What the hell have you been *doing*?

Now that all my political blustering is done for the moment…
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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 www.foundationburma.org 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?