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Hope For the Guest

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?

Passing By

I kicked another step into the snow and raised my gaze to see how many more steps it would take to the top of the hill.
Putting one foot in front of the other is harder at 5ooo meters in elevation.
I had said goodbye to my two other trekking companions at two different points already. They had to turn back because of altitude sickness but miraculously I was still fine. Maybe it was because I drank two liters of water during the night or maybe it was the half a tablet of altitude sickness medication I took after waking up but whatever it was it still felt odd to continue walking alone in that barren landscape. The height of the pass was higher then all but two of the highest peaks in the US. Not just the passes and highlands but the actual tops of those two peaks were only between 100 and 500 meters higher then the pass I was walking towards.

I started thinking about how years before I was on a school trip to Utah and as we passed through some particularly high mountains around Salt Lake city one of the instructors asked me to guess how high the mountains were around us. I answered “13000 feet” I apparently was pretty close to right at the time. Now years later I realized that I was nearly a mile higher then the peaks of those mountains that I thought were so high.

It was odd to look out at the mountains surrounding me from that angle. I’m more used to looking at mountains from much further below them. It just looked like I was high, something in the way the sun shown or the blue of the sky made it feel high up.

I reached the top of the hill and saw another little sea of snow, it felt more like an ocean with how hard it was getting to keep my breathe. Every fifteen steps I had to pause and kept my breathe. When I first started trekking more than a week earlier at 800 meters walking was easy, I wasn’t sore yet and the air had plenty of air in it. I remember running up a couple of the hills, I wasn’t in terrific trekking shape but still a step was just a step. Now a step was heavier. It all became a metaphor for the way I’ve been learning to judge myself by a self-centric standard. If one step is as difficult as ten steps then I want to be as proud of walking one mile as I would otherwise be of walking ten. Its not easy for me to judge myself gently, its generally a mind flip flop kind of experience. My first thought might be negative but I correct it with a more compassionate way of looking at myself. The first thought isn’t always the most helpful so sometimes its exhausting to remind myself how I want to be.

The top of the pass was 5416 meters or 17769 feet. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination, this time I suspected that the goal of reaching the pass would fall short. Its not also the case for me, usually the goal is very important to me but this time I started my trekking with the idea that each step would be enjoyed or not enjoyed and that was the point. I didn’t want to need a grand goal to enjoy the rocks under my feet or the wind in my hair. I have always had a weird experience with hiking, I love almost every aspect of it. Still I usually haven’t enjoyed hiking, I get so caught up in getting there that I walk faster than is comfortable and I ignore the beauty that is along the journey. I wanted this trek to be about enjoying the whole path. Its been interesting to me lately how I don’t understand something until I do, no matter how many times I hear it or are taught it. I have heard all the quotes about enjoying the moment and living for the journey not the destination. I have told many people to enjoy the moment and many times I think that I understand exactly what that means. I’m sure I have understood these quotes in certain circumstances but not totally. I still fixate on the destination in almost every aspect of my life. I still miss the point as if I’m blindfolded.

The pass was beautiful, some beautiful things can’t be captured. I couldn’t use words or pictures to explain why, I don’t even know why. I’ve heard things like “it was the quality of the light” but most of the vague poetic expressions of beauty seem to be intentionally vague so that the readers will be reminded of their memories. The last couple weeks I’ve struggled to want to take any pictures because of the feeling that seeing something with your own eyes is what matters. I think there are many mysteries that only exist in a singular experience, no one ever speaks of them, no one remembers them. They happen almost without a trace but are still fully and intensely experienced in the moment they exist. The only trace they might leave is a kind of feeling that you forgot something, the way it feels when you walk into a room and you know at some point you chose to be there but you’re not sure what your purpose was.

The Greener Fields

“Kumar, it is good to meet you” He said as he held my hand gently and smiled into my eyes. It was cold and the ground was wet from an earlier rain. The world was bustling with faces asking if I needed a taxi. I made Kumar as a friend with the simplest of human abilities, I smiled and spoke honestly. People seem to see inside me, faking respect or calmness never seems to work like being them works on the world around me. I had already seen worlds of chaos and dirty feet, months of discomfort and rancid smells. New friends have become a matter of proximity, people like certain things and even some of the more ruthless tuk tuk drivers will pause in their rush to make a buck if you show them you’re actually looking at them, not just the idea of them you’re making up.

Meanwhile back in the western world a light turns green and all the cars begin to move only once it is fully green, the red light stopped all of them just as definitely. People move about in very important little routines, faces glued to their screens and minds somewhere off in the ether trying to keep up with the constant swimming in a very shallow sea. People say “Ah poor kids in China, It must suck not to have what I have”.

Somewhere a ways off the taxi driver says “8 thousand” knowing that this price is double the regular price but he only knows that this western face was handed everything on a silver platter in a country with all you can eat french fries. Later that night he walks away from a group that wouldn’t take the double priced taxi ride. ‘These greedy westerners’ he thinks, he doesn’t understand how someone with so much could be so stingy. ‘Don’t they know that I would kill for what they have? Don’t they know that one day of their work would pay me for a month?’.

In the other place a couple lock their bikes up outside a coffee shop and go in for a ten dollar latte. They’ve been enjoying the misty early morning riding through the quiet streets of the city-suburb town. Its the only morning each week that they get to spend together, they wish that they could be together more but forty to sixty hours stands between them. They look forward to retirement so they can enjoy more mornings together.

While I’ve been traveling I’ve seen so many people obsessed with the desire to be Someone else doing Something else. Dark skinned people want to have light skin and light skinned people want to have dark skin. A tourist who left home with an intense frustration from the meaningless feeling their work gives them meets a young man supporting his family of six who dreams of making it past his hand-to-mouth life.
They both might think they want what the other has, they both might never have what they want. There are a million good lives to live but still each person dreams of the one they aren’t living.

I think many people spend years and lives with goals so unreachable that they never get a chance to see how equally hollow what they dream of is. Some people reach these goals and then find that their goals expand. People fight over who’s dream is better for everyone and many people devalue their gifts because they aren’t what they wrote off to Santa about. It seems to me that there are two choices, to love what I have or to get what I love but the process of achieving my goals sucks if I don’t love the journey. In reaching my goal I may only find that goal was traded for years of misery. And what is worse I may not have a thankful bone in my body to enjoy the dream once I’m finally asleep.

Trained to be American

I woke up, pulled on my pack, and was in a taxi to the airport in minutes of opening my eyes. I had woken up before my alarm, I usually do these days. Hardly any of the little things that used to ruffled my feathers do anymore. Six full months of diving into the unknown everyday has had an effect on me. My mind fights back, it tries to be on time and organize my surroundings into orderly boxes like it was back home but it never really works. Its just an old habit, its about as much use as picking up bricks as souvenirs.

The other day I was stuck for ten hours in the middle of a bus journey, it was suppose to take 17 hours total and instead it took 34. I asked “how long until we arrive?” so many times, no one knew the answer and no one seemed to think it was an appropriate question. I’ve ever heard that people in Myanmar see it as bad luck to ask how long the journey will take. Over time I asked less, it started to dawn on me that it didn’t matter and the mindset that needing to know came from doesn’t even support me in the US. No one knows the future, every time our guess is wrong we get upset and ask for compensation. In Myanmar no one seems to care if their bus journey takes two days instead of one, they just curl up where they can for a nap if they get tired. I look at all the signs of a different way of seeing the world as an alien must look at a new world. I have the suspicion that it is very different but everything I see is judged on learned patterns of behavior.

The other day on the plane I had a little girl digging her feet into the back of my seat. My first reaction was to get upset for her disturbing me, but then I realized that there was nothing negative about what she was doing. It didn’t hurt, it wasn’t uncomfortable, it actually almost felt like a massage but still something in my training told me that it was against my social customs so it was rude. I tried the whole plane ride to see it differently. She wasn’t trying to hurt me and the idea of disturbing another person without causing them any real physical discomfort seems to be less or lacking in the Asian countries I’ve been to. If I am in the way and someone needs to get past me they will usually push me aside or just push past me, not in a rough way, they just don’t seem to feel a need to apologize for entering my version of personal space.
I shook hands with a village elder the other day and I noticed that a handshake is very different here, the act of sharing touch with another human being seems to have similar meaning but it feels more free to enjoy it in most of the places I’ve been. Men will hold their hands together while smiling or continuing to greet each other, its not the firm quick kind of custom that it is in the US. Men feel comfortable touching other men gently. There isn’t the strange aversion to what seems to be seen as non-masculine types of touch. I quite like it, handshakes in the US don’t make me feel the kind of connection that they can here.

Even after six months I can barely take a step back to see my cultural training for what it is. I wonder how long it takes to learn to be a different way from the way I’ve always known. When I arrive home in two months I will have spent almost a year abroad out of nearly twenty-three. This is all, the rest of my life was spent on the west coast of the United States.

I needed six months to even start to see the way I am as a type of training.

Journeys in Myanmar

My alarm went off at 2:50am, I promised that I was going to meet the moto-taxi driver in front of my hotel in a few minutes. My mind wasn’t groggy like it usually is waking up before any reasonable human being gets out of bed. In my strange clarity I realized something ‘This is stupid, I’ll pay him and go back to sleep’. The night before I had learned that the train up north would leave at 4am so I asked one of the taxi drivers outside to meet me at 3am. “You promise?” the driver had asked several times, it seemed like he had been screwed over by tourists a few too many times.
However when I did more research I found that all the sources of information said the train was leaving at different times, the most common time was around noon and the least common was 4am. I realized this and went out to tell the driver but he was already gone. I could have not shown up, I could have just kept sleeping, but I don’t like how tourists give themselves a bad name just like that. Just the day before I was hearing about how the Myanmar government wasn’t allowing people to be on the temples at Bagan because a video of some tourists drinking and striping on one of the temples went viral. That kind of thing is a huge shame, because of that group of tourists all other people visiting Bagan will be allowed less freedom to experience the site.

I decided I wouldn’t make that driver think even worse of tourists, I would go to the train station at 3am anyways. For some reason this made sense to me before going to sleep but when I woke up it seemed crazy. I went downstairs at 3am, paid the driver for his trouble and went back to sleep. Later one of the hotel employees told me the train would leave at noon. I got a moto-taxi to the station but the train was suppose to leave at 4pm.
I got a bite to eat and waited for 4pm to roll around. It finally came but the train didn’t leave until 6:30pm. I was already about to lose my mind when the train finally began its lurching journey north.

Hours later I was surrounded by drunk policeman and soldiers who kept trying to hand me frothy white liquid in used water bottles they called “beer”. It didn’t look great but then they shoved a plastic bag full of some kind of cooked winged creature. “Bat” the self appointed translator policeman said. Now I had to try bat, and if I were to try the bat I better take a swig of the “beer”. It just seemed wrong to ignore their pairing of the two, it would be like eating the wrong cheese with a glass of wine. Or it would be like that if the wine was homemade and the cheese was a flying rat.
“Oh very good, thank you” I said as my internal voice was gagging. The bat was tough and terrible tasting, the “Beer” tasted rotten. They assumed I would love both and then instantly become a part of their drinking party so when I refused all other food and drugs they tried to give me they did appear somewhat perplexed.

The drinking had finally turned the soldiers and policeman into incredibly wiggly, rag doll sleepers. The one on the seat in front of me was probably getting sever spinal damage as the train bounced him up and down. Everything smelled like the awful “beer”. The policeman that had fed me the bat came over and handed me his hat. “Gift for you” he said. I was confused but I took the gift. I wore it so he could take a picture of me but it felt wrong to wear someone else’s uniform so I stowed the hat in my backpack. I had a sneaking suspicion that this policeman was going to get a talking to by his superiors after arriving back at the station. He then curled up on the floor cuddling a little boy like a teddy bear. I fell asleep sitting with my legs tucked up to my chest, it was understandably uncomfortable though and the lady next to me seemed like she was uncomfortable sleeping with only half the bench. I saw a space just my size on the floor so I tucked myself in between baskets of tomatoes and the sleeping policeman for a few hours of bone jarring rest.

“Be here by 5 or 5:30am” I was told two days later after a stop in Naba, my hip was still bruised from sleeping on the last train.
The train left at 9am. And naturally my western mind took “5 or 5:30am” to mean be there by 5 just in case. I have come to think of most of my preferences or ways of thinking as a factor of being raised in the US. Often they make my life harder than it has to be here in Asia. I think I’m in one world but I’m actually in another. Its like I’m from the moon but when I’m on earth I expect to jump just as high, its my expectation that makes it hard for me. In reality there are many intelligent and efficient ways of doing things here in Asia that only look bizarre because I don’t understand them from the minds that created those systems.

A few days later I was getting on a bus back to Mandalay from the farthest north that foreigners are allowed without a special permit. I had been told by three or four people that the bus ride was 9 or 10 hours. That sounded great to me since taking the train would take 30 hours. “We’ll arrive tomorrow morning.”one of my fellow bus-riders told me. The bus was scheduled to leave at 10am. “Oh okay, thats good” I said as my heart sank deep into my stomach. I wasn’t feeling very excited for a 10 hour bus ride but this news caused silent panic. I just didn’t feel up to it. “seat 43” I said when the guy next to me asked. “haha thats the back row.” He said. Now I was angry, I picked the bus because it would be more comfortable than the train. I knew that I didn’t have any right to be angry, but I was angrier still when I realized that my seat was not only in the back row but it was the middle seat. I was sitting in the middle of 4 other people. It is the worst seat, I don’t normally feel sad or depressed from things like this but for some reason this really lowered my mood.

10 hours later I was being elbowed on both sides while trying not to breathe because of the smell of shit or vomit. I had to brace myself with both feet just to stay in my seat.
I and everyone in the backseats had been launched into the air many times in the past hours. I almost hit the ceiling nearly 2 feet above my head.
Sleep was out of the question, if I fell asleep I would definitely be thrown down the isle where there were several plastic bags full of vomit sliding back and fourth on the floor.
I don’t know why but people puke on pretty much every bus in Myanmar, they had already handed out bags 3 or 4 times because the bags before were used.
I cringed as the guy next to me puked again. I thought horribly about how I had accepted some finger food he had offered me earlier. I don’t know where the smell of shit came from but it was continually wafting around.
The lady next to me had no sense of personal space, she couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes before she would shift around elbowing me and generally waging war with my bubble of space. The guy on my other side kept falling asleep and through unconsciousness he was waging his own little war. At one point he fell asleep in a way that made his hard knee caps slam into my arm over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m now bruised.
I wasn’t very happy with the situation.

Eventually I reached a state of calm.
My music player had died hours before so I tried to hear the last song I was listening to in my mind. I still wasn’t happy when the lady next to me would wake up and elbow me a few more times before falling back to sleep and I was starting to freeze from the air conditioning but my mind wasn’t quite as cluttered. One of the worst parts of the journey wasn’t the external parts but it was battling with my negative thoughts. I was in such a bad mood that everything in my mind was stuck in negative loops. I got a headache from the stress of dealing with my mind. The calm helped the headache go away and by the time I arrived in Mandalay at 4am I felt okay, not great, but I felt better mentally than I did when I first left.

In the last week I have spent almost 60 hours in trains or buses.

The Boy’s Wolf

I turn to run but I slam into another boy, they are blocking all my avenues of escape now. They’re closing in, and with them, a sense of dread.’Not again, why can’t they just leave me alone?’ I think hopelessly.  I can guess exactly how this will go. If I fight they will beat me. If I run they will catch me. If I attempt to reason with them they will ignore me.
I can see all roads leading to the same outcome, I will hear their laughter as I groan and lay in the dirt until they get bored and leave. My mind is wandering off as the first knee hits me in the stomach. They don’t even punch me anymore, I think my ribs must be uncomfortable on their fists. I notice the pain spiraling out from the impact but I barely react. I don’t stop my body from convulsing or trying to shield itself. I just don’t do anything else, it doesn’t seem to matter what I do. It always hurts, it can’t be stopped.
The last time I tried to fight I couldn’t even make it home my eyes were so swollen, I just curled up at of the first tree I found. Each time I lose more of my self respect, each time I feel more pathetic. It doesn’t help that each time I come home bruised and bleeding my mom asks me how I can be such a wimp.

Another knee hit me, several more and they will let me fall to the ground before running off to the full tables of food set out by two parents for supper. They will be asked about their day and later tucked into bed with a pat on the head or a kiss. I will not. I’ll go home, nursing my injuries silently as I chop wood and make dinner for my mom as she complains about what a burden I am.

A slap to the face brought me back. “Are you in there freak?” one of the boys asked with his face close to mine. I don’t respond, they wanted a different reaction. “I guess we’ll have to find out for ourselves then” The same boy sneered. This is means they are bored, the sense of dread came back. “My dad says you’re cursed, he says you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our village.”
I know what boredom does to kids like these. I winced as the boys holding me tried to twist my arms further behind my back. The boy leading the group pulls something out of his pocket “I don’t know why the adults let you live.”
“I say we should see if you’re even human under that skin” he flips open the blade of a small knife. Strangely I can feel the grip of the two boys that are holding me loosen a bit. “Tom, maybe we should go, its almost dinner time” another boy says quietly. “Don’t worry, this wont take long”. He is gripping the knife so tight that his knuckles are white.
He brings it up to my wrist, I can see a grim determination in his eyes. He takes a quick breathe like he is about to dive underwater. Deep inside my chest something breaks.
In a sound like wildfire, I hear an inner voice roar “No!”.
There is a flash of red.
The first thing I see is my bare feet covered in blood.
The second thing I see is a black shape like smoke in between me and the bully.
I’m confused, ‘Why don’t I feel anything?’ I ask myself.
Suddenly my mind catches up to speed as if the last moments were in slow motion. I look at my arm to see how badly I was hurt but I saw no cut. ‘But the blood’ I thought and then I saw the bully cradling his arm. But no, he was cradling the place where his arm used to be. “Get that thing away from me!” he screams, backing away. I see one of the boys fall over backwards and one of them runs, the rest follow. They disappear into the trees on the far end of the little clearing before I look down at the dark shape in front of me.
I’m shaking and my mind is wrestling with what I just saw. The shape turns to face me and the first thing I notice is a little flash of dark pink as its tongue cleans the blood from its lips.  Its teeth stand out in stark contrast to the dark of its raven colored fur. Its ears and paws tell me its some kind of dog, nothing like the village dogs but still a canine. It could be a wolf but I’ve never heard of a black wolf in this area. I’m expecting fear but it doesn’t come. Maybe its the relaxed posture of the dark dog or maybe my emotions were fried. Whatever the reason, I feel no fear when I kneel and stretch my arm out for the wolf to smell me.

I’ve always felt close to animals, they seemed to make sense in a world where not many things did. I could understand their body language better than I could understand spoken words and they never hurt me except for when there was a good reason, a natural reason. Like if I accidentally stepped on a paw or a tail.
It looks at my hand and then raises  from its sitting position to sniff me. “Good dog” I whisper. I feel my hand quivering from the adrenaline still in my body. ‘Bad things are about to happen’ I think. I knew that the villagers wouldn’t stand idle by when one of their kids lost their arm. I felt bad that I didn’t care about the bullies arm ‘Maybe I am a freak like they say’.  The dog walks over to me and sits close enough for me to feel its coarse hair against my side. Its comforting to feel the big animal close to me.
“Why did you help me? Where did you come from?” I ask aloud. He licks my face lovingly and then walks a few paces away before stopping to face me again. He stares at me until I meet his gaze. I’m struck by how familiar his eyes are, but his stare unnerves me so I look away. I’m trying to shake the feeling when I say “Well, I better get back before it gets dark. Take care dog”

I push my way through the dense edge of the clearing into the more open forest. I smell the hearth fire long before I see the little house. I don’t go inside, instead I go over to the wood shed and sit in the darkness inside. I usually think better in the dark and this was a situation I didn’t want to face. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I thought about how the village would react and how my mother would react, something told me neither would be understanding. The boys who attacked me were just a representation of how the village feels about me, they think I’m cursed based on some rumor spread in the early years when my mom first arrived outside the village. She never told me what it was and made it clear that I wasn’t to ask about it. I barely even go to the village anymore, only when mother needs something. She doesn’t leave the cabin and makes me care for that kind of errand, well, all kinds of errands. Maybe part of why I’ve always loved dogs so much is because of everyone treating me like one my whole life. There is a scratching at the door, when I open it I find those some familiar eyes staring back at me. “How can you seem so calm at a time like this?” I ask the wolf. He just walks over and begins to lick the blood off my feet.
“Get in here!” a shrill voice cried. “Stay out here” I whisper.

I pushed open the door and saw her sitting in her chair by the fire. “I thought I heard something out there” She said almost to herself “I’m out of wood”. She didn’t even bother to ask for more wood, she knew I was trained well. I hate myself for being so meek. I went for a load of wood and set it down next to the fire. “You smell awful” she said finally raising her gaze slightly. “What is that filth you’re tracking in? Why do I keep you around when all you do is muddy up my life?”.
I know not to respond with anything but agreement. She’s not really speaking to me as much as commiserating with herself anyways. She couldn’t commiserate with me since, as she put it, I was the source of all her woes. She never lets me forget how the village hates me and how that makes it impossible for her to have a normal life.
“Is that blood?” her lips were curling in disgust “What kind of filth have you broad upon me now?”. This time I answer “A wolf or some kind of wild dog attacked one of the village boys.”, I knew there was no need to explain how the boys were attacking me before that happened. She ignored anytime I mentioned the attacks or said something like “Serves you right for being late with my supper”.
“So some wild beast came out of no where when you were with those boys and bloodied one of them up without laying a hair on you?” She mocked “How idiotic do you think I am you rotten, worthless mutt?”.

Before I can say anything I’m distracted by a glow growing in the room. I look through the window and see a crowd of flickering torches. “They actually came up here.’ I thought. The village had always avoided this cabin. I thought they’d just wait till the next time I came to town. “Ah, I see they’ve come for you.” She said with a wicked look “Get your useless ass out there and deal with the mess you made.”
“I know you’re in there!” one of the torch bearers yelled “Come out, we know you’re in there.” I could fill the panic filling my chest and running into my arms and legs. There was no shelter in the cabin, my mother wouldn’t help me. She hated me for causing her isolation and the village hated me for god knows what reason. There wasn’t any safety in the world for me, and I wasn’t even sure if I deserved to be safe. I had been a burden my whole life to everyone around me. ‘Maybe the world is a better place without me’
“I know what you’re thinking, you think I love you and if you hide in here until they come in for you that I will protect you.” she said in a low voice “You’re crazy if you think I care, I never wanted you. Your father was a worthless beast and you’ve proven to be even more of a waste of space than he was.”. I felt so empty, I had no fight in me. There was no where to go except out the front door. “I won’t burden you anymore” I said before opening the door.

Immediately two men grabbed my arms and dragged me away from the house. I didn’t care where they took me, I stared at the ground and waited. “Your monster ripped my sons arm off!” one man yelled. ‘My monster, I wish it was mine’ I thought. The smoke from the torches hung in the air making it hard to see in the darkness. “There’s only one way to get rid of a monster.” another man yelled. ‘Couldn’t they just get it over with’ I just wanted to turn into dust. They were pulling me along the path towards town. ‘Whatever they are going to do will happen when we get to town’ I reasoned. Something made me look up and through all that smoke I saw two piercing eyes staring back at me. It was like time slowed as I stared into those fierce loving eyes. I was seeing through a gap in the crowd, and just before it closed the wolf winked. ‘Is this real? and if it is real, why would the wolf be here?’ I could feel sparks of some faint hope finding tiny homes in my mind.

We were almost out in the open, almost to town when there was an enormous sound, it shook the trees such that a shower of pine needles drifted down.The men gasped and spun around searching for the source of their terror. I could even feel the men near me shaking as they continued to grip my arms tightly. The pine needles started to catch fire as they drifted down onto the torches. The light illuminated a dark shape sitting quietly in the middle of the path. It was hard to tell at first what it was but it was blocking the path to town. The men moved closer hesitantly, holding their torches out above their heads to see more clearly. First their was a flash of fiery eyes and then for a moment the shape was clear, the glistening fangs smiled back under pointed ears. “Wolf! the monster’s here!” they men yelled as they brandished their torches. Someone threw a torch but in front of everyone’s eyes the wolf melted into smoke and flew through the men towards me. Half physical, half smoke the wolf would slide around one man as smoke and push aside the next with a punch of his paw.

He was circling me as the wolf in seconds, the men backed away and I felt my heart soaring. I didn’t know what I expected to happen but the feeling was ecstatic. I ran a hand into the wolfs thick fur and thanked him for giving me such hope, I still didn’t quite believe I would live but it was enough to know that someone cared for me.
The men seemed too scared to do anything. “Kill the monsters!” someone yelled and I knew it was over. “Run now friend, you may still live” I whispered. In response the wolf said “Get on my back”, the words were clear as day despite the chaos around us. I didn’t know how a wolf could possibly carry me anywhere but as I swung my leg over his back I could feel us lifting up. In one long moment I was sitting on top of a massive beast, he jumped over the ring of torches and ran wildly through the woods. The wind whipped my face as tears began to stream from my eyes. “Thank you” the words sounded empty compared to what I felt. Someone cares whether I lie or die! and that changes everything.

The shouts of the men disappeared into the distance but the wolf kept running, for hours he ran. Finally he deposited me on a mossy bed in a dark forest. I threw my hands around his neck and hugged him tight, “Thank you, no one has ever done such a thing for me. I love you.”. The words came clearly again “What if I told you that there is only one person here in this clearing?”.
“What do you mean?”
“Who do you really think I am? Do you think I am but a wolf, or a monster like those men were yelling? Think about it.” He said staring down with his now gentle eyes.
“Are you a monster?” I said with hesitation.
“Are you? I cannot be anything that you are not.”He said patiently.
I wondered what he meant.
“Why do you think I saved you? Why didn’t I run away and leave you to die in their hands?”
“I don’t know, no one has ever protected me.” I said still grasping at his meaning.
“Each one of us has to protect our self” he smiled down at me “No one outside of our selves can help us until we ask. To ask, we must want to survive and if we don’t love our selves enough to want to survive… Well we almost found out what happens in that case.” he said with a chuckle.
“Are you trying to say we are somehow connected like the men in the village said?”
“No, not just connected. How do you think we’re talking right now?”
I paused for a second before replying “Your mouth doesn’t move, I could hear you in the mob just as clearly as I can in this clearing.
It can’t be sound, so it must be in my mind” I reasoned.
“Who has access to your mind like that?” He asked.
“Ah, I do? are you trying to say that you are part of me?” I said with a growing sense of certainty. It was starting to make sense.
“Yes, I am you, that is why I would do anything to protect you.”
Tears were forming in my eyes “I love you too, how could I have not heard you sooner?”
“I am the part of you that loves you no matter what. There is no way you could have given up on yourself so completely without ignoring me so completely.
I will protect you against any enemy, even from the other parts of you that diminish you.
I tried to speak to you and love you from within. I spent years trying to reach you. Your life was yelling your worthlessness so loudly that you chose to hear them over me. Eventually there was no other voice you could hear, that’s why I became more than a voice. The old stories about someone being half man, half wolf were not fantasies. I think most people just assumed that meant only one body.”
“So am I a werewolf?”
“I will always be with you but not in this form.”
“How can I ever thank you?” I asked with my watery eyes.
“Love me and accept me as part of you, I am you and all I have ever wished is to be accepted as part of you.”
I hug him tighter, my tears running like rivers down my cheeks “I do, you are welcome with me always.”

With that the body that was once all black fur and fangs dissolved into the same black smoke he had taken the form of in order to rescue me from the mob. This time I knew what to do. ‘I am you, I accept you’ I thought while taking a deep breathe. I took in the smoke and as it filled me I began to feel more whole than I had in years. It was like drinking a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter’s day. I felt warmer and more in love with each breathe until all the smoke was gone, there was only me in that little clearing.
The sun was poking through the trees. I held my hand in one of the beams of light, checking to see if I had any darker hair or sharper claws. Nothing.
As I walked out of the clearing I felt a new sense of confidence in myself.
‘I am smoke, fire and fangs. I am man and wolf.”
There was no going back now.

 

Impressions in Burma

I was standing in a shanty town where four roads met at awkward angles. I could met out a few stars in the pieces of dark sky above me. Looking up I could see the buildings leaning towards the street as if they were growing organically into any available space. To one side there was an extra second story room that they had built straight out from the rest of the building without support, it look like someone had pulled out a drawer big enough to live in and just left it out. I was watching the hotel employee who had lead me here walk over to a metal sheet. He banged on it a couple times and I realized it must be some sort of home, a minute later a man slide aside the metal, he got out and rubbed his eyes before rolling his motorbike over to me. Apparently he only needed 60 seconds to go from being fast asleep to being ready for work. I gave him a little extra when he got me to the train station.

“1.70 Kyat  for life insurance” I had noticed an extra charge on my train ticket. I chuckled to myself as I stepped over baskets of tomatoes. I wondered what 1.70 kyat’s would do in the event of the train derailing. Would it pay for a tenth of a body bag, or maybe a one hundredth of a shovel to dig my grave? How much can .0014USD buy in Myanmar? I decided that it would not buy much even in a country that charges 1.30USD for an eleven hour train ride.

I smiled back at the man staring at me from the seat cross from mine. He had the sort of face that looks as if its always smiling. He looked friendly and very poor, he carried a little cloth bag with a few items in it. A few minutes later he bought a beer and the man next to him bought whisky, he offered me some of his beer and I shook my head no and smiled in thanks. He wore only a button up shirt and the long cloth skirts that most of the men wear here in Myanmar. His feet looked like a dried lake bed, a bit cracked and well worn.
Hours earlier a nun was sitting where he now sat and she gave me coffee, bananas and crackers. She explain to me that the crackers were healthy and that she was a very health conscious person. She began to wipe the filthy windowsill before resting her elbow there, she sat on a news paper and told me more about how picky she was with the brands of food she would buy. Her knowledge about what was healthy was very different from mine. She told me that the Ritz-like crackers were healthy, she told me that she smoked but only “light cigarettes”, and she wiped the windowsill but didn’t think anything of eating with her hands after touching other parts of the dirty train. She explained that she became a nun to pay back the debt from her mothers sacrifice, normally she would have taken care of her mother as she grew old in order to pay the debt of her mother raising her back but since her mother had died when she was young she had to pay this debt back through forwarding the good karma of being a nun to her mother.  She seemed to give as if she thought of me before she thought of herself, if she had food but I had no food it seemed only natural that she should give me her food. She always gave me the better piece or the higher amount.
Later when the man sitting across from me showed the collection of coins and other items of personal value to him that he seems to carry with him everywhere I did not realize that by trying to give him a coin I had gotten in Malaysia he would give me one of his coins. I felt bad at first because it seemed that these coins were of great value to him, but I  also knew that sometimes giving is a greater kind of wealth than having. I once heard that refusing a gift can be a selfish thing, to not allow someone to have something worth giving is truly proving their lack of wealth.
So I took the coin and thanked him profusely, I took the breakfast and lunch I was offered in the same way. I want to learn how to give so readily, the Burmese people are great teachers.

Just a few short paragraphs for my devoted readers delight.

Train-ing

They greeted me as if I were Michael Jackson instead of just Michael Clark. Their smiles were so genuine it was contagious. I asked for a ticket to Naypyidaw. “High class?” one of them asked me. “No, low class.” I said in response. He looked as if he thought I was confused so I assured him I did in fact want a seat in low class. At that point his expression told me he thought that was wrong in some way, I’ve run into this while traveling. Many people don’t understand why anyone would want to have a less comfortable seat or circumstance when they could have more comfort. “Twenty-eight thousand” he told me. That was such a low price that I asked “Twenty-eight thousand Kyat for a low class seat from Yangon to Naypyidaw?” He confirmed that I would indeed pay about two dollars and fifty cents for a ten hour train ride. I attempted  to thank them in Burmese and they began laughing raucously while slapping each others backs as I walked toward the train.

I’ve had an image of one of those trains in India where all the people ride on the top if there isn’t room inside the cabin for months. It just keeps circulating in my mind, I’ve planned to get on a train in three different countries but each time something happened to make me choose the bus. As I walked up to car four where I was suppose to be seated I saw that the windows had no glass. I’m sure I was smiling like a fool as I climbed up and walked down the isle looking for seat number twenty-eight. It was a dingy, wooden floored cabin with wooden seats made of plywood painted blue. The faces were unusually straight for Myanmar as I sat down. The wooden seat was about as soft as wood usually is but I have had five months of practice sitting on terribly uncomfortable furniture.
I noticed a pair of eyes peeking just above the seat in front of me. They were staring at me and when I stared back my trained politeness made me look away. Each time I looked back they were still staring.

The train lurched, shook and there was a sound as if we had just been a part of some kind of collision. The two guys sitting on the bench facing me started laughing and I laughed with them as we pulled out of the station. I leaned my head out the window like I had been wanting to do for months but when I looked forward there were those eyes again. They were still disturbingly direct, however this time I could see who they belonged to. She was somewhere between sixteen and twenty I’d say if I had to guess. She stuck out her tongue at me, I just looked back wondering if it was an appropriate response to return the tongue pointing or if I should just smile. I decided I better just smile and pretend I wasn’t wildly confused. I’ve used this tactic many-a-time on my trip, just smile and attempt to not look as confused as  I feel. She continued to catch my eye and stare for the next 6 hours.

The whole train was a terrifically old style, it was satisfying my vision better than I would have hoped. We rolled past shanty towns, garbage heaps, and apartment buildings that were being consumed by vines. The dust poured into the window anytime we passed the spot where a road crossed the tracks, my eyes soon became sore from trying to blink away the dirt. Slowly my skin got dirtier, I couldn’t see a change in color but I could feel the grit all over me. After an hour or two we were surrounded by vast fields with specks of color where it seemed a whole village of people were tending to a single field at a time. I was amazed to see huge heaps of hay being transported by wooden ox drawn carts. The vast, flat landscape was only broken up by little bamboo-hut towns full of children playing hacky-sack  and adults working the fields. The trained stopped at each town long enough to take on the various sellers of train-treats. The were several  distinct types, the tea or coffee guy, the cigarettes or candy lady and the rice with curry boy.

They would pour on yelling what I would assume to be their sales pitch but quite honestly they could have been yelling about what they had for breakfast or who they planned to vote for in the next election. They would walk up and down the isle. If anyone so much as let their  gaze linger on their platter of merchandise for more than a second they would stop in front of you and (again I can only assume) say something like “Come on, you know you want some.” My favorite part was watching the women walking up and down the isle with a whole sliced watermelon on a platter balanced atom their heads. I could barely walk down the isle without falling over even with holding onto each seat as I moved along. They were able to walk without holding onto any of the seats, they didn’t drop a single piece of watermelon.

‘I wonder if this thing has a bathroom’ I looked around and saw that there was enough room in the back of the car. I found that it was a bathroom and to my glee it was just a hole in the floor that led straight onto the tracks. I was having the the of my life, everything was filthy, everything was loud, everything was uncomfortable. It was like heaven for me. As they say “Life’s about learning to dance in the train” Or something like that. Being shaken around like a rag doll anytime we went over a bridge probably looked something like what the kids are calling dancing these days.

Myanmar is such a crazy blend of new and old. Just on the train I watched a seventy year old man playing Tetris on his phone, we rumbled past villages made entirely of wood and at the end of it all there was Naypyidaw.
My guidebook described it as “a soulless town”. The train station was massive, mostly glass and metal. It was so unlike anything I had seen in Myanmar.  The military government built Naypyidaw from scratch starting in 2002 It looked as though the train had taken me on a hundred year long journey straight into the Twilight Zone. Its been an intriguing few days but my whole journey felt like seeing five countries in the space of ten hours. Each village was another world.
I just kept thinking ‘These places exist’. In three months when I’m sitting on some couch in Seattle I will think back to the time when my train companions offered me betel nut and I hope it still feels real, I really hope I remember their faces.

Mind Your Step

“Wait, there is a half an hour time difference from Thailand time?” I asked someone at the end of a long day of travel, I didn’t need an answer. I knew there was a time difference but somehow I had forgotten about it at all crucial times during the first two days in Myanmar. “Oh, you’re ready to go?” the employee at my hotel had said with some surprise. I had wondered why he was surprised, by my understanding at the time I was five minutes late. Turns out I had lived my entire day on an assumption that was wrong, funny thing that.

I hopped on the back of the motorbike at 7:09am Myanmar time. I barely held on as the driver sped off down the bumpy, pot-hole ridden roads. We ran through a four way intersection with just a casual honk and not a bit of speed lost. The mist was thick, and it made everything softer. We drove through packs of dogs and past magnificently golden pagoda’s that contrasted starkly with the brown of the rest of the town. I wondered how you could grow up in a place where the only well kept buildings in town were the Buddhist pagodas and not become a Buddhist. Buddhism is so bright here, the colors of the monks robes, the shining golden pagoda on nearly every hilltop, all of it opposes the dull colors of everything else. It’s a sublime show of belief to live in a dirt floored shack while you go to pray in a blinding golden heaven of a temple.

These were the thoughts that were interrupted when I arrived at the bus station. A young man approached me to ask if I wanted something to eat. He was probably in his early twenties  and he had a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it that read “I love you” inside the heart. I found it interesting that despite speaking Burmese as his primary language the tattoo was in English. I sat down after pointing and nodding at some friend breakfast treats, he said “Coffee” and I said “Yes” with an emphatic nod. I wasn’t expecting to get breakfast this since I was still under the impression that I was running late. He brought me four spring roll type objects and a toy cup sized coffee. I sat in the mist soaking up the laughter all around me as all the good-old-boys slapped each others backs with the hilarity of their last joke. I loved seeing their happy faces, its been so easy to feel comfortable since I’ve been in Myanmar. Not everyone is kind or easy to deal with but even the most aggressive taxi drivers have helped me find a bus after I told them that the taxi was too expensive for me. I’ve felt the Burmese people’s kindness radiating everywhere I’ve been, perhaps that’s why the heat is so thick in the air here.

‘8:36, they’re leaving a half hour late’ I thought to myself without realizing that they were leaving precisely on time and I was the one who was running on a different schedule. The bus pulled away and I spent the first hour thinking my own thoughts and practicing breathing. Maybe its the infectiousness of the hippie ways here in Asia or maybe I’ve always been more of a hippie than I like to admit to myself. Whatever it is I’ve been practicing breathing every morning and many moments everyday for a week now. It has helped me to pull myself out of bed in the morning, out of the depression that usually fogs up my mind in the early hours. When my mind started to feel tired I put some music on and let my thoughts wander. I think long bus rides keep me sane, they give me time to process and time to just go with the flow. I don’t have to know the route or even the amount of time the bus will take to arrive. I make sure its going where I want to go and then I can have a few hours without making any big decisions. So much of travel is a storm of voices and foreign surroundings, everything is crying out for attention. So many decisions and many of them could lead to danger or a very uncomfortable day. To have some time each day to not have the decisions demanding my attention makes my mind a lot easier place to inhabit.

‘For the love of god, why put a bus station an hour outside of town?!’ I thought after hearing from a taxi driver that I was still so far from my destination. As soon as I had stepped out of the bus I was surrounded as if I were a dead gazelle and they were hungry vultures. They picked at me with their questions. “Where you go? Where you go?” they each asked until I could ignore them no longer. “Tokyo guesthouse, city center.”
One of them told me it would be ten thousand Kyat, or about 8 dollars. I asked where the bus was and eventually got through to them that I just needed to know where the bus was. One of them grabbed me by the arm and let me in a really awkward way. I felt like a toddler who’s parent was dragging them inside after too much playtime, it wasn’t comfortable but as I looked around I saw that the men seemed to use touch differently than I was used to. I let it go as a cultural difference.

By the time the bus got me sort of close to my destination I tried using my faulty sense of city direction to find my way. I learned to navigate in the forest, not in the chaos of Yangon. Perhaps its not the craziest city I’ve been in, perhaps. There wasn’t many motorbikes like some of the other Southeast Asian cities, it was mainly taxi’s and old buses. They barely moved and everywhere I looked there were people. It was hot and in a few minutes I was soaked in sweat. I had no idea if I was heading in the right direction, I was following the largest sum of other tourists. I took a right when I saw a group of four tourists come from that direction. I walked for a few minutes before I saw one guesthouse, but when I looked inside it was dark and a little less than inviting. I asked one of the other travelers walking by where might be a good direction to find lodging. He gave me clear information, that is the funny thing about asking for help while traveling. If I ask a local who certainly have better information they will struggle to communicate what they know and if I ask another tourist they will probably have much less information but a higher ability to convey what they know. This time the information lead me straight to a hostel.

I thought I was taking the hard way but it wasn’t hard, each step lead to the next. I could have been stressed, I could have been worried about all the steps at once but this time I didn’t. This time I just dealt with one step at a time, each step on its own was easy. Only the entire sum of steps thought of as one action seemed hard.
Sometimes the challenge is best fought in the mind.

Borders Make a Difference

“The old motor is stronger” he explained to me on the way to the boarder. I could feel my excitement growing as the little motorbike chugged along. I had meant to cross into Myanmar the day earlier. I had woken up early for the long journey but when I got to the bus station at 9am I found that the next bus left at 1pm. I’ve learned there is no sense in being too attached to the exact location I’m in, I’ve had great experiences in boring towns and bad experiences in fun towns. My driver stopped and pointed me toward the Friendship Bridge that connected Thailand to Myanmar. I always get excited at this part, it always seems silly to be so exhilarated by changing location by a few hundred feet but still I walked forward with a visible eagerness.

I had only taken about a hundred steps in Myanmar before it was clear that the boarder separated more than just two sides of a river. It was immediately more chaotic. I just needed to change money, withdraw money from an ATM and get a bus to Mawlamyine. Somehow I thought it would be easy. Right after getting my passport stamped, in the same building, a guy was running a travel company. I sat down to get some information and our conversation went like this:
Me “Hello, I want to go to Mawlamyine”
Him “Ah yes, we have a shared taxi to Mawlamyine”
Me “Okay, do you have a bus to Mawlamyine?”
Him “We have a shared taxi, its good, just four people”
Me “How about a bus, do you have a big bus?”
Him “We have the shared taxi”
Me “Okay, how much is the shared taxi?”
Him “It’s 13000 Burmese currency”
Me “That’s expensive, I want to find a local bus. Is there a bus station?”
Him “Its very far”
Me “So I’ll get a moto-taxi, how much for that?”
Him “I don’t know maybe 1000, there are many. They have the vests.”
I thanked him and left. I was surrounded by four more guys with the same offer. I ignored some and said no to others as I walked to find an ATM. One guy followed me “Where you go?” He asked. I answered and the same conversation repeated. I have had so many conversations like that. One person wants to sell something and I don’t want it but they persist. I try to get helpful information and they try to sell their one thing. Its like asking a surgeon to fix you, he’s gonna cut you open. He just is.

I walked into a bank after trying the ATM without it spitting out any money. I had to change some of my crisp US bills into Kyat. I’ve never seen a bank like this one. There was  suitcases full of bricks of money behind the counters and more hustle and bustle than I’d ever seen in a bank. Pretty much across the board banks are quiet, well air conditioned places. Not this one, it looked like one of those stockbroker pits where they all wave pieces of paper above their heads. I found the counter where I could change US dollars and almost laughed looking behind the counter. They apparently had no vault or just didn’t use it. There was a block of Kyat as big as a mini fridge  just sitting on the floor. It was kind of a joke to my western mind. I could not imagine something like that existing in a bank back home.

The fun was far from over though!
After I got enough Kyat for a day I got myself a moto-taxi to the local bus to Mawlamyine. My driver took me past a dusty market to a little bus station. He had some conversation with the lady working there, she waved her hand in a No sort of gesture but my driver just pointed to a chair and said “Mawlamyine”. I sat down and gave myself to the unknown. I wasn’t very confident that I would actually be sitting in a local bus to Mawlamyine anytime soon but I kept hearing the people around me say the name of the town I was going to so there was a glimmer of hope. Just then a guy I didn’t know handed me a phone for an unknown reason. I took it and held it to my ear, this was a tactic I had seen many times in Asia. If they don’t know English but they know someone who knows English they call that person to transcend the language barrier.

“Hello”, “Hello, dosf dkoudjf jou keojd car, djei” That is about how it sounded to me. It went on like that with me repeating the few words I thought I understood. Eventually I was pretty sure It was another person trying to sell me a shared taxi ride to Mawlamyine, I said yes and hung up. After another half an hour of waiting I got up to get a snack but before I could walk off the lady working at the bus station told me to get on the back of a motorbike for “bus to Mawlamyine”. A few minutes later I found myself in a shared taxi heading to what I thought would be Mawlamyine. This ended up not being true though, It drove for hours only to drop me at the bus to Mawlamyine. For reference if I was in Thailand the distance from the boarder to Mawlamyine would have probably taken two or three hours.

Five hours after leaving the boarder I arrived. I had a headache from not eating and the heat but I was happy to find that the moto-taxi drivers knew the guesthouse I had looked up the night before. I sped off but was not lucky enough to have my first choice, I was however lucky enough to find a place to sleep at the third guesthouse my driver found.
Its expensive here in Myanmar, I spent over my budget just for the room and ride from the boarder. The room was 20USD. I will have to get used to this after Thailand’s ease and inexpensiveness.

I also noticed that people here have beards, that may sound odd but I haven’t seen beards on local people more than a few times in months. The food here is more like Indian food, the people are incredibly diverse ethnically and it all just feels old world.
My first impressions are encouraging and my dinner was delicious so its hard not to like Myanmar so far.

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