Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Homeward Bound."

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it”. - George Moore

  After nearly a year and half of living and traveling Asia, and 32 hours in Transit, I stood out in the fresh air of American soil. I arrived in Los Angeles on Sunday night, feeling like a newcomer, feeling like I was returning home.  I was both at the same time, and I was unsure of everything, and certain of so much.  I waited outside the airport gazing and looking at people, how tall they were, how different everyone looked from each other, listening to a familiar language, reading signs in my own tongue.   The air was cool and fresh, as fresh I suppose as L.A’s air can be, and I stood by my backpack in my loose clothes and wittled frame and I was content to stand there, to enjoy the last moments, the new moments, the end, the beginning.  
 My friend Suzette pulled up in her car and quickly jumped out to give me a hug.  I remember still now thinking that I wanted a longer hug, but in the airport que, we rushed in to the car and drove off, and instantly, we were the friends we always were.  Suzette is amazing, and throughout the whole of my life, she is one of the only people I have ever kept in contact with.  I hope I always do.  We instantly started to trash talk and joke and laugh, and she tickled me while she drove, and I tickled her while she drove.  I always find a way to win, and she never completely gives up or surrenders.  She commented on how skinny I had become, though I didn’t think it was so bad, and we drove from LA down the 405 to Huntington Beach.  I looked closely at the freeway exits, the off ramps, the business, and everything that reminded me of a life I once lived, of my many travels up and down those roads for work, for leisure, for life.  I passed the shop I bought my beloved motorcycle at, the exits where I knew Jamba Juice locations were, exits to various beaches, and then we rounded down to HB, pulled off the freeway and drove down the roads I knew too well, though they were different somehow, and entirely the same.  We pulled in to her nice new apartment, unloaded my bag, grabbed bicycles and headed out to the pier.  I told Suzette the first thing I had to do was buy deodorant, as mine had been stolen while in Asia and I had been without  for over a month, and even a fresh shower did not seem to disguise that fact.  We rode through the streets of HB, laughing and joking.  The air was that familiar breeze blowing off the pacific, cool for summer, and digging deep in to my skin and down to my bones, but I loved it.  I loved the goose bumps the wind gave me, the chill on my face, the shuffling of my hair, and the turning of my legs to pedal forward. 
  We locked the bikes up and walked around downtown HB, down to the end of the pier and around Ruby’s Diner.  We stopped to look at the waves, laughed at the memory of us jumping off the pier one night and fighting hard to swim back safely to shore.  We walked up and down Main Street, a street I knew so well, had walked so many times.  Each street in downtown was marked inside me, and I remembered a thousand times on my skateboard or bicycle up and down the streets looking at houses and small gardens, or simply out for an evening stroll, a daytime jog, or a search to clear my head among the salt and sea of the air outside.  I loved that air there, that feeling of the breeze and wind, the sun on my face and shoulders, the smell of ocean and sand.  I loved skateboarding down the boardwalk or around parks or through the streets to Suzette’s apartment, and here I was, doing it again, the cool summer night of California once again with me. 
  I stayed with Suzette for a week.  We didn’t do as much as I had hoped, as she was busy with school, and had her niece over for a couple days, but we had the kind of fun we always have.  We stayed up too late talking and wrestling, and she was convinced she could finally beat me with my emaciated frame, and the first thing she did when we walked in the door and I dropped my bag was try to tackle me and take advantage at both my lack of sleep and weight, though it proved that even with that she could not  gain a victory, but I love her for her effort. 
  I spent time at the beach enjoying the sand and sun, reminiscing many moments of solitude.  I went to the Tuesday night street market, watched the street performers, watched the people, and was quaffed at having to pay $5 for a small dinner after so long surviving so cheaply in Asia.  I also tasted the wonderful joy of Jamba Juice.  Oh, Jamba Juice I did miss you, and here now in the UAE I am without you again and wait for our reunion. 
  Suzette took me to a wedding up in Bakersfield and we talked and laughed the hours away.  I missed HB.  I miss it still, and often wish to return, though I know I did struggle there and would struggle again, but how is that different from any place?  I miss the beach, the weather, the familiar breeze, the freedom I had there, walking to the gym, a morning Jamba Juice, a night time skateboard ride down the pier, a summer of sitting solo in the sand, and empty winter beaches. 
  Suzette drove me down to her parents’ house an hour outside of San Diego out among one of the small towns of Southern California’s hills.  It was a lovely home, and we talked with her parents and stayed up late again, and in the morning, she drove me to the freeway and dropped me off and there we said goodbye.  I have not seen her since, and have only been fortunate to talk to her a few times since we parted on a freeway on-ramp.  It was dawn, the sun not yet full up.  I had my backpack, a water bottle, and two pounds of dried mangoes brought from Asia, and with that I put my thumb out to cars that passed and thought about home and family.  I decided the end of my journey could best be completed by hitchhiking the 700 miles home, and in retrospect, I was right.  I have driven that route many times, only about a 10 hour drive with fuel stops, but with a thumb instead of a gas pedal, it took me 2 ½ tiring days in a very hot sun. 
  The first day I made it up to Baker, California, only a couple hours from LA.  I spent the night on a lumpy patch of grass dodging sprinkles all night.  I even pulled out my small travel umbrella and tried to hide underneath.  It took several rides to get me up that far.  I would stand in a spot for hours waiting for someone to pick me up and then drive for 30-60 minutes and wait a few more hours for another ride.  I had an Afghani guy, an Indian guy, two separate American guys, and a trucker who drove me only 8 miles and admittedly picked me up only because he saw my long blonde hair and thought I was a woman. 
  The following day I rose again before dawn and while still dark began again with both my thumb and my hopes up.  I was a little more fortunate with rides that day.  One guy took me from Baker to Vegas, another took me about 15 miles outside of Vegas, and then I lucked out and a trucker who felt bad for me out in the triple digit heat with no shade in sight picked me up and took all the way to Salinas.  Every guy who picked me up had spent time hitchhiking in his youth, and some were interesting folks for sure, and even more interesting were the conversations. 
  On the second night I slept in a rocky ditch on the side of the road outside Salina.  It was a little cold and windy and I did not sleep well.  The only food I had eaten all trip was the dried mangoes, and a sandwich off McDonald’s dollar menu.  That night, I slept in the cold and bushes of an uncomfortable ditch only an hour drive from my parents’ house.  They had no idea I was in the country though and I did not want to ruin the surprise.  I cut my backpacking trip short without telling them in hopes of surprising them.  I missed them and despite the fun I had in Asia, I knew I wanted to see my family, and the closer I got to going home, the more excited I became about it.  All along the hitchhike home I kept hoping for one lucky and long ride to take me home to my parents, to see their surprise, and to be home, as much of a home as I any longer had. 
  The 3rd day I was very tempted to give in and destroy the surprise. I walked 25 miles that day without a single ride, from Salina to Manti.  No one would pick me up, even when I collapsed on the side of the road and lay motionless in the grass with my bag still strapped to my shoulders, no one picked me up.  I did, however, have the police called on me 13 times and one officer very apologetically chased me out of town.  I just kept walking with my heavy bag, building bumps and bruises on my hips on back, and my feet could barely hold me any longer.  Each step was an aching pain.  My flip flops were worn through and paper thin with holes.  It was like walking barefoot with a heavy bag strapped to an underweight and exhausted body.  I limped for miles, nearly to tears and frustration, and kept hoping with the few cars that passed on the country roads, that one would stop, and take me home.  Finally, one did, and someone drove me the rest of the way to Fairview, dropping me a mile from my parents’ house, and despite the pain, one more mile was nothing at all to bear, so I headed up the canyon anxious and waiting, hoping they’d be home, and wondering what I would do if they weren’t.  It was a flurry of thoughts and feelings which I had gone over for two months in anticipation.  Here it was all about to be realized.  How would it go?  In ways, I did not know what to expect, though in other ways I thought I knew exactly what to expect because for the past two months I had been dreaming of and pondering over the exact moment when I arrived at their door and all the scenarios that could happen.  I took in to consideration my parents being out of town for a few days and having to use a wifi connection at their neighbor’s house to use Skype to call them so as not to give out my location with caller i.d.   I took in to account my dad being home, but my mom not being home.  I thought of my parents driving past me on the road while I was trudging up the hill to their house.  I imagined a dozen different things I would say to them and dozens more things they would say back.  I did not quite imagine what did happen though.  It was a sublime treat.
  I walked with my pack strapped to my back across the lawn of my parents small cabin and right past the kitchen window where I saw my mother standing and talking on the phone while she absent-mindedly looked out the window and apparently either past me or through me.  The door was unlocked so I walked in.  She was in the kitchen and still on the phone and it was clear she had not seen me.  I lifted my bag off my sore shoulders and felt the release from my back and feet and quietly walked up behind my mother.  I was standing directly behind her, and still she had no clue of my presence.  I thought perhaps she was on the phone with my sister, and hoping to surprise my siblings in person, I did not want my mom screeching out anything over the phone and giving the surprise away.  I softly tapped on her shoulder.  She turned around and I put my finger to my lips softly motioning for her to be quiet.  She stared at me blankly and confused.  It was an odd moment and I could tell she either didn’t recognize me or was too confused to grasp my being there.  After a few seconds she let out a loud burst and screamed out “I have to go.  I have to go,” over the phone and noticing my request for her to be quiet she tried to control the noise and ran out the front door without saying a single word to me, but just crying over the phone and repeating that she had to go over and over.  I stood there shocked myself.  Here I was standing solo in my parents’ house and I had effectively just chased my mother out by the mere sight of me in her home.  I was a little baffled and had rather expected a hug or a welcome home or something, but had never expected her to simply run away from me.  Of all the scenarios I had envisioned, that one never came up, and I stood as confused as she must have been.  My father, who was in the bedroom resting, heard the commotion of my mother’s sudden fitful burst in to tears and hysteria and he meandered out and stopped and looked up at me slowly and equally as confused and after a moment’s pause simply asked me what mom was crying about.  He didn’t step toward me, offer a hug, say hello, or really act as though he entirely recognized who I was or that he had not seen me in a year and a half.  I walked over and gave him a bug hug and he still just stood there dazed and uncertain.  I don’t think he said anything at all, but I grabbed around his still strong frame and hugged as close as two men think comfortable to hug.  It was my old man, standing in front of me, and I was happy to see him.  Although in my family it seems we children are much closer with my mother, still there is a bond we have with our father, a strange connection built on sarcasm and wit, built on a stern upbringing and an appreciation for teaching us hard work and responsibility that we all hated as children.   It has been strange for me to see how the relationship with my father has changed and grown the further into adulthood I ascend, and I think sometimes there is an understanding in the silence and an appreciation and immense pride we have for each other.  It is also strange to see how my distance and absence and travels affect him.  The man I knew as a child, distant and sometimes seemingly cold now shows a nurturing side and a desire for closeness and proximity.  I have an amazing father, and there I was, hugging him close.
  While in the midst of hugging my father my mother came in, still in tears and muttering through her sobs “You’re here.  You’re really here.  I can’t believe you’re really here.”  She held and hugged me as close and tight as a mother can hold her baby boy, I held and hugged her back as close and tight as a baby boy can hold his mother.  Sometimes there are moments in our lives when we want nothing more than to be our parent’s child, small and young, and holding on to that love and affection that seems only appropriate for a little child, but no matter how old we become we always find the simplest and greatest of reasons to want and need our mommies and daddies. 
  It may have taken a few minutes for things to register for my parents, but alas I did get a welcome home and an acknowledgement that I was there, that I was their son, and that I had been long away and returned at last.  In every way that I had imagined it the two months prior, I had not imagined it to be as grand as in reality it was.  If I could choose but only a few days in my life to live again, that would be such a day.  It was among the greatest of my life, and all the travels, all the sites, all the adventures, all the unbelievable and unexplainable miracles and amazements were surpassed in a few moments that carried on in to a day, then into weeks.  No adventure will ever end so fantastically again. 
  Still though, sometimes I find it odd how my parents first reacted, my mother’s blank stare, my father’s complete lack of recognition.  My mother asked my father later what he had thought when he saw me and he simply said that he thought he was sleeping.  He had been lying on the bed resting and when he came out and saw me standing there he thought for certain he had fallen asleep and was dreaming.  I had spent months convincing my family I would not be home till a month or two beyond the date I showed up in their kitchen, and I was thought to be somewhere in Myanmar with a backpack and a smile. 
  We sat down and talked and hugged more and laughed and smiled and my mother fed me, as mothers like to do, and I was happy for good solid food, surviving for the last two days on dried mangoes and water, and looking ill-nourished and thin from months of walking and self-rations of cheap rice and noodles.  I told my parents the whole story, and how I even slept in a ditch the night before an hour away, cold and tired, and showed the bruises on my back, and my flip flops worn through, and after a couple hours I apologized and begged for a nap on a soft and comfortable bed. 
  Obviously there was a lot I did in the time I spent back home in Utah, but this entry is about the reunion of it all, and I still had family yet to surprise.  I stayed with my parents a few days and then we all drove up to Ogden to my brother’s house.  I walked in the door behind my parents, and his girlfriend, whom he had started dating after I moved to Korea, began to scream out when she saw me.  Dustin, my oldest brother, was on the phone with my sister, and smart as he is, didn’t say a word to her.  He took his time, hung up politely and then being his father’s son very nonchalantly said hello.  Something about we men, even when it is most appropriate to show emotions we hide it either for fear of being chided or thought to be unmanly.  I chided him for the opposite and got a proper hug out of him nonetheless.  In the morning we all drove together to my sister’s house where she, her three sons, and her husband were all at home.  I walked in and John, her husband, saw me and said hello, the kids all hugged me, and I stood behind the couch while my sister chatted away with my mom, not yet turning around to see me there.  John pointed out for her to look up and behind her as she lay on the couch.  When she did, she jumped up like a spring and screamed and gave me a hug, the same kind of hug she had given me when it was only she and I, two best friends, back when I use to sleep on her floor every Christmas Eve, back when we use to walk home from school together.  It was that kind of hug.  My sister and I had a relationship in our younger years that was beyond beauty.  We still have it, though it has changed through time and the moving on of years and having her own family and new responsibilities and priorities.  For that moment though, it was just the way it used to be.  I often blame my mother and sister.  Perhaps if they were not as beautiful , perhaps if they were not as strong, perhaps if they were not as witty and charming, or not such examples of what a woman can be, then I may have found someone long ago and be married with my own kids.  But when I have expectations as that, it is a difficult thing.
  My oldest nephew came home the next day.  When he first saw me, he jumped off his chair and ran and gave me a big hug.  I wonder if he had hugged anyone that way for years, or had shown so much emotion at near anything.  I love my nephew.  I love all my nephews, and it was for them, as much as for anyone that I wanted to return.  I have been gone for most of their lives, three years in California, one and a half years in Asia, and now one year in the Middle East.  My youngest nephews only know me as the uncle who lives far away and they only rarely see, and yet I have taught them well and they know to say I am their favorite uncle when asked, and I know they love me as young children would love an uncle who also loves them, and I know they miss me.  Sometimes I fear though that they do not know me.  I have taken myself too far away.
  Anyway, this entry has been long and tiresome, so I sign off for a time.  I still have much to catch up on, and much which I will skip over.  Ciao. 

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” — Lin Yutang

Sunday, April 24, 2011

When God gives in.

 “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
-          Benjamin Disraeli. 
I am actually getting tired of posting about Southeast Asia.  I suppose it is not so much that I am tired, but rather I am anxious to finish and get caught up, so I am going to make these next entries brief, and this will be my last entry from Southeast Asia, the end of an incredible journey.  If only I could have enjoyed writing it, or you enjoyed reading it, one jot or tittle as much as I enjoyed doing it. 
  My last stops in Southeast Asia were Hong Kong and Macau.  My last night I spent in Hong Kong, a million things inside my mind, imagining the thrill of seeing my family, the excitement of going back home, and all the events from the last year and a half, my time living in Korea, the life I had there, and the adventures enjoyed on a long trail through a vast continent.  I didn’t know what I felt then, what I thought, and knew things would gradually sink in and unfortunately dim.  It is strange to think of how we can spend so much time on amazing journeys and discoveries and then be asked to share it all in two minutes time, and then it is finished; the journey is supposed to be over, but who we are and who we have become knows no other way.  It can be a struggle coming back from such things, no one understanding what it is like to be home and the hunger inside, the hunger to live more, to share the lives already lived, but how is it possible, and who ever gives real time to know?  Travel logs can be boring for those who did not venture on the journey, so perhaps it is a good thing no one really reads my words, or else they’d not return to read another.  Anyway, I digress.

Hong Kong is a beautiful and remarkable city.  It is crazy and gritty and alive and dirty, sophisticated and modern.  I visited Macau as well, another special administrative region of China with a whole new stamp in my passport.  Macau is oft considered the Vegas of Asia, large and luxurious casinos and spendy shopping malls, but also 400 year old ruins of catholic cathedrals from Portuguese colonial days.  I walked around seeing the sites and sights, tasting the food, walking gardens and parks, sitting in courtyards of cathedrals in shady corners, and roaming around the unfamiliar streets of Macau.
  In Hong Kong, I did much the same, explored various parts of the city, taking trains and ferries, and also the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for outstanding views of the harbor.  Hong Kong has an amazing skyline.  From Kowloon, staring out at Victoria Harbor at night is particularly beautiful, and each night, all the skyscrapers put on a light show on the harbor, the lights of the tall buildings changing in rhythm to music and dancing spotlights.  It was a fun laser show where lasers worked in unison with enormous skyscrapers of steel, lights beaming from glass windows and darting off high roofs.  Crowds thronged all along the harbor to watch and enjoy the beauty of the harbor on display.  I should have more to say about Hong Kong, more to say about Macau.  I liked them both, and could see myself going back.  I suppose they are only cities though, as many cities are, and are enjoyed more for the chaos and craziness, the energy and grit.  Hong Kong did have some amazing scenery and nature though, and it seemed the backside of the island was nearly empty and a dense forest of trees and hills that swooped amongst lapping waves of calm beaches.  Should I write more?  Perhaps I should.   I am sure I could, but this has been a long journey of reading and writing, and it must soon draw its end

Traveling, my friends, has definitely come to be what I find myself living for, my reason for things.  I’ll leave you with words from my journey etched in my journal.  I hope you’ll understand them.

  “I can believe in God again.  I can almost believe in everything I spent most of my life believing in.  Still, there is uncertainty, but I feel I can believe again.  I talk to God now.  I try not to ask for things, afraid of the frustration asking will cause.  Although I ask for little and still question His willingness to help with what I’ve always needed, I also just feel He will provide with other things, and those I can ask for.  I seem to know it will be taken care of, and I tell Him as much.  Traveling is good for me.  It is with this I seem to know He’ll take care of me.  I have had some hiccups in my journey, but all in all, it has gone swimmingly.  Traveling is manna to my soul.  It sustains me.  It helps me believe.  I can be grateful.  It gives me reason to be grateful.  It is not just because I see all these people in Asia and know that as uncertain as my future is, I have things easy in comparison.  I will likely never have to walk the streets begging or trying to sell small items from a basket or a push cart.  As a child, I didn’t have to sell books every night or spend all my free time working at my parents’ street side restaurant.  I got to be a kid when I was a kid.  I know my life is easier in many ways, but that is not why I say traveling gives me reason to be grateful.  It is because I feel God is finally allowing me something I want.  This is when God gives in and says “Yes.”  With the other things I always wanted, still want, worked for, cried for, begged for, with all that, He allows nothing, but here He finally says yes, and I am grateful.   I like this feeling.  I enjoy it.  I like the confidence and faith.  I like the gratitude.  I should travel forever.”

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”. - Oscar Wilde

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Row, row, row your boat" Inle style.

A long lake high in the hills,
Fed by mountain torrents of monsoon rain
Which run dry in the cool summer.
They bring no silt to darken the water
Filtered through limestone like clear rice-wine
Making  you heady in the blue air,              
Blue against blue skies and blue hills.
I see you go from house to house,
Homes like cranes wading in the shallows ,
Visiting the infirm and the ill
In a boat rowed by the boatman with his leg,
One of the famous leg-rower breed.
May good health and fortune encircle you
Like the gulls which wheel and glide above you.
May these lake waters and the gold-encrusted
Buddha images of Hpaung-daw-u
Images which you revere
Keep you safe and secure.

"On Inle Lake"
- Win Pe.

To be continued here we come. We finished the hike with a swim before lunch, then hopped on a boat across the lake. I am going to copy from my journal for this post, as it will be easier for me.
“After lunch, we hopped in a long-tail boat and finished the journey with an hour and a half boat ride through the shallow marshes and the reed lined lake. Here I am now, in the town I arrived at yesterday, on a porch staring again at a sky ripe with clouds and a breeze sifting through my hair, now mangled from months of heat, humidity, and dust. Yesterday evening as I walked the streets here in a gentle spattering of rain, a giant rainbow formed, arching above the mountains and curving down to the valley floor while the sky was almost a Tweet yellow. I knew at that moment, as I knew in the long-tail boat gliding smoothly, as I knew with every view on the three day trek, that I am lucky, and I breathed my own soft smile that I am learning well. Thank you for it! The trek was wonderful and genuine. We passed not only ranges of Myanmar’s mountains and forests and villages, but perfectly manicured farms and gardens to give envy to California’s great vineyards. Rice and cabbage, celery and lettuce, potatoes, ginger, beans, and a dozen other plants all arranged in scenic rows that swayed up and down over rolling hills of green and brown, and a deep and dark red soil like rich Mojave brick. We met the traditional hill tribe villagers of Myanmar’s fertile hills. We watched them in their rigorous work, old and young, infants strapped in a blanket to their mothers or fathers who plowed or dug with hoes. Kids my nephews’ ages worked alongside whole families joining in the days’ labors. One family we met at evening, the men all celebrating with cigars and a happy smile, thankful for the day’s down pour to feed their fields. We met many along the trail, saw no one but hill tribe villagers, dark skinned and rotting teeth, strong toned bodies, and an admirable resilience. This was authentic life, not staged as some treks, no tourists, no souvenir shops, no begging or selling, only shy workers hard at their labor thinking westerners must have no mountains, no trees, no farms like theirs for us to come so far just to see their countryside, and countryside it is. It is nature, and I loved it. It is tradition and custom. It is the fertility of earth yielding life and survival. It is an unbending will. It is knowing no other way. It is sincerity, and harshness, and reality. I love those mountains, the ones that surround me now in the distance that only yesterday I was on top of, journeying across and through canyons and ravines and over rich farmland where hill tribes mended and tended and cattle and water buffalo grazed and labored. I loved the colors of the hills, of the soil, of the checkered scarves and head gear, of the skin, the clouds, the flowers and farms. I loved learning of and tasting the herbs growing wild in the hills, the smell of lemon grass and ginger, and the taste of wild plums. Sometimes I am shockingly aware that some of life’s moments are wonderfully simple and sublime. Thank you for it!
…Most of my time (at Inle Lake) I spent relaxing, reading, meandering all about the small town, and watching the World Cup football matches at tea shops, with locals in their homes, or with the family that owns the guest house I stayed in…One guy invited a few of us foreigners into his home to watch the game with him. We crowded onto the plank floor of the dark and simple living room and cheered.
One day a few of us hired a long-tail boat driver and spent the day cruising around on the lake. The canals are a filthy and muddy brown, but the heart of the lake is clean and resembling much of what a mountain lake should be, sans beaches. Yes, no beaches, no sand, just reeds and grasses that delve from swampy marsh to solid soil. The lake grasses are so thick in areas that with little encouragement floating islands rove about and locals wade or paddle out to tend their floating gardens thick with tomatoes, peppers, and such that line the banks and small channels in forests of fresh greenery.
The best site on the lake was the lake itself, surrounded by mountains and teeming with the life and activity of local peoples. The Intha people, indigenous to the lake area, stand at the back tip of the boat balancing on one leg while the other leg wraps around a wooden oar and paddles in wide sweeps. The flowered lilies of purple carpet and manicured gardens accent the sloping green of mountains and changing colors of the sky. It is a beautiful lake, and I am glad to have seen it.”

"The Royal Kason."

As the hot season-
Revolts against the cold
In the pattern of contrast-
The firmament becomes cloudy
And it is hot again.
It is summer.

Leaves on trees turn yellow,
To fall-to show new leaves-
Stems twist or break, yet
Sprouts on tama trees
Are now soft greens like parrot eggs.

While in summer trees thirst
In foothills thazin flowers
Are climbing thabye trees
Effusing fragrance
Mixing with the wafting air.

At sunset crow-pheasants are cooing,
And from afar come the cuckoo's notes.
Now and again, thunder is beating
Through heaven's expanses
Like lambara and deindi drums.

And I...
Oh, I think
Of the pouring of water
On the Bodhi tree
And of the absent companion
In the Golden Palace of Victory,
And I am mournful.

-U Kyaw (A famous Burmese poet.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Call of Kalaw.

After Mandalay, I took a bus to Kalaw, another painful bus journey. I arrived at 2:45 a.m. and walked the road to a guesthouse. Kalaw was a refreshing change from the other cities, with cool breezes and milder temperatures. Bagan and Mandalay were 115 degrees, days reminiscent of Phoenix. I wanted to escape and head somewhere cooler, particularly since most places did not run their generators in the afternoon when the heat was its worst, meaning no fans or cool rooms to hide in. Kalaw is up in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains. Beautiful gardens and flowers spread around town and the streets were a warm invitation for a pleasant stroll. It is a town I think my mother would have liked to see, or walk among the park with me, through the flowers and trees, or stroll the streets and look out to small farms and yards so full of color, so many flowers all in bloom. I was surprised to see such beauty and such order. It was a contrast to the other cities I had seen in the country. Kalaw had a military base, so it was a bit cleaner, with the presence of the soldiers, and the money the military brought with them.

I walked around the streets and hills and small shops, thinking of all the towns I had walked before in my life. I have walked many.

I left Kalaw after proper rest and relaxation and one morning headed out with a local guide and three other trekkers, one Dutch, one Swiss, and one Italian. We began a three day trek over the mountains of Myanmar to Inle Lake. The first day we covered ten miles, climbing from the valley in to the mountains and across high plains and through thick forests. We stopped at three small villages along the way, the smallest consisting of only ten families, and the largest of twenty. We visited a school where young school kids 1st-6th grade all nestled together in one room with no other light than the open windows.

At the second village we stopped for lunch at a medicine man’s house. We ate chapatti and rice and sampled herbal medicines while the medicine man sat in a hazy corner smoking his cigar. He was 84 at the time, perhaps 85 now, and tattooed heavily on his legs demonstrating his years as a village martial arts teacher.

In the third village we stopped for dinner eating a handsome meal of traditional dishes and locally grown vegetables. We filled our bellies on pumpkin, eggplant, fish, rice, and more, and were treated to peanut brittle for desert. We showered from a small bucket outside, cold water pouring down from a hand held bowl used to scoop water from the bucket. This village was high up in green mountains serenading down to rolling hills of fertile farms. At night we sat out discussing politics and cultures and food and watched the dancing lightning brightly flash over the mountains. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day.

In the morning we rose early for a light breakfast and resumed our trek after parting farewells to the village chief who housed us for the night. On that second day, we hiked 16 miles, again stopping in several villages along the way. Shortly before lunch, the clouds turned and our refreshing breeze gave way to a torrential rain. We rushed for shelter in the village nearby where we lunched as the rain fell heave and hard on the roof above. We ate and rested with the pounding booms of thunder clapping and cracking outside, and we lay on the wood floor and tried to nap the rain away, but had to soon leave and brave the weather.

Fortunately, the rain lightened to a drizzle. The red clay of the mountains turned to thick and sludging mud either slipping and sliding under our feet or clinging obstinately to our soles in a cantaloupe of clumps that dragged and weighed. We hiked up and down, holding to branches for balance and jumped streams colored in Indian Chai thick with milk and sugar that blocked our trail. The sky cleared and opened, revealing layers of clouds, clear and close. We walked over mountains, passing a village to a small monastery of ten young novice monks. We pumped water from a suburban size cement reservoir to a smaller cement tank and scooped water over our bodies in the camp evening air to bathe and clean ourselves.

We ate on the porch of the monastery, eating our fill of vegetables, meat, soup, and rice washed down by tea, and at night we lay on our mats on the monastery floor for sleep until awakened by the chanting of the monks at 4:00 a.m. After a pleasant breakfast and a short discourse and blessing from the Abbot monk, we set off for the third and final day, 12 miles to Inle Lake. I still wear the small amulet bracelet placed on my wrist by the Abbot monk, a pleasant reminder of a life I once dared to live. The weather was warm, but bearable, and the hike casual. We finished off alongside a river presenting one of the entrances to the lake. As lunch was readying, I helped myself to a swim in the wonderfully and perfectly cold water of the river, with the sun a strong and friendly position above. The hike was over. It was wonderful, and among my favorite things in my many month journey.

There high in the mountains of Myanmar I saw such glorious things. The fertile soil, the blend of green and deep clay red, the rolling hills, the jutting mountains, the friendly faces of hill tribes who worked in fields or passed us on trails after a hard day’s work. One day we passed a whole family walking home from the fields, all dressed in traditional clothes, dirty and sweaty. The men, a grandfather and three young fathers smoked their cigars carrying planting and plowing tools, as the women dragged and carried children and nursing babies. Our guide talked with them and explained to us they were happy that day, because of the rain, a blessing from the gods who answered prayers.

We came across so many hill tribe people, people who never left their small mountain village isolated in the wilderness of Myanmar. One woman came and danced a little dance for us, chanting something as she swayed her body and moved her arms rhythmically up and down. We gave our empty plastic water bottles to those we passed, valuable objects to them that could be used for many purposes. Our guide explained to us to never throw bottles away because they were considered expensive items for many of the hill tribe people and would be welcome gifts as we trekked through their lands.

I wish I could explain the beauty I saw in those three days. I wish either myself or pictures could show the color of the hills and how the mountains stood, or the shape and forms of clouds, or the friendly faces of the people we passed, or the laugh of children who knew only one English word, “B’bye.” I wish how I could describe some small part of how I felt, the joy, the thrill, the fun of late night conversations with new friends from around the world, seeing new sites and trekking across a very distant, mysterious, and amazing country. I hope someday those of you who may someday read this, though the numbers will be small, will have the chance to see such things yourselves. You will count yourself the fortunate few.

"Forest Flowers" Budding branches sway daintily in the winds Blooming forth into abundance. Red-dappled white flowers of nan-tha And blooms of sandalwood Sweetly scent the foothills. Summertime ends But it is not yet the season of rains. From the ground below Rises katta's overwhelming perfume While from above Jasmine's small swinging branches Send down their fragrance. Climbing the forest trees Khabaung flowers sway in the wind Like rain-soaked silver strands. Later in the rains their stems too Will all be a silver hue. And in the valley Surprisingly charming too Are the strange flowers Called by the villagers Crocodile flowers. -U Kyaw.