Travel Stories Old

Bruce Taub Travel Stories

In an amazing place....

her laughter was absolutely infectious ... a joy to behold and share in ...

I continue to be in a place that amazes me ... internally and externally. I had lunch at one of my favorite street vendor's in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar (I've been traveling alone close to 3 months now)
where I picked out the fresh veggies and noodles i wanted, and they  boiled them, strained them, and then stir fried them with spices and sauces galore. I expected to pay about a dollar to a dollar and a quarter for it, but when i went to pay they refused to take my money. Hello?

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

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

 We passed a man going downriver on a lashed together bamboo raft, that our
guide said was actually covering illegally harvested teak being taken to some location from where it will be picked up and transported to China. China is a big focus of life here in northeast Myanmar. A huge natural  gas pipeline is being built to move Myanmar gas to China, for which
China gave Myanmar 2 billion dollars, an immense immense amount of money in Burma that no one knows where it went. (Wanna guess?) A new train line is being built to move goods and agricultural produce to China. Burmese laborers work for a fifth of their Thai and even Chinese
counterparts. There are almost no factories in the country that are yet exploiting this literate source of human services and labor. Soule Oo points out an omnipresent wildflower that he says it is known locally as a Chinese daisy, because “no matter where you look you see them.”
He says, “We have an expression in Hsipaw (the town I was then based in) , ‘Where there’s smoke there’s Chinese.’”
        About an hour after starting up river we stop at an indistinguishable
section of riverbank and climb out of the boat. The fog has fully
lifted. It’s a bright sunny day. The boat continues upriver as we
clamber up a steep riverbank incline. Soon we come to a tiny bamboo hut
in the middle of rich fertile fields, where we are met by the hut’s
sole resident, a toothless, indeterminately old women, who laughs
hysterically and warmly at my height, and who hugs me and pulls me down
to her so that she can kiss my check. We take photos. When she puts
her arm around me her hand is at the height of my butt and she leaves it
resting there.  (I'll try to find and send the photo under separate cover.)
We continue climbing a quite steep hill along a single person wide
walking path past fields of pineapple, sesame, mango, sugar cane, and
corn, passed small fenced and unfenced gardens filled with cabbages,
beans, chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. I fancy that I’ve
learned a lot about gardening on this trip, some by visual observation,
some by osmosis, both from the orchid displays and from the flowerbeds
at the National Garden im Pyin Oo Lwin, and from the gardening methods I
see displayed in the Shan villages, especially about aerating the soil
and the use of trellises and stake supports. The sense of gardening as
art as well as craft inspires me when thinking of my own gardens at home
and provides what may be a possible partial answer to the question of
what I will do when home that may serve as spiritual practice, in
addition to yoga, and what will inspire me there the way travel does
        Half an hour or so up the path we come to an ancient monastery, now home
to six older monks, and over two dozen young boy monks in training, all
under twelve years of age. We are served freshly harvested pineapple
and jasmine tea. The young monks are all watching TV (scary, I mean how
are you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris). A
bell rings. The TV is turned off and the young monks pray in front of
the Buddha statues. A bell is rung and the young monks go off to eat
lunch. After lunch they ride their bicycles around the compound border
and the soccer field.
        I kneel down and pray in front of the Buddha as well. I offer heartfelt
thanks for having arrived here, for the privilege of being here. I
offer my gratitude to the Buddha for his example, his inspiration, and
his teaching. I think of Jesus’ message, as opposed to what arose in
his name. I do not think about Moses or the prophet Muhammad.
One lasting image I have is of a poster in an area of the large pagoda
hall that serves as a spare dormitory/sleeping area for some of the
young monks. There I find an almost life sized representation of the
Buddha that someone has “accidently” hung a good sized wall clock
that completely obscures Buddha’s head such that it looks like his
head is a clock. I can't resist thinking it is an unconscious
commentary on the relationship between time and mind.
        As we are leaving the monastery we go inside a small building that
serves as a classroom. Low tables/desks wide enough for two students
seated side by side on the floor are lined up two across the room and
about six or seven tables deep facing a chalkboard. There are small
mostly filled notebooks at every student’s place. There is a low door
into the classroom and two openings in the woven bamboo far wall that
serve as windows to let in air and light. It is very quiet. As we are
leaving the classroom I walk forcefully and unconsciously into the top
of the door frame and bang my head so hard that it knocks me backward
down onto the floor onto my butt and then laying down flat, dazed but
unhurt. I am reminded of the ethnographer Colin Turnbull writing of his
life among an African band of pygmies in “The Forest People,” that
he figured the role he fell into with them was village idiot. My
companions rush over to comfort me and help me up. For the rest of the
day Soule Oo reminds me at every doorway and low hanging branch to bow.
He says, “Bow,” to me at least forty or fifty times: at each temple,
leaving and entering houses, at small store stands I enter, in a village
"restaurant," on the path. I am thrilled to be reminded to bow. I have
understood for years that we can never bow too often or too much, but
perhaps I wasn’t practicing as consciously as I might. While lying on
the floor of the classroom I hear the temple chimes ringing in the
breeze and offer my gratitude. When I see an iridescent blue bird I
bow. Seated on the boat moving on the river I bow. On the path I bow.
With every breath I try to remember to bow.
        Back on the boat we head further up river, to the confluence where another river joins this one, to some decent sized rapids and to the
bridge over the river that the Lashio to Mandalay train runs on once
each day in each direction. Headed back to Hsipaw we stop at three
different traditional Shan farming villages. One is reachable only by
boat. At one, Sun Lon, apparently a Shan name meaning "good gardens,"
in addition to boat the train stops once a day in each direction. About
300 people live there. The village has a school that goes to the eighth
grade. The school has a sign on it that says in English “Drug Free
School.” The village, like all the others we see on this side of the
river has a very deep well for drinking water dug with UNRA aid and
technology. We eat lunch in the last village we stop at, Shan noodles,
of course. There is a narrow path from there that leads to the road
back into town and we walk the rest of the way in.
As we pass the Buddhist cemetery I note a sign that reads:

"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.”

One Day in Mandalay

Abbot and Me

     Alice, the innkeeper of Peacock Lodge, in Mandalay offers me the option of staying 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 train 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 of the Peacock my day is just enchanted, beautiful, wondrous, and, yes, even divine.  I 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 seated on a sheet on the tile floor outside the pagoda that looks delicious but which I decline.  Then, on a wooden 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 little blue pickup truck taxi on our way to the ShweYaye Sung Monastery compound behind the big Maha Mani Buddha statue in the middle of town.    
        When we get to the monastery U Ke Tu, for that is his name, insists on paying my 4$ taxi 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 spent a lot of time on the “sm” sound of smart, and on differentiating between p and b, between d and t.  Ke Tu, to test out his language skills, sings a beautiful pop 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 her song about her mother, and then play Jimmy Durante from music I’ve downloaded on my laptop 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 (tweiya da wan thaba de), which evokes a huge laugh. The abbot just laughs and laughs.  It is contagious.  I have a few photos of him.  He is the most Buddha look a like person you have ever seen.  Ever.  (See photo above)).
         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 for me 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.  An older man in the crowd says with a big smile and good humor, “Ha! I am checker champion.  You play?  Winner get one thousand chat?”  And there we are playing Burmese checkers (far more interesting than the American checkers I grew up with) 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 checker brilliance I’d like to repeat some day soon, I see a number of moves down the board and force him 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.        
          At times I feel as though I can only take so much more pleasure, have rarely been this ecstatic, am really enjoying my travels, all in part a tribute to my truly favorite guide, Sacajawea Joy, the prophetess of the notion that 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. 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.  But you just had to see this monk laughing.