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
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.
On The Road: Explorers, And Where To Explore
by Bill Murray
Larger than life writers always have that one extra experience, the one that puts your trip to shame. Lawrence Ferlinghetti did when, having achieved the Russian east coast via the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was ordered clear back across the continent because of paperwork. His calamity leaves most of us with nothing to say about our own, more ordinary trips.
If you want to write about the world, you still have to do the trips. You have to see for yourself what better writers were describing. You have to go, so you see how they say what they say.
Doing trips yourself is a way to stretch a little, to stand in the great explorer’s footsteps. You need to go to a few ends of the earth. Throw rocks in the Straits of Magellan. Stand and consider how odd it is that the nearly Antarctic tip of South America came to be known as Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Imagine being as far from home as Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, sailing to a place no European had ever seen and spotting huge bonfires onshore, where tribes called Yaghan and Ona kept fires constantly stoked for warmth.
The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing. They smeared seal fat over their bodies to fend off the wind and rain and cold. Canoeists adept at navigating the straits’ channels and tributaries, they hunted the sea. Three centuries after Magellan, Charles Darwin wrote of the same people “going about naked and barefoot on the snow.”
The Ona lived across the strait. The books call them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin called them “wretched lords of this wretched land.”
An early European settler described life down there as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms. If I’d written a quote so succinct, I might just put down my pen right now.
At the hemisphere’s other extremity, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, you can stand on the spot where Leif Erickson’s group established a European toehold in North America. You look around, you pull up your parka and you confound yourself wondering how they possibly did it, half a millennium earlier even than Magellan.
Leif’s brother Thorvald led ashore a crew of thirty using Leif’s ship (Leif having stayed back in Greenland upon his father’s death). They found the camp Leif had established the year before and soon after they found the “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit in Greenland. Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.”
One day Thorvald’s men came upon nine skrælings sheltering under upside-down skin boats and killed all but one. The next morning an armada of canoes advanced from the sea, and Thorvald cried: “We will put out the battle-skreen and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
The explorer’s men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: in the legend, 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.”
The next time you’re bleeding out, imagine yourself exclaiming “it will prove a mortal wound to me.” The most erudite Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home.
Since few writers are among the world’s great explorers, we look for shortcuts. Here are four:
– Go places that are frightening, places that hold the narrative promise of a horror movie. This is the daily work of war correspondents, but short of that, you can plant yourself somewhere that scares you and tell its story. It was Ryszard Kapusinski’s entire career.
Tim Butcher’s book following Graham Greene through Liberia scared me. So did my own trip to Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinean capital, a city riven, debilitated then and now by crime, despair and pointless violence. Port Moresby is the only capital city in the world not connected to anywhere else in particular by road. Port Moresby swelters alone.
The Germans, Dutch and Australians colonized the coasts of PNG, but they all assumed there was negligible value inland, over the hills, until the 1930s, when a group of Aussies disappeared over the rim and emerged with eyes wide as saucers and incredible stories of cannibalism and fantastic wildlife.
We flew from Port Moresby into the highlands to see about that for ourselves, and that story is told elsewhere on 3QD.
– Visit borders. These can be rich with material, places where central rule frays, or even invites disdain, areas in a cultural stew with neighboring lands, places where multiple traditions and overlapping sets of rules apply.
The Soviets drew borders specifically to splinter ethnic groups’ power. Contemporary China’s Tibetan and Uyghur regions and the rich tribal mix on Yunnan’s southern frontier illustrate the Chinese proverb: shan gao huangdi yuan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kinshasa’s rule doesn’t extent much beyond, well, Kinshasa, has hinterlands full of stories. See Conrad and Naipaul from the colonial era, of course, and from the last few years read Michela Wrong, Helen Winternitz, and Mike Martin, Chloe Baker and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell’s approximately impossible sorth-nouth crossing of the Congo River Basin, from Kinshasa to South Sudan.
– Go places people don’t understand. These offer no prospect of merit in themselves, but at least they haven’t been over-described. A burst of early twentieth century exploration of the Balkans yielded a rich vein of literature from the likes of Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning. The region went quiet under Tito, until there came a full-on invasion of young writers who narrowly missed the Soviet collapse and determined not to miss the Yugoslav one.
Such was the wealth of post-Tito Balkan literature that I came to feel I knew Mostar and its bridge, Srebrenica and its atrocity, and Sarajevo’s airport tunnel before I arrived in Sarajevo in 1997, a few years after the war. This came in strong contrast to a 1993 visit to Albania. Nobody knew anything about Albania. It was Europe’s own little North Korea.
Time blurs our memory of what an isolated, eccentric, apostate state Albania was, a place where “Everything had to be ‘revolutionary,’” our Albanian guides said. “So when we were at school we had to go through what they called the revolutionary triangle. That was learning, literary training and physical labor.”
We asked about the physical labor part.
“Anything. We could go help build a building, we could do farming. Once they were building the martyrs’ cemetery. We had to carry some marble blocks and it was January and February. It was cold on top of the hill. It was terrible.” A rueful chuckle. “Also I have taken part in so many railway construction sites.”
We lingered that night over dinner in downtown Tiranë, told stories, laughed and drank raki, the Balkan brandy distilled from grapes and anise. Our friends knew the Albanian soccer coach at the next table, who’d brought the referee for tomorrow’s game with the Danes. Not a bad idea.
When it came time to leave Albania we turned up at the sea terminal in the decrepit town of Durres, where dozens and dozens of diminutive concrete slab bunkers, installed under the dictator-for-life Enver Hoxha, rose like mushrooms, right down onto the beach.
Guards outside a chain link fence admonished “Watch your things in there.” Nothing indicated what we might do but walk with the flow, dodging Bulgarian heavy trucks that threw muck up from potholes.
I held a brochure from the Adriatica Line. When the top of a ship with the brochure’s color scheme came into view, we stood in a queue. Twenty minutes and no one moved, so we made for uniformed men at a car and truck gate. They spoke Italian and German and we didn’t, but some random Albanian who didn’t speak any of it mediated, the gate wheeled back and we marched proudly forward to a bureaucrat’s table. Here, heads shook. It was not possible. Something about a slip of paper we should have gotten at Tiranë airport.
I like to think that in the end our non-retreat wore ‘em down. We had nowhere to go, we couldn’t even plead our case, so we just stood there. Eventually we got the requisite stamps and a nod to move nearer the ship. Ahead was a final queue up the ramp into the M/v Expresso Grecia.
We shuffled fitfully. The last line of Italian defense examined Albanian papers. By now it was sailing time. An imperious fellow at the top of the ramp declared our papers not in order. We would have to go back to Albania. Adriatica, it seems, kept the passenger manifest in a building we didn’t know about.
I found the building and went inside. A monster thundered at me to march right back out and come around to the window. Where she typed our names on the passenger manifest, glared, and thrust at me two long pink strips of paper. I scowled back, snatched them, and did a gleeful little scamper back to the ship. Finally, as darkness closed around the unlit harbor, we eased away in the direction of the war-racked Dalmatian coast of former Yugoslavia.
– Visit places where few others turn up. If no one has been where you’re going, no one expects what you’ll see. Few travel by cargo ship for example, about which Gregory Jaynes wrote an entertaining book, the whole point of which was that nothing happened. Xavier de Maistre wrote a pandemic-perfect travel journal of sorts, an account of being confined to one room for six weeks titled A Journey Around My Room.
I’m thinking of the time we set out for Asuncion, Paraguay from Argentina, starting at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, across the River Parana. On the strength of Walter vouching that we’d be back in Argentina today, that didn’t require a border stop.
But really, we were driving straight through a tiny snip of Brazil for Paraguay. Walter warned we might lose our cameras if we took pictures at the Paraguayan border, but just-delivered boxed chicken dinners interested the border police more than we did. It only took about three minutes.
Disappointing, exhausted Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun before us, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling into lumps along the highway, traffic lights out, money changers in leather money belts glowering from the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then stopped again and did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. Gas money.
In Cuidad del Este you long to be in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape, litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.
The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. If you were a young man such a place, with its crisp-pressed, uniformed soldiers, must have had its enticements.
We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane westbound highway which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Pavement good enough to speed.
Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”
My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.
I never posted last month’s 3QD column here at CSW. Here it is:
On The Road: Sri Lanka Part Two by Bill Murray
Politics as the family business works out better for some than for others. Last year Turkish President Erdogan had to fire his son-in-law Finance Minister. And the Trumps, well … you know. But things are working out pretty well for the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka.
The President is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nickname “the terminator.” The Prime Minister is Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother. Basil Rajapaksa, “Mr. Ten Percent,” their younger brother, is a former MP. Their other brother Chamal, a former speaker of Parliament, is a cabinet minister, and Namal Rajapaksa, Mahindra’s son, is an MP and Minister of Sports, representing the next Rajapaksa generation.
When we left our story (Read part 1 here) it was six o’clock in the morning, election day 1999 in Nuwara Eliya, a highland tea-picking town south of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Two loudspeakers played the call to prayer, mounted atop a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, birds and dew run riot.
At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a regional bus station. People queued for rides and a few stores pushed open their doors. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day. Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”
People walked, made a day of walking, walking into town, walking to polling stations. They got time off from work to vote. Tyrone said all the drivers expected a curfew (they all stayed at a compound next to the hotel, like on African package safaris). When the announcement came, they’d go together to the police station in Nuwara Eliya town center and get travel permits for carrying foreigners.
When the sun beat down and the hills gleamed and blinded you clear out to the horizon, there was a cure for that. The St. Andrews Inn offered all the to-the-bone dankness of late winter on the River Tay. Just what you wanted in a tourist hotel.
Its snooker tables, they said, were a century old. The St Andrews Inn grew its own carrots, beets, beans, broccoli, cabbage, horse mint, peppermint, coriander and parsley. They were proud of their garden, where guests could pick their own salad. Except there was no sign of guests.
While we were inside clouds closed above a full blanket of mist that hung down and draped across Nuwara Eliya. Before you knew it the dripping sweat of Columbo, only 120 miles back up the road, was a distant memory.
We bought a mango and tiny peanuts. My wife Mirja liked them better than the big ones back home, the way Roma tomatoes are tastier than fat round factory-grown ones. The guy fashioned a bag from a folded sheet of newspaper and scooped it full for thirty rupees. Which is, roughly, free.
A beaming boy (photo up top), sleeves rolled onto his forearms, stood before a videotape and chocolate store chopping garlic and spring onions on an ancient stovetop. It smelled delicious.
This was a real vacation day, way out on a trip, not coming or going, no travel, no agenda, no problem. Chased inside by the dampness, we banged on the heater in our room in mid-afternoon until it showed life and I turned on the shortwave, as just now was NATO’s thirteenth night of bombing Serbia. In 1999, the internet hadn’t quite yet supplanted the shortwave, at least in Sri Lanka.
Chair won. The ruling alliance represented by a chair gained ground, losing seats only in Colombo and the suburbs. Tyrone told us the results but I already knew because a little animated chair did a little jig on morning TV. Later, the BBC World Service called it a muddle, no clear victor, no mandate for either side.
The vote: People’s Alliance 2,105,546, United National Party 1,979,546, making up 70 per cent of registered voters. “No deaths have been reported…. The majority of the complaints were of a minor nature, bordering on threats, abuse and cases of simple hurt….” as the paper put it.
There was some violence in Matale, north of Kandy, but the curfew the drivers had expected would last only from eleven at night to five a.m. Still, at a police checkpoint at the edge of Nuwara Eliya town, the cop wanted us to go way around the other way. Tyrone lied that he didn’t know that way.
Tyrone didn’t do bags. He’d call a bell boy. He’d let Mirja and me haul them. Whatever, he wouldn’t touch ‘em. He’d spend fifteen minutes guarding them in the lobby instead of loading them up.
But what a gorgeous day! Tyrone in his British driving cap, the air crisp and fresh, we set off at 7:30 sharp, down from the highlands, and drove five and a half hours to cover 160 kilometers. Five and a half hours, a hundred miles.
Mist filtered the sunlight way up in the hills around Lake Gregory as we drove alongside orchids grown for export, alongside the old British horse racing track on the east side of town, and then down toward Bandarawela.
Mirja had a cold, started a week before. What better way to chase it than an herbal massage at the reknowned Suwa Madhu Indigenous, Eight-fold Ayurvedic Treatment and Manufacturers of Herbal Medicine and Beauty Cream Institute of Sri Lanka, just on the far side of Bandarawela town?
While the institute did its magic I wandered down the street to a communal spring and watched babies washed by laughing kids, scarcely older, everybody splashing and playing in the pool. The oldest girl invited me home for tea. They placed a tiny cup in my lap and the whole family of eight watched me drink from it. I showed them postcards of home and they showed me their pride and joy, the oldest boy, away at the police academy, as photographed in his class picture.
Green double doors with a tassel of string instead of a door knob led to an anteroom that may have begun as the color of peach. The plaster had long ago cracked and smudged. Three framed photos, all askance, decorated the otherwise bare walls. Mama, in sandals and a print skirt, graying at the temples, sat in a high, straight-backed chair, her hands clasped in her lap, smiling, surrounded by her brood.
Meanwhile the Suwa Madhu Institute seemed to do the trick. Mirja came out hair up, oily and grinning.
Now rolling across the flats bound for the coast, lushness from every vantage point, endless gardens of paradise. Buildings, painted over with ads, hawked Sunlight, Astra, Vim, Signal, Rinso and Lifebuoy household products, and “Curd & Hunny.”
In monastery towns monks climbed on and off the buses. There were branches of Peoples Bank – “The Bank with a Heart” – and here was Triple Star Services – “A New Meaning to Cleaning.” Once we found ourselves trapped for a while by the Chirpy Chip truck – “From the House of Uswatte.”
We passed a truck labeled on each side, simply, “Retort.”
Bikes hauling bananas plied the roadway, now alongside cactus and sawgrass. Marsh and wetland, salt pans, lagoons and windmills covered the Sri Lankan south.
We just beat a tour bus into the otherwise empty Oasis Hotel at a place called Hambantota. Walking into the lobby, Tyrone gleamed, “How do you like it?” We turned to look around and he said, “My father was project manager for this entire complex. But he died before grand opening.” We told him we liked it real well.
They played bad disco at lunch, and the waiters tried proper, formal serving techniques, barefoot. They smiled sweet as the day is long pouring Carlsbergs that foamed up, over and out of the glass.
Two fellows named Nandiga and Chaminda showed up in what once may have passed for a jeep. Here was our afternoon safari team, and away we went to look for elephants.
Nandiga wore a funny shirt with stripes and curlycues, and smoked cigarettes like French people do in movies, forefinger and thumb, as he hurtled us, one hand on the wheel, back down roads we’d crossed more carefully earlier in the day. At the park entrance, Chaminda moved from the front seat to stand upon the back benches, and took the canvas top off.
We bumped along near the shore, sometimes coming right alongside it, and saw more elephants than you’d think, six or seven, but they all looked cornered by the inevitable convergence of rapacious jeeps like ours. We came upon a pair and gave them distance as they watered themselves, nuzzled and played, but it still felt as though we were imposing.
Paul Bowles wrote about the same thing in the 1950s: “You feel as though you were in a tremendous zoo whose inmates had been placed there for your amusement. Perhaps it is because a few miles outside the sanctuary you see what look like the same buffaloes working placidly in the paddy-fields, and very similar elephants moving slowly along the roads, tinkling their bells….”
Elephants, iguanas, monkeys, but this safari was mainly about birds – over 20,000 in the park at any given time, Chaminda said. Migratory wild ducks from Siberia, sandpipers, jungle fowl, peacocks, peahens, gulls, plovers, terns, a few green parrots, egrets, pelicans, herons and storks. And one crocodile (Chaminda knew where to look).
Nandiga too. At 22, he’d already been working here nine years, a helper before he got his drivers license, then as a safari master. He drove like 20 year olds do the world over, but we made it home. The Yala Preserve wasn’t Africa but it was fun, and this safari only cost $26.50.
A hint of the absurd hung over all our Sri Lankan affairs. Barefoot servers decanted Carlsbergs like fine wine, holding the bottles at the bottom, towels draped across their forearms.
“When does the monsoon come?” I asked Tyrone. “End of April, sir.”
“Is it ever late?”
“It is always late, sir.”
Paul Bowles told a story: he was “stripped naked by customs inspectors while their assistants fingered the seams of my garments. In the first instance they told me I was suspected of being an international spy. ‘But spying for whom?’ I insisted. ‘Spying for international.’”
A sunny dawn, but by mid-morning a silver cast covered the sky and storm clouds scudded up in the west. Surf crashed against the shore so determinedly that it chased off the stilt fishermen at Talpe, whose stilts swayed bare in the waves.
Stilt fishing looks like something the ancients have been doing since the days of mastodons, but it turns out to be less than a hundred years old. It’s a simple idea. Two or three fishermen drive a pole into the reef. They keep the distance between stilts enough that the lines of adjacent fishermen don’t get entangled and that’s it; hold the stilt with one hand, sit on a cross bar called a “petta,” go fish.
Matara, twenty miles shy of Galle, bottom left of the island, two miles past the lighthouse at Dondra Head. An imposing market of more or less identical stalls. Spices, powders, potions in jars, root vegetables in piles, bags of rice on hooks (some looking potentially fatal if they fell). One shirtless stallholder showed artistic flair, making a lattice display of galangal. Others built pyramid cities of onions, ginger hills and cane sugar towers.
The railway station bled into a massive tuk tuk lot and bus terminal, where people jumped on and off buses that merely slowed down. I saw this about thirty years ago in Mubarak’s Egypt when Tahrir Square was still a bus station. Local buses would slow but never stop.
Matara was busy but it didn’t share in Cairo’s seethe. In spite of one or two modern glass buildings, livestock retained some pride of place. At the southern tip of Sri Lanka bullock carts ruled.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to intrude on Ceylon and stay. Buoyed by their brutal pillage of India’s west coast at the beginning of the 16th century (brutal as in: after the battle of Diu in 1509, the Portuguese collected heads and hands of their victims and sailed south, catapulting body parts into waterfront villages as calling cards), the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of India, and built a fort at Galle.
The Europeans terrorized the coast but never captured the inland Kingdom of Kandy. In time, the Sinhalese King invited the Dutch to help fight the Portuguese. The Portuguese finally left Ceylon to the Dutch, who finished and fortified the Portuguese built fort. Inside the ramparts of the old fort even now, a few streets still hung on to their Dutch names.
Every little village along the coast was like the last, hardscrabble, vendors selling only the things you need to live. No luxury. People, bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, bullock carts and us – all sharing the lane and a half of blacktop.
Famous mask factories made special masks for exorcisms at the town of Ambalangoda. An engaging merchant there explained ancient legends and fairy tales, and displayed masks of each of the eighteen Sanni Demons.
“These demons are very powerful and dangerous. They can make people sick by looking at them.”
There they all were, one by one, causing “diseases of the bile, stomach pain, measles, mumps, diarrhea, poison like cobra poison in the body, and blister.”
Up the road Spice Garden Number 100 (“private but approved by the tourist board”) complimented the work of the mask makers in fending off maladies. It provided a complete regime of 22 remedies, with documentation, including for example #3 cinnamon oil against tooth pain: “Put a drop into the cavity of the tooth, when saliva acumulates spite it out again put one drop into the cavity repeat four times.” Or #13 kamayogi bon-bon: “Indicated in pre-ejaculation, the 1/2 teaspoon ful paste of kamayogi bon-bon eat before sexual affinity to control the pre-ejaculation and other debilities. Better before twenty minutes the sex and have some milk more.”
A train blocked the road in Bentota town. There a man’s all-day job was to stand alongside the track and open and close the gates for the five trains a day.
An elephant walking to work at a wedding ceremony blocked our way for a time, but by mid-afternoon we inhabited a bungalow at Kasgoda beach. The surf crashed hard forty meters away. I rented a fridge for $3 a day and cooled an armful of Heinekens.
A day at the beach. Chipmunks, cows and coconut palms shared the shore. Southbound geese (next landfall due south, Antarctica, 5000 miles). I’d gotten into a little Glenfiddich the night before and woke slow, had a curative Thai chilli-laced omelet and retired to the porch to read The Teaching of Buddha, supplied in the room along with the New Testament in French, English and German.
The sea sounded a dull roar and palm fronds caused a wind-whipped tempest. Still, blue sky peeked through here and there offshore. Now and then manic low clouds came through, raking the manicured lawn with water-fire. We put on a Sri Lanka music channel and Mirja did a long walk, on which she found a turtle hatchery down the beach.
A chipmunk climbed down the palm tree beside the porch and stared at me from three feet away. The wind blew things around inside our room. I felt sympathy for those who had come all this way for a beach vacation in the sun, but I loved it. The earth was vividly, furiously alive. Wind, thunder, fury.
There’s a whole lot going on in the world just now, eh? Here are a few all-over-the-map ideas to start the week. Housekeeping to start: I hope my brand new book, Out There, will go live on all Amazon platforms this week or next. It’s a collection of thirty essays on travel, written from and about disparate locations, Greenland to Vietnam to pandemic-ridden Cincinnati. At 360 pages, your money’s worth.
Elsewhere, one expects a Lukashenka-like, whatever it takes response, but best of luck nevertheless to the people of Uganda and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobbi Wine, in Thursday’s national elections. The pop singer stands against President Yoweri Museveni, who removed Presidential term limits in 2005 and has ruled the country since 1986. Time for a change there.
Whether the incoming Biden administration can restore a little spit and polish to Donald Trump’s smoldering city on the hill is an open question, but there’s no doubt the transition team has assembled a capable bunch. Today’s announcement of William J. Burns to head CIA is terrific. His memoir, The Back Channel, reads like a template for best diplomatic practices.
Who needs a quick primer on the state of Irish politics?
And finally, I took a spin around the now defunct social media site parler.com over the weekend. I’ll share what I found here shortly. Cheers, don’t get sick, and a good week to you.