Friday, February 13, 2009

"Burma Days": My grand adventure in Myanmar

[The author offers her sincere apolgies for the length of this article -- it's really, really long. But you gotta use LOTS of words to describe the wonders of Burma. There's just no other way to do it right. And lots of photos too -- but I only picked the ones that fit into this story. I did leave the other 650 photos out!]

November 10, 2008: I went to my orthopedist to get the first in a series of injections of SynVisc cartilage-replacement gel into my knees today. “These shots will really help you walk better by replacing the cartilage in your knees,” said the doctor And then he pulled out a hypodermic needle six inches long. Oh lord!

“Will it hurt?” I whined. “I can’t stand too much pain.” Yeah it hurt – but not all that bad. The new “Jello shots” didn’t make my knees feel any better -- but on the other hand, after a day or so they felt only slightly worse. I was hopeful.

November 17, 2008: I returned to the orthopedist for a second set of injections. They went well. No problem.

November 22, 2008: Last night I walked over to see some friends – just eight short blocks away. And when I woke up this morning, my right knee was totally painful and swollen up like a balloon. Holy crap! I’m supposed to leave for Burma in two weeks! And now I can’t even walk! This is a nightmare.

November 25, 2008: So much for Thanksgiving. The nightmare’s gotten worse. My doctor said that the injections had nothing to do with the inflammation. Yeah right. I sat in his office and cried so hard on November 24 that he didn’t even try to persuade me to let him give me the third set. “My life is over,” I cried. “I’m only 66 years old and I’ll never be able to walk again!”

But wait. It gets worse. My left knee swelled up to twice its size too and I started to get a burning pain in my knees that then spread down into my calves. “It feels like battery acid inside my muscles,” I wailed. And it did. Now it takes me ten minutes just to walk from the kitchen to the bedroom. How the freak am I supposed to get to the airport – let alone fly to Burma. Crap.

November 27, 2008: Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad. I hobbled around on crutches between the car and the hors’odeurves sidebar. You can always sit down while you eat. The turkey was excellent. And the pain couldn’t stop me from eating a slice of peach, blueberry and pumpkin pie each.

November 28, 2008: Double crap. Now both my ankles are swollen up like balloons. I look like I’ve got Elephant Man legs. I googled “SynVisc” and apparently I’m not the only one that this has happened to. There have been at least two class action suits against SynVisc. I’m screwed. But at least I got a good story out of it for my blog – even if it took me ten minutes to hobble over to the computer.

November 29, 2008: Both my ankles are swollen to twice their normal size and both calves are not only swollen and painful but are as hard as a rock. And there’s only nine days to go before I’m supposed to walk all over the Irrawaddy River basin. “They’ll have to take me around in a wheelchair,” I told my daughter Ashley. I cried a lot. She hugged me.

December 1, 2008: Only six days left. Screw this. I’m going to get acupunctured. Every single time I mess around with Big Pharma meds, I live to regret it.

“Hmmm,” said the acupuncturist, while pointing to my knees. “We could acupuncture you here, here and here but that would be too painful. We’ll needle you there, there and there instead.” And it actually worked. I now look like a crab as I hobble along but, hey – at least I can now do the little-old-lady shuffle.

December 7, 2008: “Bring me back a puppy from Burma,” Ashley called after me as I hobbled off toward the BART train to the airport, dragging my suitcase behind me. That’s just sad. My legs, not the puppy.

Last night we researched puppies online. “Here’s a Burmese Mountain Dog,” said Ashley. “Awww, isn’t it sweet?” It looked like a cross between an Australian sheep dog and a St. Bernard.

How about that I just bring you a T-shirt?” I replied. The ride to the airport was do-able and I gave myself three hours to get from the check-in counter to the gate. This is going to be a very interesting trip.

“Burma is famous for its rubies,” said the man in the seat next to me on the flight to Japan. Really? Apparently rubies are more precious than diamonds right now because there are no more new ruby mines being discovered. Maybe I could buy some rubies? Can one bring rubies back into the U.S.? I’ll ask. That would be so cool to buy a handful of rubies for a few dollars and then sell them back home for millions. Yeah right, Jane. Dream on.

December 9, 2008: Seven inflight movies later, I finally got to Bangkok – and to my hotel at 2:00 am. But, really, it wasn’t so bad. Eleven and a half hours from San Francisco to Japan and then seven and a half hours more to Bangkok. Not all that bad – not after some of those horrendously long flights I’ve taken to Afghanistan and Iraq. At my hotel, I got five hours of sleep, ate a huge buffet breakfast (breakfast appears to come with one’s hotel room in Southeast Asia), paid ten dollars for an hour’s internet access and here I am now – back at the Bangkok airport, about to fly off to Burma.

“Are you Burmese?” I asked the man sitting next to me on the plane.

“Yes. I lived in the United States for a year in 2005 but now I work for Siemans.” Definitely not your typical hill-country tribesman.

A Thai woman at my hotel in Bangkok had told me that the occupancy rate at the big hotels there is now only 10%. “And this is the height of the season too.” She thought it was because of the protests that just recently shut down the Bangkok airport. It might be that. But also it might be because the world economy currently sucks eggs.

Also, while I was in Bangkok I got to talk with Tony, an American who lives in Thailand that I’ve been corresponding with for years. Like me, he “talks just like he writes”.

On the plane from Japan to Thailand, I lost my glasses. I fell asleep with them on and woke up with them gone. Can one do that? Apparently one can. “There’s a glasses thief on this plane!” I cried. The steward came with his flashlight and everyone searched around. No glasses. Then I had an epiphany that my glasses were the most meaningful thing in my life and that I was lost without them. Completely dysfunctional. Then I had another epiphany that even without my glasses, I was still me – in fact even more so. Then I wandered up and down the aisles of the plane, unchained by my new existential freedom! Then, eight rows away, I stumbled over something bumpy on the carpet and there were my glasses. Go figure. I haven’t taken them off since.

Now I’ve arrived at the Rangoon International airport and it's all spiffy and modern and has escalators and baggage carousels just like those in any other major airport. What was I thinking? That Rangoon was gonna have a primitive airport powered by candlelight? Yeah.

And the people in Rangoon turned out to be just people – like everywhere else, with the possible exception of the north and south poles.

“Yangon is the original Burmese pronunciation of this city’s name,” one Burmese told me. “The British mispronounced it as ‘Rangoon’. And the same thing goes for ‘Burma’. The British mispronounced ‘Brahma’, which is what the Burmese people are called. The country itself has been called Myanmar for centuries.” Oh.

So Myanmar is much different than I thought it would be – just like every other country I’ve ever been to has turned out to be different from what I had imagined. That’s why I like to travel – to see what really actually is what.

Then I went off to my neo-British hotel where they brought me iced tea in the lobby while I listened to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” song being played on a slide guitar by a Burmese wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

December 10, 2008: Did I mention that I found a ball-point pen on the floor of the Bangkok airport? Hey, I’m a writer. It may not be a big thing to the average person but to me it’s almost like finding a hard-drive and keyboard on the airport floor.

My hotel in Yangon was all made of teakwood, was set into a tropical garden and was right on the river. And the hotel was cheap too. Can’t get much better than that. I had breakfast on the verandah next to a gigantic teak statue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“Now we are going to the Shwedagon pagoda,” said my guide. The pagoda and its many surrounding shrines covered a whole mountaintop. “It’s the holiest religious site in Burma – and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is covered with 60 metric tons of gold and 3,800 diamonds. 38,000 rubies, diamonds and other precious gems altogether.” Holy cow! I can hardly wait to start taking pictures! And then suddenly I found myself right in the middle of Buddha paradise! I’ve landed in photo-taking paradise too. Two cameras are clearly not enough.

My guide then started telling me stuff about Buddhism. “You need to be free of desire, to live in the present.” But I’m not listening. There’s just too much to look at. There’s a procession of young women dressed in ceremonial robes. There’s some Karin villagers. There’s an old monk. I’ve totally forgotten about the pain in my knees! And everywhere I look, everything is covered with gold. This moment alone is worth the whole trip. I wish my family was here. “May all beings attain the Pure Land in this lifetime,” says the old Buddhist prayer. This looks like the Pure Land to me!

Being at the pagoda also gave me a great chance to people-watch. The Burmese don’t seem all that unhappy. Many of them look serious as hell but many of them also smile and laugh.

An old man came up to me. “If you were born on a Sunday, you pour water over the head of that Buddha over there and it will wash away all your delusions.”

“But I was born on a Wednesday,” I said. “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” I’m full of woe.

“Then you must bathe the Buddha on the northeast corner of the pagoda.” I’m on it like white on rice. “I used to be an English teacher but was fired and now I haven’t worked for nine years,” said the old man. Then he told me which way my guide had gone and I hobbled off to find him, but my guide wasn’t there. “No, he went THAT way,” said the old man. I ran again – or at least I shuffled along really fast. But I still couldn’t find him. But after circumambulating the central golden stupa two more times, I finally caught up with him. Then I met a young woman with the most photogenic baby I’ve ever seen this side of my baby granddaughter Mena. “Can I take your photo?” I begged. That baby was so cute!

And that was how I spent my morning at the World Heritage site. Where to next? “Now we are going to tour downtown Yangon and visit a local market.” He pointed out another pagoda that was supposed to have been built at the actual time of the Buddha. “And here is the Strand Road. Yangon is basically laid out with five roads going east to west and 135 roads running from north to south. This one here is the road to Mandalay where the flying fishes play.” To reach it, however, you have to keep on driving in that direction for the next three or four days.

At the center of Yangon is an old pagoda, a mosque and a synagogue. There is also a church and a Hindu temple. “But the actual capital city of Burma has moved 150 miles to the north. It is traditional for a new government to always establish a new capital.” Apparently they moved the new capital out into the middle of the jungle. I guess that the generals who run the country want a place of their own. A fortified place?

I took lots of photos of colonial buildings in the downtown. “You will not be allowed to take photos of the British and Australian embassies, however, for security reasons. There is an American embassy in Yangon too but it was moved over to the other side of town.”

This city has lots of trees,” I observed.

“Yes, but 85% of the trees here were lost in the recent storm.”

“Why do the people of Yangon paint their faces yellow?” I asked.

“Sunblock. It’s a 1,000-year-old tradition of tamarind-based sunblock. It’s cosmetic.”

Then we went to the post office. I used to work at a post office in California when I was in college, back before everything was automated. As I watched the packages and letters get hand-stamped, I felt right at home.

Next I went off to the Strand Hotel. “This was the center of British colonial life in Burma until the Japanese took it over during World War II. Then it was closed for a while when the socialists ran Burma. Now it is open again. It usually costs $800 a night to stay here but now you can get a room discounted to $180.” It had wicker loveseats in the lobby. And ceiling fans too.

The cheapo notebook I bought at the Walgreens in Berkeley to take notes in is starting to fall apart. Rats.

I met a young girl selling post cards. “I sell post cards in the morning,” she said, “and go to school in the afternoon. I study English.” Lots of people speak English here. I’m surprised.

Then we drove past the former U.S. embassy but too quickly for me to take a photo. “Now we are off to the Scott Market, named after Sir William Scott. It is very colorful.” Colorful is good. I stuffed about twenty dollar bills in my sock just in case.

At the Scott Market I saw a woman selling a simple gold ring set with one ruby. I liked it a lot. “How much?” I asked.

“$120.” I coulda bargained her down but it seemed like too much work to street-hike off to an ATM to get more money so I took some wonderful photos of some little-girl nuns instead and gave them each a dollar. Money well spent.

“About a million people live in the new capital,” said my guide as we drove past the city zoo. “Most of the animals have been transferred to the new capital.” Then we passed a stadium. “The Burma team is number two in Southeast Asia. Thailand is number one.”

Apparently they have a lottery in Burma -- wherein the winners get the right to buy cell phone sim cards. If you win the lottery, you can sell your sim card for twice or three times what you pay for it. And while only 2% of all Burmese own refrigerators, 25% of them own televisions. That’s hilarious. 23% of all Burmese would rather have a TV than a frig.

“Do you want to go tour Yangon’s docks and Chinatown?” asked my guide. I would love to, but my knees hurt, I’m tired, my delayed jet-lag is kicking in and I just came down with a mild case of the Junta’s Revenge – probably from eating all those fresh mangos at the Scott Market.

From what I can tell, what everyone around here calls “The Military Regime” has reached a de facto arrangement with the people of Burma – an unofficial standoff. The Junta stays in its jungle stronghold on the one hand and, on the other hand, the rest of Burma pretty much runs by itself.

By the way, Burma is NOT a failed state. The crime rate is low, the post office runs efficiently, the schools are open and the planes run on time. There isn’t much surplus money lying around but the people are friendly and the streets are clean. Most everything in Rangoon works on a relatively primitive level but everything DOES work. “It is because of Buddhism,” one Burmese told me. “We all care for one another and we all share.”

But the Junta seems to have their own way of life, devoted followers and high standard of living out in the jungle and the people of Rangoon seem to go their own way without the Junta’s help – or interference. Works for me.

Back at the hotel, I talked with another tourist. “Too bad you didn’t get to go to the docks,” she said. “The Chinatown here is like every other Chinatown in the world but life on the docks is fascinating.” How so?

“The place was crowded and many of the residents were poor and just squatting on the sidewalk but everyone seemed to be in this together so nobody seemed to mind. When I went down there on a tour the other day, we were all watching the people at the docks – and they in turn were all watching us! They seemed to be even more fascinated by us than we were with them. They especially thought our tour bus was rather impressive.”

It was all sounded very wonderful down at the docks and a crying shame to miss, but I had my priorities set and at the top of the list was my urgent meetings with “The Junta’s Revenge”.

Another Burmese I talked with at the pagoda this morning said that tourism was really down in Burma right now due to the Junta and the cyclone (they seem to think of hurricanes and typhoons as giant cyclones – which, actually, they are). “We used to get 70,000 tourists a year here. Now we are lucky to get 20,000.”

“When I told people back home that I was going to Burma,” I replied, “everyone advised me to be careful. In America, we all think of Myanmar as being filled with starving and oppressed people and military types in jackboots. And it’s not that way at all. I feel totally safe, the food is delicious, the people are gracious and the tourist attractions are awesome!” Plus I probably picked up my case of Junta’s Revenge in Thailand anyway.

“Please,” said one taxi driver, “when you get back to America, please tell people about Burma. Tourism really helps us here.” And it doesn’t just help the Junta. A lot of tourists’ money goes directly to the people.

When I first thought of coming here, I thought that military types would just hustle us from one sanitized version of Burmese life to the next – sort of like a carefully-guided tour of an Irrawaddy version of Disneyland – and that we would never get to see the “real” Burma, where people are starving and oppressed. No, it doesn’t work that way. I was set loose unescorted in Rangoon and I saw everything there was to see – except for maybe the American embassy. You just can’t fake that sort of thing.

A surprising amount of Burmese speak English very well.

December 11, 2008: “I travel a lot and have lots of Pepto Bismo,” said one of the tourists at my hotel. Yaayy! Then I jumped onto a propeller-jet plane like the kind one sees at regional airports in the U.S. and headed off to Bagan at 6:00 am. We flew over a whole bunch of mountain ranges – thus the origin of the Burmese Mountain Dog breed, I would assume.

“When I was at the Scott Market today, I saw a puppy that looked like a St. Bernard,” said a tourist back at the hotel. Geez Louise! Don’t tell Ashley! “But it was malnourished.” And PLEASE don’t tell Ashley that! She’ll be on the next plane over to Burma. “To take a dog back to the U.S., it has to be quarantined for six months.” I could stay here in Burma for another six months. No problem.

At first, the mountains my plane flew over were all brown and gray but as we started to land in Bagan, we flew over lots of farmland and the area got greener and greener. However, looking out the plane’s window, I still hadn’t seen anything that I would classify as being jungle. “Bagan’s ancient temple sites are contemporary to Angkor Wat,” someone had told me, and shortly after I got off the plane, I found myself suddenly in the midst of Bagan. Only one mile outside the airport, I was already riding through a forest of pagodas, temples and stupas. “These were built between the first and eleventh century A.D. This area is 1,000 years old.”

There were 55 kings in Bagan and they were always under attack by the Mongols – Kubla Khan. How did the Mongols even find this place! “The eleventh king had 300 wives. And each wife wanted to cook for him so he had to eat 300 dishes per meal.” Plus the guy apparently gave his father a choice to either get poisoned or die by the sword. Life in Burmese politics was hard back then and apparently still is like that today. “The father chose poison.”

Then I wandered around the countryside, poking into some of the thousands of stupas and getting my picture taken with farmers and cows. “This farmer grows five crops on his land,” my guide translated. “Cucumbers during the monsoon and peanuts and sesame seeds right now, when it is dryer. He sells his sesame oil in the village and wholesales his vegetables to distributors.” The farmer had a huge white cow and some wonderful silver teeth. I want teeth like that.

Then some young men rolled up on motorbikes and tried to get me to buy some souvenirs from them, out there in the sesame seed field, standing next to the cow. “You are the only tourist coming though today,” one seller sighed. I guess he’d better move off to Angkor Wat if he wants more customers – or else get a good PR agent to drum up more business for Bagan.

Then we arrived in the village proper and everyone was wearing longyis (wraparound skirts), even the bicyclists. At the market, I used Kyats to buy things – at 1,000 kyats to a dollar. The village market was totally scenic, with piles of vegetables everywhere. But then the local “mothers’ brigade” marched on me when they saw that I had a camera, so I took lots of photos of absolutely adorable babies -- at one dollar per photo. But I turned the tables on them and made them all look at photos of my own grandchild. Humph.

“School just got out for lunch so the children you see dressed in green and white are students,” said my guide. How funny. Longyis are worn as school uniforms here.

“There is compulsory education up to the sixth grade in Burma – and the schools are free. But on the other hand, because parents have to pay for uniforms, books, paper, pencils and lunches out of their own pockets, many families can’t afford to send their children to school even if it is free.” Apparently the goal of education here is to make students literate but not much more than that.

Next I went to another temple and one obviously-pregnant lady absolutely BEGGED me to buy something – anything. “We never get tourists here any more.”

“And what are you looking for, Madam?” she asked.

“I want a small Buddha,” I replied. So she ran off, consulted with her colleagues and returned with a small cast-iron Buddha that was only one-half inch high. Perfect!

Okay, let’s see. We’ve seen how many temples today? Is it lunchtime yet? “We have one more temple to see.” N-o-o-o,,,, But actually this one was the nicest temple of all. The Ananda Temple. It had the most amazing Buddha, 60 feet high, carved from one piece of wood and covered with gold. I was in awe. “But wait. There’s more.” Around the corner was a second 60-foot high gold-plated Buddha. Stunning. I sat there and actually felt at peace with myself for a whole minute.

“But wait. There’s another one around this corner.” I was in Buddha-shock. “And here’s another one!” At this rate I’m gonna get enlightened whether I like it or not.

And then lunch threatened to enlighten me even further – especially the jalapeno sauce that came with the spring rolls.

“What about ethnic intermarriage between the various tribes?” I asked a Burmese man I had been chatting with over lunch.

“Not so much – because of transportation limitations. While you may have the opportunity to jet-set around the world, many Burmese only travel by ox cart – which clearly limits your marriage options.” And apparently women have all kinds of rights within a Burmese marriage. They, for instance, control the family’s finances.

After lunch, there were more temples to visit. At this rate I’ll be enlightened and fly off to Nirvana before dinnertime.

Then my guide packed me off in a horse cart to ride down dirt trails past even more stupas. “There are 2,800 stupas, pagodas and temples here,” said my guidebook.

“My horse’s name is Rambo,” said the man driving my cart. Then I watched the sun set over Bagan from the top of a very tall stupa. And when we drove back to the hotel, Rambo really turned to. I was impressed. He almost cantered. And back at the hotel, I checked my e-mail, ate dinner, went to bed and slept for ten hours.

December 12, 2008: “Today we are going to visit a typical Burmese village and the village’s primary school,” said my guide. On my tour of the school’s first-grade classroom, I discovered that the children were already studying English. “If a child shows promise in school, his or her whole village will pool their funds and try to send that child off to university,” said my guide. “It costs a thousand dollars to make it through university.” That’s a lot of money to come up with in a village where some people live for approximately one year on less than $100.

“This class’s teacher is from this village. The villagers paid for her education and now she teaches here.”

“How much does she get paid per month?”


Then I walked across the road to the village itself and I’m here to tell you that, “It takes a whole village to raise $1,000.” And in fact I have no idea how they managed it. We’re talking cows and chickens and no running water and no electricity. Ox carts and goats. Picturesque as hell but definitely at subsistence level. And this village is better off than most because of the tourists who come to see the temples and stupas of Bagan. But the villagers seemed to be fairly happy. And there was no military presence there either. Actually, I think I’ve only seen one soldier since I’ve been in the country.

Next I went of a lacquerware “factory” – consisting of several low-lying tables where artisans worked, sitting on mats. “First you weave a basket with horsehair and bamboo, then cover it with layers of lacquer and then paint designs on the top. The designs are painted in reverse – like in silkscreening – and then gold paint is layered over that.” We learned a lot more about the lacquering process but I forgot what.

At the factory’s showroom, I fell in love with a little lacquer ring-box which was black with gold patterns – only five dollars! But then in an act of complete generosity I gave it to my guide. But then I got overcome with attachment and greed, bought another one just like it and traded with the guide. I’m a bad person.

“If I wanted to retire here, is it possible?”

“Yes. I think there’s a visa fee of $200 a year but you can live like a queen here.” I could even get a maid! And air conditioning during the summer? “Sure.”

“Maybe I could join a nunnery here,” I mused, “but then I’d have to cut off all my hair and my daughters would win our hair-growing contest.”

“No, you would not have to cut your hair.” Hmmm.

More good stuff – I went off to see yet another gold-plated Buddha and took a sunset cruise under a full moon on the Irrawaddy River. It’s gonna be hard to leave Bagan tomorrow.

December 13, 2008: That wonderful Ashley. She just e-mailed me a photo of baby Mena standing all by herself. Baby Mena had a dangerous look on her face, like, “I’m standing now. Don’t mess with me!” Baby Mena was fierce. Oh crap. She’s going to be walking by herself by the time I get home and I will have missed it.

Last night I did a lot of soul-searching about how I could possibly step up my “Benefit Sentient Beings” game. Not a clue. I think that just blogging and visiting war-torn countries isn’t producing enough good deeds. Plus doing that only leads to ego dreams of being famous. Reality check. I’m NOT in this life to be famous. I’m here to be nice. I wish I could think of more ways to make this world a better place.

Then my guide loaded me into his van, we kissed Bagan goodbye and drove off to the airport to fly to Mandalay. “This flight will take 20 minutes,” said the stewardess -- but apparently if you drove to Mandalay it would take at least seven hours over extremely bumpy roads.

I saw someone wearing an army uniform at the airport, someone obviously going home on leave. But still. It was the first military person I’ve seen so far here in Burma.

At lunch yesterday, I met an American who told me stories about serving in the American army in Burma right after World War II. “Aung San was the leader of the protests against the British right before World War II and he contacted the Japanese, thinking that they might help get rid of the British. The Japanese helped all right, but Aung San soon learned that the Japanese had their own agenda too.” And the Japanese turned out to be worse colonialists than the British.

“Aung San then switched allegiances back to the British, becoming the only person ever to serve as a general in both the Japanese and the British armies.” Then apparently Aung San was assassinated after Burma finally gained its freedom. “Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was only two years old. Her name is Aung San Su Chi.” I didn’t know that.

Now my plane is flying over a whole bunch of farmland and clouds. “We will be cruising at 7,000 feet.” There’s the Irrawaddy. It’s winding and snaking and huge – with many separate watercourses and islands, large islands, covered with farms. The Irrawaddy looks like an old river that has been around for a long time. My terror of flying is only counter-balanced by the spectacular view.

Crap. The second I took a photo out the window, the plane engines made a really weird sound. I’ve done it now. My electronic device has scuttled the plane! Holy crap. But it turned out to be only the airplane starting to make its decent. Whew. I shoulda taken some photos of the Irrawaddy.

A whole lot of people speak English here and a guy on the plane spoke excellent English. I asked him about the typhoon. “We had never experienced a storm like that. We just had no idea. We stayed in our house in Rangoon as the winds raged on and on. Trees were down everywhere but it didn’t look like anyone was killed. Then the radio announced two people were killed. Then we found out that in one area south of Rangoon, 7,000 were killed.”

“But why did the government refuse outside aid?”

“Because the government didn’t want any armies or even NGOs in Myanmar except their own because they are afraid of the public. They want the people to be poor so the people will be busy with their own problems and subsistence so the people won’t turn on the government. They especially don’t want the international community here or to see any foreign military presence.”

The official number who died in the typhoon is 150,00 but apparently the actual number is much higher. But the generals apparently do not care how many Burmese die because it doesn’t effect them. They are currently receiving three billion dollars from selling natural gas resources and none of that is going to pay for government services. All of it goes to the junta.

“Everyone in Burma hates the generals,” said this guy.

“Should you be saying this to me?” I asked him.

“I don’t care if something happens to me. I don’t care if I die. Things have reached that point in Burma – no one cares if they die if it will free the country.” That’s huge. I wonder if any Americans would die for their country if it meant we’d get rid of the corporate neo-con corruption in Washington that is currently eating America alive. Probably not.

“But if the generals don’t want internationals in Burma, why do they let in tourists?”

The guy shrugged. “The generals are changing their minds every minute.” And I also learned that Burma hasn’t any political prisoners either. “If someone gets out of line, they just slap him or her in jail because of a ‘felony’ – such as having a satellite dish or buying gas on the black market. Everyone does this but only the dissidents are charged as felons for doing it.”

Sounds like the generals are behind the times and don’t realize how easy it is to control people via public relations campaigns. Good PR is better than 5,000 armies. Just ask all the Americans who voted for Bush and still worship Ronald Reagan, a man who completely screwed the American working class and got away with it because he appeared to be folksy.

“Mandalay is the heart of the culture of Burma,” said my local guide as we drove along the shores of some gigantic lake. Now I’m spozed to walk out across the lake on the world’s longest footbridge. I shoulda brought a hat.

Lots of timeless stuff is going on here at the lake. Now I know how the plowing gets done – teams of oxen.

Then I went to another pagoda, took some more money-shots of the Buddha, scrambled back into our van and scurried off to a monastery where I was late for my appointment with the abbot or someone. I’ve always wanted to meet a Burmese abbot. I’m game.

Ah, the monastery. 1,300 monks. It was like taking a tranquilizer – instant calm. All the monks had toned it down a notch – perhaps several notches – and the serenity was very contagious. It was like that feeling you get after a swim, a sauna and a good massage. Maybe that’s what I should do with the rest of my life. Do they have Islamic nuns?

Ya know, Burma is a very Buddhist country. Duh.

Then I went to a marionette-making factory. Dolls! I love dolls. “This one is only three dollars.” It wore velvet and looked like it had been “Bedazzled”. I bought three of them. One for baby Mena’s budding doll collection, one for my other granddaughter who lives in Los Angeles and one for ME. When I get home, I’m gonna kick myself for not buying five more. Obviously I’m very pleased with my purchases.

“Sorry, no women allowed past this point,” a guard actually said to me when I went up front to photograph a gold-leaf-covered Buddha statue at our next temple stop. It must have had at least two billion dollars worth of gold leaf plastered onto his body -- or more. Anyway, it was humiliating to be thrown out. I don’t know how the statue felt about it but I bet the real Buddha would have been pissed.

Then I talked with some novice nuns at the temple. “We have been nuns all of our lives,” said the oldest, a 17-year-old. “I will be leaving the convent next year to attend the Buddhist university. All the classes there are taught in English.”

Over to the side of the gold-leaf Buddha, I passed by a display of enlarged photos of the generals praying in front of the statue. They would let THEM in but not me? Outrageous.

Then a seven-year-old boy came up to me, carrying a starving baby. I was horrified. Horrified. Was the baby starving because he had no food – or was the boy deliberately starving the baby so he could get money from tourists! I was outraged. I paced back and forth, back and forth in the aisle, desperate to decide what to do. Give the boy money or not? Finally I decided to give the boy money. But what I should have done was to grab the freaking baby and rush him off to the hospital. But the sight of the baby didn’t seem to bother anyone else.

The baby might have been as old as two or three years, but its legs were almost as thin as my pen. I was shocked to my core. I’ve never seen a starving baby before. And after this experience, I never ever want to even hear about any babies starving ever again. Babies are the universe’s gift to mankind. Horrors like this should NEVER happen to babies.

Later I asked my guide if he thought that the boy was running a scam. “Probably not. If anyone is actually starving in Burma, they can get fed one meal a day at any monastery. I think that baby had a disease. I myself gave the little boy money.”

My next stop was a gold-leaf-making factory where I got to watch these two young guys pounding out gold into thin strips. All day long, they slammed sledge hammers down onto sheets of gold until the sheets were reduced to gold leaf. I could hardly pick up the hammers, they were so heavy. But did these guys even look strained? Not at all. And they didn’t even have six-packs. I bought a one-inch-high wooden Buddha covered with gold leaf for only six dollars.

“How much does gold sell for per ounce over here?” I asked.

“Actually it is more expensive in Burma than on the international market because the demand for gold here is higher – not only because of the gold leaf for statues but also because there are very few secure banks here in Burma and so the people hoard gold instead of making deposits. So, because of the high demand, gold is brought in from Thailand and sold at a 5% profit.”

So much of Burma’s industry – if you can count making crafts as being industrial – is labor-intensive. Does Burma have any heavy industry? I’m not sure. Definitely not cars. Guns, I think. With 300,000 people in the army, I suppose there is a good market for making guns.

I also learned that in Mandalay, the Chinese population does all the smuggling – everything from gold and drugs to household appliances – and thus they have lots of money and have bought up most of the valuable property in downtown Mandalay, forcing the Burmese out toward the edges of town.

Then I drove up to the top of Mandalay Hill in the back of a pickup truck that went up the winding cliff road VERY FAST. “There’s no way I’m coming back down in that thing,” said one other American tourist in the truck. Right on!

At the summit of Mandalay Hill was a temple that took 999 steps to reach. And an escalator! And while I was up at the summit watching the sunset, a 12-year-old monk latched onto me. “I want to practice my English,” he said. So we chatted a bit about life in a monastery and watched the sunset together. “My monastery is down there,” said the monk, pointing way down below us, many miles away. “I walk up here every evening to practice English with the tourists.”

Then a very sweet little girl tried to sell me postcards but I bought her off by giving her a dollar if she would let me take her photo and then she joined me and the monk and then we all went off to the elevator to go back down the mountain. Power failure. The elevator didn’t work. So the monk and the little girl helped me hobble off down the stairs – very slowly.

In exchange for their help, I gave them a ride down the mountainside in our death-defying pickup truck, laughing all the way down. Between me and the monk and the little girl and our outrageous Mister-Toad’s-wild-ride in the truck, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Back at my hotel, I struggled with the hotel’s internet for a while but it wasn’t worth the effort. Burma is too beautiful to waste more than a few moments trying to get Yahoo to work. Did I, me, Jane, the-internet-junkie, just say that? Yeah. Our entire hotel (The Red Canal Hotel) is made from carved teak – even the toilet seats.

December 14, 2008: Before I came here, I’d frequently heard that the Burmese junta – referred to here as “The Generals” or “the military regime” – supported and profited from the drug trade. But now that I’m here, I can’t see any evidence to prove anything to the contrary.

Next I went out for a drive in the countryside. Lots of agriculture. Lots of cows. “Burma used to export onions, garlic, potatoes and chickpeas to the neighboring countries like Thailand but, right now, prices are so low that farmers are suffering and can’t afford to grow their crops for the prices they are receiving,” said someone I met up on Mandalay Hill. But from the window of my van, everything looked completely bucolic.

There’s another puppy!

“During the monsoon, all of this farmland goes under water every year.”

There’s some pigs.

Next we drove past a whole bunch of villagers, standing around. “When the soil is dry, in the fall, villagers stage sports competitions, foot races for children.” We stopped and I took a whole bunch of photos, following this one puppy around for ten minutes before I could get a picture of him (or her) sitting still. Then I dropped my camera. Crap. I shoulda bought an ice cream for that little girl who picked it up for me. Some guy was selling ice cream cones off the back of his bicycle – hand-churned ice cream, pink cones. I want one too.

This country is scenic as hell.

Life seems to be very hard here but nobody seems to be starving.

At this point in time, all I can do is sit in the van and stare out the window, trying to take it all in. As Kipling said, “If you’ve heard the East a-callin’, you won’t never heed naught else.”

Then I popped onto a barge to go down-river, jumped off on the other side of the Irrawaddy, visited Inwa, a small village with clean toilets, and then hopped into another horse cart, feeling like George Orwell in “Burma Days”. Then we arrived at some kind of palace or something out in the middle of nowhere.

“The Ava dynasty lasted for 400 years,” said my guide. “A king fell in love with a village girl selling betel nuts and appointed her his chief queen.” Apparently that was the wrong thing to do. She became very powerful, which pissed off the king’s brother who then got up an army and put the queen in jail – and then he cut off her head. “But a monk tells her right before she dies that by dying this way she will be paying off all her karmic debts and now she will be free. So she died happy. Then her granddaughter became a great queen.”

But wait. The plot thickens. The granddaughter apparently turns out to be a schemer too and kills off all the other crown princes except for her son, who is unqualified to rule and manages to lose all of Burma to the British. Anyway, where we are now is the monastery that belonged to the monk who advised the village girl/queen two generations back. Did I get all that right? Probably not.

In any case, I got lost inside this empty, haunted monastery and called out my guide’s name. Nothing but echoes. Empty and haunted. Then, just as I began to feel the ghost of the headless queen closing in on me, my guide suddenly appeared. “Jane, where have you been? And where are your shoes?” The (ghost) queen took them?

Next I climbed up to the top of a bell tower – or at least I was supposed to climb up to the top of a bell tower. Forget that. I don’t do stairs. Plus it was the Burmese equivalent of the leaning tower of Pisa and didn’t look all that safe. I’ll just wait down below, contemplate nature out here in the farmland and hide out from the village children who want me to give them my pen and notebook and to practice their English on me.

“Money, please?”

In another bone-jarring horse cart, I rode past rice paddies on the way to the village’s monastery where I visited a classroom and listened to children chant the alphabet. The entire monastery was carved out of teakwood.

“This is where they make the pots that monks use to go out and beg for alms with.” The monks use large metal pots and the novices use lacquerware bowls. A small boy stood among the piles of pots, playing with a plastic machine gun. “The metal ones are made from recycled oil drums.”

Then we went back to the boat and sailed back to Mandalay to eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant called “The Peking Duck”. By then I was tired and hungry. This morning when I woke up, I really didn’t know if I could endure yet another day of intense touring – touring is hard work! But I not only held up okay but was really glad I came. Still and all, when I get back home to Berkeley I’m still gonna look into getting a wheelchair. My days of running off to Afghanistan and Iraq are definitely over. Crap.

On the way back to the restaurant, I looked at a map of Burma. Hey, Kipling is wrong. It’s impossible for the dawn to “come up like thunder outer China ‘crost the bay.” The freaking bay is hundreds of miles away from Mandalay. I read somewhere that Kipling never made it to Burma. However, he did go on to say that “the blasted English drizzle wakes a fever in my bones….” Ha! The weather in the U.S. right now is something like minus-forty degrees below zero. If that doesn’t get tourists to Burma, what will?

Meanwhile, back at The Peking Duck (which had a statue of Donald Duck on its front porch BTW), I got to talking with a local woman about heroin. “I have heard that Myanmar is famous for its heroin trade but I myself have never seen any signs of it here,” I said. But then I’ve lived in Berkeley for 42 years and I’ve never seen any signs of heroin there either.

“Other Southeast Asian countries make large profits off of Burma – they import our teak, jewels, natural gas, etc. But then they seem to deliberately slur Burma’s reputation,” said the woman -- after I had consumed a fine lunch of Peking duck, shrimp, chicken and four kinds of vegetables including a whole baked pumpkin filled with soup.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.

They do it because if U.S. companies refuse to trade with Burma, then Thailand, etc. make a greater profit by serving as the middleman.”

Next I went down by the docks, where whole bunches of people live on the shore of the river and whole bunches of people live on its boats. It is all organized confusion. “Which river is this?” I asked.

“It is still the Irrawaddy.”

Then I spent an hour listening to the low steady hum of the small diesel engine carrying my flatboat upstream and dozing and daydreaming about this and that and watching the water flow by. I saw some red-robed Buddhist novices swimming near the shore, heard children’s voices getting ready to shout, “Buy this necklace,” and swam up from my reverie and woke up.

I was at the next village, Mingun.

This one had some truly spectacular attractions and was well worth an hour’s boat ride. Scenic attraction number one: An artificial square mountain made of bricks. Scenic attraction number two: Shrine to a local monk with a photographic memory who had memorized the entire Pali Canon – all 17 books – and was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. Scenic attraction number three was a complex and gigantic representation of the Buddhist mythological Mount Mehru and its four continents. It was almost as large as a mountain itself and was all intricately carved and all white.

December 15, 2008: By the time I went to bed last night, my knees hurt so much that I was all ready to chuck it all in, go back home and be back in Berkeley in time to watch baby Mena take her first steps. But this morning I felt better and went outside my hotel to wait for the van in the fresh air – just in time to watch some boy monks making their alms rounds with their begging bowls. I gave each of them a dollar.

“Every morning,” said my guide later, “all the monks go out from the monasteries and ask for alms to buy food with and to ask for food as well. They go out every morning from 6:00 am to 9:00 am, and then at noon they all eat their communal one meal a day.” One meal a day! How do they DO that? I get to starving after only a few hours without food.

As I drove off to the Mandalay airport to fly back to Rangoon, I saw monks with begging bowls walking everywhere and monks – young and old – hanging off the backs of Mandalay’s truck-buses, pickup trucks with seats and a roof installed in the back.

All the planes at the airport were delayed by bad weather in Rangoon. Another typhoon? Hey, this delay is gonna cut into my shopping time in Rangoon. I still need some “Myanmar” T-shirts, that ruby ring that I saw back at the Scott Market and a soccer jersey for Ashley.

After I arrived in Rangoon, I asked my guide how the small teakwood cabins that we saw along the roadside on the way into town had survived the big typhoon. “Because Rangoon is further up the delta,” he replied, “this area didn’t receive the full force of the storm. But down in the lower part of the delta, whole villages were flattened within minutes, as if they had never existed.”

Ten minutes away from the Rangoon airport, I stopped to visit Burma’s three sacred white elephants. What a rip-off! They weren’t even white!

“The seven identifying marks of a white elephant are pink eyes, white tonsils, white nails, fur and skin, and white or clay-pot colored skin and sex organs, and a white tails.” None of these looked white to me.

“These elephants are the pride of Burma and vehicles for our kings.” Sort of a cross between our American eagle symbol and a Rolls-Royce. But there are no more kings left in Burma. I wonder if they are now being used as transportation for the generals? I can’t see that happening.

Further along the road in from the airport, we passed a large new housing development that can only be described as a bunch of McMansions. “How would the monks get through all that security with their begging bowls?” I asked. One of Burma’s unanswered mysteries I suppose.

Then our van drove through the area where Aung San Su Chi’s house was located but we couldn’t get close to it. If the generals were smart, they would make it into a tourist attraction and charge big bucks. She could give out autographs -- $100 a head. Would I pay $100 for her autograph? I’d have to think about that. Would having her autograph help me get a new set of knees? All I think about these days is how much my knees hurt and will they be this bad for the next 20-odd years and if I have knee-replacement surgery, will it work? And what will it feel like to have a bionic knee? Slimy.

“Here’s where they sell soccer jerseys,” said my guide and we piled out of the van to check them out, but the place only sold T-shirts. Sigh.

Then the van stopped again, my guide and I dashed across traffic into a sports equipment shop, snagged two “Myanmar” soccer jerseys and dashed back to the van. Whew! Those jerseys are awesome. Ashley will be so impressed. One is red with white lettering and the other is white with red lettering.

“In Burma, there are 139 separate tribes – each with their own customs and even languages. That’s why they call Burma ‘The Union of Myanmar’. We have three seasons here – monsoon, summer and winter.” The summertime apparently is very hot. It’s a good thing that we are leaving today because I think I have absorbed all the information about Burma that my brain can hold right now. Sorry, I take that back. One can never get enough of Burma. Well, maybe after a couple of years, maybe. Actually, I could see myself living here for the rest of my life – but only if they improved their internet service and my family lived here too.

“Over there is the religious market where the monks buy their robes and also where people can buy begging bowl sets to give to the monks.” They were wrapped in cellophane and looked like Easter baskets. “This area has a lot of monasteries because it is next to Rangoon’s main pagoda.”

Then our van drove down an alleyway past some burning trash and pulled into a parking lot. “Here is the Reclining Buddha.” It was originally built in 1903 and was apparently extremely ugly, but no one knew what to do about it until 1954 when it was finally replaced – and this one is truly beautiful. And big, too. It was at least one-half of a city-block long.

One monk I talked with here said, “Burmese people are born in this country so that they can get the greatest chance to both pay off their karmic debts and to reap their karmic rewards – all in the same place.” That makes sense. You can get that calm feeling and peace of mind from being a Buddhist here on the one hand and suffer typhoons and generals on the other.

The stone tablet at the Buddha’s feet read, “Not to do evil, to cultivate merit, to purify one’s mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas. Not to revile, not to do any harm, to practice restraint in the fundamental precepts, to be moderate in taking food, to dwell in a secluded place, intent on higher thoughts – this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” Forbearing and patience is the highest moral practice.

The tablet went on to say, “A Bhikku does not harm others. One who harms others is not a Bhikku.” A Bhikku is a monk – but this might be a good practice for all human beings, especially corporation heads and politicians.

My last sight-seeing stop in Burma – if you would call it that – was at a Buddhist meditation center. “Lay-people can come here for seven days at a time and meditate here for free.” I myself am not very good at sitting still, but I’m all inspired that others can do it.

“Now we will drive by the new U.S. embassy on our way back to the airport.” I took some photos as we drove by. It wasn’t all THAT fortified. “You are not allowed to take photos,” said my guide. Oops. Too late. I hope I don’t get arrested again – like when I took that photo of the U.S. consulate in China. That was no fun. And is it ironic or not that four or five doors down from the U.S. embassy is the place where Aung San Su Chi is being held under house arrest. And this last stop was the end of my trip to Burma.

Er, no, one stop more – a shopping mall. Hugo Boss, Giordano, Police sunglasses, and even a Walgreens wannabe. I would have taken more photos but I got thrown out. Again. “No pictures!” But does anyone but me find it hilarious that Burma has a high-end American-style shopping mall too?

December 16, 2008: I woke up this morning in a fancy hotel in Thailand. “Our internet service costs $7.00 an hour.” Hell, it was half that cost in Burma. I miss Burma already. Oh well.

After Burma, Thailand is just so “ho-hum”. After breakfast, I went on a tour of Thailand’s royal palace. Yawn. I’m looking into the possibilities of taking a tour to Bangkok’s red light district instead. That might wake me up. But one nice thing happened on my tour of the Thai royal palace. When a platoon of soldiers marched by, I felt free to take their photos without being afraid of getting arrested. After having been forbidden to take photos of government installations in Iraq, Israel, China, North Korea, Burma and Washington DC, that was a nice change.

I figure that Burma is like Thailand 40 years ago – open, inexpensive and relatively tourist-free. Bangkok, however, is swarming with tourists. So I switched from taking photos of temples to taking photos of tourists instead.