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….? #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 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?



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.

Details, details

Forgot to mention that the internet connection here is extremely slow and often unavailable (which is why I didn’t post until now). Also, tomorrow we’re going on an all-day trip around the Bagan area, in a horse cart (really! I’ll take pics). So I won’t be posting again until at least tomorrow night my time.

After we’ve done the horse cart, we will have used the following modes of transport while in Myanmar: ancient minibus, ancient Mazda taxi, pick-up (pickup trucks with two benches along the truckbed plus an extra row of tiny stools between the benches…plus four or five guys hanging off the back…and sometimes on the roof. I’ve got pics), bus, foot (trekking), ox cart (Marjan was too sick the last day of our trek…it’s a long story), long boat (across Inle Lake), bus again (long bumpy trip to Mandalay), trishaw, open-backed “taxi” (tiny blue Mazda pickup trucks with benches for passengers in the truckbed), passenger/cargo slow boat, and now horse cart. Yay!

Chillin’ in Bagan

Greetings all,

I’m in the most relaxed mood in a while today, for a few reasons. First, after a lovely but way too long 15-hour slow boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan, I got a decent night’s sleep last night. Second, I managed to change my flight so that I’m leaving this Saturday, on the 17th, on the same flight as Marjan. Third, Bagan is the most relaxed place I’ve been in Myanmar…and we just had the first decent meal in like 2 weeks (believe it or not, fresh pasta with fresh tomato sauce). But most of all, this morning I got a reassuring phone call from the US consulate in Yangon.

It seems that one Andrea DiCastro McGough had been inquiring with her about my possible whereabouts, and she’s been calling around to look for me ever since. She finally tracked me down at the New Park Hotel here in Bagan, where she left me a message to call back. Of course, my first thought (while the woman in the hotel was trying to get through on the phone) was that something terrible had happened to one of YOU. Hehe.

When I finally got through, she was great. “I figured you were somewhere upcountry trekking and having a wonderful time,” she said. And she was right! She told me that things are pretty much back to normal in Yangon. The guest houses and most of the rest of the city have electricity back. There’s no food or water shortage in the city. It’s most expensive, but that’s pretty much it. I told her my travel plan and she said I’d be safe. So I feel better, and I hope you all feel better as well!

So, my final Myanmar plan:

Now-Thurs: Bagan

Thurs afternoon: bus from Bagan to Yangon with Marjan (arrive Fri am)

Friday – arrive Yangon; hang out in Yangon for the day

Saturday 8:30 am – flight to Bangkok, arrives around 11 am Bangkok time (12 hours ahead of NYC, so around 11 pm Friday night NY time)

I’ll send a text message to Zoe and Drea when I land in Bangkok.

OK. Enough about that. Let me say *something* about this country! It’s wonderful and strange and difficult to communicate and dirty and hot and the food sucks and the people are ridiculously, over-the-top, knock-you-out friendly and helpful and incredibly cheerful. In its “Dangers and Annoyances” section, The Lonely Planet travel guide says: “Most travellers’ memories of locals grabbing your money are of someone chasing you down because you dropped a K500 note (about $0.50) in the street (‘you dropped this sister’).” That’s no exaggeration. Everywhere we go, people say hello and “Where you come from? America?!? That’s a very good country. And you very beautiful.” They sometimes follow up with “You need something? Trishaw? Taxi? Some guest house? Buy some postcard?” – but not that often. (A trishaw is a bike with a two-seated side saddle. The “driver” pedals and you sit in the tiny seats. It’s a popular form of transport for short distances.)

In Mandalay, we befriended a trishaw driver called Tin Nyit who took us around for cheap (“I need business, so I take you for K2000,” he replied, when we told him we were going to Mandalay Hill, 4 km away, on a hot day.) And then we were stuck with him. He appeared early every day out in front of our guest house and stayed there until late at night, in case we needed a ride somewhere. We need a taxi to take us to a few ancient cities outside of Mandalay? He had a younger brother with a taxi. We wanted to go to the famous Moustache Brothers show? He could take us, and knew a great place nearby to eat dinner. Sure, it got annoying after a while. And sure, between what we paid him and the commission we’re sure he got from the places he took us, we gave him some good business. But we would have paid other trishaw and taxi drivers for the same services, and Tin took care of us. We needed a travel agent to see about flights, and he know a great one near our guest house. We had a question about anything, and he would answer or find the answer.

Anyway, he’s just one example of how people in the tourist industry here go above and beyond to make sure you have everything you need, and they’re extremely rarely sleazy about it – trying to trick you into taking an expensive trip somewhere, etc. Other people are simply curious. They want to interact with us, but don’t seem sure what to ask…thus the endless shouts of “Hello!” and delighted giggles when we answer back.

There’s so much more. Where do I start? Men in skirts (or rather, longyis), and shoulder bags. No Coke or Pepsi signs! (Though yuo can buy Coke that’s been imported from Thailand.) Cities reek of diesel. Ancient Mazdas and other cars held together with duct tape and wire. Horribly broken, pot-holed roads (even pre-typhoon). New computers stacked as cargo in the last few rows of the passenger bus from Yangon to Kalaw. Burmese “pop” music with accompanying karaoke videos played at top volume for most of the 12-hour bus journeys. “The government owns the land, the sea and the air,” said Robin, our guide for our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. “The people just lease it for 99 years. And if the government wants to take the land, they can do it at any time.”


Should I stay…?

The Big Question that’s been percolating in our minds over the past day, as we hear more news from y’all, the internet, and by asking questions of locals here: Should we get the hell outta Dodge? My first inclination was (of course) to stay – to finish most of my trip, and then to try to help if I can. Then I read a lot of alarming (and possibly alarmist?) news & advisories, and started to consider leaving immediately. Then I spoke with quite a few people here, and calmed down a bit.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do. I know many of you are extremely concerned, especially after seeing the Katrina-like conditions in the delta region that was hardest hit. But up north here there seems to have been *no* effect whatsoever, other than taxi drivers blaming the higher cost of petrol and food on their inability to give us a lower price. People are rather blithely going about their daily lives as if tens of thousands of their countrymen hadn’t died, and as if tens of thousands more weren’t in danger of dying of disease and starvation. To compare (roughly) with Katrina: Fearing for our safety up north here is like a New Yorker fearing Katrina looters.

On the other hand, 99% of the exits from the country require that we go via Yangon, where there *are* food and water shortages. The only other two ways to get out of the country are to either fly from Mandalay to Chiang Mai, Thailand, or to fly to a border town and cross by land to Mai Sai, Thailand. Neither are appealing options, and both are rather complicated to arrange. Right now, Marjan has a ticket from Yangon to Bangkok on Air Asia the morning of the 17th. I’ve got the same flight booked three days later, on the 20th. So yesterday Marjan and I went to a travel agent to explore our options. The extremely helpful agent made reservations for each of us to fly directly from Bagan to Yangon the day before our respective flights to Bangkok, thereby avoiding overland travel. He gave us the name of a reliable hotel near the airport, so that we wouldn’t even have to go into the city at all – we just arrive in the evening, sleep in the hotel for a few hours, and then fly out at like 8 am the next morning. So Marjan is scheduled on that Air Bagan flight from Bagan/Yangon on the 16th and I’m on the 19th. If either of us choose to not use the tickets, we get a full refund.

All that said, the travel agent assured us that things would be fine in Yangon by the 17th. “There are many rich men in Yangon,” he said. “They are already paying to bring water, electricity and food.” He assured us that we would be perfectly safe. In fact, he seemed amused at our concern. For my part, I just don’t want to be in the way in Yangon, eating food and drinking water that could go to someone who really needs it.

Obviously, we’ve also spoken with the few other travelers we’ve met, to see what they’re doing. Everyone else seems either as conflicted as we are, or completely unconcerned. No one is making a panicked run for the border. In fact, yesterday we met 4 people (two Americans and two French people) to actually flew *in* to Mandalay on the 5th, after their flight had been delayed by the storm. One of American guys has been here 6 times, and doesn’t seem at all concerned.

Another consideration, of course, is all of you. I don’t want to torture you with worry for 10 days while I wander around some dusty ancient pagodas. I know that we are safe right now, and I haven’t seen any indications that the situation will change in the next 10 days or so. Yes, I know about the forecast for rain down south next week, but that’s pretty normal – the rainy season starts in May. I feel like as long as I don’t go to the delta region, I’ll be fine. (A few of you have sent me email intimating that flights out of the country could get canceled or something. Can you please send details of where/from whom you heard this info? I can’t find anything about it on the net.)

Marjan and I will make our final decision on what to do when we get to Bagan. Right now we’re leaning towards spending our last few days in Bagan, and then each taking the flights I described above. (This means I would be alone for 3 days in Bagan, rather than Yangon, for 3 days. I’m now thinking I might change my flight to Marjan’s, if there’s room, as I just read that Air Asia is not only NOT canceling flights, but letting people change flights for free.) We want to see what it’s like on the boat we’re going to take there (it’s perfectly safe – a huge slow ship going down the Ayerwaddy River hundreds of kilometers north of the typhoon region). We leave tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 5:30 am and it’s scheduled to arrive around 3 pm local time. Note that local time is 11.5 hours ahead of NYC time.

I *had* wanted to write a post about what we’ve actually been *doing* here. But your worried emails prompted this post instead. Please rest assured that I am completely safe and easily continuing my trip as planned. The internet cafe I’m in is filled – half with tourists and half with locals playing games or looking at photos or chatting on Google Talk. It’s strangely and completely normal.

I may post again later.

Safe & hot w/aching butt in Mandalay

Here we are in Mandalay after a long (9-hour), bumpy bus ride on painfully hard seats. For the people here, it’s as if there was no cyclone/typhoon. It’s hot and sunny and there’s electricity and (painfully slow yet working) internet.

As I mentioned in my brief post yesterday, we really had no idea how big the cyclone was until yesterday morning. Saturday night was the last night of our trek – we stayed in a Buddhist monastery. The head monk told us that he had heard on the radio that there was a large storm in Yangon, and that about 300 people had died. I figured such a small incident wouldn’t even make the news in the US. To be honest, at the time we were much more interested in the storm’s effect on the rest of our trek. Saturday had been an unseasonably wet day, which meant we had to walk 24 kilometers in huge ponchos with heavy sticky clay mud collecting like concrete blocks to our Tevas. In fact, I did the last few kms barefoot like the locals. Squishy and slippery, but at least I didn’t have 5-kilo weights attached to my feet.

On Sunday we arrived at Inle Lake and stayed at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyangshwe. There we found that the typhoon had knocked out electricity in the area, and this time the casualty count was 3000. Again, we were more concerned with its effect on our much-needed hot shower…though of course we were also sad and curious about the extent of the damage. Of course, no electric and no internet meant no info. And there’s no English-language paper for sale in Myanmar outside of Yangon and Mandalay. So we were informed only by the rumors we heard from locals. We didn’t know if their source of info was the unreliable Myanmar media or the BBC. So we took the growing numbers with a large grain of salt.

Monday we spent the day mostly in our room, recovering from the exhausting trek and the nasty diarrhea Marjan (we had it much worse) and I had been suffering since Friday. (Yes mom I’m drinking plenty of fluids.) By Tuesday the news of casualties had risen to 9000, so we started to worry that y’all were worried. But again, we had no way to get in touch. Then yesterday morning we heard almost 100K dead, so we were eager to get to Mandalay and send word that we were fine. But we managed to luck out – I poked my head into a “Cyber Cafe” in Nyangshwe and saw a woman using the internet. I asked if we could use it, but she said “it’s on a shared generator that they will turn off right now.” I begged her for just 10 minutes, she agreed, and that’s the story.

As for the typhoon itself, I’m still going to try to read up on it on the internet – the newspaper I bought today is from the 5th, before the extent of things was really known. We know the elections scheduled for the 10th were postponed (at least down south) so we’ll keep an ear to the ground about that. Marjan’s leaving a few days before me, so I might try to spend my last few days in Bago, near Yangon, because I hear UNICEF is looking for volunteers. But of course I’ll make sure it’s safe first.

As of right now, here’s our itinerary:

Thursday – Mandalay

Friday – day trip to ancient cities around Mandalay

Saturday – either Mandalay or the nearby town of Pyin U Lwin

Sunday – boat to Bagan

Monday – Wed – Bagan

Thursday – Marjan takes the bus back to Yangon, arriving Friday, to fly out Saturday. I may take the bus to Bago and stay there until I leave on Tuesday the 20th. But that bit is still up in the air. I don’t know how safe it is down south, and if I’d have access to safe water and food. So I’ll get more info before making that decision. If it’s really unsafe, I can always stay up north here and then just fly from Mandalay to Yangon and then out to Bangkok. But I don’t think it’ll come to that.

In any event, it seems that the internet is working up north here, and that most internet cafes have various solutions to getting around the govt’s attempt to limit access to email, etc. So I won’t be as cut off as I feared. So I’ll keep everyone informed about my plans as they come together.