Enjoy this walking tour of Bucharest, with lots of photos. The author says it’s “a city of the grandiose, filled with the humble.”
2022 is alive, a babe come hale and hollering to join its sisters 2020 and 2021, siblings bound by pandemic. Everybody stood to see off 2022’s older sister 2021, like we all did 2020 before her. Out with the old. Quickly, please.
2022 debuts with a striking resemblance to her sisters, just more evolved. So that by now some Americans signal their freedom by avoiding vaccination while others seek freedom by staying indoors. Meanwhile Europeans ban each other, for a moment there the whole world tried to put southern Africans out of mind entirely, and every country tortures its airlines. Hi ho the derry-o a quarantining we will go.
The Die Welt UK correspondent lamented that should she visit her homeland this holiday, she couldn’t even test her way free. Test your way free.
Consider the world in which 2022 will make her mark. Look east from Kyiv and please find Russia issuing un-agree-to-able demands and backing them with the rattling of 100,000 human sabres. It would be utterly incredible if Putin were to start a land war in Europe. But those who claim knowledge of his inner thoughts cite a deep, consistent grievance. Indeed they find it in the public record, in his 5000 word ‘Ukraine is not a real country’ article back last summer.
As far back as 2008, at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, Putin declared to W. Bush, “George, do you realize that Ukraine is not even a state? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe but the greater part is a gift from us!”
That spring of 2008 Putin indicated that if Ukraine were to join NATO Russia “would then tear off Crimea and eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. Six years later it appeared Russia was doing precisely this” without waiting for that detail about NATO membership.
The Russian president has run all that firepower up to the border to declare it is Russia under the gun. A week and a half ago Putin declared “They should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” He has run the temperature up to ‘blast furnace’ in eastern Ukraine, a neat trick in the snows of Luhansk and Donetsk.
The neatest scenario has a fiendish audacity: the Russian army advances from the Donbass to the Dnieper River, splitting Ukraine in half, and occupies it’s left bank south to the Black Sea, bypassing and isolating towns along the way that might offer resistance. Consolidating those gains would give the Russians a new, defensible border, the ports of Mariupol and Kherson, contiguity with Crimea, and secure the Sea of Azov.
Could something so audacious be in the cards? Russia occupied Crimea at the conclusion of the 2014 Olympic Games. The 2022 Olympics begin in one month’s time. Welcome to 2022.
Chile dodged a Pinochet-shaped bullet two weeks ago. Defying a last minute show of ill grace by the outgoing president, who shut down big city buses on election day, Chileans definitively declined to elect a baby Bolsanaro in José Antonio Kast.
Kast, son of a lieutenant in the German Nazi army, wasn’t sure if human activity had anything to do with climate change, reckoned he would only comply with international law if he felt like it, and promised to expel immigrants in Chile without judicial review. Toward that end he supported a ditch along the Bolivian border. He (and presumably his wife and nine children) opposed abortion.
He was defeated by 35 year old Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from a Croatian clan in Chile’s far southern Magallanes province whose forebears left Croatia in the late 1800s, at a time when both Chile and Argentina appealed for settlers in sparsely populated Patagonia.
Challenges lie ahead. As unsavory as is Kast, Boric’s coalition’s inclusion of Communists invites bitter criticism from those rump Pinochetties who are still alive and well. But there is opportunity. The election represents a culmination by non-violent political means of a left-inspired 2019 uprising. And to his credit (low bar these days), Kast accepted defeat.
The territorial integrity of Ethiopia, the lynchpin of East Africa, Africa’s second most populous country, has hung in the balance for a year now amid utter distrust, atrocities, cinematic battlefield reversals and the recent involvement of an entirely new cadre of foreign actors, the Turks and Emiratis, come to call with drones that pulverized the supply lines of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the main opposition group.
At the new year wounds are being licked all around and councils of war convened, as for the moment Ethiopia’s factions appear to be near exhausted battlefield equipoise. But a peace overture from the central government, yearned for by the international community, looks far-fetched.
Addis’s Amhara allies, who have taken the toughest losses, may be unwilling. The central government may itself be unwilling, as things appear to be personal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meanwhile factions with competing interests lie in every direction. A military faction within the largest ethnic group, the Oromo Liberation Front, has acquitted itself pooly in an ineffectual alliance with the breakaway TPLF. Add the all around malevolence of Elyas Afewerki’s Eritrea on Ethiopia’s northern border, and the whole situation calls out for a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Oh, wait.
Hong Kongers voted two weeks ago, as China’s flouting of its 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom continued without a peep from London, or much of anyone else. Government critics could not stand on account of an edict called “Patriots administering Hong Kong.” No one is even bothering to ask who lost Hong Kong.
The U.S. Secretary of State said his country “can’t accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.” That, of course, is exactly what Iran has been doing.
Governments used pandemic restrictions to silence critics and suppress protests in 2021. China shut down Hong Kong protests; Russia cracked heads at opposition rallies. In Serbia, refugees and asylum-seekers have been “put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military.” Slovenia was added to “a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.” And Poland continued to copy illiberal tactics” following ‘the Hungary Model.’ Freedom House counts democratic backsliding in 73 countries.
But wait, we’re here to ring in the new. What have we to look forward to?
Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, the Philippines and South Korea hold elections this spring, Brazil and Kenya in the autumn, and there are the US midterms in November. Five U.S. states will hold Senate primaries in May. What could go wrong there?
Northern Ireland, where DUP loyalists are already near full post-Brexit froth, will elect its assembly that same month, deftly overlaid on marching season, the annual extravaganza of goodwill put on by cheerful organizations with paramilitary pasts. What could go wrong there?
It may be there will always be an England. But a United Kingdom?
And then there is the pandemic. It may also be there will always be a Covid. I’ve had a look back at things we wrote when Covid first wedged its grasping little crampons into the lungs of the world. We were certain big change was coming.
And yet as we enter year three, look at us: here we are making like just around the corner we’ll have that whole supply chain toothpaste tube tidied up, real quick we’ll get things back like they were, good as new. Don’t believe your lying eyes, inflation isn’t inflation, it’s transitory. Soon it’ll be just like the good old days.
I thought in March 2020, before the Zoom boom, that when it became apparent how many more functions could be carried out remotely, companies would wonder why they needed all those buildings. Half right. The virtues of remote work may be apparent to everybody else, but companies are still invested (1, 2, 3) in all that real estate and dying trying to bring workers back.
Here too a rear guard aims to put things back the way they were. But the masters of the universe may have more to grapple with than merely keeping the entire commercial real estate market afloat. They’ll also need a workforce.
A 2018 survey found almost 40 percent of 25-54 year olds not living with a romantic partner. As they put it here, “That does not bode well for life events like marriage, buying a first home, or having a child, which correlate closely with progress up the career ladder.”
Our pre-pandemic memories, much as we’d like to restore them, are nothing more than that – memories. The world has kept turning, things have changed and the pandemic is the agent of that change. Surely distant historians will tie the 2020 George Floyd violence in America to the pandemic, and it will be contributory, but only contributory. For there is a larger attitudinal shift afoot.
Two weeks ago 6700 conventioneers in Arizona raptured to greet, amid WWF-style pyrotechnics, an eighteen year old man found not guilty after killing people. The same day a Donald Trump supporting TV personality urged attendees to accost Dr. Anthony Fauci in (rhetorical) “ambush,” with “kill shot” questions about Wuhan. “Boom. He is dead. He is dead.” His network shrugged it off as rhetoric.
The convention organizers are a group called “Turning Point USA.” A group of people in the United States is in the mood for violence. It’s as if the arsenals in their Winchester gun safes are hankering for some aggressive self defense.
As the pandemic began Branko Milanovic thought “The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”
He may not have been addressing the travel industry specifically, but it’s a place where that state of affairs prevails, as a failure to coordinate policy across governments makes chaos normal for leisure travelers. And so finally, a word on travel.
History rhymes. Twenty years ago Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, changed airport security at a stroke, as suddenly we all were ordered to tug on and off our shoes for “security.”
Twenty years on, the rhyme: on December 20, 2021 the Washington Post ran the headline
Hey, I know, in the spirit of casting out the old and ringing in the new, in 2022 let’s revisit the security theatre debate.
You can gawk at the travel wasteland wherever you look. Try for one, Southeast Asia. The UN reckons regional GDP may have declined by 8.4% in 2020 as a result of reduced tourism.
So Thailand has developed a concept they call the “sandbox,” in which vaccinated tourists may visit certain resorts where residents are well vaccinated. The Thai concept is contagious, as Indonesia means to try its own version in Bali and Vietnam on Phu Quoc island. Now that they mention it, that’s what the beach vacation is, isn’t it, sending adults to play in their own grown-up sandboxes.
On Christmas weekend US airlines cancelled 6,000 flights and German airline Lufthansa has cancelled 33,000 further winter flights for lack of demand. For two years now the international airline lobby IATA has stood incoherent and mostly mute as the entire formerly bottomless air travel maw chokes into insolvency.
For every selfie stick I’ve ever yearned to seize and crack over my knee, for every cruise ship that ever debased Venice’s lagoon, for every Ibiza hen party embarrassment, for all the perils of mass tourism, for all the evils of the dilettante horde, as Henry Wismayer describes them, surely the pandemic is a more insidious danger.
Covid’s most pervasive, longest lasting effect may be this comprehensive, ongoing, panic-induced constriction of cultural exchange. Our lingering inability to mix across cultures, to enjoy what’s unique about distant ethnicities, to discover and rediscover that people everywhere are just people after all, can only stiffen prejudice and steepen the slope to intolerance.
So it takes some effort to be optimistic about the year ahead. I’m almost sure it requires averting one’s gaze from politics. But there are always things to look forward to. Here are three, all of them as far from politics as can be:
Separating meat production from animal harvesting. A recent paper explains it this way: “Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, … albeit grown without the animal itself involved….” By one estimate, 65 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass is made up of animals grown to feed humans. That leaves 35 percent to cover humans and all the rest of the world’s vertebrate wildlife. That is incredible to me. Lab meat ought to help.
The Christmas launch of the James Webb telescope. When I looked yesterday the Webb telescope was 507,000 miles from earth, cruising another mile every two point six seconds on an entirely uplifting, humanity affirming mission. Recall your quiet pride when the Mars rover Perseverance bounced onto Mars. With a worthy successor to Hubble parked beyond the far side of the moon, who knows what wonders await? Picture are due in the summer. And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.
And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.
Happy New Year.
Here is my most recent travel column, as published (here) a couple weeks ago at 3 Quarks Daily. These columns appear once a month at 3QD, with the next one scheduled for Monday 5 December. This one is titled New Discoveries in the New World:
Consider the medieval mariner, slighted and sequestered, hard-pressed and abused, gaunt, prey to the caprice of wind and wave, confined below decks on a sailing ship. If the captain doesn’t get the respect he demands, he will impose it. So will the sea.
The sailor found solace in ritual. You get the idea he rather enjoyed taboo things. If the ship’s bell rings of its own accord the ship is doomed. Flowers are for funerals, not welcome aboard ship. Don’t bring bananas on board, or you won’t catch any fish. Don’t set sail on Fridays (In Norse myth that was the day evil witches gathered).
Helge Ingstad, an explorer we are about to meet, wrote that “Norsemen firmly believed in terrible sea trolls …. And those who sailed far out on the high seas might be confronted with the greatest danger of all: they risked sailing over the edge of the world, only to plunge into the great abyss.”
If they fell short of the abyss, what did they find? Fortunate men like Eirik the Red found safe harbors and hospitable enough terrain in Greenland to scratch out a life beyond the reach of Norwegian kings. Freedom.
No men found untold riches. More likely came calamity, hardship, deprivation. Life on an ancient sailing ship was a slippery log over a raging torrent. Yet medieval sailors pressed on, and the boundary of the world pushed ever farther west.
Fifty years ago Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne-Stein discovered remnants of a settlement in Newfoundland they suspected was the site known from Viking sagas as Vinland. The state of radiocarbon dating art a half century ago suggested the settlement was active between 990 and 1050.
We already knew certain artifacts around the Vinland site were cut down by metallic tools. This suggested the woodsmen were European, since indigenous people were not known to have metal tools. Then three years ago scientists established the “globally coherent signature” of a sunstorm in 993 CE by comparing tree rings. They compared forty four samples from five continents. This sunstorm (of a magnitude that has happened only twice in 2000 years) caused a readily detectable radioactive “spike.”
Finally, last month scientists applied their new tree ring knowledge to some of those same samples, from fir and juniper trees. Some even retained their bark, making it easy for researchers to count tree rings from the 993 “spike” outward. They conclude that an exploratory Norse mission to L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, chopped down those trees in precisely 1021 CE.
Helge Marcus Ingstad’s big life spanned three centuries, 1899 to 2000. A wunderkind Norwegian lawyer at twenty-three, he chucked it all to live with an indigenous Canadian tribe for three years as a trapper, returned to Norway, became a governor in east Greenland, then governor of Svalbard, where he met his wife Anne-Stine.
For successive summers Helge and Anne-Stine sailed up and down Newfoundland’s west coast searching for evidence of Vinland. Year after year, it was mind-numbing, repetitive, wearying, wet work.
Everywhere they sailed they asked the same tired and practiced question. Did anyone know of any “strange, rectangular turf ridges?”
In the summer of 1960 the Ingstads called at a village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. They arrived by ship because there were no roads. Just thirteen families. And here, it turned out, someone did know of such ridges. On a sodden shoreline like endless others, they met George Decker, “the most prominent man in the village.”
Ingstad: “Decker took me west of the village to a beautiful place with lots of grass and a small creek and some mounds in the tall grass. It was very clear that this was a very, very old site. There were remains of sod walls. Fishermen assumed it was an old Indian site. But Indians didn’t use that kind of buildings, sod houses.”
The name of this windblown spot almost 400 miles north of St. John’s is L’Anse aux Meadows. Farley Mowat, the grand old man of Canadian adventure writing, calls this a distortion of the French L’Anse aux Méduses, or Jellyfish Bay.
The Ingstads spent that winter arranging an excavation to be led by Anne-Stine, by that time an archaeologist at the University of Oslo. It started the next summer and continued seven years.
Experts from Toronto and Trondheim collaborated to fix charcoal from the L’Anse blacksmith’s furnace, with the state of the tech at the time, as dating from 975 to 1020. The excavation revealed three stone and sod halls, five workshops, iron nails and decorative baubles consistent with the period. By 1961 they had authentic archaeological evidence that the Ingstads had found Vinland.
The team unearthed sod-and-timber halls built to sleep an entire expedition. The encampment lay tight against itself suggesting foreboding, a garrison mentality, uneasy disquiet in an alien land.
They built three halls between two bogs at the back of the beach near what they call today Black Duck Brook. Each had room for storage of turf, for what wood they found, for drying fish. A smaller area centered on an open-ended hut with a furnace for iron working, near a kiln to produce charcoal needed for ironworks.
Parks Canada has assembled replica buildings alongside the ruins, with detail down to spare blocks of peat for roof repair, turf squares stacked fifteen high like bags of potting soil on pallets at the garden center.
On a Wednesday in June, before summer has taken hold, smoke rises from a chimney in the main hall. There are four fireplaces the length of the building, fires for illumination and cooking, iron kettles for boiling stews.
The scent of wood smoke makes me eager to step inside, toward well-insulated, welcome warmth. You may shed your winter wear inside and you will be surprised how roomy is the interior space, much taller than a man.
An elaborate lattice weaves across the ceiling. The walls are extravagantly hung with ropes – coils and coils of line – a sailor’s colony. Against the back wall the length of the building run benches wide enough for sleeping, everything lined with skins.
It took twelve Parks Canada workers six months to craft that outdoor museum. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, author of Westward Vikings, reckons that is comparable to sixty explorers working for two months of summer, or six weeks for ninety men. Surely these buildings were meant to withstand winter.
Maybe the Vinland voyages explored further south in summer. Maybe, as colder weather returned, so the men returned to L’Anse to winter, tell and embellish tales of their exploits and mainly, to stay warm. Excavations unearthed a soapstone spindle whorl that suggests spinning, possibly weaving. Perhaps the explorers brought bags of unspun wool, a worthwhile way to keep hands busy over the tedious winter.
In time the party encountered “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit they knew in Greenland. These were Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.” The word skrælings is translated as “small people” by scholars, “screeching wretches” by the more flamboyant.
That first group of explorers, who built their settlement in tight formation, had been right to do so. The Greenlanders’ first encounter with other people did not go well.
One day the men came upon nine strangers sheltered under upside-down skin boats and the Norse killed all but one. The escapee returned next day primed for vengeance. The men saw countless canoes advancing from the sea, and the expedition’s leader, Thorvald Eiriksson, exclaimed: “We will put out the battle-skreen, and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
Battened down, the men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: As the skrælings fled he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”
Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home. According to Linderoth Wallace, “the next expedition to Vinland is said to have been mounted for the explicit purpose of bringing his body back to Greenland.”
A clash on a subsequent expedition killed two more would be settlers. The Sagas tell us that the explorers realized “despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” The Vinland settlement effort stalled.
Perhaps the explorers recognized all along they didn’t have the numbers for permanent colonization. Maybe the realistic among them never planned more than temporary missions to this continent-sized storehouse of supplies. Had they intended a sustained occupation there would have been a church and a cemetery, but there were none. The explorers never farmed the fields. Neither barn nor byre for cattle, no fold or corral for sheep.
Archaeologists found three butternuts, a tree never known to grow in Newfoundland, its range from southern Quebec to northern Arkansas. Their presence suggests the explorers traveled at least as far as New Brunswick, more than 400 miles to the southwest. Down there food may have grown wild, for “that unsown crops also abound … we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes,” wrote a German scribe in the 1070s.
Nowadays most everyone agrees the Vinland of the Sagas was a land and not a single, specific site like L’Anse aux Meadows. Vinland perhaps comprised an area from L’Anse along the Newfoundland coast south to Nova Scotia, down the St. Lawrence to present-day Quebec City where the river narrows, then up the opposite coast in a grand arc along Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec and Labrador back to L’Anse.
Today is as fine a day as we have seen in northern Newfoundland, no sun but no rain and a fresh, steady, penetrating wind. Hardscrabble ground, uneven, firm enough if you are deft, but step off the rocks and you will sink to your boot tops in the bog.
Helge Ingstad wrote of a Norse “will of iron and a character able to endure privation and pain without a murmur,” and he must surely be right. Standing out by Black Duck Brook dressed in snug twenty-first century down clothing, I can not summon to mind the impossible hardship of men dressed in skins and bad footwear who sailed from Greenland in the cold and the wet, dodging icebergs, serrating wind and jostling seas.
A foot bridge crosses the brook leading toward the ruins. We modest few visitors pick our way up and down the paths. The original shelters, slumped back to Earth, now present as mounds, the effect a gently dimpled plain. Plaques identify the dimples: Huts and halls, the boat shed, the forge, the carpentry shop, the smithy.
Twenty people make a ring around the Parks Canada man in ranger-wear, who is fit to the place, wild and outdoorsy maybe like a pirate. He spins tales with a performer’s twinkle; his audience is all in. Sometimes he must raise his voice if the wind kicks up, bearing down across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Labrador.
But walk away, find your own place, stand still, and the sounds slide away. Trifling waves come to shore too far away to hear. The cinematic clash of icebergs proceeds in acoustic stealth, distant enough not to disturb the quiet. Seabirds’ calls soar away on the wind and we are left only with the benign rustling of the tall grass.
We stand by the brook. Helge Ingstad wrote in the 1960s, that “There is salmon in Black Duck Brook, we caught them with our bare hands.” George Decker’s grandfather told him there was considerable forest here in his younger days, but from the brook to the shoreline to Labrador this morning I am hard pressed to find a single tree.
The fog clears across the strait and Labrador emerges, brooding. Wisps of fog play up its cliff sides, snowy patches running up onshore. A peculiar lopsided iceberg, too heavy to bob, has shadowed us through the day.
In the course of an hour the fog recedes, pulling with it more character and definition from the icebergs, moving their surfaces from amorphous gray through bland white, in the end striking out toward the flamboyance of blue, even aqua.
The original European explorers stared hard into this view, wind burning their faces and blowing their beards as they ended their era of discovery one thousand years ago. Five hundred years before the European voyages that got all the good press, here at the end of their long road stood a mottled and murderous clan of northmen.
I imagine the view today is much as it was then. Expansive but spare, open to possibilities and full of challenge, but also full of promise. Two virgin continents awaiting the hand of European man. The original scruffy explorers left that promise for others to fulfill, but these rough-hewn men, standing here astride this earth wild and untamed, they had found the future.
Last month, local people drove fourteen hundred dolphins to the end of Skálafjordur Bay near the capital of the Faroe Islands and killed them. It is a tradition called the grindadráp. In Icelandic, one of the neighboring languages, “Good luck” is hvelreki, with an idea something like “may a whole whale wash up on your beach.” The Faroese don’t wait for luck to produce whales. They sail out and find them.
When a fishing boat or a ferry spies a pod of whales (dolphins in this case but usually whales), a call goes out and word races through the village. Even in the middle of a work day people drop what they are doing and muster. Fishing boats form up in a half circle behind the whales and, banging on the sides of the boats and trailing lines weighted with stones, press the whales into a shallow bay.
Townspeople wait on the beach with hooks and knives. Mandated under new regulations, two devices, a round-ended hook and a device called a spinal lance are designed to kill the whales more quickly and thus, grindadráp proponents say, more humanely.
The hunter plunges the hook attached to a rope into the whale’s blowhole. Men line up tug of war style to pull the whale onto the beach. It takes a line of men to haul them out, for pilot whales may weigh 2500 pounds. The grizzled fisherman, the mayor, the hardware clerk with a bad back, all the townspeople fuse in common cause, shoulder to shoulder on the shore, harvesting the meat, dividing the spoils.
The harvest is distributed evenly, for communal benefit. This is real, retail, hands-on constituent services for the mayor, who works out what size the shares should be and hands out tickets. People go to stand beside the whale indicated on their ticket. Those sharing each whale butcher it together, right there, right then. The municipality is mandated to clear the remains within 24 hours.
The animals are cut and pieces laid on the ground skin down, blubber up. Then the meat is cut from the whale and laid atop the blubber, the whole take is divided, and the shareholders gather up their haul and carry it home. There is no industrial processing.
Even today whale accounts for a quarter of all the Faroes’ meat consumption. Custom and tradition tip the scales against the advice of the then-Faroes’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Høgni Debes Joensen, who declared in 2008 that no one ought to eat whale meat anymore because of the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat.
Heðin Brú (1901-1987), perhaps the Faroes’ most important novelist, describes life in the village of Sørvágur, now adjacent to the airport on the island of Vagar, in his The Old Man and His Sons. Set in subsistence era early twentieth century Faroes, it describes the generational strains on a rural society being dragged into modernity.
Brú works to show the grindadráp (‘the grind’ for short), as vital in feeding the islanders. In 1928 a Faroese medical officer wrote, “…it cannot be emphasised enough how important this [pilot whale meat] is for the population, for whom the meat, be it fresh, dried or salted, is virtually their only source of meat.”
Once the grindadráp was a quirky cultural asset, but not anymore. In a time when people are quick to pass judgement, the grind pits the world against the Faroes. A tinge of the exotic attaches to today’s grindadráp, a summoning of vestigial heritage and pride, a suggestion that these quiet, unassuming subjects of the Danish crown fall into some bloodlust frenzy wild and savage, like Viking wildmen in helmets with horns only more authentic than horned Trump Sturmtruppen.
Now the Faroese live in a society modern in every way, right down to their efforts to find more humane ways to kill the whales, and whale meat is no longer required for the diet as it was in the days of Heðin Brú. The subsistence era was a different time. So the question arises, must the tradition continue?
Last month’s photos of the crimson harvest are revolting, and the idea of slaughtering some of the world’s most intelligent creatures is unsettling no matter who you are. But it must also be said that the Faroes’ intent is to be sustainable. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (apparently yes, that is a thing) reckons the annual Faroese slaughter takes less than 0.1 percent of the pilot whale population, the grind’s usual target.
Proponents call the grind socially adhesive, a big bundle of sport, tradition and a way of obtaining cheap food. It is also a direct link to the islanders’ past. Opponents assert that none of these justifications hold up in the 21st century. Yet in a place not very accommodating to agriculture, fishing – and pilot whales – have always been central to the Faroese diet.
You can be sure that isolated people will always mix resourcefulness with resistance to change. Pride, too. Pride in the ability to live and flourish in an outpost. Pride in the traditions that make the place unique.
Traditions like the Stakksdagur festival. Every year in spring outside the postcard-perfect village of Tjørnuvik at the far end of Streymoy, strong men drive a few rams up into the hills to roam wild. On a Saturday as autumn approaches, islanders converge, out for a bit of tradition and a day of drinking and playing Viking, carry spiked wooden poles into the mountains, find the rams and use the poles to make a pen to confine them. To fanfare, commotion, camaraderie and traditional song, they herd the rams back into Tjørnuvik for slaughter and auction.
Call it the Faroese equivalent of tailgating on a college football Saturday. It’s as vaguely exotic as Scottish pole tossing, Swedes around the Midsummer pole or the Shetland’s Up Helly Aa.
When you’ve repeatedly been to the brink of starvation, when you live on a spot of land as precarious as the obstinate Faroes cliffs of slippery basalt, when your heritage reaches to Odin and Thor, when you have come through all this and more and today you thrive, perhaps there’s room for the stout view that your culture is worth preservation.
Elin Brimheim Heinesen, a Faroese musician, sharpens the point: “What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them. People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand.”
She wants the casual visitor to understand that life still is really different on this small archipelago in a vast ocean, “that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time is ripe to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go bird-catching, or go hare-hunting – or participate in pilot whaling – and, additionally, to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. This food constitutes a large part of the total food consumption and is completely indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% in the Faroe Islands who live at or below the poverty line.”
Activists battle the grind and the Faroes’ legislature battles back. The parliament, called the Løgting, briefly voted in 2014 to ban members of the marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd from sending protesters. That legislation was dropped when Denmark determined it would likely be illegal.
But try, try again; a 2016 proposal to keep anti-whaling activists out equates actively protesting for an organization with work, for which foreigners require a work permit.
Hapag-Lloyd and AIDA, two big German cruise lines, have suspended or lessened arrivals in the Faroes to protest the grind. (This may be devastating to waterfront vendors but it has its appeal for those of us who believe there is a special place in hell for the inventor of the mega-cruise ship.)
The Faroese point out that the grind is an opportunistic hunt, not commercial, the meat is not exported and is shared across the entire community. The distribution of the spoils generally happens without money, and on the spot.
In the conservative British magazine The Spectator, Heri Joensen, the lead singer of the Faroese band Tyr writes, “In the Faroes, it is not uncommon to kill your own dinner — be it sheep, fish, bird or hare. I have slaughtered many more sheep than I have cut up whales and no one seems to care. I find that strange. Why the double standards? Because whales are endangered? The ones we eat aren’t. There are an estimated 780,000 long-finned pilot whales in the Atlantic. In the Faroe Islands, we kill about 800 a year on average — or 0.1 per cent of the population. An annual harvest of 2 per cent is considered sustainable: compare that with the billions of animals bred for slaughter.” Joensen says that buying the same amount of cow meat he got in a grindadráp would have cost more than £800.
So much discourse these days is about listing things one person or another ought not do. But I think most people don’t mean it, or at least don’t mean it deeply. Passing judgement on social media is a cheap way to signal group identity.
It’s fair to say that one look at the business end of Skálafjordur Bay last month, crimson and slick with dolphin blood, turned legions of foreigners judgmental against the Faroese. The islanders counter that most of their critics, who live entirely apart from the source of their food, eat animals who suffer every bit as much as a grindadráp whale. Factory farming, they say, is an industrial scale horror for profit, while the grind has no financial motive. Who are you, they ask, to pass judgement on the people of a small group of islands far away?
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.
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