Huh? What day is it?

Uh…what? When did I last post? What day is it?

Yes, it’s official. I’m on beach-holiday time. I’m chilling on Gili Trawagan, doing my Rescue Diver course with Blue Marlin dive shop, and enjoying the white sand beach, crystal clear water, and general lack of shoes.

I flew from Siem Reap to Bali what seems like ages ago. As soon as I stepped off the plane I realized that I was in a different place: The staff of one of the airlines was singing a welcome song, playing guitars and banging bongos and generally having fun at their jobs. (“Gee,” she thinks to herself. “Remember what that’s like? To have fun at your job instead of creating and presenting Powerpoint after fucking Powerpoint presentation on the tedious details of your day-to-day decisions?”)

I spent one quiet night in Kuta, the party town on Bali, and then took a bus to Padang Bai on the east coast. There was a Balinese cultural festival on in the town, which was fun to see. I also did two dives at the wreck of the USS Liberty near the town of Tulamben. It’s a cool wreck dive, because it’s so shallow. It’s actually a shore dive – you walk right in from the beach, swim like 10 meters, and there it is. It was a US ship that was disabled by a Japanese sub during WWII. It was beached and abandoned. But then in 1963 the local volcano erupted, and the resulting tremors caused the ship to slide into the sea.

I was tempted to stay in Padang Bai and do more diving, but I was eager to get to a place with no cars, no motorbikes…nothing to jump out of the way of as you walk down the street. I had been planning to go to Gili Air, but on my last night in Padang Bai I met a Colombian guy who said that Gili T was much more easygoing than its party reputation. So I changed my plan at the last minute, and I’m glad I did. There’s enough social life here to be interesting, but it’s not the Kuta-like all-night rave that I was expecting.

I arrived on…um, a few days ago more or less. I’ve been pretty busy with my dives and my course work (studying and tests! on the beach! sipping fresh lemonade! the sea breeze carrying away the answer sheet to my test, only to have a smiling Indonesian boy chase it down and return it to me!).

So yeah, my plan is to pretty much stay here until the end of my trip. I’m paying more than the usual $8/night to stay in a decent bungalow with hot water & a/c & a lovely breakfast and no struggling. I completely unpacked my bag for the first time. And I don’t plan to pack again until I shake the last granules of fine white sand from my clothes and pack them away on June 9. Then it’s back to Bali for a night, back to Bangkok for a night, and then all the way back to NYC.

It’s going to be extremely strange to be back in the US again, faced with the need to figure out my next move. But I’m trying not to think about that too hard.

Let’s see what stories can I tell?

In Padang Bai, I spent my last night in a bar called the Sunshine. A local 30-ish man just opened it a few days ago. As he fed me glasses of a dangerous local spirit called Arak, he told me about his life and his bar. Again, his story followed the theme of wanting a simple life rather than ambitiously seeking fame and fortune. He had worked in Kuta clubs for a number of years, saving up money. He helped put his sister through typing school, and put a new roof on his mother’s house. “Once I take care of my family, I could do my dream, my bar. I just want to make a happy place where people can come and be comfortable. I don’t need to be a rich man. I just want to enjoy my life and my bar, and not have to do what a boss says. I just want my small place to be good.” So if you find yourself in Padang Bai, please go have a drink at the Sunshine. It’s a small place right on the main square, decorated with posters of the Rolling Stones, Guns-n-Roses, Kurt Cobain and (of course) Bob Marley. The smiling man behind the bar is the proprietor.

Here on Gili T, there are no motorized vehicles. The main road around the island is unpaved, though a portion of it is made up of a broken, uneven attempt at cobblestones. You can walk around the island in about 3 hours. There are no banks or ATMs, and only dive shops take credit cards. The days of the week are marked by whether it’s a party night – Mondays at Blue Marlin, Wednesdays at the Irish Bar, and Fridays at Rudy’s Bar. A few eating places advertise the relative freshness and strength of their “fucking great magic mushrooms,” and occasionally someone will call out softly, “Smoke? Smoke?” from dark spots along the beachside road. But I haven’t really witnessed any drug-taking. I suppose the people I’ve been meeting are too focused on diving, which doesn’t lend itself to staying up all night ‘shrooming.

Simon, the British owner of Blue Marlin Diving, has acute Napoleon Complex. He’s about 5’5″, muscle-bound, tanned, and will tell you up front about how he pioneered diving in the Gilis. “Oh yeah, I was the first westerner on the Gilis (about 19 years ago). I mapped out all the dives. I taught all the other dive shops how to do it. And I taught all the divemasters.” Then he’ll go on to tell you about the land he owns, how he’s turning it into villas and selling them off, and how *his* villas are bigger and better than the *other guy’s* villas right next to his, etc. etc. Oy freakin vey. But his arrogance aside, everyone at Blue Marlin is very friendly and loves to dive. Luis, my Portuguese dive instructor (who just came in to the internet cafe and says “hello”), doesn’t own shoes. “People kept stealing my sandals, so I stopped buying them,” he says. Right now he’s wearing a shirt, which is out of the ordinary for him. You get the picture.

OK, gotta run. This is the most sitting in a chair staring at a screen I’ve done in a while and it’s time for a delicious cold Bintang beer under millions of stars.

(OK, I’m deliberately boasting now.)

I’ll probably post again in a few days, after I’ve finished my course.

A foot massage and three beers later…

OK, so I was kinda cranky when I posted before. This place had really gotten to me, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was tired and hot and sore and that a tuk-tuk *hit* me (and ran over my foot!), leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. So today, instead of spending my last day at the temples, I opted to wander in town a bit, have an hour-long foot massage (ahhhhhh) and then have a few beers with a late lunch. I’m much more cheerful now.

I’m back into the mode of traveling alone, and I have to say that in many ways I prefer it. I’ve met and chatted with dozens of other travelers and locals since Marjan and I parted ways just 5 days ago. I suspect that part of my current relief is that Marjan wasn’t my perfect match in terms of travel companion, though we got on just fine. I’m just happy to be doing my own thing again.

For example, in Phnom Penh I met a Dutch man who’s teaching English for a year in the Cambodian countryside as part of a volunteer program with an NGO. He said he doesn’t know that he or NGOs in general are doing much good here. There’s terrible poverty in rural areas, and families can’t afford to send their children to school – let alone feed them well enough to pay attention to their studies. But when an NGO comes in to help (he says) Cabmodians view it as an opportunity to get a swankier school rather than to increase the number of children who go to school. People live for appearances *right now* rather than investing in the future of the country via education. “It’s an interesting problem,” he said. “In Honduras, for example, there was no NGO help [because of a general boycott] and they did a great job of helping themselves.” He also said that it’s different in Vietnam, where people have national pride “because they defeated the Americans.”

Today I met a man from New York – he lives right down the street from me, in Stuy-town – who’s here fro three weeks. He and his travel buddy were sitting next to me at lunch. He was drinking a diet Coke out of a can, and there was a small homeless boy hanging around, gesticulating at him and his drink and making a drinking motion. He boy wanted the guy to hurry up and drink the Coke so that he could have the can. He absolutely refused to leave until the guy finally finished.

The whole situation was annoying for us, as you might imagine, because we couldn’t have an uninterrupted conversation (and I had to pay half my attention to the boy’s proximity to my backpack). But forget us – what about the boy (and the dozens of others around town)? On the one hand, collecting cans is definitely more productive than simply panhandling or out-and-out stealing. (An education would be even better, of course.) On the other hand, he’s learning a lesson early that all Siem Reap area citizens seem to know: If you whine and pester and annoy tourists long enough, eventually they’ll give you the can (or buy your postcard or bottle of water or guide book) just to make you go away. Speaking of going away: I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m completely disinclined to buy any souvenirs at all because I’m sick of being harassed about them.

This whole question about tourism and developing economies is an interesting one. It comes up a lot when scuba diving. If there is a beautiful, untouched reef somewhere, scuba shops open up to bring tourists there. The tourists come in greater and greater numbers, requiring more hotels (and resulting in more deforestation and then runoff when it rains, which kills the reef). At least one person (and often many more) in every dive group touches the coral either accidentally or because they’re a poor or stupid diver. When you touch coral it dies, and it takes weeks for that little bit to grow back. The regrowth can’t keep up with the tourist volume, the reef suffers, it can’t support aquatic life, the diving starts to suck…and we divers move on to the next “untouched” spot. Replace “touch the reef” with “brush against ancient carvings on Angkor Wat” or “trod on Mayan ruins” or “trek through virgin rain forest” and the whole thing gets depressing quite quickly. Makes you think you should just stay home and watch the Discovery Channel – let the professionals do it!


Oy vey – what’s with the doom and gloom today? I better shut the eff up.

And what of Cambodia?

Oh yeah. The country I’m in. I suppose I should say a bit about it.

Well, to be honest I’m not a huge fan. I think the problem is that I’m only visiting the two tourist areas: Phnom Penh and the ridiculous tourist mecca of Siem Reap. Every 3 steps some guy steps in front of you and says, “hello lady need tuk-tuk? need moto? where you going?” If you’re walking along it’s as if the motorcycle drivers swerve to come as close to you as possible, for no real reason except (I suspect) to fuck with you. Evidently this village has undergone a gold rush-like tourist boom in the last few years, so perhaps the locals are taking out latent frustrations on tourists. I can’t blame them, but it makes this place quite uninviting.

In any event, on Tuesday and Wednesday I rented a bike to tour the incredible Temples of Angkor. The bike ride itself was an adventure – cars and motos deliberately try to cut you off and the drivers laugh in your face if you have to stop short and fall off the seat. But I’m still glad I did it by bike. First, I got a ton of excercise – I did around 35 km the first day and around 20 the second, not including climbing up and down and around the temples. Plus I was able to go at my own pace, without a tuk-tuk driver bugging me. And it was cheap $1.50/day instead of the $20 charged by tuk-tuk drivers. That, at least, offset the outrageous $40 that the Cambodians charge for a 3-day pass ($20 for one day). Yes, the money that doesn’t get siphoned into government pockets goes toward the upkeep and renovation of the temples, but it’s a pretty steep charge, IMHO.

Anyway, the temples themselves are quite impressive – the architecture, the wall carvings. I’d describe the temples as a whole in a state of atmospheric decay – trees, moss, animals and rain are slowly reclaming the sandstone structures and the ground they’re built on. I won’t bother trying to explain. Wait for the photos…though the internet is so slow in this cafe that I’m going to give up and try to upload more pics later.

Anyway, I’m glad to be leaving tomorrow morning. Finally….to Bali, beach and scuba!

What the hell…? #4

I’m going to run through the rest of Myanmar quickly, or else I’ll never catch up. 

We spent 3 days in Nyaungshwe, mostly resting and recovering from the trek. We did hire a longboat for one day, to tour the villages and handicraft shops scattered around Lake Inle. In town we met a local man who worked at one of the monasteries. He invited us for tea at his house, where we also met his wife, children and a few of his sisters-in-law. His wife insisted that we come back for dinner the next day. “No pay! Real Myanmar food!” We accepted. We feared that they’d want something – to hire the man for a tour, to buy some nice local stuff, etc – but instead we had a nice chat in broken English, with their two-year-old jumping around and being very cute. After dinner the eldest sister-in-law came over with a huge bag of clothes and cloth bags. She promptly dumped everything on the floor next to me and started sorting through it, saying she was going to a market to sell them tomorrow. “See this bag? Very nice! I sell one today nice woman just 2000 kyat!” Etc. It was clear who the entrepreneur in the family was. 

Overall, our time at Inle was a nice. We were relaxing while you guys were frantically calling the US embassy, etc. Oops!

On the 7th we took the bus to Mandalay. And from then on, I can honestly say that the aftermath of the typhoon kinda took over our trip – not because of infrastructure, etc., but because a good portion of our attention ws diverted to the question of staying or going, and making alternative plans, etc. We did manage to tour a few pagodas and see the Moustache Brothers show. We also took a day trip to see the nearby ancient cities of Sagaing, Innwa and Amarapura including U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2 km the longest teak bridge in the world.

On the 11th we got up at 4:30 am to take the 15-hour slow boat down the Ayerwaddy River to Bagan.

Ahh, Bagan. After days upon days of pagoda-hopping in Thailand and Myanmar, I was secretly dreading this vast area of ancient temples. But boy, was that stupid. Whereas most temples I had seen had been “renovated” within an inch of their lives with whitewash and ugly gold leaf, Bagan was different. First, the temples weren’t these dinky, tacky things. Many were the size of cathdrals and featured thousand-year-old murals. Some were crowded with children trying to sell us postcards, laquerware, sand paintings and various trinkets, but most were empty except for the odd keymaster/guide. In some temples you could climb up to higher platforms, where we were treated to lovely views of the stupa-studded plains and the river in the distance. The Lonely Planet says to picture Bagan like this: Take all the churches in Europe and place them on the island of Manhattan. And it’s not too far from the truth!

Unfortunately, we were treated to more unseasonably rainy weather in Bagan, so only 1-1/2 of our 3 days there were good for sightseeing. And as there was no internet…I read all of George Orwell’s Burmese Days, whose descriptions of Burma (and government corruption) are still remarkably accurate.

Finally, we took the overnight bus back down to Yangon, and then flew out the next day.

There’s more, of course – plenty of odd and/or annoying characters and situtions, but there are just too many. For instance: Myanmar-language covers of western pop songs; the tag line for the thuggish and corrupt Myanmar police force is “How may I help you?”; some vehicles have the steering wheel on the left, and others on the right, but at least everyone drives on the same side of the road; being charged 700 kyat (about $0.70) for “air conditioning” at a local restaurant….



What the hell…? #3

Greetings from Phnom Penh in the Kingdom of Cambodia. As I was checking in to the Washington Guest House yesterday afternoon I met an Aussie named Gypsy who’s been running a bar near the Thai border for 4 years. He asked if I wanted to join him for dinner and I agreed – he seemed harmelss and this is a fairly seedy city, so I figured it’d be good to be with a man. He did in fact turn out to be quite harmless, though boring and a bit strange. His, erm, Cambodian “ex-girlfriend” found us at the restaurant we were at (one of Gypsy’s regular haunts – in fact, he arranged with the owner to have some hash backed into his pizza. I opted out.). After dinner I pled exhaustion and we shared a tuk-tuk back to the guest house. The good news is that he and his girlfriend helped me arrange a reliable tuk-tuk driver named Boh to take me to the Killing Fields and a few other sights around today.


Back to Myanmar, where Marjan and I were trekking in the rain. While our fitness and determination were being tested physically, Robin did his best to describe the natural and cultural history of the area. An astonishing 85% of Burmese are farmers. It seems few are subsistence farmers. Those in the delta region farm rice. But up in the hills where we were people grew tobacco, fruit (a long list including papaya, jack fruit, mango, apple, banana, pineapple, etc.), veggies (corn, groundnut, potato, beans, tomato) and tons and tons of green tea.

The high price of tea and the locals’success in growing it has vastly improved their standard of living. Because everything is subject to rapid inflation, if people make money they immediately invest it in something tangible – mostly buildings. In Kalaw we saw quite a few “fancy” hotels sitting empty – there was one that had been open for a year and had yet to enjoy its first customer. And in each village we passed through we saw construction – new houses as well as old bamboo huts being replaced by brick-and-stucco houses with windows. All this betrays two telling Burmese traits. First, they are replacing “temporary” bamboo huts with more permanent homes, as an attempted hedge against the government’s proclivity for asking entire villages to move with little notice and no compensation. (Really!) The second and more interesting trait is that Burmese people are actually optimistic about the future, despite their difficult past and present. The rich (including one who Robin described as “the Bill Gates of Myanmar”) build hotels, hoping for more tourists. The poor build homes, hoping for modern comforts and a better life. Again, I’m struck by the determined cheerfulness of the people.

(As an aside, one trishaw driver in Yangon told us, “In my next life I’d like to come back as a taxi driver.” Not as a king, or a westerner, or even as the Bill Gates of Myanmar. He just wanted to drive a taxi, because he was tired of pedaling people around.)

Unfortunately, to support all the farming in the hills, the locals have to employ slash-and-burn clearing of the primary forest. So hills once covered with tigers, elephants, wild boar, and lovely rain forest are now riddled with orderly plots of farms. It’s comparable to a long-haired, bearded castaway was sheared and manicured to resemble a Wall Street financier.

For lunch we stopped in the village of Konla, a Danu tribe of 60 families. Our host was a jolly old man who sat in the window smoking his cheroot and smiling. Marjan napped on a bamboo mat, and I sat writing and drinking lots of tea at a low table. We were trying to wait out the rain, which started really pouring down just as we got to the village.

We set off again around 2 pm, having rested (and waited out the rain) for a good 3 hours. Our destination was a monastery about 10 km away. But Marjan’s sickness and the rain & mud made progress slow. I grew so frustrated with my Tevas that I took them off and walked barefoot, local-style, for the last few km. So mostly I was concentrating on staying upright and avoiding cow paddies.

We finally arrived at the monastery around 6 pm. We did our best to clean our shoes and feet and then followed the head monk to our accommodation – two thin foam mattresses and many blankets on the teak floor, with a bamboo wall separating us from the shrine area. Pretty cool, and surprisingly comfy. This is where we first heard of a “storm with high winds” in Yangon that had killed “a few hundred people”. The unseasonable rain we had walked through was all that we felt of the typhoon.

At around 4:30 am we were awoken by young monks chanting. Marjan hadn’t improved – she was physically spent and said she couldn’t possibly make it another day. So Robin had to make hasty arrangements to take us the rest of the way in a bullock cart. I can tell you that it was *mortifying* to be carried down paths in the back of this thing, like two lazy soft tourists, past locals carrying very heavy loads. I felt fine and was only riding in the cart to that Marjan wouldn’t feel stupid all alone. But after an hour the organ-shattering ride was too much for me and I got out to walk. The last day was comparatively easy – about 14 km or so. It rained a bit, but as we descended into the Inle Lake valley the weather improved.

After a boat ride across the lake, we finally arrived at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyaungshwe, where our big bags were waiting for us. Robin tried to extort a “tip” from us. I figure that the money we had already paid him was for his guide service, and to add a tip was redundant. Besides, by then I was a bit annoyed with him (he had an annoying habit of saying condescending things like, “Oh, you didn’t know to bring medicine against flu?” or (when I slipped and fell in the mud, “Oh, you didn’t use your walking stick?”). 

We were sweaty, muddy, filthy, and our shoes were thickly caked with mud that was nearly impossible to pry off. Immediately two young women escorted us out back to hose off our feet. We took off our Tevas and one woman scrubbed them clean. All of this for free, though of course it also saved them having to clean up after us. We checked into our room and took “hot showers” that, due to the storm having knocked out the electricty, were closer to “not cold” than warm.

OK gotta run to meet Boh. More later…




What the hell….? #2

Hello! I’m safe and sound, back in Bangkok. My flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia leaves at 15:15. I’m crouched over a pubic interrnett kiosk, paying 10 baht/20 mins to use the crappy keyboard, no seat, and a very low keyboad height. 50 eet away there’s a proper internet cafe that charges an outrageous 300 baht ($10!) per hour. I refuse to legitamize them by paying that, so I’m going t suffer throuugh it here. Plz excuse the typos.

I think I left off at the end of the first day of trekking. We stayed thhe first night in a family home in a Karen villge. As I said, wee arrived very early, and had time to walk around. But Ii was compleely wiped out from the fast pace and my sickness, which began to feel like the flu. So Marjan and I just lounged by a low table with tea and papaya, our backs propped up by 50-kilo sacks of rice. Marjan doesn’t like the tea and hates papaya (as well as bananas), and I felt nauseous, so we just watched the occasional fly land on the fruit and chatted. Eventually I got up the energy to take a…well, to wash up. The outdoor “shower” consisted of a plastic tub of water pumped from the well (two young girls gladly helped fill it) surrounded by a few slats of wood with large gaps in between. Lucky, I had bought a huge green plastic rain poncho in Chiang Mai, anticipating rainy season in Myanmar. I took off my clothes, put on the poncho, wrapped my large travel towel around me for good measure (anotherr clever purchase – thx for helping pickit out Michele!), slipped into my Tevas, and went out there. The slats were a good height for a hill triber – that is to say, just above my navel. So I bathed by squatting next to the plastic tub, using a smaller bucket to pour water over myself while still wearing the poncho. A local grandma clicked her tongue and shook her head at me, but the girls giggled with delight. Marjan took pics, which I’ll upload soon.

The cool water made me feel better, but when dinner was ready I still had no appetite. I picked at some rice. Too bad, as the huge chicken curry and tofu salad that Te made looked delicious.

We were in bed by 7:30, our alarms set for 6:30 breakfast and 7 am departure. Tthe 11 hours of sleep did me good, b/c I awoke feeling  thousand tiimes better – energetic even. Marjan, however, had caught what Ii had annd had a terribl day. the first day we had walked abbout 18 km, though a good portion was uphill. The second day we had to go 26 km. To make matters worse, it rained a good part of the day, causing the hard clay earth to morph into the goopy, heavy, sticky mud I described in a earlier post. Marjan (unlike me) was anti-imodium,so we had to stop extremely often for her to jump behind soe bushes. Sorry for the gross picture, but that’s how it was – me in my huge poncho and Marjan with an umbrella in one hand and her toilet paper in anotherr, slogging through thhe mud and rain. It souds awful, and Marjan was indeed pretty miserrble, but it was actually a lot of fun (in hindsight!).

OK can’t take this effing keyboard anymore. Nnext post from Cambodia!



What the hell have you been *doing*?

Now that all my political blustering is done for the moment…

OK. Myanmar! Believe it or not, there’s a country that exists in addition to the typhoon, absurd repressive government, and sham elections. And I’ve been visiting it!

Ages ago, the last time I blogged about my trip, I said that we took a bus north to Kalaw, the so-called trekking center of Myanmar, on the afternoon April 30th. Our bus was scheduled to arrive at 6 am (18 hours), but arrived 3 hours early…at 3 am. So Marjan and I were quickly shuffled off the bus in teh dark (Kalaw wasn’t the final destination) by a gesticulating and grunting Burmese boy, who also got our backpacks from under the bus. We sleepily gathered our things from the side of the road and trudged to the nearby Lilly Guest House. We woke poor Lilly up, but I think because of her sleepiness we managed to negotiate a good rate for the room – $8 for a double (with hot shower!), I think. Marjan and I fell into our beds, slept until around 9, had a quick breakfast, and then hurried off to meet our taxi driver for the day, who was driving us to the village of Pindaya.

Sure, it was market day in Pindaya – local markets are always an interesting sight. But the real attraction was the surreal Pindaya Cave. According to local legend, seven “maidens” were trapped in the cave by a giant spider. A passing prince heard their pleas for help, killed the spider with his bow & arrow, and thereby saved the maidens. For some reason all this made the cave sacred. Anyway, Burmese and people from other countries have donated and installed hundreds of Buddha figures of all shapes and sizes in this limestone cave. For its part (and *this* is where the surreal part comes in, believe it or not) the wise Burmese government installed a *glass elevator* to bring tourists up the “mountain” to the cave, instead of having to climb the like 100 steps.

To review: Road from Bagan to Yangon: unpaved and a pox on your ass. People in the delta region: relying on resourceful and brave Yangon youth to feed them. Pindaya Caves: well-served by glass elevator complete with bored elevator operator.

After the caves we stopped at a paper and umbrella-making shop. No, not the kind sold by enterprising African immigrants on the streets of New York at the first hint of rain. I mean traditional umbrellas with bamboo frames covered with handmade paper dyed with natural dye and then rainproofed using some sort of natural process (details hazy). They also happen to be quite beautiful. Pathein, a town in the typhoon-ravaged delta region, is the most famous umbrella town in Myanmar. But Pindaya comes in second. Perhaps the local umbrellas are overshadowed by the absurdist caves.

The next day we were up early to begin our trek: 62 km through the hills from Kalaw to the western shore of Inle Lake. Our guide was Robin, Lilly’s brother and a longstanding and well-known Kalaw guide. Lilly and Robin are Punjabi Indians whose grandfather, like many other Indians and Nepalese, came to Burma with the British army during WWII. Their father stuck around. In the ’60’s, an earlier version of the absurd Burmese government kicked all rich foreigners – mostly Chinese and Indians – out of the country. But Robin’s father was allowed to stay because, as Robin says, “He wasn’t rich.” Well, Robin (a bachelor, as far as I could tell) and Lilly (who’s married and has a few children) seem to have made a pretty good life, between the guest house and Robin’s trekking. I wonder how long it’ll last.

We left our guest house at 7 am, carrying only our small backpacks with a few essentials: change of clothes, umbrella, poncho, camera, and toothbrush. We had arranged to send our larger packs on to our guest house Nyangshwe, our destination, by car (or, more likely, a cart pulled by a tractor engine.) Robin set of at what I’ll call a brisk pace. We managed to keep up, though Robin always seemed to be about 200 meters ahead of us. After a bit we asked him if there was a reason to rush – we were practically running up the hill – and she said no. “Some people like to walk fast.” He told us about a Scottish man he had just taken on the same tour, who wanted to run the whole way. We assured him we were happy to walk quickly but not jogging…and he didn’t quite get the message. We basically spent the day shouting, “What?” as he turned to tell us about a plant or animal or the history of the region from 200 meters up the road.

I can now say from personal experience that trekking uphill all day at a very fast pace really sucks when you’ve got the big D.

A brief interlude – something that’s been nagging at me and my delicate ego. A few weeks ago I posted that, during my trek near Chiang Mai, a guy had to carry my backpack for me up when I described as a “45-degree slope.” Noooo no no no. The hills on the Kalaw trek were 45 degrees, and I successfully scaled them all day with no problem. The ones in Chiang Mai were more like 65 or 70 degrees. So fail me in geometry, but please let me redeem myself a little by pleading steepness.

Back to Kalaw: we stopped for “lunch” (we arrive at 9:30!) at the Overview – a rest area/guest house on a hill overlooking Kalaw run by a Bangladeshi guy. His daughter cooked us delicious chapati with vegetable curry, which we ate looking out over the valley. Nice.

The rest of the day consisted of learning a lot about the natural history of the area from Robin, while running up hills after him. We made it to our camp for the night by 2:30 pm! Te, our cook for the trip, later asked Robin if Marjan and I do sports at home, because we arrived in the village so quickly. Ha.

Ooops gotta run. Internet cafe’s closing. More tomorrow from Bangkok airport, if all goes well (and it will!).

Something we all can do for the people of Burma (erm, Myanmar?)

I just met an American guy called Grady at our guest house who has been in here in Yangon for 6 days. He’s been poking around, trying to find a way to help. Unfortunately, there are very few options. White people are simply not allowed to have anything to do with anything.

But there is some quite good news for Burma (according to Grady) – in the short term and perhaps even in the long term. Groups of young people in Yangon and around are extremely frustrated with the government’s lack of action and downright corruption when it comes to helping the victims of the typhoon. They have been meeting in secret, forming task forces to go to the nearby delta region to do small, simple, but much-needed tasks: giving out tarps, water, food, construction material, and so on. They’re using their own money to buy supplies, rent boats and trucks, and doing the work of relief organizations themselves. There’s no red tape or delay to making things happen: if a group of monks need $5000 to buy tarps for a town, the groups gives it to them.

For me, it’s heartening to hear of self-organized political (not to mention humanitarian) action in a country where the people seem to either be unaware or feel disempowered to take any action against the regime here.

The one thing we can all do to help these kids – who are definitely putting themselves in danger – is to donate money. If you care to, visit and give what you can. Note that the site may not seem legit to you, but it’s deliberately vague so as to not draw any unwanted government attention to these groups.

Grady says he’s spoken with quite a few of these groups. They report that the situation is awful – dead bodies are still floating around in rivers, doctors fear the worst – cholera, malaria, worse. Meanwhile, Official Myanmar TV broadcasts sanitized video of cheerful “victims” in well-tended shelters cheering generals who pass out packets of biscuits. The youth groups mock these “show camps.” Kids, this is 1984.

As for the victims themselves, unlike Katrina victims in the States, they had absolutely no expectations that the government would do anything for them. So they’re not angry. They’re just trying to put their lives back together. Incredible.

And finally, the government: evidently the generals are confiscating all food aid (sometimes including from these youth groups!) selling the high-quality rice and other food to the highest bidder, and passing along low-grade stuff to the victims. Not surprising at all, but still terrible to hear of *actual* Burmese people *actually* witnessing these actions.

Back to the kids for a moment: I see them all the time at internet cafes, emailing on Yahoo and chatting on GTalk with friends around the world. They’re learning a different story of how the world works from what their parents know. Perhaps this typhoon, tragedy that it was and still will be, may be a catalyst for future political action. I hope!

Speaking of which, one more story about politics: For those (most) of you who don’t know, May 10th half the country voted in a sham referendum to essentially rubber-stamp an absurd “constitution” that the Burmese government concocted to give people “civil rights.” I won’t go into its craziness here – just Google it if you’re interested. But Grady told me a tour guide told him that, on the day of the election, he was away from home. A group of local police came to his house and forced his mother, an elderly, uneducated and therefore manipulable person, that she had to vote YES for *the entire household* right then and there, in front of the police. She had no choice but to do it. So the tour guide, who had wanted to vote NO, cast a YES vote cast for him by his mother, under duress.

I’ve got all sorts of other political blustering I’ve been saving up from my travels here, but I’ll save those for some evening at the Stoned Crow when I can be well lubricated by Mr. JW Black.

Back in Yangon

Well, we made it back to Yangon in one piece, despite another brutal bus trip. The road from Bagan to Yangon is one of the main thoroughfares in Myanmar, yet it’s barely wide enough for two busses or trucks to pass going in opposite directions (they both have to slow down and at least one vehicle must drive half in the shoulder), at least 3/4 of it is unpaved, and it’s filled with dangerous crater-like holes that the drivers inch must their way around. Best of all, last night’s bus would periodically start making duck-like noises (!) requiring the driver to pull over and allow a cadre of flashlight-weilding men to crawl beneath the engine and shout at each other for a while. Needless to say, the 15-hour bus trip actually took 18 hours. Christ amighty.

As for Yangon itself, if you didn’t know a typhoon had hit the city, you’d have trouble guessing. Sure, there are a fair share of trees knocked down – even some giant 3-meter thick oak-like trees, ripped from the ground by their very roots. And a lot of electricity poles have been bent in half or thrown quite a distance, trailing their wires behind them to be tangled in the branches of the trees along the side of the road. But we’ve seen very little damage to buildings, and life here seems to have gotten back to normal…in full force. There are Myanmar and Indian women cooking street food on every corner. The sidewalks – where they’re fairly even –  are filled with tea shops, fruit stands, parked trucks, the occasional beggar, etc., so we have to walk in the street. The old male money-changers and young ragged postcard-sellers still follow us around and harass us to trade their goods for dollars (in a non-threatening way). It’s pretty much what you’d expect.

One interesting note is that, upon crossing into Yangon county, we had to go through some sort of passport-control-like inspection. Our bus had to pull over and everyone was instructed to get out. A skeletal old man dressed in an MP-like uniform that was 2 sizes too big demanded our IDs/passports, which he examined with an extraodinarily unpracticed eye. He looked at the *Ghana* visa on my passport, the Myanmar visa on Marjan’s, and only at the photo page for the man from Hong Kong (the only other foreigner on our bus). Clearly he had been deputized out of retirement from some other business. Anyway, we had to go through the whole rigamarole: walk about 50 meters down the road while some inspector dude checked out the bus and its luggage, and then wait for the driver to pull the bus up to us so we could get back on. It would have been amusing, if I hadn’t just suffered through (at the time) 16 hours on the bus with no end in sight.

To be quite honest, I’ll be relieved to get out of here. As I mentioned before, the people are *lovely*. But it’s extremely hard to travel here, and other than interacting with the Burmans themselves there’s very little payoff for all the work: the food pretty much sucks, there are only so many pagodas you can stomach, and…how shall I put this: Nothing’s beautiful about the country (again, excluding the people). The grey weather isn’t helping matters, nor did all the excitement and distraction with the typhoon. The trip has devolved into “how to get out.” Anyway, I had been expecting to love it here, but I can say that I’m leaving with mixed feelings.

All that said, I feel like I’ve posted practically nothing about my time here. So (having found a decent internet cafe, and since it’s raining outside, and since I’ve got a long wait at Bangkok airport tomorrow) I’m going to write a series of posts entitled: What the hell have you been doing?



Here’s my post

I won’t be posting again until Friday, when we get to Yangon. The internet connection here borders on the absurd. Either the electricity’s out, or “the government cut off the internet” for no apparent reason, or it’s frustratingly slow. I can’t bear it.

So off to dinner, then tomorrow a bus to Yangon, arriving in the early morning. I’ll try to post sometime Friday. If not then (not sure about connectivity down there) then on Saturday from the Bangkok airport.