Saturday, May 31, 2014

Setse Beach (Thanbyuzyat), Burma (Myanmar)

At beach with Burmese fans, next morning
On the train today no one wanted to sit beside me.  I’ve had this experience before, in Thailand—I don’t know if it’s from a misguided sense of respect, or because I am rank, or because of my prodigious size—which, even if I were supermodel skinny, would be prodigious here.  As Lonely Planet says, Burmese bums make Kate Moss look hefty.  So I sat alone, no one beside me, the two seats facing me empty, too.  While women opposite the aisle crowded against each other, one of them clearly ill.

We had assigned seats, so it wasn’t that much of a statement, but in the other areas of the train people felt free to change their seating arrangements according to convenience.  The four seats where I sat stayed empty almost the whole ride to Thanbyuzyat, until two gentlemen finally boarded with assigned seats opposite, and took them, reluctantly.

The Burmese friendliness is legendary and real, but on the train I felt much more conspicuous.  Foreigners rarely take this route.  The two girls to my left, white-skinned, wearing chic new longyis and tight shoulder-bearing tops, turned their bodies to face me and stared boldly for about half an hour.  Several train conductors were brave enough to sit down one row up, in the seat most convenient for looking, and gazed at me unabashedly until I’d stare back.  And many fewer smiles than I get when I’m on my walks through town.

I don’t know how to deal with the attention.  It makes me uncomfortable and a bit angry.  I stared back, for the most part, until I shamed them into looking away.  Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway.

After all, all travelers are ambassadors of sorts, ambassadors of culture, if nothing else.  So I shouldn’t begrudge them their full-frontal gaze of me, a real American, something they’ve only seen on television.  It’s like they were absorbing every aspect of my appearance, my body, my actions, my backpack, my clothing.

But it’s exhausting being the locus of other people’s anger, attention, curiosity, focus, envy, whatever.  And it’s constant, at least in these last few towns.  I’m ready to be in a world where other foreigners exist, maybe even the Thai tourist world of go-go bars and tee-shirt shops.

So I arrived at the train station after dark, disembarking at an unexpected stop—most farangs head to Mawlamyine—and bartering for my motorcycle taxi.  I decided to go out to Setse Beach because it was the only place I was sure licensed accommodation exists, even though I really wanted to explore Thanbyuzyat, the endpoint of the legendary death railway, constructed during World War II.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to it, at least in my imagination, arriving in Burma from Kanchanaburi, and following this course to the terminus of the same railroad.  But I had no idea how far away Setse was.

My motorcycle taxi drives me out of town as the sun sets and it darkens.  Before I realize it we’re in the middle of nowhere, driving through darkened fields full of rubber trees.  It’s exhilarating, the wind rushing through my hair, heading to an unknown destination.  Also dangerous.  Maybe that’s why it’s exhilarating.  I have the comfort of knowing that I have a size advantage on most men in Burma, but it’s still bizarre, my willingness to get behind someone on a motorcycle after a half-minute negotiation, to head into the unknown dark.

Then the motorcycle begins sputtering.  I’m not sure, since I’m not that familiar with engines, but it seems to be seizing in some ways every time he changes gears, laboring as we climb the hills.  I want to ask him about it, but I don’t know how.  Then I realize that he’s slowing to an excruciating pace whenever a vehicle passes us, even when the vehicle is going the opposite direction, and afterwards weaving all the way across the road.  Then I catch a whiff of something.  Gasoline?  No.  Alcohol.  My motorcycle chauffeur, halfway into the middle darkness, is drunk.

But what can I do?  Wait for the other shoe to drop is all.  The motorcycle does not break down.  We do not crash.  But when we arrive in Setse I see a giant billboard for a fancy-looking hotel called Paradise.  Oh no, I think.  Is this my promised accommodation? It has a pool.  A budget-breaker for sure.

We pass two other guesthouses, and we pull in, but my driver’s drunkenness is increasingly apparent.  He doesn’t know where to stop, doesn’t seem to be able to get off the motorcycle when we stop, doesn’t know where to go.  Both guesthouses reject me, and I can’t figure out why.  My driver speaks to the owners in hasty Myanmar language, and although I don’t understand, I already know what they’re saying.  They’re telling me to go to Paradise.

Finally, I give in, and decide to see how bad it is.  We drive down the road, pulling into a full-fledged resort—thirty uniformed attendants guiding us as we park, steering us past the internet and game room, the beautifully manicured gardens, employees watching HBO in a television room, the well-kept bungalows, into an air-conditioned reception area where I have to go through a metal detector.  It’s $40 for their cheapest room, a double, even though I’m just one person.  I could have just taken it and escaped.  I even have a stashed $100 bill for exactly this eventuality.  But I can’t do it.  Every fiber in me resists.  That’s an American price, I say, disgusted. 

I drive away with my drunk chauffeur.  He takes me to his friends’ house.  They’re thrilled.  They seat me in a chair and everyone gathers around, touching my skin, listening to my badly pronounced pleasantries, poring through my Myanmar phrasebook.  They want me to sleep there, on the bare teak floor of their front room, and part of me wants to, too.  But I know it’s illegal to spend the night with a local family.  And I also know I won’t get a moment’s peace—I’m the locus of everyone’s attention again, and I will be as long as I stay there.  Besides, there’s no bed.

The man of the house gets on his motorcycle and guides us back to the guesthouses we’ve already tried.  I argue.  You’re a guesthouse!  Give me a room!  But it finally clicks:  they don’t have a foreigner license.

We get back on the motorcycles and I’ve resigned myself to Paradise or the friends’ house, wherever they drive me.  But at the last possible minute they pull into another hotel, one I hadn’t noticed.  We wake up the front desk and they give me a room—gorgeous, with a patio facing the ocean—for $20 a night.  Still expensive, but I take it.

It’s a night when I’m absolutely exhausted and filled with relief.  With a traveling companion this wild-goose chase would have been an adventure and not a possibly hopeless and horrifying mission.  Maybe if I’d had someone along we would have taken the nice room and be watching HBO in air-conditioning.  With two people, $40 would have been the same price as what I’m paying here.  Maybe one of us would have convinced the other to get it—but then again, one of us would be blaming the other for the expense.

I persisted, found what I was certain existed, but what was it worth?  $40?

Monday, May 26, 2014

En route from Dawei to Ye, Burma (Myanmar)

Odd clock tower in Dawei -- colonial?
When I arrived at the bus station this afternoon something weird happened.  Before that, I checked out of my guesthouse at noon, and the owner, who had seemed money-grubbing to me, gave me a big bag of rambutan for the road and shook my hand affectionately.  I ate at my breakfast place and said goodbye—everyone marveled at the heaviness of my backpack, for which excuse I have the giant bag of mangoes my friend gave me stuffed at the top.  My motorcycle taxi graciously stopped to help me buy a ticket on the way to the bus station, and while driving there, the breeze blowing my hat back, the shacks with their Majesty Whiskey awnings and random assortment of goods and low plastic tables where men sit chewing betel and drinking tea, passing dusty bamboo houses with ornate teak shutters—I realized how much I already love this country.

Thailand may lose its moniker as Land of Smiles.  People smile at me, genuinely, curiously.  I trust these people.  Maybe I shouldn’t—trust no one, as Mulder says—but I do, even the taxi drivers.

Last night I wandered farther afield for dinner.  Generally I try to find a place where there are at least some women eating, although even that is rare.  As with many other country I’ve traveled to, the women seem to stay in after dark.  At this place I saw two women seated and felt relief.

Then I came in and ordered and the women got up to make the food, and I realized it was just me and a gaggle of dudes, few eating, most drinking and chewing and smoking and watching American movies (a classic, Lake Placid 2) and staring.  At me.  I ate, quickly and alone.  They offered me beer, and by the end of my meal three of them had joined me at my table, the ones who spoke the best English, eating their bar snacks.

One kept telling me:  it’s not dangerous here.  Honesty.  Respect.  Honest.

I believe him.  I feel much safer in this situation than I would have elsewhere, even in the States.

But then the bus station.  I’m waiting alone at the VIP stall, lined up between the packed booths for local chicken buses.  The walls are bare plywood, two by fours, and wire.  Burmese pop music blares.

A woman approaches, looks like she’s selling something from a bag.  She gestures at me, speaking to the front-desk people.  She’s going to try to sell me something, I think.  Good thing I have plenty of snacks.  I can legitimately say no.

Often people don’t try to sell me things here because it’s too much work for them, the communication, which is nice.  People are less pushy than in Thailand.  She approaches, speaking fast unintelligible Burmese, gesturing, pulling 200-kyat bills and mysterious packets from her bag.  She wants money, I know, but for what?  She holds her hands in prayer, holding them up to the sky.  Is she begging, or selling me an offering for Buddha?

Then she begins groping me.

She squeezes the fleshy part of my thigh above the knee.  My first thought is she’s demonstrating how much more money I have than her, my fat legs, my meaty body.  Then:  is she trying to sell a massage?  She keeps going, squeezing up my leg, uncomfortably high, then down my calf, along my hairy shins, harder.

Finally I uncross my legs and draw away.  She stops, keeps asking me for money.  Although Jesus says “give to anyone who asks” and I try, I’m even less likely to give her money now.  I try out my Burmese.

I don’t understand, I say.  Na ma le bu.  I pull out my Myanmar phrasebook.  No thank you, I try.  No, thank you.

She doesn’t understand my pronunciation but finally leaves me alone.  As she goes, I see her try the same thing on a man arriving on a motorcycle, beckoning at his bike, massaging his arm.

I’ve been reading feminist blogs, partly because I love them (Everyday Sexism, Feministing, Jezebel, Rookie, This Is Thin Privilege, xoJane) and partly for inspiration, as I travel, a woman alone.  I’m reading Maiden Voyages, a collection of essays by solo women travelers.  They call themselves “women of independent means and without domestic ties.”  I’m thinking of changing my masthead to that.  Or:  “that ideal Gorgon, the strong-minded woman.”  My email has been medusaj for more than a decade.  The earliest essay is a letter from a woman who traveled alone to Turkey in 1716 to join her ambassador husband.  She scandalized her elite friends by adopting native dress.  A later solo traveler, in Illinois, had to use her trunks to block the door against a man trying to break in on her bathing.  And I think I’m brave.

So my feminist friends are always talking about the prevalence of groping, how common it is, just one example of the sexism women have to fend off every day.  But here I am, fending off another woman.  If a man had touched me that way, I’d call it harassment, borderline assault.  Does it change, if a woman does it?  What was she doing anyway?  Giving me a Buddhist blessing?  Was she a shaman?  Am I now cursed?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ye, Burma (Myanmar)

Swarmed by girls at the pagoda
The gilded pagodas in Ye stretch along the river, rise on every hill, dotting the landscape like punctuation marks.  I visited one at the center of town this morning, thinking I could spend some quality time with my notebook, now that I’ve escaped companionship.  Instead, I was swamped by children.  They lounged along the corridor stretching up to the central Buddha, bored, talking with each other.  In fact, they crowded all of the spots in the shade, the numerous enclaves where Buddhas sit.  Some teachers even stretched, elongated, sleeping in doorways.

One things I’ve noticed about temples here is that they seem far less sacred than in Thailand, with a more human atmosphere I’ve already noted.  It’s not just the neon and blinking Christmas lights.  In Thailand, the temples are crowded by tourists and Thais come to have fortunes read or to earn merit by offering money or prayer.  Here, people just lounge about.  I see children playing at dusk in the stupa pavilions.  People gather in the shade of Buddha to chat and socialize.  The pagodas seem less held apart than the equivalent Thai wat, more of a common ground people use for gathering.

So I went in the sanctuary and sat and tried to feel the peace that generally gathers in the corners of these places.  Whatever your faith, you can feel the intense devotion of the people that have prayed there, their focused earnestness.  But when I turned around I was surrounded by dozens of children, wanting to take photographs of me and with me, and making fun of me, I think, my size and my hairy legs.  When I turned my back to them I’d hear evil cackling laughter and then when I faced them it’d stop.

But I was trapped there, at the entrance, so when they took photographs of me I whipped out my camera, too, thinking I’d beat them at their own game, or at least get some good pictures from it.  One girl especially, clearly a mean girl, a ringleader, her face made up pale, kept circling around for a second and third picture, and finally I had to escape.  I felt like Angelina Jolie.  How odd it is to be swarmed by paparazzi, or even friendly fans, when all I wanted was peace and serenity!

Several of the girls, the ones I liked the least, wrapped their arms all the way around my waist.  Another bizarre invasion of my personal space, something that also seems to be a much higher priority in Thailand.  I even touched a priest, for the first time ever.  They’re not supposed to touch women at all, not even their own mothers.  I thought the stigma must be less here, somehow, but have since been disabused of that notion.

He stood beside me for a picture too, with his betel nut-stained mouth, and our arms grazed each other.  I shouldn’t have been surprised—he was the monk hanging out with schoolgirls, after all.  But now one of us is probably going to hell.

Later, I went to the beach, to dip in my toes and eat fresh grilled oysters and fried shrimp, and I found out that all the people hanging out at the temple were Mon.  I thought they were a school group, because they were in uniform, but the red longyi and white shirt marks them as Mon, a tribal group unique to southern Burma.  At the beach, tuk-tuks and sohngtaeous full of them pulled up, all stuffed with Mon in the same garb, blaring Psy and American hip hop from giant speakers set up in flatbed trucks.

No wonder they were so excited to see an outsider.  It’s one of their special Buddha days, a pagoda day, arranged by the lunar calendar, and even my Burmese motorcycle driver (a quarter Mon, on his father’s side) was shocked by their quantity.

They have their own flag—a majestic golden gamlang duck on a field of red.  Their own language, closer to Thai.  They use Burmese script, but the reading of it is unintelligible to Burmese speakers.  Even their own uniform.  They’re allowed to wear whatever they want at home, my guide tells me.  But when they go out they’re meant to wear the white and red, to mark them as Mon.

On the drive back to the guesthouse, as we drive past the Mon pagoda in the Mon town, I see a banner for the First Annual Mon Gathering, a sort of Mon family reunion.  No wonder there were so many.

As I see them all gathered, my main feeling is envy.  What must it feel like to belong so thoroughly, to so completely know your place in the world?  I’m an alien here, for sure.  Even in Thailand, my heart’s home, I don’t belong and never will.  In the States, although I look like I belong, if you don’t scrutinize my clothes too closely, I don’t.  Not in Maine, not in Michigan, not in Massachusetts, not in Tennessee, not in Illinois.

According to my Myanmar phrasebook, Mon scribes were brought to Bagan after the sack of their capital by the Burmese king in 1057.  Burmese script is really Mon, adapted to the Burmese language.  These people know their place in the world.  They know exactly where they fit.  Their fathers and grandfathers and children and children’s children.

As I walked past the hordes of Mon, I caught the eye of an older monk dressed differently from his cousins, in his priestly magenta robes.  His tattoo, though, was unmistakable—the Mon bird on his upper arm.  He met my eye and didn’t smile.  He could tell, I think.  He’d spotted me.  An imposter.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Beach Retreat Day 7

Women carrying bamboo
On my second day here, a woman and her two daughters approached me on my porch for water.  I gave them most of what I had, a full liter.  Then they asked for tobacco, or the betel-nut-tobacco combination that most people chew here, giving them mouths like blood.  I didn’t have any, of course, but at that moment the delivery man showed up with my lunch:  two boxes of food, a coke, and a cooler full of coconut water.  I felt so guilty, like I had done something wrong, just with my plenty.  He gave her a banana-leaf-wrapped chunk to chew, and they walked on, unable to communicate.

As the week has progressed, my solitude has begun to feel less so.  I am not alone.  This beach is for people who work, who fish, who carry water-logged bamboo logs cushioned on their heads, who gather shellfish and hermit crabs at low tide.  One day, as I lounged, watching the sunset, I saw a man hunting something along the water:  he would spy something and then tiptoe, high-legged, towards it, like a parody of someone hunting.  He dug into the hole he found with a stick, and if he found what he was hunting, he’d pull it out and throw it against the sand, hard, with surprising violence.  Then beat it to death with his stick, then coil it—a sea slug or sea snake?—with others in a plastic bottle.

Others walk among the garbage, collecting glass.

This culture is one of hunter-gatherers, people living on the verge.  Two dogs adopted me, primarily because I give them fish scraps.  I don’t think anyone else feeds them.  They have bony ribcages, lean frames.  They spend most of their day sniffing around for snacks amid the refuse.  When I don’t have bones to give them, at night they whine quietly in the sand.  I think they’re hungry.

Beach dogs
And here I am, amid this scrounging society, a writer.  My purpose begins to obscure.  What good am I, Bob Dylan asks, if I say foolish things?  Anything I sang, he says, you can say it just as good.

Today, my last afternoon, I found a bench along the ocean and lay alone with my iPod, listening to Ray Bradbury, an audiobook I brought along.  When I sat up I was surrounded by women in longyis, one of them the old woman from that first day.  I noticed now that she is also missing an eye.  Her socket sagged empty, the skin closed around it.  She asked for tobacco, I think.  I didn’t have any.  She asked, from what I understand, if I was alone—bringing her two fingers together and then separate.  I motioned to my heart, to my bungalow, saying:  just me.

I don’t feel the envy of my alleged wealth here, not nearly as much as in Laos, or even in Thailand.  Instead I feel pity from Burmese people.  I may be rich in material goods—but I suffer from a poverty of companionship.  The woman nudged my ridgerest, feeling its cushion, grazed my bag with her fingers, then went to work, knocking barnacles off the bamboo logs she had stacked nearby.  She seemed to be the forewoman, and hacked notches into the bamboo, so other women could drag them down to the surf, could carry them on their cushioned heads.  All of them had lean, hungry, chiseled muscles, supermodel physiques.  For what reason they carry the logs I don’t know.  It seemed arcane to me, mysterious.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I pulled out my sketchbook and drew.  I thought of ripping out my drawing and giving it to her, but what good would that do?  Would she even understand?  And besides, I was selfish of the pages in my sketchbook, the book I’ve carried for four months and only used for the first time today.  I was selfish of my own drawing.

Beach drawing
She could see what I was doing, but I can’t imagine what she thought.  Did she think:  stupid fat farang thinks that’s work?  Or did she think, as I did:  she’s doing her work, and I’m doing mine?

Some days I can think of it like that.  On good days, when I can think of what I do as a kind of calling, when I can face the truth inside that cheesy cliche.

Another book I read this week, an ebook, was Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist.  A quote:  “The buddhist once asked me if writing was my religion, and I said no, writing is not my religion.  I don’t know what religion is for me. Writing is my calling.”

My kingdom for that kind of confidence.

I came here for solitude, for writing, and all week my solitude felt invaded, compromised, by well-meaning solicitous Burmese people.  My friend from Dawei showed up with three companions and took me out for coconut and crab.  Various people invited me for rides on their motorcycles, invited me to share meals with their families.  I refused them all,  attempting graciousness.  Other than garbage-pickers, I haven’t seen anyone else alone.

People here don’t seem to understand being alone—my loneliness confuses them.  Is it just that I’m American?  Have I fully absorbed rugged individualism as an ideal?  The one part of Asian culture I could never get behind is communalism.  While I applaud the idea in principle, I could never live the way Thai people do, multiple generations crowded beneath one roof, everyone up in everyone else’s business.  In Thailand, people have children just so they have a place to live when they get old.  They plan their children’s births based on astrology, so their golden years will be comfortably padded.  I don’t think I can live with my parents, or with any fictional children, long-term.  Even living with one person  I love gets to me, most days. Small-town gossip destroys me.  I love my anonymity, and my desire for travel rears its head as soon as I lose my status as a stranger.

As the lone representative of my culture here, what must they think?  That Americans are a lonely breed.

I’ve chosen this loneliness, and still my longing for companionship exists inside me like an ache.  Yet I know:  if any others were here with me I’d be turning towards them for validation, approval, comfort.  What does he think?  What does she want me to do?

I’ve written about artist dates before, the prescription given my Julia Cameron in Artist’s Way:  two hours, alone, each week, to do whatever the hell you want.  Truly alone.  No children, not even a dog.  Just yourself to please.

My favorite artist date in Chattanooga was the independent film series at the movie theater downtown.  I loved everything about it:  driving downtown along the curving highway in my Miata with the top down, parking in the garage, the adrenaline rush of walking down the concrete stairs alone, each time remembering that horrific rape scene in the Sopranos—and then sitting all by myself, in the darkened theater.  Even there I got strange looks, the occasional come-on.  Who’s that strange girl here all alone in the middle of the day?  But I adored it, the silence, the popcorn all for me, and the response to the movie utterly my own.  Even now, the movies I saw then are among my favorites.

Once I convinced my friend Ellen to come along.  I really wanted her to; I practically begged.  I thought it could only make it better.  And though I loved seeing the movie with her, sharing it with her, it changed the experience completely.  Instead of being fully enveloped in my own response, I was thinking about her.  Did she like that line?  Did she get that joke?  What did she think?

Being alone sharpens my attention to my own desire.  But it also makes me feel shame.  Spending a week alone at the beach, just like going to a movie alone, feels utterly profligate.  What good can it possibly do?

Another side of communalism:  the shame it engenders.  I hide in my room when I see Burmese people outside because I’m ashamed of my bathing costume.  I had to walk down the beach, out of view of prying eyes, to lay prone in the sun (something I was brave enough to do only twice).  My favorite part of watching the movie alone was that it was in the dark—no one could see my profligate selfishness.

I’m an alien in a strange land.  I still don’t know why I keep putting myself in these situations where I am completely alien.  I like to think it’s because I’m more comfortable inside when the alienness of my exterior matches the alienness of my interior.  I’m more comfortable when everyone else can see that I don’t belong.  In the States, when I do things wrong because I don’t belong, no one understands.  Here I have an excuse.  I am unique by definition.

Still, uniqueness breeds isolation.  Isolation breeds loneliness.  And I am lonely.  This is what I’ve wanted for so long.  Meals delivered me.  Complete freedom to make my own choices.  And yet…

The truth is that I still don’t know how to balance being alone with being around other people, how to balance others’ needs with my own.  I don’t know how to do that, and it makes me sad, because I need other people in my life, but as soon as I let them in they consume me.

Tonight, a giant cricket lands on my mosquito net.  Other crickets croon outside.  The surf rolls, unceasing, to my right.  I have leftovers in styrofoam boxes for dinner, leftovers I’m afraid to eat on my porch because I have to hide them from the dogs.  Tomorrow, back to civilization.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Maung Ma Gan, Burma (Myanmar)

Beach at Maung Ma Gan
The beach stretches out my front door, endless and empty.  I feel like I’ve arrived at a mythical destination, the Holy Grail of backpacker travel, an empty, perfect beach.  How is it possible?  How can it be?

It’s really what I had heard, the rumors of the internet and of fellow travelers, but whenever I hear stories like that I disbelieve.  Every “untouched” Thai island I visited was already defiled by masses.  This one, Maung Ma Gan, is truly deserted.

This perfection is what I aimed at, the perfection I dreamed of.  And yet…  One forgets about certain aspects.  The plastic trash washed ashore.  On Koh Jum, another allegedly untouched island wonderland, hailed as an unknown paradise by a Finnish magazine, workers from the fancy resorts swept the sand of its washed-up flotsam, plastic and otherwise, every morning.  Here the trash remains, as does the natural debris that true beaches are scattered with.

I’m all alone—but that means I’m all alone.  No reggae bars with friendly travelers.  The locals swim at palm frond lean-tos a kilometer away.  The bungalows on either side of me sit empty.  I’m alone with my thoughts, the wind, the gnats, the sound of the water sweeping ashore.  No internet, no television.  One book of essays I bought (thankfully) in Kanchanaburi.  Whatever vestiges of internet I’ve managed to save on my computer.  A couple of movies I’ve seen already.  My Thai study materials, my Myanmar phrasebook, my Lonely Planet.  My sketchbook, half-full notebooks, unfinished stories.

Not even any restaurants in walking distance.  I have to walk to reception, a good quarter mile, and they call in my order and deliver it by motorcycle to my bungalow.  All this for eighteen blessed dollars a day.  My only company is the occasional Burmese couple in skinny jeans and trucker hats, on a motorcycle, zipping by and scooting forward, to use the beachfront lounge chairs.  They, at least, have each other.  Most of the time they don’t even notice me, sprawled in my American bathing suit, half-naked by their standards.  I have silence, and my own mind.

The silence is exactly what I’ve come here for, exactly what I wanted, exactly what I’ve dreamed of.  My friend Amy, who lives in Taiwan, was the first to tell me, years ago, that Burma was the new beach destination.  I don’t even know if this part is what she meant.  The beaches on the tourist trail are above Yangon—this section of the Andaman coast only opened up to tourist travel last year.  But I’ve longed for it ever since I noticed it, a string of islands and coastline stretching up from Thailand along the Andaman Sea, the most beautiful section of Thai coast, and here, a huge section of it, stretching into Burma.  Myanmar may have more Andaman coast than Thailand, even.

Maybe I’ve dreamed of this adventure for even longer, since I was a kid, and we went to a beach in the off-season, and a German writer was there, by himself, in a bungalow, at the other end.  He ate in the restaurant and spent his days writing.  I think I’ve written about him before, because he’s been in my imagination ever since, a mythical figure.  And now here I am.  Alone in my bungalow.

I’ve given myself a full week here.  A full week of quiet.  I can sit and watch every sunset, spend every day in the sun.  Spend the nights alone with my ideas, my words, my muse, my Spirit, my mind.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dawei, Burma (Myanmar)

Dawei temple at sunset
 When I got to the border, all my Thai was immediately useless.  I had thought that the Thai I’ve learned might at least help me at the border, or until I made it to Dawei—I had thought that maybe even people here, this close to Thailand, might know some.  But no.  The minute I crossed out of Thailand and into the Burmese immigration office, I knew only two words:  hello and thank you.

Also, people do not know English, something else that surprises me.  I had thought that Burma was country where English was more widely spoken than in Thailand, thanks to the British colonizers or something, but no.  It may be my first experience like this, communicating solely by hand signals and pointing at my Burmese phrasebook and with the odd English word that someone happens to know.  Although everyone is ecstatic when I manage to say thank you correctly.  I’m working on “I don’t understand.”

So the end of the story is that I made it.  There was a minivan waiting at the “bus station” at the other side of the border—bus station meaning parked cars and dust—and I trekked across with my backpack and flip-flops, while all the other farangs in the minivan, doing their visa run, gawked at me.  I had to commission a minivan to take me onward, and my bargaining did not work.  It’s tough to bargain when one doesn’t know a word of another person’s language.

But the minivan driver on the other side was kind and drove me six hours across rutted dirt and mud roads, over single-lane bridges, past the mammoth effort an Italian-Thai construction alliance is putting into building a superhighway.  Give it two years and this route will be firmly on the tourist track.  I’ll probably be responsible.  They’ll probably read these words.

It feels great being here, though, walking the streets alone in my patong and umbrella, like an old lady from Myanmar, people staring at me and then breaking into betel-nut-stained grins.  But then I think how I am just the first wave, and after me comes piano bars and discos and boutique hotels, and I shudder.  No matter how adventurous one’s travel is, one manages to be merely the first wave of a horde here.  Am I even doing the right thing by traveling here, or is it just a selfish decision?  By writing about these untouched areas am I spoiling them?

First impressions:  heat.  I soak through my shirt walking to and from the bank, two times in two days, and only on the third day does the ATM work.  The loneliness of not knowing a language.  People are curious about me, and want to ask me questions, but how can they?  I’m not only alone, but I’m isolated by a complete lack of communication, which makes me feel a peculiar emotionally needy feeling.  The shock of having Skype-speed internet at my guesthouse.  (And the relief.)

At first I didn’t feel like people were particularly welcoming or friendly, and then last night I ate at a restaurant where I’ve eaten twice, and one of the girls who ran the place sat down with me.  She knew a handful of English words, and we pointed at phrases in the guidebook and communicated.  I learned how to say “eat.”  She gestured at her motorcycle:  do you want to go for a ride?

Of course I did.  We rode to the pagoda, where everyone wanted to talk to her about me and take pictures with me and practice as much English as they knew.  They were thrilled at my  presence.  We walked around the giant pagoda in bare feet on slick wet tile.  Here temples are called pagodas, even though they are also temples, because they’re built around giant gilded stupas.  It was like a carnival, like everyone came to pray and then hang out with their friends and eat ice cream and sticky rice and party.  A much more human atmosphere than in Thailand—then again, there’s not much else to do here.  The temple was beautiful, covered in fragmented mirrors, and also adorned with bizarre kitsch.  Every Buddha had neon enlightenment rays emanating endlessly from his head.

My friend, Mechcike (or that’s the best I can render her name), wants me to stay here and not go on to the beach.  There’s an even bigger party tomorrow night, she manages to convey.  This is what I’ve heard about the Burmese people—how their hospitality is legendary.  And yet I feel that traveler’s itch, to keep moving on, seeing new things, new chunks of country, new frontiers.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

En route from Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to Dawei, Burma (Myanmar)

Myanmar-Thai border crossing at Phu Nam Ron
People say it’s possible.  Even the sohngtaeou driver trying to convince me to go with by sohngtaeou taxi rather than by bus.  I have a single bent $100 bill and I’m convinced that’ll get me at least to Dawei, where they have ATMs.  Allegedly.  If they don’t, I’ll be stranded in Dawei, penniless and alone.

But the taxi driver keeps trying to convince me to go with him instead.  It’s more expensive, I say.  He gives me a Thai proverb I don’t know:  if you think expensive, then it’s expensive.  If you think cheap, it’s cheap.

It sounds like Thai taxi driver logic, to help me break out my pocketbook, but I bet he’d stop at the bank for me so I could exchange more baht into American money.  But then I’d lose the exchange rate twice, so I’m betting on the ATMs in Dawei.  I’ve been back and forth on this decision since Bangkok.  I have no idea what the exchange rate from the ATM will be.

This feels foolhardy to me but also Christlike, going in with nothing, never mind that I have my budget for the month safely resting in a bank account.  I always find some way to agonize, some way to be paranoid and anxiety-ridden.  Confident travel writers would constantly explain their decision in advisory bulleted points:

1.  Bring some Thai baht, but not too many!  You’ll get a horrible exchange rate of baht to kyat.
2.  Bring a percentage of your budget as untouched dollar bills from the US.
3.  Trust local ATMs, now confirmed on the VISA website and reported reliable, for the rest!

Sounds good, right?  If only I believed it.

So now I embark on the bus, driving up the mountains and over, towards the border, into the unknown.

Friday, May 09, 2014

En route from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Bridge over the River Kwai, tonight
This morning I woke up, packed, and took a motorcycle taxi to the pier with my big backpack.  Took the boat to stop eleven, the Thonburi stop, and then a sohngtaeou to the train station.  Bought a ticket to Kanchanaburi, and here I am, writing in blue pen, speeding west, towards jungle and mountains and a border.  All of the steps I have rehearsed so long in my head carried out, exactly as anticipated, made flesh.

Banana and palm trees and rice fields line the track.  White and grey egrets by the dozen fly up from swamp as we pass.  We cross rivers choked with water plants, above them houses on stilts.  It's mango season, and as we cross roads I see fruit vendors set up at roadsides, with piles of golden fruit.

Ladies walk through the car selling fried chicken and I want some, but I'm embarrassed.  All I had for breakfast was three pieces of watermelon and some half-eaten bones and sticky rice, but the vendors aren't even soliciting me.  Besides, the middle-aged lady to my left has been eying my over-consumptive purchases since I got on, the overpriced peanuts from the Bangladeshi grifter, the iced coffee in a can for 25 baht.  I don't want her to smirk as I get ripped off a third time.  But I really want chicken.

The rice fields are impossibly green, the greenest green you'll ever see.  Brightly painted houses and trucks rest by the dusty tracks.  Drainage ditches are flush with cattails and lurid algae, bony droop-necked flop-eared cattle grazing among them.  Each stop gets me closer to the border.

I think this may be the bravest thing I've ever done.  Not as brave, of course, as many:  Paul Salopek, Rory Stewart (who walked across central Asia), Sarah Marquis (an extreme walker who faced down Mongolian horsemen in her tent), or any of your average everyday foreign correspondents in Afghanistan.  But it's still something.  The Lord has not given me a spirit of fear.  Everything I see with new eyes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

I have seen them all

Today I went to the Burmese embassy and applied for a visa.  I walked down to the Chao Praya river taxi and took it seventeen stops to the BTC, then a motorcycle taxi to the embassy.  I brought with my passport photographs and that’s about it, so I had to buy a copy of my passport and a blue pen, since the one I’d remembered (my last live one from the States), is red.  So tonight my passport rests with the Republic of Myanmar, and I hope that my application for visa is successful.

If it is, then I may really make it to Burma, or Myanmar, as the United Nations calls it and the Democratic Voice of Burma does not.  Maybe that’s all I’ll say about that.  As with previous online entries, I am forever fearful of jinxing things by talking about them before they are certain.  I still have a long way to go before that border crossing.

Nevertheless, this means that today I woke up at eight AM and ate coconut bread with the sunshine.  I experienced that peculiar aloneness that accompanies the solo traveler on public transportation.  That anonymity in the middle of the crowd, what I loved about living in Chicago.  Proximity to physical bodies with none of that annoying communication stuff.

By the time I made it into the office I was dripping with sweat.  Not metaphorically.  I forgot what it was like to be drenched with fluid coming from my own body.  I forgot about how in May the moisture just hangs in the hyper-heated April hot season air, now filled with condensation from all the water below and all the monsoon clouds hanging above.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Among the lumberjacks

Waiting for the bus in Bangkok
Still at Bluefin and now alone.  I read “Gentleman in the Parlor,” a book by Somerset Maugham, while journeying through Southeast Asia, saving the introduction by Paul Theroux till the end.  It turns out that while Maugham was jaunting about—almost dying of malaria in a Bangkok hotel, trekking by mule from Burma—he really had his much younger male confidante and lover along with him.  “A drunkard and something of a rogue,” Paul Theroux called Gerald Haxton, Maugham’s companion.

So when Maugham wanted to be left by himself in his hotel room, to be introverted and write, his partner dragged him out to party with locals.  Hence, the book.

And now here I am, for real, no K. to drag me out among locals.  He flew out last week, back to work on the boat, and I insisted on staying.  I wanted to study Thai, or travel by myself—to do something truly adventurous.  Alone.

I am well and truly in the thick of it.  Theroux adds:  “There is no shame in this, though it makes the actual solitary wanderers, such as Doughty on camel back in the Empty Quarter of Arabia Deserta, seem almost heroic.”

I’ve written at times in the past as if I were alone, as Maugham does in his book.  And of course anything that “we” could do “I” could do just as well.  Do we go to the market?  Or do I go to the market?  In Thai it is irrelevant, no pronoun necessary.  Simply “go to market.”  But almost always I am going with someone.  I began hiking the Appalachian Trail without a companion, and traveled from France to Poland.  But those adventures are years behind me.  Even my solo camping trips from Chattanooga days seem far behind.

There’s something about being alone.  About the way it stimulates your creativity, or just gives you an urge to hide away.  The way it changes your interactions with other people.  Opens you up or closes you off.  Gives you the ability to make your own decisions, to make your own failures and successes dependent on yourself alone.  Forbids the blaming of another individual.

People who write about the ability of couples to make it over the long-term stress the advantage of these kinds of separations from one another.  One must always feel the pull of the partner against the other.  It’s not just I-Thou but I-Thou-Them.  We go away from each other so that we can come back together stronger and braver.

As Donne wrote:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to airy thinness beat.
And still I cherish this time by myself, wrap it around my heart like a blanket, even as already I feel guilt for all the things I’m not doing, all of the things I’d resolved to do.  It turns out that doing this without a six-foot-tall partner holding me by the hand I’m a lot more timid.  I hide out.  I feel like Marilynne Robinson, she who said:
I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it.
I remember those solitary months in Aroostook where I could dive into myself, into my time at my desk, my time in the woods, not missing the sound of another human being’s voice.  How did I think I could pressure myself out of my cozy-desked room into the roiling mass of Bangkok?  Although when I do, every time is rewarding.  A mini-date with myself or random Thai strangers.  Last night, over sehn yai moo daeng, I met an entire Thai family and conversed with them, practicing my Thai as I’m intended to be doing.

Maybe one day I’ll start visiting all of the museums and temples and famed street stalls I’m supposed to. Maybe I’ll yet screw my courage to the sticking place.  If nothing else, I’m going to need to, because I have to do another visa run.  Soon.  As a solitary wanderer.