifth of their thai, malaysian, and even chinese counterparts.
i "taught" english at an orphage in pyin oo lwin for a week. it was great fun and i learned a lot more i trust than my students did.
i've gone native, wear a longjyi, eat almost anything, and, of course, want to come back and hopefully find a village i can park myself in for a longer stay, the challenge there being that the government doesn't permit locals, even local guesthouses, to rent to foreigners, and the maximum current visa issued (other than a 3 month meditation visa which has to be signed off on daily) is for 28 days.
there are 40 seats of a couple of hundred seats up for election in their parliament this april. it is possible aung san su shee's (sp?) party will carry all 40. the next general election is in four years when every seat is up for election. hold your hats. better still, come and visit. they'd love to see you ... and it's not going to stay this way.
i leave for australia and a rendezvous with joy, tomorrow. i miss my kids, but the energy emitted by my motherland is not something i long for. that said, go patriots!