There’s a new edition of my monthly travel column posted at 3QuarksDaily today. Read it here for now, and later this week I’ll post the whole thing here on CS&W. This month we take a look at the Faroe Islands.
Here’s my latest travel column as it ran at 3 Quarks Daily last week:
On The Road: Needing A Rest In Dakar
It is time to go home. You can pull down the window shade for some relief; then it’s only 100 degrees. An Air Burkina Fokker F28 has sidled up to join us on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali. Not quite home yet.
“Pull the strops around your west,” explains the flight attendant.
We’re leaving now though, en route to Dakar, rumbling along a bumpy, corrugated taxiway. We pull up to wait, curious about the glint of the other jet coming in. Turns out it’s full of whoever comes to Bamako on Royal Air Maroc.
Mali is scrub. It’s brush. It’s Sahel, hot as hell. We lumber into the air around eleven o’clock and we have spent one hour and seventeen minutes in Mali. Look down on Gambia and what do you see? Gambia the river glinting below the wing, Gambia the country a pelt of land on either side, itself gobbled up by Senegal, except where the river debouches to the sea.
One New York Times correspondent, on arriving in Dakar, wrote about “responding to being in a deeply unfamiliar setting.” Heard that. A less politically enlightened twenty years before she did her tour, as a young man in 1995, I hated Senegal in a rolling and keening way, but I only hated it about half as much by the time we left.
It wasn’t the Senegalese, who were most gracious. We were just worn out, buffeted by a howling, furious three month round-the-world endurance run, on which Senegal was country 23. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to leave West Africa for last.
Because what do you know? Big West African cities can be unsettling for skinny white American first-timers in white socks and preposterous khaki shorts (me), just the same as for those florid American package tourists arriving for their first package safari all tricked out in LL Bean safariwear (You know who you are. On second thought, probably no, you don’t).
My first Africa visit, in 1989, I saw a fight spill right out into traffic in downtown Nairobi. Walking back from a newsstand, I nearly stumbled over a fistfight right in the middle of Kenyatta Avenue. Pushing and shoving and a man’s shirt torn from his chest.
Fear bears no fruit, I told myself, stepping as judiciously (and quickly) as I could around the pile of people to take a perch in the famous tourist bar at the New Stanley Hotel called the Thorn Tree, a place that at the time I found the height of discernment.
Teju Cole wrote about being new in an African town, in his case Lagos: “I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road. All the touts in the vicinity join this one. It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes. End of brawl. Everyone goes back to normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.”
So this is life vividly lived? Well, maybe. West Africa is not East Africa and it’s not a tough town like Abidjan, Dakar is not, but I have yet to learn how to stop petty thieves, touts and thugs from sapping my enthusiasm, and they are rife here.
We booked ourselves into a fancy hotel on a point out west of Dakar on Cap Manuel near Plage de l’Anse Bernard. Senegal is the westernmost African country and we perched on its western tip.
You take your confected drink from Mister Matthew, all bowtie, girth and good humor, and walk your blistered pink American legs out to stand in the sand behind him and burn your toes on the closest sand to the Americas on the continent. Which doesn’t get you any closer to home.
In mathematics, they say, you cannot be lied to. Unlike in Dakar. The published cab rate to the city, right up there on the wall by the bell boy, declares 3000 CFA. The taxi guys all swear to Allah hell no really it’s 6000. I jawbone right back with asperity, half really perturbed, half theatrical, not wanting to get off to a patsy’s start, trying to come on like I’ve got a belly full of battery acid but weary of having to go round and round just for a ride.
(Most people think they’re smarter than average. I do too, of course. But I fell straight into a ruse the other day in the much more mercenary Côte d’Ivoire: the local boys made like officials who were going to open a new pass control lane for you, confiscated your passport straight off the plane and expedited you to a row of clerks, arrogant as barristers. Which required a tip to get your passport back.)
Our friend Nick, a Peace Corps volunteer, knows we’re coming, and we look forward to a familiar face, maybe a night on the town. Nick’s number rings in to the Peace Corps office; he has been in town but is headed back to his village by p.t. (public transport). We leave our contact details in room 105.
Room 105 is suffering from a city water strike right now, far as we can tell. A lovely, dear staff delivers buckets of water to the door. They are unfailingly kind while losing select bits of our laundry, especially my wife’s colorful shirts. It’s okay, really. If you have a business meeting and they lose your dress shirt, problem. If they lose your only pair of pants, problem. In this case, on holiday, no problem.
Worn down. Need air tickets home. Somewhere way back around Bulawayo my remaining strength crossed its arms and turned its back. Now, on emotional tiptoes, we find a travel agent on Place de l’Independence who further thumbscrews our immiseration: we can not leave today for anywhere. We can go to Casablanca Friday or Monday, Paris Sunday, and we just missed today’s Madrid flight. Et c’est tout.
Dull as ditchwater and with commensurate ambition, we commiserate at a bar around the corner where Calvin and his junior colleague from Liberia profess to be diamond smugglers. Here’s my number in Monrovia, just call my secretary.
When my wife Mirja is away, Calvin confesses he has something very confidential he’d like to talk about with me tomorrow, when I am not so busy as we obviously are today. After studying my shoes for a time, I say, give us a call. No wait … I’ll call you guys.
After we get significantly into upper lip stiffener at that bar we rise and march impromptu around the corner through the curio peddlars and tummy-trimmer (as seen on TV) vendors toward the ferry terminal. The Ministry des Affaires Étranges sort of glitters on the corner, with a late model gray sedan in front. Windshield cracked.
Five shining minutes of walking and not being accosted feels damned good. Dakar might be all right. Down this avenue to Boulevard de la Liberation you gotta juke through the Total gas station parking lot, from which bush taxis bound for all over Senegal leave, to get to the Gorée Island ferry. Through Portuguese, Dutch, English and French regimes over three hundred years, Gorée was the largest slave warehouse on all of Africa’s west coast.
Nosing out through the commercial port, the breeze feels fine in your hair but the ship’s horn causes me to jump out of my seat as we pass the fisherboys on the waterbreak. Nerves shot.
Aboard ship Mirja gains a “sister,” a woman in a colorful flowing robe whose girth invites metaphors of generosity. She is a bead merchant I’ll wager will be hard to detatch without a purchase. Ile de Gorée is only about three kilometers offshore.
In 1995 at least, Gorée Island’s 1000-odd residents lived blissfully unburdened by the weight of slave trade history, the precise weight that visitors today come to strap on their backs, lug around and hold close.
We walk across the island and back; it’s about 70 acres, doesn’t take all day. The ferry ship, the Blaise Diagne, makes another trip, returns, and we let it go yet again and sit to take it all in. A beautiful woman with a dazzling white smile wrapped in brilliant orange won’t let us take pictures unless we buy a Fanta. Fair enough.
Toubabs (white people) sun on the beach on the far side of the ferry pier where pirogues are for let. We sit at Café Restaurant le St. Germain because Mirja’s ‘sister’ grabs her by the hand and walks us over there, having spied us halfway across the island.
Oh, and we are such nefarious toubabs. Still we do not buy beads. We sit outside at little picnic tables on sand, drink Flag beers and bat flies. All cold drinks sweat into pools of water on the tables, so they come with little blue terrycloths to soak up their glasses’ sweat. The server brings additional coasters to use on top of, not under, our beers. The sun beats down but it seems it is never hot in coastal Senegal.
Five boys sit side by side, dangling a fishing line. I consider the idea that fishing is less about catching the fish than freeing the fisherman. That may speak well of fishing, unless you’re the fish. A fine commentary on Gorée, these boys appear utterly free in the first place.
Mirja buys beads from her sister on the ferry home. As part of the deal she has three strands of hair braided with two little beads at the bottom.
Time congeals, clots, won’t progress. The hotel’s “laundry factory” still hasn’t delivered our clothes. The water is off. It will not be possible to eat just now. Order a beer. Deal with it. Flush with buckets.
Rick with the Peace Corps calls to say that Nick won’t be back until tomorrow, but would we like to do something with him? This is so sweet and yes, any other time. He is new in town, needs a friend, but this time sorry, no, we’re have got to sleep.
An hour later the phone rings and it’s Nick. He is in town. He catches a cab and marvels at the hotel. Didn’t know such a thing existed in Senegal. Let’s go into town to a real restaurant.
If you walk down the street beyond the hotel you can catch a cheaper cab, at people’s prices, but it turns out there are no more cabs, and we end up walking the entire corniche through the kind of pitch darkness Burundians call “who are you” nights, when it’s so dark even your shadow won’t stand beside you.
Nick gets his bearings at Avenue Pasteur and steers us onto Soweto Square, Avenue Nelson Mandela. The national assembly is here. I think it doesn’t look bad and Nick agrees. He says it looks better at night. You can’t tell the paint is peeling.
Somewhere behind us is the President’s house but Nick isn’t sure where. He may be the tallest head of state, Nick thinks, and I guess well, that’s something. Arusha, Tanzania just then was advertising itself as the halfway point between Cairo and the Cape. In the same way, I guess that’s something too.
We say we saw one man in particular on the way to the ferry who was so tall, so fierce, he scared the hell out of us. Mighta been the president, Nick says.
These tall ethnic Wolof fellows conjure menace with their elaborate, flowing neck to floor robes, called mbubb, imported to French as boubou. The Wolof share their formidable height and these effective robe affectations, oddly, with Omanis. Emerge into Muscat international airport’s arrivals taxi rank and you will find Omanis, statuesque and inscrutable, towering above you in similar flowing robes, augmented with sabres.
The first place we go in, everybody knows Nick but tonight they don’t have the dish he wants us to try, so he promises to eat lunch there tomorrow, gives hugs around, and we move on down the street, beside Jihad Coiffures, to Restaurant VSD Plus, Chez Georges, number 91, Rue Moussé Diop.
They pour water from mineral water bottles but for sure it’s tap water. In a wan and wisened tribute Nick reckons it’s good. They recycle the bottles. Nick orders, and keeps answering, “Wow.” He isn’t overawed. Waaw is Wolof for yes.
Nick lives in Segatta, three hours by p.t., with a father, three mothers and countless brothers and sisters. His family gets a small stipend to keep him. Says he’s learned patience. Doesn’t feel he needs TV and AC like he used to. Nowadays does a lot of waiting. Reading. Is working on digging latrines for the locals.
He came here to plant things, an agricultural volunteer, but because of the ongoing drought his assigned mission is pointless. Barren as it is out there, as soon as they put a seed in the ground a bird eats it. So instead he digs latrines. His expectations are lower now. On a good day he writes a letter.
Some of his best friends are prostitutes. Usually they had child number one at 13 or 14 and now they aren’t prime wife material, just down-on-their-luck, sweet girls. They and Nick just hang out.
A few days’ beard, a little longer than average hair, blue flannel shirt and jeans and an old Atlanta Braves hat. Mirja thinks he’s good looking. Remember, it’s the 1990s. Nick doesn’t smoke in his village so the kids won’t see him. He’s setting an example. Instead he sneaks Skoal.
He’s proud of his two years in Senegal. He has learned some Wolof. He’s glad he didn’t pack it up and leave, although he wanted to lots of times. But also, unequivocally, he says he will not re-up. Terms are 27 months (the first three in training) and his tour ends in about four months.
Wants to write a book about a guy in advertising who leaves the U.S., joins the Peace Corps and moves to Senegal. At that point it becomes a novel, he says, because nothing has happened in real life that would be compelling enough for a book.
Here’s my latest travel column at 3QuarksDaily, Needing a Rest in Dakar.
Here’s my latest travel column as it ran at 3 Quarks Daily last week:
On The Road: Fighting Your Way To Holiday
by Bill Murray
It wasn’t effortless but we managed to mollify, sidestep and defy enough authorities to be legally resident in Finland for the month of July. Never mind shoes and belts off and toothpaste in a plastic bag. No, do mind; do that too. But add PCR test results, Covid vaccination cards and popup, improvised airport queues. And a novel Coronavirus variant: marriage certificates on demand.
The pandemic shines stark light down into the engine room, onto the unoiled grinding of international gears. A year and a half in, the lack of coordination between countries is everywhere on woeful display.
The Finnish parliament, unambiguously and unanimously, declared that “Anyone who has proof of being fully vaccinated or having recovered from Covid within the previous six months will be able to travel to Finland without having to undergo a Covid test.”
But then a Delta Airlines official peered into her screen and told us, “it says here no one is allowed to go to Finland, period.” Whereupon the haggling began, and it turns out production of a Finnish passport and our marriage license was sufficient qualification for access to our seats, payment for which was happily accepted with no questions long ago.
Claire Bushey writes “There are some things too stupid to humour, and that includes spending time and money hunting down a Covid-19 test while I’m on vacation, even though I am already fully vaccinated.”
Both her complaint and my grousing are problems for the fortunate, it’s true, but she is still right. The TSA has had us putting liquids in clear plastic bags since 2006, though, so I’m afraid we might be in for a long haul on this Covid testing thing.
It has been striking how some governments start out more xenophobic than others, and how detached that is from political ideology. All along, clearly, the British Tory government just hasn’t wanted its citizens to travel abroad. But neither does the center-left Trudeau government in Canada want its citizens mixing with us damned foreigners. The Aussie conservatives, the center-left in New Zealand, ditto.
Barriers to entry and overdone testing regimes are frustrating for those of us who are lucky enough to be fully vaccinated, but they are transitory measures and they will change. I think, though, that this virus has changed the world more deeply than all that and more profoundly than we realize.
You can read economic scholars who argue that the pandemic “spurred businesses in practically every sector to radically rethink their operations, often accelerating plans for technological and organizational innovation that were already in the works. Overwhelmingly, firms adopted new digital technologies….” You can read social scientists who have decided that promoting positive societal response to pandemics depends on “aligning the message with recipients’ values or highlighting social approval….”
Increased productivity, social approval, economic adjustments, progress over time. It’s all sturdy scholar talk, abstract and incremental and reassuring. But maybe what we have here is less a ripple on a Nordic lake than a rip ‘em up convolution of space-time, a gravitational wave of change.
“Hammerson (a shopping centre operator) said on Tuesday it has submitted plans to convert a former Debenhams store into new homes for rent, amid a steep fall in valuation of properties focused on the retail sector due to the COVID-19 crisis.”
Suddenly housing prices are very high; office and retail prices are very low. That languishing suburban strip mall surrounded by a square mile of asphalt out on the highway? Maybe it’s soon to be a live/work community with a post office in Spencer’s Gifts and a cluster of Pelotons up on the second floor of Macy’s. What we have here is a 33 trillion dollar perturbation of the commercial real estate field. For one.
Generations hand off their collective knowledge one to the next in a wobbly relay of progress. The World War II fighting generation may not have had it exactly in mind, but received wisdom for would-be hippies was, after all that overseas death and dying, give peace a chance. (Sometimes there are happy side effects, like nationalism being left by the wayside, but only, as it turns out, for a time.)
There hasn’t been a pandemic in living memory. Here, we don’t have a generational passing of the baton. We have Camus’s The Plague and John Barry’s The Great Influenza, but we have no actual, living, breathing people to pass on their visceral knowledge of how the 1918 pandemic changed things. We jump ahead now without the tempering wisdom of living memory. It’s not generational change.
There is the obvious parallel of the uninhibited, roaring 1920s, and many are predicting it, but I don’t buy it. Look around and these 2020s don’t feel like letting their shoulders down about anything anytime soon. More accurate predictions call for bigger thinking.
Adam Tooze has written that after the Great War “It took geostrategic and historical imagination to comprehend the scale and significance of (World War One’s) power transition.”
The radical reordering of land use and the vast capital attached to it, the continuing legacy of the 2008 economic crash, ever increasing inequality and proliferating, widespread displays of climate change. All are conspiring to make untenable the way we’ve lived the 21st century so far, and sooner than we think. The status quo holds, until it doesn’t.
The Nordic countries have been grappling with a heat wave this summer like in western Canada:
“Extreme heat in the Arctic Finland,” FMI researcher Mika Rantanen tweeted two Mondays ago, “Utsjoki Kevo just recorded 33.5°C (92.3°F), which is not only the station’s new all-time heat record, but also the highest reliably measured temperature ever in the whole Finnish Lapland.”
For two weeks, four latitudinal degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, we’ve enjoyed an astonishing unbroken string of brilliant, dry, 30C/86F or warmer days. Lake Saimaa is warm enough that you can jump off the dock without scrambling right back out. Looking around, it makes sense to wonder when people will begin to migrate north to live among these quiet lakes and boundless spruce, birch and pine forests. It’s perfect up here this summer.
And don’t tell anybody, but even better, this summer’s heat seems to have chased away most of the mosquitoes, the brawny ones, the ones with actual weight, the ones you can feel when they land on your shoulder. The bane of Nordic summer seem to have gone north for the summer.
Praise climate change for its small favors. But pity the Lapps.
On The Road: In Myanmar, Part Two
If you’d like to start at the beginning, read Part One here.
On a piercing-bright, dripping-humid Irrawaddy delta morning in the 1990s, wild, screeching fowl wheeled over trucks full of boys in Chinese dragonheads banging on the side panels, driving in circles, celebrating the new year. The year of the pig had just begun.
The Yangon – Thalyin bridge was three two-and-a-half kilometer, Chinese-built lanes, one in each direction with a rail track separating them in the middle. Having just one lane on a bridge doesn’t keep anybody from passing, of course.
From China all the way around southeast Asia to here, the technique for driving is the same: If you get out around the car in front of you fast enough, you present the oncoming drivers with a fait accompli: I am tying up the entire highway in front of you, so you have no choice but to brake and let me merge in front of the guy beside me.
Naturally the oncoming traffic plots to do the same, and tranquility seldom reigns. Yet in the middle of it all, whole Burmese families plodded by on ox carts or old blue Ford or Dodge “buscars” with men and boys stuffed everywhere inside, standing hanging on the back and a dozen more piled on top. Invariably they all broke into wide smiles and waved madly as they wheezed past.
A grizzled brown paddy man walked muddy out of a yellow field to trade some greens (“grass for soup”) and two watermelons for a Lucky Strike. Here our guide, a young man named Chan, showed us “brick factory,” “rice factory” and “vegetable factory.”
While Myanmar was relatively open in the 1990s, it was nevertheless a place that really didn’t work too well. Neglected by its rulers and everybody else, Myanmar was a backwater – a bustling little backwater, true enough, but just where was it bustling off to? For starters, the opposite side of the road.
You drove on the left side of the road, always had, until on 6 December, 1970, they changed driving to the right. Why? Even now, no one is sure. Just about all cars had steering wheels on the right side. Suddenly the driver’s seat had better views of the curb than of oncoming traffic. Now, one day to the next, buses dumped their passengers directly into the middle of the road.
Could it be the leadership woke up insecure one day, was it no more than that? General Ne Win ruled Burma back then, and he, like lots of Burmese, was a keen numerologist. Might Ne Win have found something auspicious in the date 6 December for the driving-side change? Listen, don’t rule it out. Between 1985 and 1987 the Union of Burma Bank issued 15, 35, 45, 75 and 90 kyat notes. About those 45s and 90s: Ne Win’s favorite number was nine.
Or maybe they swapped driving sides because “(a)fter visiting a number of foreign countries, the general observed that most nations drive on the right and proposed that Myanmar follow suit because the country would have to connect to international road networks in the future.”
Indeed, Ne Win traveled a lot. He visited the United States, in 1966. The way I read it, President Johnson sort of stared at him blankly at an initial meeting, and then Ne Win spent the rest of his state visit playing golf in Maui.
He saw a therapist in Vienna. Back home he banned beauty pageants and horse racing. Ne Win resigned abruptly in 1988, admitting his socialist revolution was a failure and spawning democracy demonstrations that led to a crackdown that led in turn to hundreds of deaths.
Putting down what became known as the 8.8.88 student uprising gave birth to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, called the SLORC, a junta that sounded more like a swamp creature too ghastly ever to have been born. Pity its Marketing Director. (While alive, the SLORC, not so good at naming things, also changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.)
We saw in part one how the 8.8.88 uprising birthed the National League for Democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role as its mediagenic front person. Long run by gray military men presiding over years of stagnant isolation (similar to but without quite the autarkic malevolence of North Korea’s Kims) Burma badly needed a fresh breeze.
Aung San Suu Kyi burst onto that scene. She was fresh. There was also the suggestion that surely, had it not been for her father Aung San’s martyrdom, the intervening forty years of military governments and Ne Win’s dreary “Burmese Way to Socialism” could have been very different.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s 76th birthday was this past weekend. After incarceration since February and pending the conclusion of her trial now underway, she is liable to spend the rest of her life in jail. She will be thinking hard on whether it was all worth it. Worth it to spend 15 years under house arrest. Worth it to miss a great deal of her sons’ lives and the death of her husband in England. Worth it not to manage to follow in her father’s footsteps after all.
Which is not to say her father Aung San lived the dream. His efforts, after all, left him dead. And when Aung San, the father of independent Burma, was shot dead in 1947 the country fell back into the civil war that continues today.
Leading Burma to independence demanded from Aung San a moral adaptability that yielded a colorful life. He started out smuggling himself onto a Norwegian cargo ship in 1940 bound for China. He trained in Tokyo with the Imperial Japanese Army to help snatch away Britain’s empire in the east. He learned Japanese; he went full Fascist.
He would countenance “no nonsense of individualism. He resolved that “everyone must submit to the state….” He wore a kimono, took a Japanese name, trained on Japanese-controlled Hainan island, saluted the Japanese flag and learned Japanese patriotic songs (along with his comrade Ne Win). He strode through mighty crooked insurrectionist timbers. Which is not a moral judgment. Maybe there’s no other kind of insurrectionist.
When his shock troops moved to Bangkok his Japanese Colonel exhorted them to “move ahead of the emperor’s forces” and “lead the fight for Burmese independence.” He was to foment internal rebellion. The Burmese Independence Army fought their way in from the east and “started daily executions of (ethnic) Karens suspected of disloyalty” in which perhaps hundreds of his countrymen were murdered.
The Japanese anointed another soldier, Ba Maw, as figurehead and Aung San became Minister for War. Not getting the top job was a huge break for Aung San’s short career, because soon enough, opinion of the occupying Japanese soured as summary trials, sex slaves, torture, everything bad endured. Ba Maw stayed loyal to the Japanese while Aung San, Ne Win and others tacked back toward Burmese independence. Another ideological pirouette.
By the time the Japanese were defeated Aung San stood for the sovereignty of a new nation. When his interim Executive Council met on the morning of 19 July, 1947, three armed men in military fatigues stormed the chamber killing many, including Aung San. Before long, with a featureless bureaucratic leadership in dire lack of Aung San’s charisma, Burma fell back into today’s continuing civil war. No government has controlled all of Burma since the Brits in 1941.
Television was introduced in 1979, on one channel, for a few hours a day. In 1995 Myanmar TV still comprised just one station, nothing else on the dial. It broadcast a few hours in the evening, a few in the morning, too, and on weekends. Here’s the schedule for Friday, 10 February, 1995, from the daily paper:
1. Martial music
2. Disco Rally
3. Songs of National Races
4. Traditional Food of National Races
(Domestic Training School)
5. Songs of Yester Year
6. Children’s programme
7. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
8. Agricultural Force – Country’s Development
9. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day 7:45 pm
10. Beauty of the State, Dances of the State
11. Songs in honour of the National Convention
13. (something in Burmese – ?)
14. International news
15. National news
16. Weather report
17. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
18. The next day’s programme
Hotel TV had cable. In the morning the BBC reported that Burma had released 20 NLD political prisoners. Our new friend Kyaw said it wasn’t on Myanmar TV, but that wasn’t surprising, since SLORC denied holding political prisoners at all.
This was the Strand Hotel, bought and renovated by international investors in a tentative liberalizing after the 1988 uprising, and it was a fine hotel. Lunch for example was served in a sort of chaperoned separation from the hardscrabble of the street, amidst wicker, ceiling fans, 20 foot wood beam ceilings, warmed nuts and Heinekens, accompanied by a badala, the traditional Burmese xylophone made of wood tiles strung along a frame of polished wood. In this case, played by a gap-toothed and grinning older gentleman.
At Kyauk Tan village you hopped a little wooden dinghy over to a floating pagoda that they said had never flooded, proof of an auspicious Buddha. People made pilgrimages here for their “economy,” or financial health.
There were these three rocks on stools, see, and if you picked up the green one on the right and it felt light, that was auspicious for your economy. It felt pretty light to me, which was good, because we were going to need some auspicious economy when we got home.
A vivid belief in spirits thrives in Myanmar. Kyaw gave a go at explaining the curious mix of animism and Buddhism. Banyan trees, for example, are known to have spirits. Wherever you find a banyan tree, chances are you’ll find a spirit house underneath it, a little wood box for bananas or pomilons or some other spirit offering.
So what happens if there’s a banyan tree at a pagoda? No problem. You get a spirit house in the middle of Buddha’s house. No conflict. Both belief systems are intertwined.
The other day we stopped to see a particular banyan tree on the Bago road, just before the British cemetery. The shamans under this tree blessed cars. New car owners moved their cars forward and back three times to bow to the car spirit in the banyan tree. Some stopped to get a little insurance blessing each time they drove by. And who knows? Remember, in part one, we hadn’t stopped and not an hour later we didn’t have a windshield.
What a panoply of theologies, beliefs, myths in Burma! Indigenous people called the Wa live in northern Shan state up along the Chinese border, an animist group whose creation story is, they have been in the Wa hills since the beginning of time and evolved from tadpoles. Early British explorers, many of them missionaries, described them as headhunters with a proper headhunting season stretching from March through the last week of April. Their dress in warm weather, wrote James George Scott in Gazeteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, was nothing at all.
Down at the water’s edge beside the Floating Pagoda, lazy catfish jostled one another for food the kids threw into the water. We took a spin out around the river, then a walk around Kyauk Tan village.
Someone sold atrocious dried fish from a table. At the end of the street, a house served as the town theatre, screening Burmese videos twice a day, five kyats. The people out here in the country liked Burmese tear jerkers, Kyaw said. In the big city smuggled videos from Thailand were currently the rage. Kyaw reckoned they came over concealed amid legal goods in trucks. They were strictly illegal. The government sanctioned only good ol’ Burmese entertainment.
On videotapes smuggled into Burma you didn’t get subtitles. That’s why Chuck Norris and Rambo were big. It has to be action when you don’t understand the words.
A guy made tin pots by an ancient method involving spinning a wheel that entirely eluded me. One girl just stopped dead in her tracks and stared at us, holding a watermelon slice from the tray on her head. Machines ground sugar cane into a sugary drink.
We drove over to the dock. Chan bought some betel in a ferry waiting room. The betel leaf in Burma is green, wide and round. They slathered it with paste and sprinkled a few betel nut pieces on top. The paste and nuts are bitter. They provide calcium. The leaf is a mild amphetamine.
You could buy branches too, inside of which nestled some kind of larvae. Yep, you bought the branch, plucked the thing out and popped it in your mouth. Tasted like butter, Kyaw said, except crunchy. This was more of a Chinese practice than a Burmese one, he assured us, and he’d only tried it once.
In 1995, in the main hall of the international airport assembly area were five wall clocks. It was a quarter of six in Hong Kong, a quarter of six in Singapore, a quarter of five in Bangkok, a quarter of ten GMT – and four fifteen in Burma.
Jammed thick onto the viewing platform, families craned and waved at kin walking up the Silk Air ramp, Singapore bound, probably on the first flight of their lives, craning and waving madly back.
Poignant. You couldn’t really afford to fly if you were common folk and we couldn’t help but think they had saved and saved for those tickets, and maybe the fervent waves were because some of those folks weren’t coming back.
Here’s my monthly travel column for 3QuarksDaily, published there last week:
On the Road: In Myanmar Part One
Aye Chan Zin, a 22 year old competitive cyclist, once raced from Yangon to Mandalay and back. He fell and lost both incisors to gold teeth.
“Road very bad out there,” he grinned, goldly.
Aye Chan was a child of privilege, a third-year vet school student with parents with government jobs. His dad was Chinese, a doctor working on a leprosy project, his mom a philosophy teacher at Yangon University. A family album they kept in the family car was chock full of smiling brothers and sisters.
He had his dad’s tan Toyota with tinted windows. He would be our guide and driver, and on Tuesday the seventh of February or, as The New Light of Myanmar newspaper called it, the eighth waxing of Tabodwe, 1356 ME, we set out from Yangon for a drive into the country.
They must yearn in Burma just now for the good old days of six months ago when Aung San Suu Kyi’s political fig leaf, the National League for Democracy, stood between the people and the army, called the Tatmadaw. Seven hundred people have since died in street protests.
I’ve been reading this week about Burmese banks running out of money. People “if they are lucky” try to withdraw their savings, but they can’t get all of their own money. Banks “have imposed fees of 8%-9% to withdraw funds.”
Six months ago I had a plan to spend a month in Yangon. We even found a place to stay. Now, not a chance. The time we did visit, when we met Aye Chan, came after the coup that led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s years-long house arrest.
First on Aye Chan’s tour of Yangon hotspots, “That’s military headquarters.”
Did the leadership live there?
“Not live just work.”
There was the parliament building far across a lawn. It was not possible to visit the parliament building. You can tour the White House, the Kremlin and the Great Hall of the People, but you may not tour the Myanmar parliament. Up next came Myanmar Television and Radio, and then, “ice factory.”
Guides have their peculiarities. Aye Chan was a factory enthusiast. Before the end of the day we saw ice factory, milk factory, brick factory (“you want to take picture?”), rice factory and garment factory.
Beyond Yangon, beyond the airport, the road went full African. Benevolent open spaces countered an atrocity of broken asphalt. People, mostly barefoot, carried baskets on their heads or raised parasols. Up here people really lived outdoors more than in. Houses were mostly thatch, with open rooms. It was the vast Mississippi flood plain with banana trees.
At the World War II allied cemetery, the names of some 27,000 war dead under British crown command in the British Burma and Assam campaigns were inscribed in stone alongside endless well-manicured rows of graves. Names like Wrigley and Hicks, Collins and Stark, and also Singh and Gurung and Pun.
Local folks worked the road all the way to Bago. Barefoot women carried rocks in wicker baskets on their heads for crushing by big rolling machines. Road work conscripts made 100 kyats (“chots”) a day for six hours of carrying rocks on their heads, a meal included. That was a dollar. I read that up in Mandalay, the public was made to build infrastructure for no pay. Not even a dollar.
One time we became friends with a young couple on a trip to Albania. This road work made me think of how they remembered life under Enver Hoxha. The Albanian Revolutionary Triangle included physical labor as part of schooling.
In Burma, pagodas sprouted like the concrete military pillboxes Hoxha scattered across the Albanian countryside. And there was not a single military or para-military or renegade-teens-on-the-prowl-for-extorted-cigarettes roadblock. Driving was free and easy.
Out in the middle of rubber farms in the middle of nowhere, suddenly, just before noon, the world exploded before us. The whole earth went splintery and kaleidoscopic with a terrific bang.
Aye Chan kept a lead foot on the gas, the tan Toyota flew down the road, and all three of us were blinded until slowly we realized the windshield had shattered. We couldn’t see a thing in the billowing dust and finally Chan coasted to a halt.
He anguished for a long time. Maybe it was rocks from the construction work, but whatever caused it, there’d be hell to pay for busting his Dad’s windshield. We all pulled big glass chunks out of the windshield frame, cutting our hands a little and scraping the glass off the seats and wiping the sweat off our brows. A bird cawed a curious tune. Two men wandered out to look.
There was no choice but to bounce on the last 25 minutes to Bago. Little by little, shards and chunks fell and flew, with the dust and never-emission-inspected exhaust, straight into our faces.
From farther back into historical mists than anyone can see, a tangled mass of feuding tribes extended from the Indian Manipur plain to the southeast, here to Bago and on to the Irrawaddy delta. They’re still tangled and feuding today, with more or less formidable militias, often ethnically-based, operating just about all over the country.
(A new militia called the Chinland Defense Force skirmished with the Tatmadaw recently, briefly holding a town called Mindat in a four-day battle last month. Chin State, in the west, had been the last ethnic state in Myanmar without a Tatmadaw-challenging insurgency.)
In the eighteenth century rebellion spread like summer grassfire north from the Kingdom of Bago. A once great fortress at Ava near Mandalay quickly fell, the royal family taken captive. An unlikely unifier, a canny farmer named Aung Zeyya, then 36, drew a line in the pine forests and made a stand.
He defeated wave after wave of Mon fighters from the south. His army and territory grew with his successes and by the time he took the pagoda town of Dagon in May 1755 his followers called him Alaungpaya, “the Future Bhudda.”
The history, and to some lingering extent the present of Myanmar, is a story of these warring tribes, ethnicities and ideologies. Dagon, the “Future Buddha’s” conquest, known to British colonials as Rangoon, is now Yangon.
In Bago, teak and jasmine trees dropped ivory blossoms before us. There were tablets of stone they said predated Buddhism. Competing Buddhist evangels shouted into microphones soliciting money for improvements, an arcade of religious carnival barkers that threw a slant on Buddhism I’ve never seen before. One little independent fellow farther down the road just solicited in general, under a sort of Burmese revival tent.
The atmosphere at Bago’s pagoda was musty amusement park, a languorous, sleepy one, with gaily colored pavilions ringing the main pagoda like the different countries’ pavilions around a really tiny Epcot Center. All of them were different.
The Great Golden God pagoda, Shwemawdaw, stood deserted, making today a good day for laymen like us to dust up the bottoms of our feet with a few rounds of circumnavigation. An earthquake in 1917 sent this pagoda’s pinnacle tumbling. Not to be outdone by nature, they built a tiny pagoda right on top of the fallen bit and put up a commemorative placard.
The monastery revealed monks as pack rats – icons of Buddhas and pagodas occupied every inch of space. Seemed to me the impact of any one was diminished among others. The more the merrier, I guess.
The holy word had been inscribed on long stacks of leaves – for centuries, I guess. Monks’ austere sleeping rolls and a wood floor comprised the entirety of their accommodations. Kids chiseled new wood adornments for the grounds. A woman sauntered by offering watermelon – by the slice, pre-sliced – from a tray on her head. And chomping on one herself.
Aye Chan decided, yep, his Dad was gonna kill him. His only hope – stay with a friend and work all night to figure out how to fix the windshield. Said he knew a guy with a glass shop.
Back in Yangon Aye Chan turned down University Avenue. Aung San Suu Kyi lived here. Born in 1945, she was the third child of Aung San and Khin Kyi, a nurse (We’ll talk about Aung San in part two).
At 14, in 1957, Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma with her mother and lived abroad for thirty years. She married a British academic, a Tibet scholar named Michael Aris, and lived in Bhutan and Oxford.
Her National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, the SLORC, admitted the results but wouldn’t hand over power. In the run-up to the election whole Burmese towns were dislocated in an attempt to untrack the NLD steamroller. Still, the NLD won a convincing victory.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy was a coincidence (bringing to mind another unintentional president, Belarus’s Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, currently exiled to Lithuania). Suu Kyi didn’t mean to be in Myanmar for politics, but only to tend to her mother, who was in hospital after a severe stroke at the time of the 8.8.88 student uprising.
When that rebellion was suppressed, Suu Kyi switched roles from nurse to revolutionary. She won but couldn’t hold office, barred by the SLORC. Now she had a choice: return to London, to her husband and sons, in the certainty she could never come back, or personify the resistance, live alone, surrounded by military at #54 University Avenue, across Inya Lake from the military leader. Which is what she did.
The next summer the SLORC confined her to her house. During her six years of house arrest, “Every Saturday afternoon at four she stood up on a little box and spoke from behind the gates of her house, and hundreds of people came to listen….”
Aye Chan pointed out there was no military outside. “Inside the gate,” he said.
Just before sunset I crossed Strand Road to the ferry dock, tried to determine what vessel went where, and finally just picked one and climbed aboard. Darkness crept up.
People stared, benevolently. The “Autobus 1” had three bare bulbs strung overhead and a pile of eight-inch tall wooden seats that you grabbed and sat down low on, which I did. Pretty soon I was surrounded by boys, say seventeen, fifteen and eight years old. We hadn’t a common language. They just wanted to hang out with the foreigner. So we sat and smoked. What the hell.
Maybe 150 of us plowed through the water hyacinths for an eight-minute trip to the village across the way, and maybe 40 people came back. On the far side I saw that my new friend the eight year old was no passenger. He might have been working this thing all day, gathering the stools in a big pile for retrieval by the next batch of passengers.
One of my other new friends hopped off the ferry and strode toward a man with an ice chest by the light of two candles on the dock, who sold him a drink. Directly across the river, line of sight from the heart of Myanmar’s capital city, no electricity. Just candles.
Aye Chan was back the next day and brought his friend Kyaw Win Maung. I rushed outside and around the corner and found that he had done it! Between dusk and this morning Aye Chan had got a brand new Toyota windshield installed. In Myanmar!
He didn’t understand high-fives, but backslapping was good enough.
“How did you do it?”
“My friend has a glass shop,” He said, swelled with pride. “We finished last night nine o’clock.”
This was the greatest news. His dad wouldn’t kill him.
The plan today was to get out on the Irrawaddy, and while Aye Chann headed for the lower Pazundaung jetty, we got to know his friend (call him “Chaw”).
Kyaw finished school in ’77 as a geologist but had always been a tour guide. Clear-eyed and soft-spoken with an open face, Kyaw was easy to like, and it didn’t take much prodding to hear his whole story.
When he started his tour guide job they posted him to Pagan, optimistically eight hours drive to the northwest and full of ancient pagodas.
He met and married a country girl, built a house himself, and settled back, he thought, to live out his life there. The sunsets were beautiful. They had a daughter.
Then a man he’d met in his tour guide job invited him to visit the U.S. After saving enough to care for his family in his absence, off he went. For six months he stayed in the U.S. He saw his first snow in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One day in 1988 he heard on Christian Science Monitor radio that his entire village had to move. The military government was trying to disrupt the elections the National League for Democracy won.
A week later he got a letter from his wife saying she had a week to tear down the house he’d built and move, along with everybody else in town, ten kilometers away.
He went back to Myanmar, gathered his wife and baby and moved in with his father in Yangon. His brother died at 32 leaving two nieces for Kyaw to care for, along with his wife, daughter and now, his elderly dad too.
His wife was a simple country girl. She had a small business selling candy to kids, cheroots, that kind of thing, when they met in Pagan and he didn’t know how she’d do in the big city. So although he hoped to visit the U.S. again and had a standing invitation, it would be some time before he got his nieces off to college and saved enough (at $15 a day) to provide for his dad, wife and child in his absence.
END PART ONE
Here’s my most recent monthly travel column, as it was published at 3QuarksDaily.com:
On The Road: Pandemic Scorecard
POSTED ON SUNDAY, APR 25, 2021 6:14PM BY BILL MURRAY
By Bill Murray
They call it the Sargasso, this grass. It is the bane of Belize, an invasive floating weed that keeps pitchforks flailing along the waterfront. The Sargasso Sea, we know where that is. But this grass is from Brazil, Réné says. It’s a new challenge from a new place. It isn’t challenge enough just to weather a pandemic, he says. Now there’s this, too.
The hotel receptionist tries to convince a lady on the phone the grass isn’t so bad here. It’s worse other places, he suggests carefully, not to cast aspersions. Réné, a snorkel boat pilot, might wonder where as he tends his Honda outboards like a Mekong longtail runner clearing water hyacinth.
Réné has a less sales brochure-oriented assessment: we’ve done this to ourselves. This nasty bit of seaweed is from Brazil, human caused, product of fertilizer, effluent from the Amazon. Look at this, he scoops a random handful into the boat. These are seeds, it breeds right here just floating on the water.
Welcome to other people’s problems.
We just returned from our first trip abroad in 14 months. Belize is feeling the strain of the lack-of-tourism, as I sense they do most things, gently. The smiles are there. No people could be looser, more easy-going, nicer, and it’s just as pretty as you hoped; Belize, and its gracious people, are lovely.
Pandemic strain isn’t specific to Belize, of course. It has just been a long, weird year and everybody’s wary – not so much of each other but just of the whole patience-pulverizing persistence of the virus.
One benefit of quarantining for a year inside your own enclosed small space is that you make your own rules. For much of these last fourteen months we could hear others around our apartment, people with their own approach to quarantine involving, say, twenty friends, but we kept a closed regime.
Finally vaccinated and eager to go, the first thing we realized at the airport was, forget about your closed regime. Some people are just going to be ornery and you can not stop them. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport felt nearly normal, busy, shops open and people, as many as you’d figure, damn them, just misbehaving. Yes, I want the airport back to normal. No, not with misbehaving people.
Some Americans are clearly never going to respect distance or wear masks, exhibiting a kind of “go ahead and challenge me” belligerence. After a year of only seeing that on TV, the minute you find that it looms between you and your destination, that people out there are loud, boisterous and mask free, that’s disappointing. So not a lot of places want Americans right now because some of us don’t acquit ourselves well when we arrive.
After a year of ennui in sweatpants, now that the vaccinated can enjoy an outdoor meal with sorely-missed old, true friends, what scares me is that, even as the world has changed in radical ways out there, in here, among close friends, we’re stuck where we were a year ago. Same stories we’ve already told, no new ground.
I read this as clarion cause to get back out there and gather some new experiences. Old friends who are still friends after a year will remain friends for a while longer yet. Suppose we all go collect a few new stories to share with them.
So where might we go?
The European Union’s baffling, childlike helplessness with vaccine procurement and administration seems to have cost Europe another summer. With Europe failing, shall we pin our hopes on Asia in the fall?
Those would seem to be tenuous hopes. You can read any day about worrying new outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia, and the inexplicably slow rollout of vaccines in formerly exemplary South Korea, Australia and, of course, Japan, where no one is welcome for the Olympics.
Not going to China. If there is a country in this world more politically geared to inject its citizenry with dicey drugs than China is, I don’t know of one. China exports more of its 50/50 Sinovac vaccine than it vaccinates its citizenry with, and that tells you all you need to know about its efficacy. Brazil, a major beneficiary of China’s benevolence, is a case in point and a sad example. South America in general is just toast, virus-fried. Not going there. Even Canada, Jeez, Canada is shut down.
So we climbed onto Delta Airlines for a short flight to Belize, which, as I say, was lovely. Outsmarting ourselves, we bought tickets up front. We sought to bypass the entire middle-seat question but so many others had the same idea that while our cabin was full, entire rows in the back stayed empty.
Up front they dispatched bright orange boxes meant to keep contact to a minimum, shrink wrapped packages suggesting more than they had to offer, cheerfully labelled BISTRO. The contents? I just have to share:
• Partners brand “slow-baked” crackers with olive oil and sea salt, with “honest ingredients” and a homey quote on the back from Cara Figgins, President. Net weight 0.75 oz.
• Boulder Canyon brand ® Classic Sea Salt, Classic Cut, Kettle Cooked, Gluten Free potato chips: “Our path took us to the great outdoors.”
• Kind brand Cranberry almond bar, “#1 ingredient heart health almonds,” 1.4 oz.
• One Old Wisconsin brand beef snack stick, 0.5 oz (Wait a minute: you can not dress up a SlimJim as anything else, especially in the south.)
• Albanese brand ULTIMATE Gummi Bears with natural flavors and “colors from real fruits and vegetables,” net weight 0.75 oz.
• Four Tic Tacs wrapped in plastic .07 oz net weight.
Ultimate Gummy bears, Slim Jims and plastic wrapped Tic Tacs. Delta welcomes you back to the air.
Civilization’s veneer stretched so thin in 2010 you could see through it. Through it, Americans saw unrelenting gun violence, our ugly, persistent racial divide and one political party’s flirtation with nihilism. But people also saw cleaner air, clearer waters in Venetian canals, and citizens of Delhi could even see the Himalayas. Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct a little. In this respect viruses are above the human pay grade.
Through that stretched veneer you could discern a pull-up-the-drawbridge sentiment early in the pandemic that thankfully didn’t last, but did put a marker down. In March last year the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, warned people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:
“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”
Fannin County, Georgia officials did the same. March a year ago its sheriff’s administration posted to Facebook: ““I have received multiple inquiries wanting to know if people from Atlanta can come to their cabins. The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!” Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in our usual American context, especially in rights-loving rural Georgia.
Fannin County is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own a pretty little patch of creek in adjoining Union County. In the panic phase of the pandemic we considered (as everybody did) whether our last redoubt might be there. To reach it we’d have wanted to drive through Fannin County.
Georgia displays county names on its license plates and thereby gives our State Patrol, those guys with the handsome wide-rimmed hats, telltale clues as to whether any individual car might be not from around here, meaning from one of those damned metro Atlanta counties.
If pandemics will be part of the future, something to keep in mind for next time is how straightforward it would be to fundamentally fracture a real pillar of the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. It wouldn’t be the province of theorists in columns like these. It would simply, summarily, be done, by big brawny state troopers in impressive headgear.
And that’s the thing about pillars. They’re real strong and all, until they’re not.
We’ve learned the foundations of our societies aren’t as strong as we thought. In politics, ask Poles, Hungarians and Hong Kongers. In pandemics, add Brazilians and Indians.
A year ago we all made predictions, and some were better than others. A Naval War College scholar named James Holmes thought “stress … reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.” Maybe.
I feared that once leaders saw how easy it was to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, some might be less than willing to return to the status quo ante. It looks from here like that prediction may have only come true in Myanmar.
Many of us mapped what we wanted to happen into our predictions. I hoped that forward looking local leadership would press for change, and the mayors of Paris, Madrid and Milan did well by doing good with their bicycle lanes. Tel Aviv, Portland, Minneapolis, Calgary and other cities closed streets to encourage walking. Those changes may have come about because they were achievable.
Others predicted the pandemic would usher in grand, fundamental change, like Justin E. H. Smith in It’s All Just Beginning, argued that since the virus is presumed to have originated in a Wuhan wet market, the time of “wanton delectation” should end. Some things that seemed at least plausible and definitely desirable just didn’t happen. For one, a Digital Congress. Ethan Zuckerman wrote
“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues.”
What a great, and hopeless, idea, that feeders would remove themselves from the trough. Confirming a maxim: entrenched interests tend to remain entrenched.
Some opinion now fashions us as tender emergent post-pandemic shoots, urging that we not become the boorish rubes we were before. With some forethought, a little planning, maybe some well-meant community meetings, we can all become humble and hygienic, engaging and empathetic and kind to animals. We’ll have to see about that. No harm in aiming high, I guess.
Various people in random places came out ahead:
• The people of Nairobi, where Governor Mike Sonko included Hennessy cognac in his Coronavirus Care Packages, calling it Throat Sanitizer. “Hennessy would like to stress that the consumption of our brand or any other alcoholic beverage does not protect against the virus,” French-based Hennessy scolded.
• The United States, where good fortune somehow seems to come naturally in spite of ourselves. It turns out that even in our national obnoxiousness those who want to are getting vaccinated way ahead of the rest of the world. Never would have believed it.
• Two other winners: Hands, and dogs. Neither ever had as much attention as they did in 2020.
My monthly travel column went up this morning on 3 Quarks Daily. Read it there for now, and soon I’ll post it here, too.