Mysteries of Untraveled Places

No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore.
—Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"


My backpack is strung with talismans. There’s a Shiva bead in an orange thong hanging from one of the side straps, a small disco ball from a Tel Aviv bar in one of the pockets, and on one of the zippers a key chain that used to dangle a Taj Mahal snow globe, though now it looks like a half-finished game of Hangman—one more guess.

There’s a Bedouin braid hung off the middle that’s red, white, and black, the strong colors that herald Nazis, Coca-Cola, the White Stripes, and wine. I have another braid tied around my ankle with cool Rasta hues, for a balance of color, and wear Brahmin strings around one wrist, all the yellow faded so they are just white and red and frayed at the ends. Around the other wrist is a bracelet of wooden blocks, each with a sticker of a Hindu god—monkeys, elephants, blue people, and too many arms.

There’s a string of Turkish beads on my knapsack with the Evil Eye in the middle, and inside are some Greek worry beads that some girl gave me. Somewhere around there’s a Buddha coin, a pregnant woman, an Egyptian scarab, an old drachma, and a Shiva shell with a whorl on the back. This completes the catalog of my talismans.

Everything becomes something of value on the road—a red stuff sack, a Ziploc bag, a clothes pin. I’ve scoured the hotel room for a missing rubber band, and know how many I have, and I've ran half a mile back down the trail for a pair of drying socks that fell off my bag on a trek. Money changes value. It becomes the local price of a beer, the local cost of lodging. A hundred rupees, that’s a lot of money, even if it’s only two dollars. People become treasures. In these quick and passionate days, you appreciate with reverence the chance encounter, the friendly face, the restaurant where they know you.

And there are the people and places that you can never, never know, because there are too many and the world is too big, and they will always be faces in a crowd, names on a map, full of mystery and the romance of hearsay. It is better that way. If ye knew it all, ye'd be mortal no longer.

Ron and I sat on the balcony, smoking cheroots and feeling very colonial. Through the bars of the white banister all the brightly-colored longboats were moored for the night. The canal water was low, like a taught muscle, in anticipation of the rainy season. Across the canal stood more stilted shanties, deep earthen brown with porches and tin roofs, looking very Mississippi, and there were palm trees and pines and a rolled-out line of hills and clouds scorched autumnal and a single early star.

Two women walked past in the street below, balancing baskets on their heads. The men wore Kachin bags slung over their shoulders. One zipped by on a motorbike with loaded baskets burdening the back. Down to the left at the teal-painted ferry dock some coolies loaded boxes of green tomatoes from a sampan onto an old half-ton truck, with much clatter and shouting. To the right a girl chased a dog with a stick, and men in longyis smoked cigarettes under the eves of a grimy riverside tavern, stilted over the muddy banks. They had not yet switched on the generators, and the quiet air felt cool after a dense, hot day.

The streets of Nyaung Schwe had a frontier flavor—dirt streets and wooden buildings, opening onto boardwalks on the ground, with banistered balconies where you half expected to see lacy painted whores coo-cooing for customers. The Shan locals posted their bikes and motorcycles at the hitching posts out front and the presence of carts in the street and parked in the weeds, and the girls sitting side-saddle, and the lawless chaos of traffic, and the patched darkness of the unpowered night all added to the cowboy feel. All the light came from the drinking holes.

I wandered the streets, with Ron and a Swiss Kurd named Julian, in the warm lively night.

“I want to go into one of these whiskey bars,” Ron was saying, “and order a bottle of whiskey. I've never done that in a bar. Have you ever done that in a bar? It's only two dollars here.”

“Yes,” I said, romanticized by the notion,—“yes, we have to do this, at that Western bar. Not the Western bar, the Wild West bar, with all the liquor bottles on the wall and the old men sitting around and the busted television. We go in, music stops, record scratches to a halt. Everyone looks up—who are these strangers? Push through the saloon doors. Piano player looks, and all the poker players look up from their hands. Then they all say, It’s just a couple of chumps, and go back to their cups and cards. And we take a seat and order a bottle.”

“Good luck with that, man,” said Ron.

The bar so mentioned was a caricature, though without the gramophone and gamblers. The sky blue paint peeled off the walls in strips, and posters for old Burmese movies covered up the patches. We had some beers and later went out to find some barbecue in the street, and to meet the American and his Chinese mother, mentioned in the previous chapter.

The next day I wandered around the town some more. Away from the main streets, the homes were stilted, and bridges led up from the road to the front door, across weedy marshes of front yards. I sat on a Shan fellow’s porch, overlooking the canal, and we were smoking cheroots and watching the gentle onset of dusk. His wife was fussing over his young daughter, just a few months old and turning her head all around to take in everything.

“She is like a fan,” said the Burman, rotating his head back and forth.

I told him about what I had heard in Kalaw, about the Burmese playing guitars in front of the girls’ windows, and he laughed and said, “That is how I met my wife. I would play my guitar just over there,” and he pointed across the canal. “She lived here, with her father,” who was also fussing over the infant.

In the morning of that same day, after breakfast, Ron and I went looking for the pickup taxi to Taunggyi. We waited a long time at a spot where it supposedly stopped, and only after some inquiry found the “bus station,” which was a dusty yard between some buildings. Ron became incensed when nobody seemed to know when the next taxi left, raging about and saying, “Speak English? Anyone speak English? You should fucking learn. All idiots.”

I was happy to sit there reading an Orwell novel, with my legs folded under me so the flies couldn’t get at my feet. When Ron asked, “What should we do?” I shrugged and said, “Get a beer?” Said the Israeli, “Alright, let’s get a beer,” and he stormed off to the adjacent bar, saying, “Let’s see how much it is.” As I made to follow him, I glanced up and saw all the Shan looking at me coolly, a look that grumbled, “Asshole.” Among the Shan, as with most people on this half of the continent, to lose the temper is to lose great face.

The pickup taxi started rumbling, and we skolled our beers and hopped on the back and sped off through the midday sun, through the oak-lined streets outside of Nyaung Shwe, and through a golf course where Shan locals in rice paddy hats played caddy to rich Burmans in polo shirts, and we jumped off at the fancy Aythaya Vineyard, a setting that would not look out of place in a 1980s gangster film—a classy place. We tasted the wines and toured the facility but could not afford anything else, and so headed back, encountering much of the same difficulties as on our way out there.

Unless you live in Burma, you can’t feel the hand of the regime, but it is always there, a tightening fist. In the morning in Shwe Nyaung, just north of Nyaung Shwe, the traffic police officer sits under a peepul tree on his motorcycle. When a car passes he blows his whistle and the car stops. A boy runs out, collects 500 kyut from the driver, and brings it to the officer.

Well, the next day Ron and I rented bikes and rode them out into the rural countryside, and up a steep hill to the Ruby Mountain Vineyard. There we could sample nine wines for two dollars. It was owned by a Burman, who visited twice a year, on his way to a summer home in Taunggyi, but the winemaker was French. The vines had been planted six years before, the first batch bottled in 2008.

I knew nothing about wine, I said, except I had seen Sideways once. Ron explained about the flavors of wine—how the palette tastes strawberries in white and earth in red, how the air and soil impart these flavors and the winemaker brings them out; how the “legs” dripping down the side of a sloshed glass tell the alcohol content, and how to sniff and check for clarity. I felt like I was in Sideways, and I felt fine, and it was a beautiful place, sitting on wooden chairs looking out over the hills and rice paddies to the lake, ten miles off.

A Canadian girl named Kaylin arrived after a while and moved over to our table, since the rest of the place was empty. We all rode back to town, to the restaurant near the docks where we had been having lunch. They had just opened five days before, and that day received their Myanmar Beer propaganda—ashtrays, napkin holders, and posters, so that their place looked just like all the others.

After lunch she was off to Mandalay and Hsipaw. Ron and I rode across the canal and smoked cheroots and fell asleep in the shade of a pagoda, a lone white pinnacle in the green fields. Then we returned to town and had dumplings and coffee, barbecue and Tiger beer, and I bought a bus ticket and arranged for a moped to the station, to leave the next day for Bagan. Ron left Burma a few days later for Thailand and Laos, and I felt like I had to see all the wonders I could with the time that I had.

The bus to Bagan was a long, jostling, crowded, hot, dusty affair, first down the mountain switchbacks from the Shan heights, and then across the dry plain of central Burma, to the ancient capital on the banks of the Ayeyarwady. The monsoon had not yet come to Bagan.

I stayed at the Golden Myanmar Inn, kept by the Chinese friend of the owner of the Gypsy Inn, and was the only guest. It was cheap and had air-conditioning to ward off the horrible heat, and so after a big thali sort of meal and a stroll around the town, smiling at the Burma girls, I came back and read and fell asleep early, so early that I woke up the next day at 6:30.

That day I did the obligatory bike ride around Bagan, with plenty of water, since I knew it would be horrible, sweaty, dusty work. What is there to see? A hundred Buddhist cathedrals, high brick pagodas and golden pinnacles, solitary structures, as all the thatch cities have rotted away, like the flesh of some ancient beast, leaving these fossils sticking up high over the arid plain, where only shrubs and scanty pines grow.

I rode out of the new town toward the Old. The road was crowded with cars, trucks, horse carts, and tourists on bikes just like mine (no local would ride in that heat), so I took off onto the sandy snake trails that led unto the most isolated and romantic of the pagodas—dark mysteries, Stygian wonders, constructs of an unknown age! Some of the shrines are still in sacred use, and I wandered the outer courtyards, and took the circuited hallway within, past gilded Buddhas facing the four points of the compass.

Monks wander around, and trinket stalls line the covered walkways up to the entrance of the pagodas. Even in the cloisters, local women sit with their infants or old women sit with huge cigars, and they say, “Picture? Picture? You want picture?” and will ask for money if you take one.

In an outer building of the Anando Pagoda, still a very holy place, I went into one old outer building full of painted scenes in pink, cobalt, and white. The son of a family of painters explained to me the Nat spirits, the Romances, and the Customs displayed there—here a Romeo and Juliet on their wedding night, their eager expressions unmistakable even on those alien-looking figures; and there they take offerings of food to the monastery on the following day. I took a nap in the shade of a tree, getting as much sleep as the flies would allow me, and then wandered off out of the Old Town, in search of more isolated and decrepit structures.

A young Burman on a bike rode up next to me, and he stuck by me even as I turned around and around, and as I tried to sneak into the Museum, and even as I rode down the long straight highway into the desert. He had slung over his shoulder a Kachin bag full of paintings that he wanted to show me. I refused in every possible way, without being impolite, and finally said:

“Alright, if you can show them to me while we ride—just go no hands and pull them out—I will look. But I will not buy.”

“No buy,” he said, for the hundredth time, “only look,” but my request was impossible.

I saw a massive red-brick structure off to the south and rode towards it down a sandy track. The painter followed. I got off along the way to walk out into a dead, dusty field and look at the colossus over the pale-green boughs of a line of golden mohurs. It was called Dammayangyi. I drank some water and gave some to the painter, who started muttering about his paintings.

“You know Conan the Barbarian?” I said, giving voice to the fancy stirred up by the sight of ancient temples,—“He goes around Hyborea, stabbing people, getting drunk, picking up girls. Anyway, the last Conan story ever written was called Red Nails. Conan finds this huge brick structure”—I wave at Dammayangyi—“out in the southern desert. He goes inside and there’s a whole society. There are two families fighting each other, and their fathers fought each other, and their grandfathers, and so on. Conan solves the problem by killing everyone. This reminds me of it somehow.”

I considered it some more and then rode on. The painter silently followed. Gradually he told me his life story, sitting in the shade like a parent as I climbed around on the walls—of his sister at school, his mother in need, his education in the family profession, and of what passed from first to last.

I entered Dammayangyi through the main gate, past a group of Burmans playing a rowdy card game in the shade, and told another vendor about Conan and the Red Nails as he stalked me through the high-arched halls and gothic vaults. The boy thought I was crazy and left without a word. I climbed up into the side passages and dodged a crippled bat that nearly fell on me and explored every corner. The painter was lurking around, and eventually he found me reading “Benito Cereno” in a windowsill. He sat still for a while, then said, “You see paintings?” “Not interested.” So he left.

On the bus to Mandalay there was this French girl, or rather two of them, traveling with two French boys—but this French girl, this image of Blaas’ water carrier, sat and chatted with me when we stopped at a teahouse for lunch. She had an altogether, almost obscenely enticing habit of dropping open her small mouth whenever I said something of interest, and because the French tend to enjoy boring detail, much of what I said was of invaluable, open-mouthed interest to her.

These four French also stayed at the Mandalay hotel where I found lodging, and the next day they took the same bus to Hsipaw. Let me describe this marvelous bus:

It is rather short, with boxes and all sorts of jetsam contained on the roof under a blue tarpaulin. All the seats have been raised roughly to the level of the window sills, so looking in you see lots of legs, and under the benches has been installed a raised floor of cardboard shipping boxes. The aisle is even higher, with first a stratum of rowed canisters of oil or battery acid, and on top of these some sacks of cheap plastic, full of who-knows-what, that the passengers duck walk across and fall from into their benched seats. More passengers sit in the aisle, crammed together, like hypothermia victims entangled for warmth, though it is warm enough.

Something on the bus stank like rotten fish (I think it was a durian fruit), and whenever the bus stopped so the conductors could throw water on the asthmatic engine and shout at each other, everyone would pile out to escape the sauna heat and the junkyard scents, starting with those lying in the aisle. It took six hours for the bus to cough up the serpentine road into the mountains, and then we arrived in Hsipaw.

Hsipaw: A small mountain town of fifteen thousand, popular among travelers for its charm, though most Burmans have never heard of it. The trees are lined with golden mohurs, and the marigolds and orchids and frangipani are in bloom. It is a town of lazy routines. Mr Book sells a rusty library, Mr Charles runs a fine guesthouse, and Mr Food has cheap beer and satellite television, though I preferred a small place nearer my lodging, with white picnic tables under the vast canopy of a banyan tree.

The premier and cheapest Shan dish is kao soi, or cut noodles. It is a soup of rice noodles, with tomato and pork broth, herbs and sesame seeds and chili powder, pea shoots and maybe some rice noodles, and the Shan eat it and serve it everywhere, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In the morning the Shan peasants come in to trade by the riverside. In the evening they pan for gold in the shallows. In between they work in the shade, doing as little and napping as much as possible. It is very hot. I liked it and resolved to do nothing but look around.

On the second day it rained, then the sun returned. The kids in the school next to Mr. Charles’ Guesthouse were chanting and it sounded like African music, and there were noises of construction and motorcycles and chattering Shan and chattering insects. I chattered with a Seattleite named Sam, a recently graduated economist, about stateside politics and Thailand, and we went out to eat a few meals of Shan noodles, the portions being very small.

That French girl was there in Hsipaw, and this Mormon chemist, Dale of Texas, and a German couple, Mort and Carolina, working in Vietnam, this ambiguously gay San Franciscan, this Russian woman named Mascha, and this Swiss beauty named Colette. I ate rice and drank tea with one or more, or made jokes over beers at Mr. Food, or played pool on a huge snooker table in one of the pool halls.

Sam and I went off north of town one day, wandering through the alleys and looking for a place called “Little Bagan” with a bad map. Eventually we found it—a few overgrown temples, very picturesque. On the way back on muddy roads an old woman working in her garden called us over, and we talked for a long while. Her house was on the map as “Popcorn Factory,” and many tourists call her Ms Popcorn.

She used to make popcorn and sell it to the school nearby for 1000 kyut a bag, but the Chinese can do it for 500; so she grows vegetables in her dead husband’s garden in the summer and makes potato chips in the winter and tutors a few kids in English, since she used to be headmistress of a school. She told us about this and her family—her six daughters, living and working all over, and all their children, some of whom rushed about the yard where we sat, chasing a puppy or skirmishing in some war game.

Sam had got a job with a fellowship, researching the economics of health, hard questions—how many children will die if this country does not get a new vaccine? how much will it cost?—expressed in numbers, which he says are often flawed, though they are always taken as canon law by policy-makers and companies.

He asked one of the Burmans at Mr. Charles’ place about illness in the country. Dengue fever was common, especially further north, but Malaria was not so bad; many villagers had tuberculosis, from fueling smoky fires in their longhouses to keep away the mosquitoes. We asked about politics and the Shan candidates for the government, but the Burman had no idea and did not really care—what did it matter?

Well, Sam and the German couple came south with me when I left, almost a week after arriving in Hsipaw, for Mandalay, and I was there for a few hours before taking a night bus further south on the Ayeyarwady to Yangon.

I arrived in Yangon and it was raining. I took a bus in to Sule Square and went back to the Okinawa Guesthouse and got a bed in the air-conditioned dorms for one night, since my flight back to Bangkok left the next morning. I had breakfast there and watched it rain and met a Bavarian Buddhist named Tobias, who had studied physics and worked for Mercedes for a few years, but he was as unsatisfied with that as Prince Siddhartha. He took a vipasanna class a year ago and found a new calling. He had been in Burma for six months on a meditation visa, studying in monasteries in the south.

Tobias told me about the Buddhist teachings as we wandered around later, looking for Fuji Sushi and a place to watch the World Cup opener. South Africa tied Mexico, and I had a few beers, and all the while my brain was roiling with thoughts totally foreign: Should I continue on?

My plan was to go from northern Laos to the south, into Cambodia and then scaling back up Vietnam, when I feel sated with this Southeast Asia, and yearn for China. It would take six months if I wanted to see it all, all that these countries have—

Cambodia, where Angkor Wat covers miles with temples, and the schools became Khmer Rouge murder houses, and the killing fields have been dug up, and the prostitutes follow you down the street on motorcycles and cling to you like drowning victims; and the coast has islands like Thailand used to have, and there are dolphins in the Mekong, and they use US dollars because their currency is bunk.

Vietnam, where they eat anything with four legs, more-or-less, and they sell cans of beer in the temples, and they burn fake dollars and Euros for their ancestors, and the roads are clogged by fleets of scooters, and you see an accident every half-hour; and where the museums celebrate their victory over American “imperialist pigs,” with pictures of the girl who killed six GIs and dog tags for sale out front, and they celebrate victory over Chinese dynasties, Cambodian empire, and Mongol hordes, though the people will welcome everyone with a smile.

It is far better, I decided, to let these wonders remain spoken mysteries for now, reasons to return later amidst life’s travails, than to hasten through them with eyes unseeing, and miss the grandest gift that travel bestows—love for a place, a people, a family, a culture, a religion, a style—a love that only comes with patience and time.

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